Saturday, October 15, 2022

What If Your Co-Teacher is a Computer?

I was speaking to a principal who had what at first sounded like a fairly unique problem of practice. The principal's students were in an alternative setting and the main delivery and assessment of content came from an online course platform.   The staff fully recognized the need to provide the students with a richer learning environment than simply watching videos that led to multiple choice quizzes and eventual unit tests.  However, attempting to insert in-person instruction and implement a hybrid solution created struggles. When teachers leaned in with mini-lessons or other activities, students were inevitably knocked "off pace" from their time away from the online course platform.  Additionally, some of the staff were not experienced teachers, so even deciding how or when to lean in was a problem.  All of this created a spiral of stress for both the educators and students.  How could they resolve this tension?

As I sat in the office, I had an epiphany.  The situation wasn't entirely unique.  At its core, solving the issue takes trying to achieve one of the toughest goals in education: effective co-teaching.   

Before continuing, a digression.   Likely seeing a lack of pragmatic support for co-teaching in teacher prep and in practice, Marilyn Friend and Lynne Cook wrote Interactions: Collaboration Skills for School Professionals, first published in 1991 and now in its ninth edition.  It's interesting to point out that the authors came from special education backgrounds, and for most classroom teachers, that is usually their co-teaching situation: a gen ed teacher is the one "in charge," while an ECE teacher pushes in because several children with IEP needs are on the roster.  Of course, the potential of two professional adults in the room to lead instruction often is unrealized, for reasons practical (lack of time to collaborate and plan together) and pedagogical (lack of training and practice on co-teaching structures).   One of the more enduring and cited aspects of Friend and Cook's work is how they framed the six models of co-teaching:

  • One Teach, One Observe
  • One Teach, One Assist
  • Parallel Teaching (students are split into two groups; teachers simultaneously teach the same content)
  • Station Teaching (students rotate through two or more "stations," with each teacher at a station teaching different content)
  • Alternative Teaching (one teacher teaches the main content to a main group, while the other teacher teaches different content to a smaller group for a specialized basis, such as academic gap recovery)
  • Team Teaching ("tag team teaching" where teachers both teach the whole class at the same time)
Sean Cassel, in his article "How to Choose a Co-Teaching Model" (Edutopia, 10/8/19), succinctly points out pros and cons for each model to consider.  For example, "One Teach, One Observe" could be a powerful strategy if the observing teacher was capturing learning evidence and taking detailed notes of all student moves, rich data that is analyzed by both teachers later.  It also requires little if any pre-planning time...which is why this co-teaching model (along with "one teach, one assist") is often chosen by pragmatic default.   However, lack of time ends up also being the weakness of both "One Teach, One Observe" and "One Teach, One Assist":  without instructional intentionality before a lesson, and without valuable debriefing after a lesson, there is little to show for the effort except an underutilized educator and a lack of student learning improvement beyond what one instructor could have achieved alone.   Besides these pros and cons, teachers may switch these models up based on the needs of the given instructional day, and of course the personalities and experience levels of the teachers will influence the effectiveness of their model choices as well.  (For more quick tips on effective co-teaching, I also recommend "Co-Teaching Strategies: Dos, Don'ts, and Do Betters" by Wendy Murawski and Toby Karten, ASCD, 7/1/20.)

All of this can be helpful when attempting to intentionally plan how to co-teach with another human. But what do you do if your co-teacher is a computer?

It first should be noted that relying on a computer to help your instruction is not a bad thing.  If I thought it was bad, I would have shut down Edtech Elixirs a long time ago!  The issue is effectively working alongside a platform that is delivering instruction and assessing students.  As I see it, such platforms fall on a spectrum, and for our purposes, can analogously be compared to in-the-flesh educators:

