Division of labour: How hard work and technology have taken maths teaching online at Writtle University College

Bob Read is the Education and Training Foundation’s (ETF’s) Regional Specialist Lead (RSL) for Maths and English in the eastern region. He works with a range of practitioners who are adapting to the daily challenges of teaching maths and English programmes in the context of the current Coronavirus pandemic. For this fourth in a series of experience-sharing interviews with practitioners he talks to Alvaro DeCarvalho, Mathematics Lecturer at Writtle University College, Essex.

Bob: What kind of delivery model are you using this term?

Alvaro: Very early, before the end of the summer term even, the maths and English team had decided to prepare to go fully online in our programmes. We then used the summer months to put in place a vision, strategy and tactics, that reflect the best pedagogical practices that address the different challenges and opportunities presented by online delivery. We use Microsoft Teams and offer two hours live teaching per week with about another one-and-a-half hours of independent personal study before and after those live sessions. Our initial focus was for six weeks of intense revision to ensure all students with a Grade 3 were prepared for the Nov re-sit; those with a Grade 2 are entered in the Summer 2021 exam series.

Bob: What are some of the online teaching approaches and strategies you’ve adopted?

Alvaro: We use the basic principles of ‘flipped learning’ to shape our practice. This means asking students to tackle a task before a live lesson so that we can then drill down to the right topics and skill levels when we are teaching. We’ve transferred some key pedagogical principles of face-to-face teaching to our online delivery. For example, we use a laddered, highly-differentiated approach to skills development and place emphasis on getting learners into a pattern of repetition and timed retrieval – what can I do today, tomorrow, next week, a month from now – to transfer short-term skills to long-term. In our practice that means having at least one full day between each of the live lessons to allow consolidation. We use starter activities that build on the skills covered in preceding lessons. For those tasks we often use the well known Diagnostic Questions website or the less well known Ten Quick Questions resource, which has been around for a while now but for me is quick, efficient and effective.

Bob: What comes after the starter activity?

Alvaro: The tutorial is the core of the session and in it I walk students through worked examples on Powerpoints that I’ve developed and are available to students through the college’s Moodle platform. This cuts down on student notetaking and enhances the pace of the lesson – this in turn allows us to focus on developing understanding and practicing new skills. I often also use resources displayed on a whiteboard created in the MS Whiteboard app to move through assessment objective-oriented examples of exam questions at an appropriate difficulty level. The app version of the whiteboard is much more fully featured than the built-in option in Teams, by the way. I use a Huion graphics tablet to demonstrate when working live on the whiteboard or PowerPoint slides, toggling between these when necessary and share screenshots of worked examples through the Teams chat function (which also remains in the Team meeting transcript). After the live sessions we direct students to resources on OnMaths, CorbettMaths, and the Century platform to promote task mastery and, where necessary, to develop fluency in their underpinning skills.

Bob: What’s been going particularly well?

Alvaro: I’ve been super impressed with the way our small maths and English team have worked collaboratively to identify and meet the challenges of teaching online, learning how to screencast, and creating digital resources. I can’t heap too much praise on my colleagues for the way they’ve worked together so positively. I am supported by an excellent teaching assistant, Karen, who is a really good student motivator and, importantly, online lesson moderator as she helps monitor the chat pane for questions and comments so we can intervene in a timely manner. And now, slowly, we are seeing students being much more engaged and participating more fully, which is great.

Bob: What are some of the challenges of teaching online?

Alvaro: For us as teachers the process has been very labour intensive, and there often haven’t been enough hours in a day, but the energy and commitment I’ve felt within our team has been quite phenomenal. As the college doesn’t require students to use their webcams, it was hard at first to teach a set of ‘blank circles’ on the screen, but students are now more comfortable with the online environment. Without face-to-face contact at the beginning of the term, it’s been difficult to quickly build personal relationships with students and to create a learning environment in which they feel safe enough to make, and then learn from, their errors – which is essential if they are to become aware of their misconceptions or knowledge gaps.

Bob: What are some of the challenges for learners?

Alvaro: Previously, many students primarily used digital tech only for accessing social media. They’ve needed help to learn the basics for successfully studying online; e.g. how to set up an email account, use the Teams calendar, scan and upload their work as pdfs, etc. Some lack access to appropriate technology, i.e., a computer or tablet, and many of them are of course concerned about their bandwidth and data usage, which is only to be expected as we experience the impact of ‘digital poverty’ during the pandemic.

Bob: What have you found surprising about your move to online teaching?

Alvaro: I’ve been amazed at the openness and the creativity of my colleagues across the college and wider teaching community in exploring different ways of working with learners online. I feel that we are all only just scratching the surface of this new area of pedagogy, but I hope we can continue to work collaboratively to address the opportunities and challenges we continue to face in these changing times. Several vocational staff have appreciated the exemplar resources and lesson formats we have created, and they say they have gained valuable insights into how they can adapt them for use in their practical subject areas.

Bob: And finally, if you could go back to just before the start of term, what would you do differently?

Alvaro: I think that it would have been useful to spend more time creating video tutorials about some of the basic digital skills needed for online study mentioned earlier as we may have taken for granted that students would be confident and competent in using IT. We did record some videos to explain how our online sessions would work and they went down really well, but I can see now that students needed more detailed help with some of the basic IT routines required. I feel also that it would have been better to have had more time to explore how we could leverage the resources on the Century platform so it could form a more integrated element of our delivery.

To find out more about the ETF Regional Specialist Leads and their work please visit the RSLs page on the website. Details of the ETF’s comprehensive range of support for maths and English delivery are available on the programme page.

If you would like to contact Alvaro to find out more about his approach to online maths teaching at Writtle University College, please email him at: Alvaro.DeCarvalho@writtle.ac.uk.

The first three interviews in the series remain available on the ETF website. They featured Dominic Nice, GCSE Maths Programme Lead at West Suffolk College, Juliet Yager, GCSE English teacher at Suffolk New College and Karen Gowlett, GCSE English teacher at Essex Adult Community Learning.

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