• Ethan Barnes

Adapting to Zoom: Staying Personal even as we Stay Online

Updated: Nov 3, 2020

I like teaching. No. I love teaching. It fulfills me in a way I never thought would be possible. Until recently it wasn’t clear to me why I took this new job at an education startup other than that it was in the teaching field, and I felt education was slowly and steadily making a journey online. It was best to get ahead of the curve.

Ascend Now focused on personal development as well as academic performance. The main focus was putting the onus on our students to be able to create their own goals and collaborate with us to create a curriculum best suited to their learning needs and goals. More simply – personalised learning. This seemed to be a match made in heaven. I had always gained much more from my teachers when they were able to adjust the content to suit my learning needs, and now I had the opportunity to give this gift back to a younger generation!

Unfortunately, Ascend Now is based in Singapore while I currently live in Australia, which meant that I had to conduct my lessons over an online medium. I’ve never shied away from new experiences, but teaching in this particular medium truly set the butterflies free in my stomach. I couldn’t help but coincidentally link my teaching through technology to a university unit that discussed how literacy in the 21st century is developing to reflect the new ways that we live and communicate. What a perfect example of new literacy skills that I myself would need to develop!

Knowing my own strengths and weaknesses, I was very aware of the fact that technology skills and knowledge had in the past somewhat eluded me. They seemed to be my pink panther, no matter how hard I tried to acquire technological skills, I could not quite grasp them adequately. I was very nervous approaching my first lesson with a young student named Steve*, who needed help in his least favorite subject: English. What would he think of me? Could I engage him through technology as effectively as I could in person? How could I make this less like some impersonal lecture on a screen, delivered by a person he had never met before, in a subject that he already didn’t have a passion for?

Yes, “nervous” was probably an understatement.

I started planning the lesson as soon as I knew what content we were going to cover and over the next three days my plan changed many, many times. My desk had scratch marks from frustratedly crossing out my initially “inspired” plans, creating new ones, only to revert back to the originals. My plans tossed and turned as much as I did the night before the lesson.

The sun rose in the East. The birds chirped. The day had arrived; and much to my chagrin nothing out of the ordinary happened to mark this day as different. Had all my fretting been for naught? Had the pressure cooker that I’d been living in for the past few days been a product of my own imagination? Was I ready? Steve gave me the answer.

Steve was friendly, attentive, and – despite me talking far too much and far too quickly – he kept up with my every thought. I could not have asked for a better student to start with. Our immediate connection was validated after the lesson when we began chatting about Avengers: End Game incessantly.

As I reflected on the lesson, I realised that my plan had changed continuously despite how thoroughly I had planned it. It served to demonstrate to me how effective personalized learning could be for the student if scaffolded by a flexible and willing teacher. Steve had been able to construct his own goals, which, while different from mine, were focused, challenging and achievable. These goals drove the conversation between us and gave us a better understanding of how each of us could combine our learning styles to use the technology in front of us to create a lesson that would be both engaging and beneficial for Steve.

How did it feel when to have planned something to the finest detail only for it to be altered beyond recognition? I felt like I had failed at first: my technology skills clearly weren’t going to cut it. But as the lesson progressed, I felt that the openness allowed for greater freedom of expression and that the technology promoted a different type of collaboration and communication. It became a success. Since then, I’ve watched many more students thrive despite never meeting them in person. It is the approach to stay personal and flexible to the student that outshines any technological difficulties which I may encounter. That nervous wreck who you have met today seems a distant memory today, as my most recent class included seven students - a sizable group I never would have begun to imagine I could engage with online.

I may not have perfected my use of technology. I may not have perfected how best to plan for lessons through a technology medium. I may not have perfected my teaching method. But I had gained valuable experience and have seen first hand the effectiveness of personalised learning.

*Student’s name has been changed for confidentiality.

Ethan Barnes is the head of curriculum development at Ascend Now.

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