Reality check?

During lockdown, virtual learning emerged as not only viable, but often a necessity. But how does online learning measure up against its traditional, face-to-face counterpart? And can both complement each other? Steve Wright asks the experts

Christopher Roche, head of technology, Windlesham House School

Mark Deans, deputy headteacher, The West Bridgford School

Sam Blyth, senior director of sales, education (EMEA), Instructure educational software

Stewart Watts, vice-president (EMEA), D2L global software

Shane Maguire, founder and CEO, Skilly Solutions

Phil Birchinall, FRSA senior director, Immersive Content, Discovery Education


Q. What are the benefits (social, academic, developmental) of virtual learning, compared with the traditional face-to-face model?

Christopher Roche: There has long been a debate about whether virtual learning offers more value than face-to-face instruction.
Perhaps the biggest difference between the two is the social interaction, connection and collaboration that we find in classrooms every day. Until recently, it has been almost impossible for teachers, working virtually, to set up different groups for students to work on different activities (as they would, often, in the real classroom). Fortunately, the lockdown period saw teachers across the globe calling out to major tech companies, asking them to develop functionality that would allow for the kinds of activities that we find in our classrooms. The companies have listened, and we are now seeing opportunities for teachers to create different rooms for break-out sessions.

Academically, the online provision for many schools was either synchronous or asynchronous, and much debate centred around both approaches.

Each has its advantages and constraints. At Windlesham, we adopted an approach which offered both in lessons; given that we had to deliver learning experiences to students across multiple time zones, we created video instruction/content for the sessions and also live sessions to guide the students.

This allowed students to access lessons at acceptable times and at their own pace, and to revisit content for revision or consolidation.

We discovered that this approach allowed for teachers to become greater facilitators of knowledge, rather than the more traditional ‘sage on the stage’.

Stewart Watts: Now, more than ever, teachers need continuous insight into an individual’s learning pathway – not only to connect those online and offline experiences throughout lockdown, but ultimately to ensure that every student’s education is accounted for.

With virtual learning, teachers can harness more data than ever before, and student progress can be measured in far more advanced ways. Real-time data insights give teachers access to live learner data, and early indicators of learner engagement. With data analytics, teachers have complete visibility of the entire student life cycle – which tasks have been completed, where particular students have excelled, where others might need to improve. Unlike in the classroom, staff can proactively reach out to those students in need of assistance and support them throughout each online lesson.

Successful virtual learning programmes will allow students to use engaging online resources in a range of formats – whether audio, film, interactive quizzes, or even online forums – allowing them to continue important conversations with their teachers and their peers. In fact, online classroom forums have proven successful in recent months, with teachers noting greater engagement and interaction. Most importantly, they provide a ‘safe space’ for students to share ideas amongst their peers and to raise queries that they may have been reluctant to share in the physical classroom.

With the right infrastructure in place, teachers can pool all their learning materials together online – enabling students to learn from anywhere, at their pace, and on any device. Not only does this ease teacher workload, it also delivers a more interactive, engaging method of learning, as students can learn ahead of online lessons – or go back and cement their understanding around a certain topic. In this way, online classes present an opportunity for learners to test their knowledge and put it into practice.

Sam Blyth: There has been much debate about the merits of online learning versus the ‘real’ classroom but, as with most debates around education, the most important element of teaching and learning is the quality of the teacher.

Whether virtual learning is by design or necessity, there are some clear benefits. Done well, a virtual environment can give powerful opportunities for students who find it difficult to be actively involved in the face-to-face (f2f) classroom. Good technology with appropriate accessibility tools should allow various means for students to feel more engaged.

There are also economies of scale involved in the online classroom that allow teachers more time to concentrate on their personalised interactions with students. If the technology can do the ‘heavy lifting’ of the admin side of the classroom, this should save teachers a considerable amount of time.

It’s also important to recognise that technology isn’t going away, whatever our new normal might look like. For teachers’ own personal development there has never been a better time to embrace online learning. Their institution, and the government, both have a vital role in providing the support they need.

Shane Maguire: There are some significant advantages. Rates of learning can be measured; activities tend to be better structured; students can learn at their own pace; and there is potential for multi-channel content (film, worksheets, audio, etc).

Phil Birchinall: In a traditional classroom environment, pupils have to switch their learning ability on and off to suit the demands of the institution and the teacher. For example, you have to be ready to learn algebra at 2:40pm on a Tuesday afternoon. You also compete for attention with the (equally valid) needs of up to 30 other learners. The teacher has to plan and execute the lesson as a conductor, balancing what they see and hear from students, ensuring that they differentiate for different aptitudes, and make the 40 minutes work.