  • Platform as Specialist:   This is an adaptive learning platform (like Lexia Core5 or DreamBox) that teaches discrete skills, usually in response to pre-assessed learning gaps.  "Lessons" tend to be short and are much more experiential, often with a game-based learning angle; they also tend to be in shorter time increments (perhaps, say, twenty minutes, and completing 2-4 of such lessons a week is the average expectation).  Students are limited in both their ability to choose what lesson to take next (as the system decides their pathway) as well as their ability to see a sequence (as the lessons may address gaps across grade levels, as opposed to curricular "units").  The platform can also just "work" with little management from the teacher, although one hopes he/she looks at the data periodically to personalize future instruction!   While students may "level up" as they successfully complete lessons, there is no real individual assessment grades to report. These platforms are analogous to literacy/numeracy/ECE specialists that may push in or pull out for a handful of students, usually only one or two times a week, and by the nature of their work is not necessarily connected to the lesson of the day.   As such, they are the least intrusive and hardly factor into most teachers' general weekly planning of lessons, besides perhaps deliberately setting aside in-class time to get on the platforms. 
  • Platform as Instructional Aide:  This is a learning platform that has full lessons (likely driven by a video or screencast), organized in units and with at least self-check assessments that give some kind of grade to help determine how well the student is comprehending the material.  Alignment to academic standards is usually more prominent and obvious.  However, these platforms are very flexible and modular in nature, so a teacher can manage its integration into daily instruction as they see fit; for example, the teacher may use the platform for "flipped learning" on delivering certain content videos several times a week as "homework" while face-to-face time is used for practicing math problems.  An example of this kind of platform is Khan Academy. These platforms are analogous to an instructional aide that is significant to the classroom, may even be present daily, and might do some light instruction and formative assessment, but the "teacher of record" who is truly in charge of instruction and summative assessment is still clear. 
  • Platform as Teacher:  This is an online course platform where the system both delivers all of the content and can formatively and summatively assess student performance.  Such platforms, like Edgenuity and Apex Learning, could conceivably be done fully virtual even outside of a brick and mortar school, with little interaction from an educator unless the student needs tutoring help with content or to unlock a quiz or test.  Pacing is usually established by the platform, with either activity due dates or another metric, providing feedback for a student ("You are two lessons behind") to ensure they complete the course in a prescribed timeline.  Here, you can see how the situation is the inverse of the "Platform as Specialist":  with an online course platform, the human teacher often serves a backseat role. ** 
It is in this last category, Platform as Teacher, where we can circle back to the issue that began the entry.  If you are using an online course platform as the primary driver of instruction and assessment, all of the struggles you may have are exactly the same as one might have with a human co-teacher.  Therefore, you need to first determine what co-teaching model will work best for you.  Let's look at the models again adapted for this new "co-teacher is a computer" angle.

  • Platform Teaches, Educator Observes:  The online course platform is the full driver of instruction and assessment for all students (which also implies that only autoscored assessments are kept in the course).  However, the educator is constantly looking at two things.  First, the educator is analyzing the data behind the scenes.  How much are they logging on?  Is the student barely passing the quizzes or taking too many attempts?  Does the student make notes in Google Docs that can be shared and seen and Commented? Secondly, when the student is working on the platform in person, the educator is assessing the behavior of the student.  Is the student bored? Frustrated?  Either the educator helps the student with the academic or SEL struggles, or they are reported to those that can help, in a way that is least intrusive to the pacing of the online coursework.  This model is most common with students in 100% virtual academies.
  • Platform Teaches, Educator Assists:  The online course platform remains the full driver of instruction and most if not all of the assessment for all students.   However, the educator moves from merely being a data collector to more of an active role.  This may include times where a student needs to be pulled off of the platform so the educator can teach a mini-lesson, help the student get on track, or serve other needs.  These moments are usually brief and handled one-on-one only as needed.  Potentially, the educator could also be assessing some of the online course activities that are not auto-scored, such as essays or lab reports. 
  • Parallel Teaching: One part of the class is taught and assessed by the online course platform, while the other part of the class is taught and assessed by the educator.   It is relatively the same content and pacing for both. In a typical "two humans" Parallel Teaching model, you are encouraged to swap teachers and groupings for variety or as needed.   However, for the sake of clarity, ownership, and pacing, I would recommend in this model example to keep this arrangement of "which student to which online/human teacher" as permanent as possible, except for small push-ins as detailed in "Platform Teaches, Educator Assists,"  This also requires the educator to know the online coursework very well, so they can parallel their instruction with the platform.
  • Station Teaching:  All of the students rotate through stations; a student is always working at one station at any given time.  One of them is the online course platform, while the educator teaches and assesses at another.  This fosters some independence and agency, as students always have something to do yet are given more trust to do so. You may want to consider adding a third or fourth station of independent work, whether it is additional blended learning different than the online course platform, or some other engaging analog work.  In this model, the online course's default system-directed pacing and full grading is nearly impossible -- pacing likely requires due dates to be turned off or ignored, and the course needs customization as not all of its lessons/assessments/units will be completed if the educator is starting to do a significant part of the teaching and assessing. 
  • Alternative Teaching:   The educator takes on the role of specialist that routinely pulls out a small group in order to fill in academic gaps and fulfill potential high-needs.  The online course platform is still the main instructor/assessor for all students, which means there will be a constant tension of the pulled students falling behind pace because of their intervention time.  (In a "two humans" alternative teaching co-model, a pulled out student missing crucial content teaching is also a concern.)  If this results in a student being off-pace, this is either ignored or fixed via a customization of the platform/course. Note the difference from this model and "Platform Teaches, Educator Assists" is the grouping of students, the routine timing (as opposed to irregular and only as needed), and the significant length of pull out from the main instruction. 
  • Team Teaching:  For nearly all online course platforms, a teacher can preview a course in "student mode," playing videos and interacting on some activities -- however, it knows you are a teacher and therefore doesn't march you through quizzes or grades your performance.  With that assumption in mind, in this model, no student is technically "on" the platform.  Instead, the educator (through a projector, shared Zoom screen, etc.) goes through the online course in front of the class.  The educator may play content videos, possibly pausing them to pose questions to the class and supplementing the video content with their own instruction. When the online course arrives at an assessment or activity, they may be adapted or fully replaced with the educator's own.  It is "team teaching" because you are depending on the platform to hold up at least some of the instruction in a back and forth way.  However, since students are not technically on the platform, the educator must be the assessor.  Clearly, an experienced teacher with prepared curriculum would not need this model (or an uncustomized online course in the first place!), but this model could be excellent for a teacher that needs "training wheels" to teach the content of a course. 
As you examine the models and start deciding which is best, I'll leave you with some general advice when working with online course platforms.

