Roundtable: recovery position

The COVID-19 pandemic caused huge disruption to education. So, how are schools and colleges using tech to recover – and to prepare for the uncertainty ahead? Steve Wright asks the experts


Ty Goddard, co-founder, The Education Foundation/chair, Edtech UK

Dr Sarojani Mohammed, founder and principal, Ed Research Works

Lesley Birch, executive principal/CEO, Cambridge Primary Education Trust

Craig Calvert, director, UK Channel Business, Motorola Solutions

Graham Cooper, former teacher/product strategy director, Juniper Education

James Clay, head of HE, Jisc

Paulette Makepeace, head of customer insight and development, Jisc

Haylie Taylor, education consultant, EducationCity

Q. How will education institutions, many of whom may have struggled to adapt to the remote learning measures demanded by the pandemic, survive the year ahead?

Ty Goddard: It was clear to me that educators did the best they could with what they had and felt comfortable with. That really did mean that many used the little tech they had to good effect; others used tech to create what were, essentially, virtual schools.

Many did not have the platforms, infrastructure and devices to maximise their use of remote learning.

There are key lessons to absorb here from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, who had an array of content and technology resource platforms to tap into immediately.

In England, however, it had taken too long to get an edtech strategy – and there hadn’t really been the leadership you’d expect from government on infrastructure and other key issues.

Yes, lack of investment is an issue, but we now need ambition and a true realisation of the value of edtech – for institutions, educators and learners.

Sarojani Mohammed: I envision a system in which we can minimise learners’ ‘bubbles’ of physical interaction (by keeping learners from the same home together in a learning pod, for example), while at the same time ensuring free and appropriate public education for all, in the least restrictive environments possible.

Of course, this requires human and financial capital, as well as physical and digital learning environments, that we do not currently have in the system. But all of these resources exist, and I believe we can find a way to deploy these resources to the system in ways that are equitable and that support effective learning.

This pandemic could turn into the opportunity we’ve been waiting for to ensure that the system supports each learner in achieving their fullest potential.

Lesley Birch: Over the summer, the Department for Education announced that it will provide laptops and tablets to help disadvantaged children in certain year groups who need remote education due to shielding or local coronavirus restrictions. This news was welcome; however, more support for schools is needed.

Funding for IT needs to be identified by the government. I think schools have struggled to maintain IT infrastructure and training, as it hasn’t been a priority. However, edtech is a basic need, and IT spending should be ringfenced whenever budgets are set, to avoid massive gaps across the sector. All schools should be encouraged to have a three-year budget/replacement plan. Hardware, improved wifi connectivity, and staff training all need reviewing at these intervals.

Graham Cooper: Many of the challenges arose because the right technology wasn’t in place – and because teachers are trained to teach face-to-face, not online. We also need to provide support for children who don’t have access to technology, or whose parents lack the technical skills to support them with their remote learning.

While it may have taken time to adapt to remote learning, schools rose to the challenge. The year ahead will be about helping students get settled back into school life and catch up on their progress.

Haylie Taylor: Given the central role of technology in facilitating distance teaching and learning during COVID-19 school closures, I believe a precedent has now been set for the future of education. Whether we witness another outbreak, localised lockdowns or simply individual student absences, this blended learning format will be required to future-proof education.

This is a cause for concern for those establishments that are underfunded or understaffed with tech-confident teachers or educators. If facilities do not have the funds or the means for the digital education that the future demands, they will struggle to survive the year ahead. Schools will require both the funding and training for technologies that will enable continuity of education. Additionally, they will require digital applications that will enable teaching and learning in both face-to-face and online provision.

Q. What are your thoughts on the government’s catch-up plan for schools? How easy is it to measure how much learning has been lost?

TG: It is right to focus on learning loss because of the risks posed by digital poverty, and by lack of education technology expertise and infrastructure in schools. Family and pastoral support were also key factors in protecting learning, and it has been a tough time for many young people and their families.

