The school shutdowns of 2020 and 2021 have been the largest peacetime disruptions the education sector has ever experienced.
With next to no notice, school teachers were forced to rapidly retrain – and in many instances trained themselves – in new and unfamiliar technology to deliver their lessons online to their locked-down pupils.
What’s transpired for them since the first lockdown of March 2020 is the forging of some unlikely alliances with previously much-despised, youth-skewed social media; the discretionary turning of a few blind eyes and a stark reminder of the technological generation-gap.
Waiting on the platform
Unlike their charges, only the most recent cohort of teachers can describe themselves as ‘digital natives’. In general, the older teachers ET interviewed admitted to being initially overwhelmed; technologically outgunned in the face of an armada of different educational platforms.
“I went to school in an era where social media was basically the caretaker, going between classes pushing a trolley with a massive telly on it,” says Pete, a veteran teacher with three decades of service in a south London state school, “…so the thought of having to learn, very quickly, how to master a video-conferencing platform I barely understood the workings of and then broadcast lessons to 30 kids, was very, very daunting.”
Pete says there was no official training in using Teams – the platform his school settled on for home and blended learning. “I winged it – which I don’t think is right or fair to the kids. I was obviously floundering in the first few sessions. It was utter confusion.”
“I may be 50 plus but I’m not a tech write-off” – Pete, south London state school
But Pete surprised himself by getting the hang of things quickly: “It’s quite intuitive, and I may be 50-plus but I’m not a tech write-off. Also, I’ll admit, I did get quite a few mocking tutorials from the kids via the message box!
“Our school chose not to have the kids’ cameras active. I know some schools did have 30 windows active at a time, so the kids could feel more involved or the teacher could see that they’re not actually just on the PS4. But they could see me, I’d always communicate with each of them individually – either over the speaker or via the text box – and generally it worked really well. My sense was that some of the kids, the ones hovering just under the top 30% who I know don’t really thrive in the classroom regime, were much more engaged with the lessons.”
On the flipside, it quickly became clear to Pete that there was a significant percentage of his cohort in danger of simply dropping off the map.
“There’s been lots of talk about digital poverty – I can tell you it exists. Our school provided laptops to all the kids that needed them – but the issue isn’t really about the hardware, it’s about bandwidth and data allowances. Most kids have smartphones they could use for lessons but that’s no good if you can’t afford one, or the infrastructure isn’t there; a fit-for-service connection.”
Pete says even his decent WiFi package struggled when he worked from home. “My partner was working from home, too; my two daughters were home-schooling and the WiFi just gives up and everything becomes stressful and chaotic. That’s four people in a house all with their own deadlines. Families getting universal credit shouldn’t be discriminated against – they should get a grant to upgrade their internet service.”
At the same time last year, in the staffroom of a Catholic all-girls school, Jayne, an English teacher in her 50s, faced a generational-caused tech black hole.
“There was a lot of discussion about a shutdown coming and video-conferencing replacing face-to-face teaching. Basically, the more senior staff – me included – didn’t have a clue.” The head announced the school would adopt Zoom as their platform, “I think she just thought the word ‘Zoom’ sounded attractive to teenagers.”
Jayne had heard reports that the US tech giant had experienced security issues with events being gatecrashed by trouble-seeking elements. “Given that we’re ostensibly a faith learning establishment, full of teenage girls, I wondered aloud if it was worth risking inappropriate intrusions during lessons. But I’m not sure the head really got what I meant.”
Then Jayne recalled a warning from history – well, a 1980s kids’ TV show. “Your older readers might remember the notorious incident with the live phone-in on Saturday Superstore. Some young man charmed the producers enough to be allowed to talk to the band Matt Bianco and as soon as he was on air, he told them they were a bunch of w******s! Even the head remembered that and that’s how I sold her the concept of Zoom-bombing. She said, joking, I think, ‘Maybe we could just photocopy the lessons…’”
Ellie, a primary teacher from Bath, was more worried about parent-bombing during her classes. The knowledge that stay-at-home parents would be hovering around in the background of online lessons and meet-ups filled her with dread. “But actually, it never felt like I was being monitored. What they saw is a really close approximation to what goes on day-to-day in the classroom; how their child’s learning grows, how the work generates. They see the really hard work teachers put in to make that magic happen – and they’ve shown their appreciation. I like that.”
