Milestone proceeded to distance teaching using Canvas, an advanced Learning Management System. We talked to János Hódsági, Head of Teaching and Learning about the opportunities in remote teaching, the necessary change in mindset, the challenges and how students have been using  blackboard in their virtual classrooms or how their work had been assessed live online.

On the 16th of March Milestone Institute proceeded to distance education. Which Learning Management System do you use for teaching and learning? 

Digital education is very important at Milestone irrespective of the current crisis. Our students come from more than 80 high schools around Hungary and our module leaders are not able to send out and collect each and every task or homework in the classroom. That is why we included Canvas, an advanced Learning Management System (LMS) to our curriculum which is used by every discipline. During the transition period it was a highly important aspect to have only one platform where we as an institute would be present to avoid the frustration due to platform fatigue. 

When talking about online education it is important to distinguish between synchronous and asynchronous learning.

During asynchronous learning students are given specific instructions and they follow them in their own time as opposed to synchronous learning when the students are present in the same online learning environment with their teacher so they can interact with each other or get real time feedback. In spite of the epidemic Milestone’s educational system is built on the fusion of the two approaches. Asynchronous education enhances the autonomous learning skills of the students, with the synchronous learning on the other hand students merit a deeper knowledge through the interaction between teacher and student. 

Our faculty members and students are familiar with Canvas as we began to use the asynchronous functions of the platform way before the outbreak of the epidemic. The syllabus of each module, reading materials, videos, podcasts and books are uploaded to Canvas. The assessment of homeworks and assignments are also managed online. Therefore in the present situation we only had to relocate the synchronous learning to the online space. We use the online classroom of Canvas with its conference functions (video and audio calls, presentations and screen sharing) and tools for the engagement of the students. There is an interactive digital blackboard where both teachers and students can draw or complement a presentation. Students are also able to hold their own presentations, participate in group work or indicate questions or comments in chat, with their status signals or with video. 

What are the experiences and the challenges of the first week? Which online functions have helped the transitioning?

Despite the short preparation time our mentors, module leaders and students did very well during the first week. Everyone felt that there is a need to be flexible in order to make the transition smooth. We have completed the first task to make our first steps in the online space. However we still have to develop the participation and the engagement of the students to obtain the same pedagogical quality that we perform in the classrooms. This requires the complete understanding of the digital learning environment of Canvas and we know this is a significant task for our faculty members.
The confident participation of the students in each interaction calls for strong leadership. Module leaders have to invite students to talk or solve problems in pairs or in front of their group and support them in using the chat and the other communication functions of the platform to indicate their questions. The culture of engagement is forming now and we need brave initiation to break the shyness. Our module leaders are working on forming new activities where interaction is not only possible but is necessary to encourage the participation. 

How do asynchronous activities such as homeworks enhance interaction? And how are assignments assessed?

It is a ground rule at Milestone that students arrive prepared to their classes. Preparation could mean various tasks: annotate a given literature, do a research, solve problems or make a practical project work. Arriving to the class they already have an understanding of the study material which raises some questions and leads to quality interaction. Now the teacher is not the only source of knowledge: students have made their own observations. 

At Milestone assessment cannot be called a classical examination as we do not aim to make students memorize the given material. We rarely ask to perform on a closed book test in an exam situation. On the contrary we encourage our students to read and research as we would like to prepare them for the real world where students are welcome to research a topic and not punished. Our students write essays, work on various projects or complete tests which are built on the understanding and the practical use of the material. 

In 2017 Milestone Institute was a pioneer in Europe to introduce Canvas in its educational programme. How did this help the transitioning? 

Since we have been using Canvas for three years now we didn’t have to teach our community how to operate with a new digital platform. Having asynchronous education part of our educational programme is also an advantage. Our students are used to receiving study materials and uploading assignments online. We have unified all the educational content online therefore our students are able to find requirements in the syllabus and teachers are aware of the criteria of how to correct the essays online. Talking with our students and colleagues now we can see that without clear institutional instructions the same platform could be used very differently by each teacher making the transitioning more complicated and making it more difficult to grant the same quality education.

Blackboard is usually needed in STEM education. How did the scientific subjects change during this period? 

Our first idea was that our module leaders would use boards or huge papers to use as a blackboard and they would broadcast it with their webcams. However this idea had to face technical difficulties as not everyone has a good quality webcam or a big enough surface to write on. Furthermore with this solution we had to deal with even bigger complications:  screen sharing and video sharing requires the biggest amount of bandwidth so in order to keep the quality of online education we had to minimize the video sharing. As a final solution now we operate with the interactive, digital whiteboard of Canvas which I have already mentioned above. For those faculty members who often use blackboards in the classroom we lent out touch screen devices which can be used for drawing and note taking.

The lines drawn on the touch screen consume less data than video sharing so this system is stable even in the time of home office and home schooling when the LMS providers are overloaded.

Besides module teaching, mentoring plays an important role in the academic programme of Milestone. How is Canvas utilised for mentoring? 

We are using Canvas for mentoring as well as module teaching. In most of the cases mentoring takes place at Canvas video conferences. Although there are several opportunities for video conferencing, to avoid platform fatigue we have kindly asked our mentors to seize the functionality of Canvas during mentoring sessions. Using Canvas for mentoring has its advantages as mentors and students can also use screen sharing, presentations and digital whiteboard. Mentoring as well as module teaching has its synchronous and asynchronous part. Therefore, the asynchronous tasks which are used regardless of the epidemic are supported now with online mentoring sessions. 

Can you grant quality education online? 

We are definitely working towards it! As I have already mentioned before, the active participation of the students is still a challenge for us which we have to overcome with development and practice. It is also important to keep in mind that the current situation is a result of our answer given to the crisis of coronavirus thus as soon as the circumstances are safe again we will readjust the face-to-face meetings.

In spite of all these we might be able to broaden our educational repertoire and gain such knowledge from this period of time that we could take with us to the life after the coronavirus.

The challenges of remote teaching do not only cause difficulties to teachers and students in Hungary, but as it is a global phenomena, it also affects from an international educational perspective their competitors. Our job is thus not to recreate as closely as possible the world of education before the virus, but to prepare our students for the newest challenges.

Milestone Institute has several contacts with various high schools. What kind of challenges do they have to face and how could Milestone help with its experiences?

Many have shared their thoughts on this question about both the Hungarian and international education and what turns out to be a general impression is that the current situation would enhance the inequality between institutions or students. We have also observed that there are some schools who could react quickly with innovation and excellence and there are other institutions where the transitioning is slower because of the lack of resources. Those institutions where digital education had been integrated in the syllabus before the crisis – just like in Milestone – have a competitive advantage. While those schools where digital education wasn’t part of their programme are in a hurry because they have to find out quickly and with no prior experience which platform to use and how to use it. Overall, we can see how diverse the picture is and our students confirm the same that there are huge differences even within each institution. We believe that guidelines provided for the teachers, clear expectations and quality assurance during the online classes would help the transitioning period and neutralizing the educational experience of students.