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the areas that have been neglected, and it’s my earnest wish that edtech is now taken seriously across our education system.

No one is claiming it as a magic wand but, if used well and with purpose, it can support teaching and learning.

Many schools were able to mitigate learning loss as they grew in digital confidence, and I think it would be sensible to develop that capability and confidence across our schools, whether that’s during this next catch-up period or as whole-school strategies going forward.

It’s 2020; a coherent digital strategy to underpin school improvement priorities is surely a good thing.

SM: I am a quantitative researcher, and I understand the power of data to illuminate and close gaps. However, I think the only approach that makes sense and that will help in this circumstance requires a shift in perspective. Rather than trying to quantify ‘learning loss’ and design plans for ‘catching up’, I think we need to double down on mastery-based, truly ‘personalised’ learning, so that every individual student understands where they are on their learning journey at this point in time; where they are going; and what they need to do to get there.

In other words, the concepts of ‘learning loss’ and ‘catching up’ are meaningless this year, when learners around the world have all experienced significant disruption to their learning. We should have been doing a better job at this all along, but especially now, we need to be comparing learners not to each other, nor to previous years, but rather to themselves in the past and where they want to be in the future.

LB: Schools will have to assess where pupils are when they return in September and adapt accordingly, but focusing on core curriculum objectives will be key. The National Tutoring Programme should help if it’s carried out in partnership with school staff. However, it’s likely to fail if used merely as an ‘add-on’.

Some pupils will have flourished during lockdown. There will be a range of needs and outcomes that schools will need to consider when they are identifying how learning has been affected and how best to respond. Mental health and wellbeing will be areas to address initially.

GC: The first few weeks of the new term need to be about settling students back into school life, as some might be struggling with anxiety, low mood or depression, and may not be able to learn effectively. I’ve heard that some schools are planning to use their SENCo to help them identify students who may need more emotional support. Although assessment will be needed to identify where learning losses have taken place, assessing too early will not help with easing students back into the normality of school – and nor will it provide meaningful data.

HT: The ambition of the government’s catch-up plan is a positive step in addressing the attainment gaps for disadvantaged students. However, because investment to support the wider catch-up plan has not been purpose-specified or strategically allocated, it’s unclear how it will support schools, teachers and students to be these additional resources, staff or furniture.

As a former teacher, I recognise that assessment plays an important role in understanding students’ attainment. Assessing loss of learning over the summer is a significant task, let alone over a prolonged period such as we have witnessed.

September’s assessment will play a vital role in measuring learning loss and gaps, and data-driven insights will be key. EducationCity’s assessment function provides formative, summative and unit assessments for each year group, allowing understanding to be traced to independent units. These are also marked so scores can be seen, alongside data from each assessment.

This enables teachers to view gaps at a glance, meaning that time usually spent marking and analysing data can be refocused into the classroom to help students progress.

Q. Is blended learning sustainable long-term, and what technologies can support this strategy?

TG: Blended learning is about maximising learning opportunities, and can be introduced as confidence grows in both teacher and learner. After-hours school learning and pupils being able to access excellence across a range of resources – these are noble aims.

Let’s have a staged approach to rolling out blended learning opportunities. We’ll also need to see more progress around access to super-fast broadband, devices for pupils and professional development for teachers – as well as some immediate changes to teacher training. We’ll also need to see priority given to edtech in Ofsted’s Education Inspection Framework.

Technology support is crucial, but ‘system’ support is just as vital: we need to see more peer-to-peer support, like the successful Edtech Demonstrator Programme.

SM: Blended learning is a means, not an end.

I do think that blending technology and in-person learning is perhaps our best tool for supporting mastery learning, and the virus has made blending all but necessary for learning to continue. We are being compelled to think about the classroom as a digital environment rather than a purely physical one.

