It’s been 12 months since our lives were turned completely about-face with the imposition of the first COVID-19 national lockdown. Almost overnight our daily rhythms – from exercise to shopping and even socialising – all changed radically. Perhaps the most significant and all-pervasive change was our sudden increased reliance on technology – for catching up with family and friends, for keeping the whole family amused while the outside world slowed down and, of course, for continuing our children’s education.
The nation’s educators, at both school and university level, had a steep learning curve to negotiate as they adapted quickly to the very different demands of online learning, and rapidly acquired an arsenal of new digital competencies. All this meant a sizeable extra workload. Then there were the challenges to mental health, brought about by an abrupt separation from colleagues and pupils, which added to fears around COVID safety whenever they were allowed back on campus.
So, just how much of a rollercoaster has the past year been – and what positives can be taken from the swift shift to digital learning? Is the online learning landscape here to stay – or will we revert to the time-honoured face-to-face traditions? We asked four educators (primary, secondary and tertiary) for their thoughts.
First of all, what did our educators miss most about the traditional teaching space?
“I missed the daily contact with the pupils,” affirms Stephen Phee, headteacher at St Mungo’s High School, Falkirk. “I came into teaching because of my love for my subject, and to work with young people. I missed that day-to-day contact.” Stephen came into school every day throughout the lockdowns, both to manage his workload and for his own wellbeing. “Home had too many distractions. I have cycled or walked into school, which has benefitted both my mental health and my waistline!”
“My colleagues tell me that they have missed the rich sounds, smells, laughter and atmospherics of sharing a room with students” – Professor Tansy Jessop, University of Bristol
“My colleagues tell me that they have missed the rich sounds, smells, laughter and atmospherics of sharing a room with students,” adds Professor Tansy Jessop, pro vice-chancellor for education at the University of Bristol. “The simplicity of being there with them, the quick-witted conversations, the spontaneity; reading the room, the excitement of performance, those ‘a-ha!’ moments when you see the penny drop.”
Graham Macaulay, director of technology for learning at LEO Academy Trust, which comprises seven primary schools across the London Borough of Sutton, added: “Many teachers have missed the informal, ad-hoc interactions which occur in the building. Having said that, we have seen staff teaching so much more flexibly, using more recorded content and sharing practice across schools.”
Traditional vs online learning
Away from the simple social dynamics of home versus school, how has the new digital learning landscape compared with the face-to-face model?
Broadly, online learning has been highly effective where it has been thoughtfully designed with student engagement in mind. “At Bristol, we ran digital design courses for more than 1,500 staff which placed an emphasis on active learning, a student-facing design for their learning activities, and conscious ways of being present for students in an online environment,” Tansy Jessop reveals.
“I think teaching is an interactive journey, which teacher and students take together every lesson,” stresses Jo Park, senior lecturer in education at the University of Portsmouth. “And, while you can simulate most aspects of the traditional classroom online, something is missing. It’s hard for students to be fully invested in the lesson from home – hard to ask questions, to get the ‘buzz’ from a class of students having ‘lightbulb moments’.”
“I have most missed that instant feedback – both verbal and visual,” continued Jo. “Students may often not wish to have their cameras on – and even if they do, with lots of students on the call, you most likely have students over two pages which means you cannot see all of them at once. You can’t see those nods, smiles or confused faces which allow you to react to the class and their needs.”
“It’s hard for students to be fully invested in the lesson from home – hard to ask questions, to get the ‘buzz’ from a class of students having ‘lightbulb moments’” – Jo Park, University of Portsmouth
The main differences between classroom and online learning, Tansy agrees, are around interaction and understanding – both of the material by the pupils, and by the teachers of how much students are taking on board. “You can’t take things for granted in quite the same way online. In a face-to-face setting, ‘reading the room’ is relatively easy – you can see the posture of bodies (slouching in their seats, quizzical expressions or listening attentively), there are no lag times, and you can see how your words land. Confident students can stop you with a question, and you can readily gauge how students are reacting to any tasks you set.”
But this apparent clarity of face-to-face teaching can be deceptive. “In many senses, face-to-face teaching is a ‘visible’ pedagogy, but this can fool you into a false understanding of how students are processing the concepts you are teaching. That’s why teachers are often surprised to find that students didn’t ‘get it’ when they mark the assessments.”
Online learning, on the other hand, appears at first to be quite invisible – but can create altogether different connections. “Teachers describe teaching ‘into the void’ – not knowing how their words are landing,” Tansy continued. “This is why we have placed so much emphasis on learning design: good online teaching has to be interactive, otherwise you really don’t know how well students are understanding or engaging.”
“In many senses, face-to-face teaching is a ‘visible’ pedagogy, but this can fool you into a false understanding of how students are processing the concepts you are teaching” – Professor Tansy Jessop, University of Bristol
For Tansy and her colleagues, this has meant introducing more engaging and interactive teaching. “Typically, you will have students using all sorts of digital tools – from emojis via asking questions in the chat or on polls, to solving problems in online breakout rooms. And, because it’s unrealistic to be speaking at them for 50 minutes, we deliberately parcel up the interaction into different segments.