There will, of course, still be face-to-face lessons in a virtual world but, due to the constraints of the medium, learning materials will be delivered remotely and students can be freed to some extent from the tyranny of the timetable. Their social network and internet access suddenly comes into play, as learning is not policed by the teacher and school. Pupils can collaborate in ways that are incompatible with face-to-face scenarios. They may even reach out to peers for help more easily, as they don’t face being seen to be struggling.

One huge advantage is when and for how long pupils study. Depending on their age and social situation, pupils can study when their brains are receptive and, to a point, at a pace that suits them.

“With virtual learning, teachers can harness more data than ever before, and student progress can be measured in far more advanced ways”Stewart Watts

Q. And what are the challenges of virtual learning – the things it can’t do as well as the traditional classroom?

CR: There are many challenges when shifting to online learning. Firstly, the choice of tool is paramount. The platform needs to allow teachers to deliver their lessons in engaging and meaningful ways, while also managing the everyday running of schools such as registering students, form periods, tutor periods, activities, specialist lessons, drama groups, etc.

SW: While the move to virtual learning has been successful, it hasn’t been without its challenges. In fact, it has revealed the need for a shift within the education perspective.

Firstly, many staff have not received official training in delivering teaching online or designing online learning experiences, as it’s not usually included in the initial teacher training curriculum.

This lack of instructional design knowledge makes the creation of a structured online space challenging, especially when planning online courses at short notice. For example, understanding the difference between web-enhanced learning and blended learning is vital for teachers planning their classes.

In the future, a general understanding of online tools and workflows will be of the utmost importance. Staff need to know what tools they have available and how they can best be applied, otherwise it will prove difficult to translate live activities into fully immersive online experiences. Without this crucial element, schools risk stifling innovation in education.

SM: Online learning is unlikely to foster the same feelings of connection and empathy with fellow students. The lack of body language also curtails the scope of communication available to learners.

SB: Creating a personalised connection with students is so important, and unless educators understand that distance learning is different, it can be easy to get this wrong. There are examples of poor online learning – effectively, simply the uploading of documents that are then shared with students. Without the communities of learning, without authentic, personalised feedback and without the chance for students to engage with content and resources, it’s hard for ‘real learning’ to occur.

PB: This utopian view of the potential benefits of virtual learning has to survive its clash with reality. We replace a controlled classroom environment with an almost limitless variety of learning scenarios. A teacher now has to differentiate on different levels. Socio-economic factors are amplified.

In some schools, every child will have a device and suitable connectivity. They may have a dedicated learning space, and be encouraged by parents and carers to participate. Many others may not have these basic requirements.

These factors are suddenly outside a teacher’s sphere of influence. Teachers will always reach out to encourage and even meet parents virtually but, ultimately, they cannot attempt to ‘level up’ these pupils as they would in face-to-face environments. Many pupils whose starting point was disadvantaged now face huge challenges to simply stay at that starting point.

Virtual learning can also take away the opportunities a teacher has to care for pupils in ways that are rarely seen. A teacher giving a pupil a bowl of cereal to start the day, a chance observation that reveals a concern, regular contact with an adult outside the family: these things can be so important. I know many teachers who schedule one-to-ones with vulnerable pupils – but they can only do this where it’s supported in the home, with suitable equipment and connectivity.

“Managing a virtual classroom environment is straightforward if a good relationship with pupils has already been established in real life”Mark Deans

Q. At school level, is virtual learning economically effective – for schools, for teachers, for parents?

SB: Done well, virtual learning (or, in most schools a blended approach, mixing online and f2f) should not only be economically viable but also enhance learning.

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CR: Funding has provided a major stumbling block for many organisations, as providing hardware and software licenses for staff and students often requires a significant amount of the annual budget. Fortunately, there have been a range of initiatives by the government to support schools during lockdown, most notably the ‘Get help with Technology during Lockdown’ guidelines*.

What’s needed now is for this support to be provided to all schools, and for programmes and initiatives to support educators in their transition to incorporating edtech.

Mark Deans: When it comes to virtual learning, it’s important to invest in a reliable platform. There are many solutions on the market, but those at the lower end of the scale can lead to wasted resources as they simply tick a box, rather than delivering an engaging learning experience for all. We are lucky to have found such a flexible and highly effective tool in Brightspace – one that warrants our time and investment.