  1. When the going gets tough, remember your why.  In the scenario that began and inspired this entry, the teachers knew that their students needed something more enriching than a video/quiz/video/quiz/unit test instructional sequence. Let's state the obvious: an online course platform, especially when stripped down to only multiple choice assessments and traditional points/percentages grading, is nowhere near mastery or deeper learning.  Most of the co-models above can be difficult to implement, as any hybrid model of instruction often is.   So remember your why when the going gets tough.
  2. Stick to one model.   With humans, swapping co-teaching models may be helpful instructionally or to establish variety.  However, online course platforms run on algorithms and meticulous programming.  They are designed to fully teach and assess a student, from first lesson to final end-of-course exam, from August to May...and most importantly, do all of this by itself.   The more you customize the experience (especially with some in-person instruction), the more you mess with that programming and potentially cause yourself and your students some frustration.  Therefore, pick one of the models above, make platform adjustments as needed, and stick with it for the duration of the students' courses.  And speaking of frustration...
  3. Let pacing go.  The more the educator steps in with instruction and assessment to customize the experience, the more that pacing will be "off" for some or all of your students.  So when considering a hybrid model of online coursework and in person instruction, you might need to be an Elsa and just let it go...have students ignore the pacing, or deactivate it if possible.  Remember, before online course platforms, teachers were the pacemaker.
  4. Start small.   Some of the models above are clearly more complicated than others.  Know your strengths and give yourself time to grow.  Find a place to put your toe in the door. If you want to lean in more than an observer but not ready for the other models yet, consider a smaller way to be involved, which may take customizing the coursework.  For example, bring back those essays or lab reports so you can be involved in assessing the student alongside the computer.  Another idea: be fully in charge of one full unit in the course, in both instruction and assessment; the online course can keep its pacing, teaching and assessment for the rest of the units.  The key with any customization is to be careful that whatever content you remove from an online platform course is replaced in person.
  5. The assessor wears the crown.   One of the biggest classroom culture issues with co-teaching is that the students want to determine who is really in charge, and pick up on cues far more than you think.   You may say, "We are like two parents and we are equally in charge!" but that is being Pollyannish, if your actions aren't consistent with that belief.   Whose name is on the classroom door?  Who has a desk and is there every day, and who comes and goes?  Who talks the most?  Last but not least, who assesses?  The person who gives the grade is the one truly in charge in most students' eyes.  If the online course platform is seen as the person passing or failing the student, and you reinforce this with statements like "Platform X says you are off pace," then you are abdicating your control to a computer.  Which brings us to....
  6. You determine the credit.  Ultimately, it is your signature that determines if a student passes or fails a course.  You are the teacher of record, not the computer.  Use your well-earned and well-learned professional judgment at all times.  You should be kind to your colleagues and human co-teachers, but never be afraid to tell the computer who's the boss.
Postscript: Sadly, Dr. Cook passed away in 2015, after a long and remarkable career.  Dr. Friend continues adding to the scholarship and strategies of co-teaching, which includes her own website of services and resources.

**10/16/22: For the category of "Platform as Teacher," I feel it is important to clarify this definitional use of an online course platform being so autonomous is based on the main way I have seen it implemented in multiple school districts.  It is true that such a platform could be used for personalized learning as a smaller part of an in-person instructional plan (assigning, say, only one unit of the course to a student who needs an opportunity for asynchronous practice). It is also true that courses of nearly all such platforms have by default a variety of activities/assessments such as essay assignments, lab reports, etc. that would require human grading.  However, its most popular use is to make the platform as autonomous as possible by eliminating all but the self- or computer-scored assessments such as quizzes and tests.  I should also add that I am not judging such use as "good" or "bad," since the needs of the student and situation should drive such decisions.  To take just one example that underscores the need for autonomous online coursework, imagine a virtual advisor trying to manage 40 students...across seven grade levels 6-12...taking six online courses each.

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