Adventures in Learning

The Suite Spot in Online Learning

Image by Markus Trier from Pixabay

First Published July 1, 2020

[It’s been a while since I wrote my last blog post.  After the cyclone Amphan, there was an aftermath that kept me super-busy till just now.  I promised myself and my readers that I was going to share something with them, so here it is.  Please feel free to read, share, comment, argue, object as you think fit.  I have also carefully placed this in my Learning & Development Blog as it may not be just for laughs as the rest are.]

Zoom did it

They say (I’ve always wondered who ‘they’ could be) that a bad carpenter blames his tools.  So, as schools rushed to ensure their fee-paying students continue to do so, a lot of action happened with “online teaching”.  In the middle of this action was one hitherto relatively unknown video conferencing software called Zoom.  Not the market leaders but definitely the ‘market openers’.  It was available, user friendly, had an intuitive interface, and FREE.  There’s no four-letter word that works better than FREE in our context. Everyone was talking Zoom. Zoom created new heights in video-conferencing or what was now locally called online teaching. Anyone with an internet connection and a browser, or decent smartphone could be a teacher — long available but seldom used terms like Distance Learning became as popular as Social Distancing.   
And with the new heights came new depths.  There were flaws and ‘security holes’ in the software.  Everyone was jumping on the ‘ban-wagon’.  The Chinese, for some inscrutable reason, were in the middle of this.  They were allegedly stealing information and storing it on Chinese servers, in calligraphic characters, backwards at that!  New terms like zoom bombing, mute all, spotlight view, passwords and waiting room became everyday parlance. Zoom’s name was tarred, feathered and otherwise blackened.

Sweet, not Soot

So, while the Zoom name was being blackened, perhaps with soot, schools were casting nets in troubled waters to find alternatives.  One of the first companies off the block was Google — ever present, omniscient Google.  They refurbished an existing product called Google Suite for Education.  Of course, at first glance, a large number of educators were exploring “Google Suit” (pronounced ‘soot’) while a few others ran around saying Google Suite (pronounced Sweet, look it up on Google). As in all things Google, they made available an impressive array of formidable tools that created an ecosystem of products that are hard to ignore in a learning environment.  G-Docs, G-Sheets, G-Slides, G-Forms, G-Drawings were all bundled together and available along with G-Classroom.  And since Classrooms require storage space, they threw in G-Drive.  And since Educators need planning, in popped G-Calendar.  But Zoom allows you to see and interact with students in real time!  No problem, there’s Google Meet (an avatar of Hangouts, but schools are not too pleased having students hangout with teachers either).  Smart move from Google who then integrated all this with a pretty robust admin-controlled security system and called it GSuite for Education, and made it available for free to registered and verified, bona fide schools.

Money for Nothing and Teams for Free

As fast as a virus could spread, the other giant Microsoft suddenly announced Microsoft for Education through its solid, conferencing platform, Microsoft Teams.  All this while, an integral part of Office 365, Teams was now available to Education.  All the goodies created by Zoom could be matched by the sophistication of the software leader of the world.  In no way inferior to the Google Gang, it bundled all the Microsoft time-tested software and created an ecosystem that also offered pretty much everything. With Microsoft online manuals and help files which can be intimidating.
Cisco’s Webex also went free and limitless for awhile, though last week they announced a 50 minute cut-off for free meetings.  This betters Zoom’s 40 minute cut-off and may not be as good as Google’s threat of 60 minutes shortly.  

Educating, Learning and not Tech, is the challenge

But this post was meant to be about the sweet spot in online learning — you heard that right. The focus shifts from ‘online teaching’ to ‘online learning’.  I had the good fortune to be invited to attend a webinar on (you guessed it) the future of education in the post Covid era. There have been a few dozen a week and fighting Zoom fatigue I do try to listen in on some. This one had speakers from around the globe and some of the most important observations are listed below:
One of the speakers identified three changes that need to take place in education in general and schools in particular.  He pointed out that we have to accept a Tool-set change first. The chalk and talk of the traditional classroom, the dependency on prescribed text books, and the entire process of writing in exercise books, would have to change.  He then mentioned that there will necessarily be a Skill-set change.  Educators will have to learn new skills, not only technical but also pedagogical – a list too long for this blogpost.  But to my mind, the biggest change that he predicts is the Mind-set change.  Not just with students and teachers, but with parents, administrators, Principals and society.  A whole new way of looking at education.
Another speaker talked of “Democratization of Education” — he indicated that children, not bound by the confines of a classroom, are free to learn wherever they are, free to learn a lot which is not taught, free to learn whenever they can, however they prefer.  This freedom, while having very obvious drawbacks and pitfalls, would enable freedom to think outside the box, be creative, be inventive.  Someone mentioned that it sounded like freedom from teachers.  But no, teachers – in their new mindset of Educators – would assume a more responsible role of creating learning opportunities and alliances.  The core of this system would be the ability of the student to learn in an asynchronous environment, not controlled by bells and timetables, but guided by projects, assignments and goals and targets.

Dedicated to removing confusion

In an attempt to do something with my time, and to help remove confusion in the minds of all those involved in the education process, I set myself the task of looking up and testing all the software available, if it was available for an individual such as I. First, I checked and rechecked all the claims made by the Anti-Zoom Lobby.  I released a Teachers Guide to Using Zoom with Kids — a checklist of how to install, activate, set up and run Zoom fairly safely.  That document is still doing the rounds among teachers and is conspicuous more for teachers ignoring the suggestions than for the checklist it offers.  WhatsApp University has a greater readership, I’m afraid. 
The next thing I did was to study Microsoft Teams from the inside as I have been using it at the surface level for the last five years.  I was still not convinced it could do the things teachers need to do.  So, I stayed out of the melee of “MS is bigger than G, ask Google”.
Google Suite was, for me, the sweet spot.  Combining most of the components of a Learning Management System, a video-conferencing platform and a domain-controlled security.  I wrote out several texts for Teachers, Parents, Students to get the most out of it.  Some videos from YouTube were excellent but I made a few of my own. I conducted orientation sessions with teachers of some schools and even set up a GSuite for Education instance at a fairly large school.
And now, as I prepare to take a deserved rest, I have decided to check out the Indian software available in this area.  Because eventually, like everything else in life, schools will want to make informed choices.  What about Moodle?  Online Learning is here to stay — the tools will change, the required skills will change but the mindset should have already changed or we are doomed.
[Note:  I have my preferences and have expressed them.  I would be most happy if other readers could keep the conversation going by adding comments and objections, complaints and suggestions, in the section below so that we can all learn from it.  Thanks, Leslie]