Tech me as I am

How have teachers really coped with the pandemic-motivated switch to online teaching?

A major lesson learnt from 2020 is that tech has the ability to steer us through monumental periods of disruption. Students across the country, at every education level, would have missed out on more than six months of learning without the widespread implementation of digital tools, services and solutions. But what does this mean for teaching practice itself? Have classroom leaders received enough training to make the most out of educational tech? Are teachers ready to embrace a more digital profession? We have to ask those on the remote learning ‘front line’ to even attempt to find out…

In the beginning

Fear, trepidation and feeling “a bit strange” were among the emotions teachers experienced at the beginning of lockdown in March. And it’s no wonder – not only was their daily routine completely upended, but they were faced with transforming their entire profession into a remote operation and becoming au fait with online platforms like Microsoft Teams, some teachers completely from scratch.

Recent evidence from TeacherTapp shows a spike of teacher anxiety in the week just before the school lockdown, using data gathered from asking staff to rate their work-related anxiety on a scale of 1–10.

Laura McInerney, co-founder of Teacher Tapp, elaborates on the data by saying that the spike correlated to the stress of having to deliver live online lessons, pointing out that “it’s not 30 children, it’s 30 live environments that you’re beaming out to”, when lessons happen via video or audio link. These ‘environments’ could have siblings, parents or pets in the background and added to the pressure when teachers were attempting to engage with invisible, silent pupils on the other side of the screen, all whilst getting to grips with new technology themselves.

The question of training

Some institutions, like Bishop Creighton Academy, a Microsoft Showcase School, were serendipitously prepared for the pandemic – they’d already heavily invested in devices for all students and were using them regularly in lessons before lockdown. The students were also familiar with Microsoft Teams which made for a smoother transition to using the platform for remote teaching and learning.

Kayley Snell, a teacher at Bishop Creighton, said the school made the most of Microsoft’s free remote learning modules during lockdown, as well as online training provided by the school’s own IT department. Teaching assistants in particular were able to benefit as they could not work from home like teachers, so they used the time to upskill on the applications and programs being used to prepare for the return to the classroom.

Other schools were less prepared

For most teachers at Ballard School in Hampshire, it was a completely new way of working. James Blake, head of years 6 to 8 and head of ICT at Ballard, said: “Many [teachers] were used to using online resources, including Microsoft Teams and Google Classroom, but mostly just as a repository for resources or links to other online resources.” Blake used Twitter groups, training videos and webinars to help him adapt to online teaching, along with BBC Bitesize resources which were particularly useful for younger pupils.

Similarly, at The Holt School in Berkshire, all training was provided by the school. Andrew Gray, a music teacher at The Holt, said that a lot of information was passed on by the staff themselves: “People contributed what they’d discovered, and what they found worked well.”

It seems that feeling left in the dark is a common sentiment across the board – an Education Support report, based on a YouGov survey of more than 3,000 education professionals, showed the third most challenging aspect about working from home during the pandemic was having a lack of timely government guidance (39%).

The challenges

One of the more obvious problems with a pandemic is that no one knows how long it will last – something that children find tricky, if not impossible, to grasp.

Snell explained: “The hardest thing was that there was no end date – we didn’t have a timeline. The children probably would have been more involved if they knew they’d have me to answer to after the holidays.”

She also mentioned that for a lot of her pupils, a different language is spoken at home. During lockdown the children weren’t getting in vital English practice like they would during playtimes and lunchtimes at school.

The issue of digital inequality amongst UK pupils was brought to the fore this year, and the speed with which the lockdown was introduced made it significantly harder for the education sector to ensure that every student had access to an internet-connected device for their school work.

Blake commented: “Although the government promised that pupils would have a device, in reality this was not the case.

“Many schools, like other businesses, had to purchase laptops for their staff so they could work at home, and this is where companies like CFA supplying refurbished laptops really helped. Teachers living in areas with poor broadband also struggled, and this highlights the need for our infrastructure to be upgraded so that everyone can access super-fast broadband – an essential service like water and electricity.”

Some of Gray’s students had to resort to less-than-ideal devices: “Kids were working without devices, or trying to access work off their phone… How much is it expected that parents would have a laptop for all their children?”

Looking forward

So how have teachers adapted to the change?

“It has enforced a re-think of teaching and how we interact with our pupils, and also meant that pupils need to become more self-sufficient and improve independent working,” said Blake.

Snell also points out that online skills are now just as necessary when looking for jobs as literacy and numeracy. It’s not enough to be able to read and write; a person must be able to adapt to the newest tech platforms to have the best shot at employment. “Education technology has to be an everyday skill for children… A child not being able to type could be a huge barrier to them accessing their work.”

She adds: “I used to think the idea of [education technology] was so far-fetched, but now using Teams and OneNote, my wellbeing is much better because the hours I spend doing things has dramatically decreased – the admin jobs and tasks are removed, so I get to spend a lot more time feeding back to children.”

Voice note apps are being used by many more teachers than before, resulting in faster, more personalised feedback for students. Other advantages of doing away with physical exercise books include a reduced environmental impact, students’ work is less likely to get lost and teachers can more easily look back on old assignments from past classes.

However, Gray worries what the online teaching revolution could mean for work-life balance, which was another challenging aspect during lockdown teaching highlighted by the Education Support report.

“There could be extra pressures and expectations for a 24-hour service. It felt a little bit like that at times in lockdown with the volume of emails from students outside of school hours. They got into the habit of everything being quite immediate, so it’s about managing student expectations too,” he said.

Teachers are glad to be back, but the challenges are not over yet.

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