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“The best of blended learning has seen students watching a ten-minute video, doing some tasks or reading, and then coming to a live seminar, or a laboratory, with more of a grasp on the concepts under discussion. In my view, blended learning has enabled students to connect their learning and prior knowledge with the live activity, in a way that only previously happened for the very keenest students.”
Workload and mental health
Of course, the sudden adaptation to a completely different way of teaching has meant a spike in teachers’ workload: and this, coupled with the sudden isolation from colleagues and students, can place pressures on educators’ mental health. “The workload has increased significantly,” Stephen Phee affirms. “We have done a lot of planning – to reduce risk, support staff and pupils, help online learning, gather evidence for senior pupils for their qualifications and, of course, to prepare for reopening. It can be very stressful and involves lots of online meetings and long working hours.”
At St Mungo’s, staff wellbeing has been given primary importance. “Our staff team has a wellbeing channel, which provides a lot of support, resources and signposting. Staff are great with the banter and jokes, which has helped keep me sane. The local council keeps in regular contact and also has a wellbeing team for staff.”
“It is pretty clear that blended education during COVID has increased workloads,” Tansy adds. “Staff have had to redesign their teaching, learn new technologies and ways of working, and reassure anxious students. During the various lockdowns, many staff have juggled caring responsibilities, so it has been a huge ask of everyone. The uncertainty and the tragedy unfolding around us through COVID has definitely had an impact on wellbeing.”
“Workload has definitely been affected,” Jo agrees. “Lessons have had to be adapted, and new technology integrated to allow for discussion and assessment. Students have also required much more support – I have held a regular, optional midweek evening tutorial to offer more advice and contact.”
As a teacher educator, Jo has felt the enforced isolation keenly. “I have not been able to teach teaching in the usual way, or observe teaching in a classroom, or meet with professionals on placement, which is a huge part of my role. Training others in how to teach online, when this has never been done before, has raised feelings of imposter syndrome.”
And the extra workload has not been confined to these syllabus adaptations. “It takes a lot of work to ensure that classes are engaging, challenging, inclusive and safe, and that all students make progress and are assessed,” Jo underlines. “Remote emergency teaching, live lessons, asynchronous lessons, COVID-safe classrooms, behaviour management around mask wearing, policing social distancing, inability to discuss, group work, sharing resources – even a fear of catching coronavirus from homework handed in: all this has led to stress and huge amounts of planning.
“Many teachers have also been juggling children at home, and the impact of COVID on their families. Teachers are like actors: every lesson is a performance where your personal life, problems and issues cannot come into the class.”
“Training others in how to teach online, when this has never been done before, has raised feelings of imposter syndrome” – Jo Park, University of Portsmouth
Throughout it all, of course, there has been a clear priority to ensure the COVID safety of anyone needing to be on campus for whatever reason – and for all staff and students during non-lockdown periods. How safe have staff felt when they have been in school or on campus with students?
“We have developed a thorough risk assessment and have a range of procedures in place to minimize any risk,” Stephen reveals. “The risk assessment is updated whenever the local authority or the Scottish government updates its advice. A number of faculties – PE, Music, Science, Home Economics – have also developed their own specific risk assessments.”
“I feel one hundred percent safe on site,” confirms Graham Macaulay. “[We] have been working relentlessly to ensure we’re doing everything possible to protect both staff and students. Technology is a key part of this and is helping us to offer the same opportunities in a safe way – streaming assemblies, live lessons, staff planning collaboratively from different locations, etcetera.”
Digital competency and innovation
The steep learning curve has, of course, included the speedy acquisition of new digital skills. “We have put a lot of time, effort and resources into planning for online learning,” Stephen reveals. “The local council has provided 1:1 devices to staff, and is currently rolling this out to pupils. There is also a council-run professional learning hub for staff and, as a digital school, we have also offered staff training and support.”
And there has been space for innovation, of course. “We have been using Microsoft Teams for a number of years and staff and pupils are very familiar with it,” Stephen continues. “This year there have been two tools that have really helped staff – we have invested heavily in webcams and digital pens. Two simple devices – but what a difference they have made.
“For example, [implementing] webcams in the classroom has allowed pupils who are self-isolating to join live lessons. Webcams have also allowed self-isolating staff to teach live lessons from home. Meanwhile, the digital pen has allowed staff to remotely mark and provide feedback on pupils’ work.”
“This year there have been two tools that have really helped staff – we have invested heavily in webcams and digital pens. Two simple devices – but what a difference they have made” – Stephen Phee, St Mungo’s High School
“Our Digital Champions, Bristol Institute for Learning and Teaching and Digital Education Office, have powered many staff through the crisis,” Tansy revealed. “On the tools side, many of our staff have loved Padlet. Various polls and quiz software are popular too, and ‘flipped learning’ has become much more pervasive, generally taking the form of a short film posted by the teacher, with a task to get to grips with it, which means that students come to the live session ready to discuss, interact and problem-solve, rather than to listen and take notes.”