The true cost, however, isn’t the tool itself: it’s the time spent in populating, curating and managing the technology – and, as this is a significant portion of a school’s total budget, it must be used to its full potential. As such, the effectiveness of virtual learning is directly linked to the willingness of school management to commit time, training and goodwill to the platform, and to get buy-in from staff, parents and pupils.

PB: For years, governments have inconsistently championed ‘learning platforms’ (remember BECTA’s Technology Exemplar Network?). Independently of this, schools have embraced the benefits of virtual learning for some time. Google Classroom and Teams are common in schools, accompanied by a range of resources available in and outside of the classroom.

Both of these come with Zoom-style video conferencing.

Most of the virtual learning that has taken place over the pandemic relied on resources that were already available, and many suppliers opened up access for free. Quality learning resources are expensive to create, so free access is not a sustainable approach going forward. As we now plan for virtual learning, rather than reacting to a sudden requirement, the question of expense will become clearer.

One-to-one pupil/device ratios are firmly on the agenda again, especially as device sharing is off the cards. With this comes the expectation that infrastructure can cope, that all learning materials can be switched to remote when needed, and that some form of progress-tracking can be built in. All of this will come at a cost. Again, government policy needs to shift in step.

Q. How easy is it for teachers to manage a virtual classroom environment?

CR: We stuck to the mantra that, when teaching online, less is always more. In order to run and manage a successful virtual classroom, there must be very clear guidance for the students so that they are able to develop understanding and achieve the desired learning outcomes.

SB: It’s easy for teachers who are trained, have effective technology and are confident enough to understand that it won’t always turn out the way you expect – especially when both teachers and students are new to the interface. However, without strong training and development plans which are supported by senior leadership, and without reliable, scalable and intuitive technology, it can be an anxious time for teachers.

MD: Managing a virtual classroom environment is straightforward if a good relationship with pupils has already been established in real life. Interestingly, during lockdown, some of our teachers who had the greatest success were those who shared details of their environment, the room they were sat in, how they were feeling today, and amusing things their own children had done that day. You can add infinite layers of innovation: however, the key motivation for pupils is still the human relationship. As such, any tool that enables this relationship to grow online is extremely valuable.

SM: It’s difficult. Rules, enforcement and accountability all have to adapt to the new learning environment.

PB: It’s procedurally pretty simple to manage a virtual classroom. By its nature, it’s modelled on a physical environment and, therefore, tuned into teacher and pupil requirements and expectations.

The main shift, however, is that human interaction (and therefore learning) is not mediated solely through language: there are also factors such as a teacher’s ability to gauge a pupil’s understanding via, say, a subtle facial expression. Those wonderful moments with teacher as conductor or movie director, as they take a class on a socially orchestrated crescendo of learning, and the feeling of shared achievement are so important to a child’s development.

These things may be achievable in future iterations of virtual learning. We have technology at our fingertips that has not substantially been brought to bear in this, such as virtual reality and virtual ‘presence’ that could revolutionise these experiences. Some bold frontiers are there to be explored.

Q. And how can parents ensure that their children adapt well to online learning?

CR: Many parents struggled with several aspects of home-schooling during lockdown. Schools need to provide clear guidance on the routines for their children. At Windlesham, we built a website to support families through different aspects of the online learning environment – including timetables, activities and video help guides. Clear communication on the different expectations is key.

MD: Every family situation is different. However, there are some common steps that can be taken to ease the transition to online learning. These include the obvious ones: offering a quiet workspace, limiting the number of devices available at any given time (ie no phone to divide their attention). Additionally, we have found that regularly checking in on your child’s engagement or asking about the key learning points or most interesting aspects of the last lesson can be extremely effective.

SB: The role of parents will depend on the age of the pupil, the family access to technology and internet, and the school’s existing process for engaging parents with their children’s learning. Technology should provide parents with some level of access to their child’s learning, even if it’s simply knowing what their homework tasks are and what grades they’re achieving. Schools will likely want to have parents support their child with completing homework tasks, conversation around the relevant subject, and alerting the school to any academic or social challenges.

PB: Schools will ensure that the requirement to access materials will be low. You don’t need a gaming PC to access online learning: a low-cost device will suffice. Decent, reliable connectivity is essential.

It’s best for children to have their own personal device but, of course, that may not be financially viable to many. More than anything, parents need to create space for their children: physical space to comfortably and confidently engage with learning and with their co-learners; and mental space to process and experience the learning in new ways and to express themselves as part of a remote group of friends and classmates.

