UTS dove into the brave, new world of online education, in just over a week, as a rapid-fire response to the COVID-19 crisis. Our teachers returned from March Break on March 23, to new roles as online educators. On March 24, the school launched online learning, striving for the personal touch of live teaching in real time, which continues to ramp up on a graduated basis.
“In these current times, things are super-ambiguous, and they move really fast,” says Dr. Cresencia Fong, Head of Teacher Learning, Technology and Research. “I wanted to create a safe, informal way for our teachers to share their challenges, strategies and best practices with each other, while experiencing new technologies. Most importantly, I wanted to build community.”
She came up with Walkabouts. The idea hails from an Australian Aboriginal rite of passage, where young males journey into the wilderness to undergo the spiritual transition from boy to man. At UTS, Walkabouts is a different kind of journey, a weekly co-learning adventure in new technologies, wellness strategies, collaboration and community.
“Our teachers and staff are all experts and everyone can learn from each other,” says the leader of the UTS Learning Innovation through Library and EdTech (LITLE) team. “We are trying to create a community where we can access and build on each other’s expertise.”
The weekly online professional learning event for teachers is designed and hosted by the LITLE team: Andrew Masse (Systems and Applications Support Specialist), Susie Choi (Director of Library Services), Vernon Kee (Computer Science Teacher and Edtech Innovation Director), and Cresencia. The Walkabouts use videoconference and living slides that are perpetually under construction, allowing teachers to spontaneously contribute their ideas, experiment with collaborative educational technology, share their challenges in a safe space, and ask their burning questions.
The agenda is a true community effort. Evolving right up to the minute it starts, the hour-long program features speakers and activities in short bursts, and open time for community sharing. “This week we are using Google Slides, in novel ways,” says Dr. Fong, “as a collaborative discussion forum, and by co-creating a collective laugh journal, where each teacher can use a slide to share something that made them laugh recently. The idea of a laugh journal came from teacher Kris Ewing, who reminds us that with all the negativity around, it’s really important to cherish the laughter in our days.”
Also planned is a community check-in about how everyone is feeling, the interactive whiteboard technology Jamboard, library and e-resources, tech tips and tricks and more, all from different members of the LITLE team and the staff community. Some staff have become regular co-contributors such as Kris Ewing, the Department Coordinator for Health and Physical Education, who leads a segment on wellness and compassion in learning. Last week, the group explored collective brainstorming with Padlet (a tool that enables learners to post their ideas as digital sticky notes), synchronous assessments with Pear Deck (a Google Slides add-on for interactive questions and formative assessments), and got on board with Jamboard.
By giving the teachers the opportunity to collaboratively learn technologies in a safe environment with peers, it encourages that “deeper learning” that is core to the UTS strategy of transformative learning, says Dr. Fong. Referred to as the 6C’s (by the New Pedagogies for Deep Learning), the global competencies for transformative learning are: communication, collaboration, citizenship, creativity, critical thinking and character.
"According to the National Research Council’s committee on defining deeper learning and 21st century skills, one furthers the other,” she explains. “By fostering deeper learning, you nurture the 6C’s as a happy by-product. By intentionally nurturing the 6C’s, you enable people to learn more deeply. It’s about expanding our traditional learning focus on cognitive development, to include interpersonal and intra-personal development as part of that focus.” Teachers can take their Walkabouts experiences and adopt them into their own teaching practice, to design deeper learning experiences for their students.
At the Walkabouts, issues that have been percolating tend to bubble up, and teachers support each other. Open dialogue and chats range from technological snags – “How do I open that app?” to “How do I ensure my students are truly present in my online classes?”
Now we are wrapping up Week 4 of online learning at UTS, with greater collaborative and live online experiences for UTS students. “The teachers at UTS are so amazingly talented, it’s humbling. I want to create the conditions for them to feel empowered to share their superpowers, with the underlying goal of ensuring teacher wellness and community,” says Dr. Fong. She points to findings from Dr. Jean Clinton, the renowned child psychiatrist and McMaster University Clinical Professor. “Dr. Clinton’s research indicates that when we intentionally foster deeper learning, global competencies/6C’s, and belonging; it leads to wellness. It’s a beautiful and transformative synergy.”
In these times of COVID-19, we’re all learning our way forward, one Walkabout at a time.