“The university have really been supportive in helping staff upskill and providing technical support,” said Jo Park. “There was an online festival before the summer to help staff think about new options to incorporate into their teaching – which included Zoom, Padlet and Panopto. The sessions were all recorded and made available online for those who could not be there at the time.”
It’s good to hear that staff have generally felt safe on site and have been able to quickly upskill with the relevant digital competencies. But another key question, of course, is how remote learning has affected – and will continue to affect – educational outcomes. For example, vulnerable students, as well as children of key workers, have been taught on campus, while the majority of children have learned remotely. Will there be gaps in attainment between these two learning processes?
“We have invited vulnerable pupils into school to work and get the support they need,” said Stephen. “Some have chosen to stay at home, and our pastoral staff are making regular phone calls to check they are OK. We have gathered up any devices we have and given these out. Because of this, engagement by vulnerable pupils has been good. We are also working with local charities and community groups to help families.”
But digital inequality has been a pressing issue throughout. “We always knew we had pupils without devices or WiFi,” added Stephen. “With the support of the Scottish government and the local council, we have given out a significant number of devices and data dongles to ensure pupils can engage in online learning. The money and support provided by the Scottish government to local councils has supported families.”
As chair of Bristol University’s education committee, Tansy has her own insights into digital inequality. “Last November, I invited some of our staff to do a quick lightning presentation on something innovative in their teaching. I also asked a faculty student representative to comment on how blended education was being received from a student perspective.
“Unless there is a national solution for accessing WiFi, I’m afraid that we will never achieve digital equality” – Professor Tansy Jessop, University of Bristol
“We had a really exciting session with lots of innovation being showcased. But sadly, the only person who had trouble with their internet connection was the student representative. The problem with digital inequality is that throwing resources at hardware will help a bit, but ultimately students are having more trouble with connectivity than with kit. Unless there is a national solution for accessing WiFi, I’m afraid that we will never achieve digital equality.”
Impact on a generation
With exams cancelled again this year, how do our educators feel about their students’ futures? Will this lack of examination impact adversely on their professional futures? “I feel worried for this generation of students – some may feel disheartened by the lack of exams and will not put as much effort in as they need to,” Stephen admits.
“When speaking to pupils I have tried to focus on the positive – there is no exam and all you have to do is produce a few pieces of evidence for your teacher to give you a predicted grade. Some pupils may not get the qualifications they would have achieved under normal circumstances. However, I have faith in our young people’s ability, when given the right support, to get through this and go on to be successful. My biggest concern is whether pupils have the resilience to bounce back – this is going to involve schools, our partners and families all working together. Whole families may need support.”
More broadly, what do our insiders envision for the future of the education system? “I think we need to look at the exam system and ask if there is a better way of assessing pupil progress,” Stephen reflects. “We need to look at the subjects we do and don’t offer currently – and forge links with colleges and workplaces to provide pupils with the skills, training and qualifications needed for the world we live in.
“This process has already started – but it needs to gather pace. Why can’t a pupil do Maths, English, Spanish, plus a college course in painting and decorating and a work placement in the senior school?”
“We need to look at the subjects we do and don’t offer currently – and forge links with colleges and workplaces to provide pupils with the skills, training and qualifications needed for the world we live in” – Stephen Phee, St Mungo’s High School
“This year has accelerated educational change like nothing else,” Tansy explained. “On the digital front, it has shown us the potential for flexible and personalised learning, where students can work at their own pace. It’s been creative, fun – and exhausting. I believe we need to remember that teaching is about relationships with both students and knowledge – about a real enthusiasm for making connections between ideas and people.”
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Alongside this empowerment, though, Tansy believes that this strange year has driven home the value of being together and learning without machines. “We need to be back in the same room again, incorporating this year’s exciting new possibilities and inviting students to take more ownership over their learning, rather than relying on lectures, seminars and labs.
“One other thing we have all realised is that online education is incredibly resource-intensive, and it’s not cheap. So, I’m embracing the new with excitement and a huge dose of realism. And I am immensely proud of the fantastic strides my colleagues at Bristol have made – one said to me that he had never seen levels of enthusiasm and innovation in teaching like this before. Now we need some space and time to build on the sea-change we have witnessed – and to reclaim the really good things about in-person education too.”
Finally, how has the pandemic changed our teachers’ view of their career? According to Tansy: “It’s made me realise how interdependent we are. I have never seen such a flourishing of teamwork, or more of an explosion of volunteering than in this past year. I am much more aware that we only make great things happen in teams.”
“This pandemic has changed education forever – and there will be many benefits” – Jo Park, University of Portsmouth
“This pandemic has changed education forever – and there will be many benefits,” Jo reflects. “The upskilling in new techniques for teaching, new ways of working, and new ways of collaborating will allow for a more flexible approach. I also hope that the nation, the government and regulatory bodies will realise, from this whole episode, the huge amount of time and effort that teachers put in. This is so much more than a job to every teacher, and I hope that teacher confidence is fully restored.”