But conceiving of classrooms as both physical and digital allows us to expand how we think about learning spaces. How do we bring physical learning spaces outdoors? How can we take advantage of spaces previously considered informal learning spaces? Are there other, now empty, buildings into which learning can ‘overflow’ – as we had to do with coronavirus overflow hospitals?

LB: If blended learning is to continue, schools will need dedicated staff time to support this.

My Education Trust successfully used Microsoft Teams to reach out to pupils who were home learning, but accessibility in schools and some homes needs to be improved. Training for staff and pupils is needed.

Parental support is also important. Organising ‘learning time’ at home needs to be a priority.

This can prove challenging for many families, who are trying their best to accommodate home learning. Flexibility is necessary to allow pupils to access learning at a convenient time. The number of devices in each home will vary. There are also issues around wifi access, desk space, sibling needs, parental needs – and illness, of course. Some families just haven’t got the capacity to support home learning.

GC: Both students and teachers have developed new technological skills over this time. Blending these with traditional classroom-based teaching could help to maximise accelerated learning. For many teachers, the opportunity to try out new tools, technology and resources – such as Google Classroom or the free Learning Management System, Moodle – has helped them to discover new ways to enhance their lessons.

James Clay: The quick answer is yes, blended learning is a sustainable long-term model.

A more complex question would be what is meant by blended learning. Before the pandemic, the term meant a combination of online and face-to-face teaching.

It was simple to separate what worked well online and what worked better in a physical learning space.

In the current landscape, the approach to blended learning is more complex and challenging.

With social distancing, the use of masks, shielding and other coronavirus infection mitigations, those learning activities that work best in a physical environment may not now work as well, or may not even be possible.

There is not a single blended model that works for all courses. Those courses rich in lectures and reading will be more easily delivered online, while those requiring lab work or practical sessions will have minimal online elements. There are particular challenges for creative and performing arts courses, too.

To create a meaningful, sustainable blended approach to learning and teaching, the curriculum needs to reflect what is lost, and what can be gained, when moving to online and asynchronous learning.

There are tools and platforms out there that can enable effective blended learning but, as with all tools, it’s not the technology that is important, but rather how it is used. Effective technology use is about more than simply knowing which buttons to press or links to click; it’s about designing effective learning experiences.

HT: Each student and teacher has their preferred learning and teaching style. One of the many benefits of blended learning is that it enables students to adapt their learning to suit them, and to advance at their own pace through the digital applications provided. Given this, and the range of applications offered in an educational environment, I believe that blended learning is a valid and sustainable option for the long term.

However, what’s not sustainable is long-term learning from home. Students learn so much more in the school environment, where they can interact with their teachers and peers in-person. This is important not only in terms of academic attainment, but also in developing important social skills that will set them up for future success. In a perfect world, the future of education will be a well-balanced blend of classroom instruction, peer discussion and evidence-driven edtech.

“Effective technology use is about more than simply knowing which buttons to press or links to click; it’s about designing effective learning experiences” – James Clay

Q. What technologies are helping institutions plan and respond to future disruption – and how affordable and user-friendly are they?

SM: Institutions are using all sorts of technologies, as coherently as they can in response mode, and I’m not familiar with all of them. What I can say is that I have been frustrated with the slowness to shift from response mode to recovery.

Five months ago, we all naively expected that, if we made it until May, we could simply go back to normal at that point. Now I think it’s abundantly clear that we are in a ‘new normal’, whether we like it or not, and the time to start planning for this new normal has come and gone.

The disruption is here, and here to stay, so let’s seize this opportunity to evolve public education into something more equitable, more mastery-based, and more supportive of learners whose lives did not neatly fit into the way we did things before.

Paulette Makepeace: Jisc’s data analytics team has been working with members across a number of different areas to provide support and assistance during the recovery from the pandemic. The new dashboards that sit within our Heidi Plus service (a data visualisation and analytics tool which uses Tableau) are one example of how we can support institutions in planning for the future.