“A consequence of virtual learning has been that it has pushed project-based approaches to the fore again”Phil Birchinall

Q. Do students actually enjoy virtual learning, and is there any evidence of it boosting academic outcomes?

CR: We surveyed our students at different times during lockdown. Their feelings for the programme were overwhelmingly positive. The teachers also felt that the students were producing work of a much higher standard.

SM: Yes, but learning needs to be broken down into segments in order to retain engagement and motivation.

SB: There is some research which shows that the most effective learning is from a blend of face-to-face and online learning. If students can access resources before a class (real or virtual) and even complete a simple quiz, the teacher’s time can then be spent working on hard-to-grasp areas.

If students are engaged in the content rather than passively consuming, they are much more likely to enjoy the experience. Feedback is also crucial to any learning, whether virtual or f2f. The ability for teachers to quickly give authentic, personal feedback should be a key requirement for any online learning technology.

MD: This really depends on many factors, including the child, the parent, the home environment, their learning history, the available technology, their mood on the day – and even whatever happened on social media the night before.

As a school, we are committed to controlling our own input into the process and making learning as engaging as possible through tools such as discussions, quizzes, interactive polls, excellent feedback, enthusiastic and engaging presentations, etc. Our school went into lockdown on a Friday and, with the help of D2L, we were operating a fully virtual curriculum by Wednesday of the following week. Many of our departments report that initial assessments show they have very few areas to ‘catch-up’ in, and this is generally due to this speedy response. As a result, the school can now take steps to get those individuals who struggled during lockdown back up to speed.

PB: There’s no doubt that, in the hands of a good many teachers, remote learning has been incredibly enjoyable. A consequence of virtual learning is that it has pushed project-based approaches to the fore again. Pupils always love a project. Yes, it’s complicated to plan and execute (and assess) and always a red rag to some politicians, but it’s enjoyable, engaging and children want to invest.

Regarding outcomes, we may have witnessed a revolution in virtual learning, but our underlying processes of measuring success remain wedded to an outdated exam regime.

It’s too early to tell whether remote learning, on the scale we have witnessed, has had an impact. We would expect results to be split along socio-economic divides.

“A consequence of virtual learning has been that it has pushed project-based approaches to the fore again” – Phil Birchinall

Q. When it comes to online learning, does HE present a different set of challenges to primary and secondary education?

CR: Yes: however, many similar principles can be applied. By choosing a platform that works for all, creating engaging experiences and designing lessons which allow academic outcomes to be developed, virtual learning can be successful across all educational settings, as well as complementing more traditional lessons.

SW: HE has its own specific challenges. The government is constantly updating its guidance for universities amid the pandemic**. Now, institutions are expected to provide blended learning and should move to an increased level of online learning where possible, depending on the course, risk assessments and programme specifications. On the contrary, online programmes within schools have been designed as a safety net, to enable a smooth transition to fully online should circumstances change.

Also, as university students have invested significant financial sums into in their education, they are likely to have much higher expectations than school pupils. They will look for cutting-edge technologies and effective blended-learning experiences that are engaging, personalised and yet comparable to the traditional university course delivery.

Innovation is key. To provide true ROI on their tuition fees, higher education institutions will have to evolve and provide more creative virtual learning solutions. Competition will be fierce and, with the rising number of deferrals and decreasing enrolments this year, the capabilities and positioning of a university’s online learning capability will have a direct impact on its bottom line.

PB: HE pioneered virtual learning and embraced large structured learning environments decades ago, bringing Moodle and many others such as MS Blackboard into the fray. It suits the scale and process of HE and it also suits the (alleged) maturity of the users. Device access is more universal, and lecturers are skilled at planning and delivering courses at scale.

There are many lessons to be learned from the HE sector’s experience of the initial waves of virtual learning years ago. Discussion groups, integration with social media platforms that are not appropriate with school-age learners are available and embraced. These come with all the usual stresses but can be leveraged well by students to create and sustain the social interactions and sense of belonging that are absent in schools.

SB: The context of the education setting, the age of the student and the subject all have an impact on virtual learning. However, the basic tenets of good teaching and learning are broadly the same: engaging content, learning communities, collaboration and teamwork, understanding what success ‘looks like’ and effective feedback – plus an awesome teacher!


Further reading:

● *gov.uk/guidance/get-help-with-technology-for-remote-education-during-coronavirus-covid-19
● **gov.uk/government/news/updated-guidance-for-universities-ahead-of-reopening 


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