Digital learning culture: why we must protect the skills gained in lockdown

Although schools are still picking up the pieces from the last year, there has undoubtedly been a huge learning curve in online learning

There have been many learning curves for schools during the last year of on/off remote learning, but probably the most notable is having to get to grips with online conferencing technologies. In some cases, these facilities were not readily available to schools and they had to make a quick choice on whether or not to use them or not.

We now appreciate the importance of implementing a solid online learning platform in schools; many of us already had digital learning platforms, which were used for resources and submitting work, but these did not have the conferencing facilities that we have found so invaluable. We have learned that having one platform, which can provide a ‘classroom’ solution to work collaboratively, linked with a facility for live teaching, is in fact the best option; these were also incredibly useful when lessons had to be taught in ‘hybrid’ form, with some pupils being in class and others learning from home.

Change across multiple platforms

The adoption of ‘blended learning’ has also somewhat lessened some of the stresses involved in trying to create all of the online learning resources in-house. Teachers found they could set tasks and that pupils would work independently with great resilience and self-reliance and with the feedback passed on. Those more effective platforms could be integrated with the overall ‘classroom’ solution to provide more seamless learning provision.

Schools are also seeing changes across multiple platforms. It has been interesting to witness first-hand what happened during the initial scramble for online learning. In the worse-case scenario, schools were using separate, disjointed platforms for setting work, submitting work and having separate online meetings with staff and pupils. Each of these platforms required a separate login; many had to change mid-pandemic to something more cohesive, and this required another learning curve to assimilate the new platforms.

More worryingly, there were well publicised instances across the country of strangers jumping into online lessons with all of the child protection issues surrounding them. There has of course, been a good level of uncertainty here, which has caused some schools to invest in alternative systems to protect their pupils and to provide the functionality needed. Providers such as Microsoft and Google adapted their existing teleconferencing platforms including Teams and Google Meet – for use in education settings; this is interesting considering some of these were due to be made obsolete before the pandemic took hold. Both providers added new functionality useful for classroom teaching (i.e. the ‘hands up’ function), and also introduced premium features such as breakout rooms, which have become extremely useful for pupils and teachers alike.

Cohesive digital learning environments fare best

The perception around digital learning is changing in schools today.  It’s true that some schools were absolutely shocked by their lack of preparation; considering digital learning platforms such as Google’s GSuite for Education are provided free of charge for schools to use. The digital divide between schools in different socioeconomic areas was also evident; those schools that were already using one-to-one devices, such as tablets and Chromebooks, were better placed to cope with remote learning than those which did not; pupils without access to devices or suitable broadband where at an immediate disadvantage.

Schools with cohesive digital learning environments evidently fared much better in the short- and long-term as they were able to jump into online learning with minimal fuss and disruption.  That said, even for the most tech-savvy school, there’s definitely a sense of ‘picking up the pieces’, getting in-person routines and learning back in place. Pupils had become accustomed to online learning, and some will have found the transition back to ‘in-person’ learning difficult. There’s nowhere to hide now, no way of switching off the camera during a lesson – in-person learning is about being present in the moment, which is a big change from recent months.

There are many benefits to be had for teachers though in relation to online learning because the collaborative working and ability to give real-time feedback on work is definitely a plus, although, teachers still need a great deal more support if online learning is to continue to make waves. More exposure to fit-for-purpose training is vital. While many staff will have the confidence to ‘have a go’ and teach themselves, others will need a much higher level of one-to-one support to progress.

Continuity of academic progress

Having well-planned, cohesive expectations of how digital learning should work is key to success. Google and Microsoft do provide large amounts of in-depth information for using their platforms but creating one or two page procedures tailored to the individual school’s expectations seems to work better.  Parents have also been kept more in the loop with near-real-time feedback available on all pieces of marked work; there will be an expectation for this to continue. This will ultimately change the way in which schools give feedback to parents via formal reporting.

“Having well-planned, cohesive expectations of how digital learning should work is key to success”

What has been important for schools is the continuity of academic progress. We delivered a wide range of subjects online and were able to demonstrate progress of our pupils using advances in technology. This use of technology kept people in touch as lockdown deprived pupils and staff of daily social interaction. The introduction of breakout rooms was fantastic too as it allowed pupils to do what they do in class – talk to each other.

Schools must ensure that these positives transition into the physical classroom today. Pupils now have an expectation that they will use their devices in every lesson – most would agree that this is not a good idea in respect of all lessons; for example, handwriting needs to happen physically and reading from a book rather than a screen is still so important. Yet using devices to expand resources and help with submitting work are certainly skills that all schools should be looking to retain in the future.  Likewise, using blended learning and online adaptable resources will allow schools to further personalise and assess individual learning requirements.

Collaboration is key to preserving the online learning skill set

So how do we retain the skill set that so many children and staff have developed over recent months? How do we stop that from fading away?  There’s no fast answer, but schools need to review their teaching and learning policies with a view to incorporating digital learning as part of the overall strategy. There are many aspects of school life which are still inherently paper-based even though they needn’t be; we should be making sure that collaborative working using shared documents continues because in the future, this will become a safer and essential way to store and access information.

Technology in education will also allow pupils to develop their own bank of resources and reference materials, supporting learning and helping them to take greater responsibility for that learning. In-person lessons are still vital but schools can and should still make use of screen sharing to showcase work in class – these are features that are worth preserving because we stand to gain from bringing another dimension into the classroom. Live marking of work from teachers during a lesson can also help pupils in that moment, who might have otherwise been missed during a lesson.

Lockdown has taught us more about the dangers of complacency in a rapidly changing world. Adapting to the pace of the rapidly changing technological landscape has proved a challenge for some, but few can argue that it has been and continues to be a great learning opportunity for all.

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