We also provide a number of other services, which can all be used in different ways to help providers with their recovery planning. For example, learning analytics collects student data (with their permission) which can help transform the learning experience and support wellbeing by spotting students who may be struggling. Universities and colleges can put this data to work to tackle some of the big strategic challenges such as student engagement, success, retention and wellbeing.

The digital capability of staff and students has emerged as a key consideration during the shift to remote working and studying, when using technology is no longer optional. But skillsets across any organisation will differ, so where to start? Jisc’s digital capabilities service will help individuals self-assess and improve their skills. Crucially, this includes help for leaders to plan, implement and fulfil digital strategies.

Similarly, many colleges and universities use Jisc’s digital experience insights surveys, which focus on the digital aspects of learning and teaching, giving information about student and staff attitudes to tech, their access to devices, and their likes and dislikes about how technology is used in teaching. Powerful data like this can be used to inform strategic, operational and digital investment decisions, and to show year-on-year improvements.

HT: Educational technologies, now more than ever, are helping students get back into the classroom, and also get the most out of their resources. Many school leaders are preparing for future disruption by providing training sessions and developing tools that will support teaching and learning in as many ways as possible.

“Now I think it’s abundantly clear that we are in a ‘new normal’, whether we like it or not, and the time to start planning for this new normal has come and gone” – Dr Sarojani Mohammed

Q. How is technology helping schools keep staff and students COVID-safe?

LB: Technology does allow extremely vulnerable learners to work remotely at times. Some jobs, however, require people in school.

That said, online assemblies and team teaching in school – not getting children physically together, moving online for staff training and meetings, parent meetings, governor meetings, meetings with external partners/agencies – these can all reduce physical contact, as well as saving time because of the reduced movement of pupils.

Craig Calvert: Schools and universities are using technology in a variety of ways to address the ever-expanding field of onsite safety – from improving student safety around the physical site, to supporting COVID-19 response measures.

Technology can combine voice communications, video security and analytics, software and services to allow schools and universities to detect, analyse, communicate and respond to both everyday and critical incidents and emergencies. For example, in a situation where the physical whereabouts of a student is unknown or unaccounted for, video analytics tools that search video footage and identify any suspicious activity can help to locate the student in real time.

New technology can also help students return safely to their schools and universities. For example, we now have AI-enabled technologies that help with the monitoring and management of social distancing, face mask compliance, elevated skin temperature detection and occupancy counting.

GC: It’s very likely that we’ll see more investment in edtech that improves communication and collaboration between staff, pupils and their families. Platforms like Zoom or Google Meet for parent/teacher appointments, staff meetings and CPD will help to keep the school community COVID-safe.

HT: Technological innovations now allow whole-class instruction to be delivered through interactive whiteboards, as well as interventions and/or focus groups. Laptops or iPads in the classroom enable students to work independently against objectives, or as part of a carousel learning format. All of these technological features empower schools to continue provision in a way that also maintains social distancing and hygiene measures.

Q. What technologies are helping schools to plan and respond to future physical disruption?

LB: We use Teams, Zoom, Google, White Rose Maths, phonics packages, reading book libraries, and Clicker to name but a few. Cost is variable: we will need to spend more in the future. Some companies were supporting schools for free – but how long will this last? The longer this situation goes on, the more subscriptions will be needed. More staff and pupil training will be required, and more time will have to be found to develop our use of these technologies.

GC: MIS systems will be useful for tracking the attendance of students and keeping a close eye on the levels of illness within school. Many schools already have an existing MIS system in place so, for many, this won’t be an additional cost to factor in.
Student assessment and tracking tools will also be helpful for plugging any learning gaps. These tools do have cost implications; however, they will provide teachers with hugely valuable information to help with their teaching and interventions.

Useful links

● National Tutoring Programme:
● Edtech Demonstrator Programme:
● Jisc Digital Capabilities Service:
● Jisc Digital Experience Insights Service:

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