As the creators of a learning app used extensively in schools, especially science departments, we’ve been very aware of the pressure science learning has been under.
We thought it important to shed light on exactly how secondary science got through the past year and to work out if the experience offered any signposts for the future, so we invited teachers, leaders and representatives of key education and edtech organisations to take part in a roundtable discussion.
What was abundantly clear from our discussions – captured in our new report – was that science departments were far from being at sea during the worst periods of the pandemic.
Collaboration and innovation
Instead, they took a collaborative and innovative approach that saw them through. And it was clear that education technology played a key role in this robust response, with our contributors agreeing that technology platforms are likely to play an increasingly important part in science learning as we return to ‘normal’.
Many found the change from in-person teaching to a mix of blended and online learning during and in between school lockdowns created unexpected challenges and opportunities for skills development.
Science educators developed clever solutions to the lack of practicals, for example. Virtual practicals using simulation software, freely available online, was one approach.
“Many found the change from in-person teaching to a mix of blended and online learning during and in between school lockdowns created unexpected challenges and opportunities for skills development”
Online learning platforms also played a key role, our participants agreed. Many felt that one of the chief merits of many of these platforms was their capacity to assess students’ work with pinpoint accuracy. One science teacher told us that students appreciated that online learning helped build recall and knowledge, gave substance to their learning progress and helped them to become more digitally-literate learners.
The value of instant feedback
Technology’s ability to give teachers a way of instantly assessing whether the class ‘got’ a learning point before moving on, was invaluable, we agreed. The ability of edtech to provide schools with a dashboard of student information to inform parent-student conversations was also highlighted.
One science department collated feedback from every edtech learning platform used by students and then sent parents a visual progress report. The approach helped to drive up engagement in online learning by more than 20%.
The challenge of digital equity
Our discussions included a note of caution, though. It was suggested that some edtech providers and some educationalists had been ‘putting the cart before the horse’ with technology, and that they didn’t pay enough attention to the fact that many families aren’t well equipped with the latest laptops, tablets and smartphones when they planned for remote and blended learning.
Government schemes and sourcing by individual schools and trusts had gone some way to plugging that technology gap but a dose of realism was still needed, we agreed. Nesta’s decision to share parent, teacher and student feedback with edtech companies to help them refine their tools and platforms and design them with the needs of the most disadvantaged students in mind, showed that the system was beginning to recognise this issue and was welcomed by our roundtable.
The response of science educators to the pandemic and the challenges beyond has been characterised by support and collaboration, we agreed. For example, the science education community stepped up to help, with science education organisations such as the Association for Science Education, Institute of Physics, STEM Learning and Royal Society of Chemistry offering support in areas such as the use of technology to deliver remote learning.
Realising that blended and online learning was far more resource-hungry than face-to-face teaching, science educators also got together to create resource libraries. As one contributor remarked: “The aim has got to be ‘curate, not create’. If you write things from scratch therein lies madness. We have to work together.”
Science has in the past been regarded as a poor relation of the core subjects. What we learned from our discussions was that science was in fact a hotspot of innovation and rapid change over the past 12 months and that education technology – quickly adopted during the pandemic – is likely to play an increasingly important role in the future.
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