For Ellie, it’s the sheer number of platforms she has had to use that she doesn’t like.
“It was an emergency and schools just jumped on whatever platform felt right at the time. But I do wish there was a standardised, sort of nationwide, platform” – Ellie, primary teacher, Bath
Ellie’s online teaching sessions are conducted via eSchools, Tapestry, Zoom – “for staff meet-ups” – and Teams. “It’s all a bit of a mish-mash of styles and processes. It was an emergency and schools just jumped on whatever platform felt right at the time. But I do wish there was a standardised, sort of nationwide, platform. I think it would be really handy, because then you can share resources with other teachers, keep up to date with the curriculum all in one place. The whole logging off one platform to log onto another, the different quirks and formats and all that – it’s a pain in the neck!”
That said, her primary-aged daughter’s use of Seesaw is the cause of a little platform envy. “Seesaw is kind of shiny and fun. It seems much more user-friendly and organised and more up to date. eSchools feels a little more corporate. My son, who’s in secondary, was also at home working on Teams by and large, so on any given day there were five different education platforms in use.”
“You have to wonder, if it continues to grow apace – like, if we have another lockdown, or there’s a shift to blended learning – are state schools slowly being privatised?” – Pete, south London state school
Pete says he has some concerns about giving access to so many different edtech companies and wonders what they’re getting in return. “I don’t want to get too ‘conspiracy theory’ about it, but all these platforms are run by private companies like Google and Microsoft who – and we’ve had to rely on them to do it because of the pandemic – are taking up a role traditionally provided by the state. You have to wonder, if it continues to grow apace – like, if we have another lockdown, or there’s a shift to blended learning – are state schools slowly being privatised? They’re harvesting all this data about kids’ abilities – the lessons, the processes of learning – and they’re adapting their platforms with that data. So, at what point could private tech firms start influencing the curriculum? It’s all a bit Black Mirror.”
There’s one standout benefit of using video platforms in the shutdowns that all the teachers interviewed here agree on: “Parents’ evening! Thank you, video-conferencing!” says Jayne. “For the foreseeable, we’re doing all of our parents’ evenings on Google Meet – which is so much easier than the traditional parents’ evenings which always, always run over time. Meet is just efficient and professional and gets straight to the point.”
Ellie would also lobby for a permanent switch to online parents’ evenings – with a caveat. “The drawback is that you can’t really have a good look through your child’s work as it’s being explained to you. Maybe there’s a way, in the future, we could digitise some of the children’s work so you can bring it up on screen like a slideshow – but otherwise, my colleagues love it and the feedback is that the parents prefer it, too.”
Every available digital platform – from Teams to TikTok – was called up, or at least considered, for varying degrees of duty in the battle to maintain some form of classroom continuity. But for Jayne, first the process required a truce, of sorts.
“Pre-COVID, I can’t tell you the hatred I’d built up for the social media the children use, especially WhatsApp,” says Jayne. “I know kids love it, but some love to abuse it, too. I’d blame those apps for, in one way or another, facilitating 90% of the bullying, fallouts and disruption complaints in my school – and that’s with phones being banned during lesson time.”
But seeing how essential social media had become for pupils to stay in touch with each other while enduring months of lockdown and home schooling changed her mind. “I was pretty sure that they’d be furtively using their phones during the lockdown lessons anyway, so I tried ways for them to incorporate WhatsApp, to collaborate on tasks I’d set them, and I know some of the girls were using TikTok to write and film mini-dramas.”
“Nothing’s going to replace physical contact but social media – Twitter, WhatsApp groups and Facebook feeds – have been great for keeping friendship groups together, and that general sense of the wider school community for fundraising and morale, etc,” says Ellie. She describes social media for kids as being the only portal to the normal world pre-shutdown. “It was a lifeline for the children who had smartphones. But it all boils down to the haves and the have-nots. I know some children who, through no fault of their own, struggled at home because of poor access to the internet, and now they’re back in class it’s reflected in their work, in their attention span.”
For Pete, WhatsApp has provided some opportunities to address a modern version of the age-old schoolyard rumour mill.
During the 2020 shutdown, some parents had made him aware of their kids’ anxiety – and anger – caused by the conspiracy theory that signals from the new 5G-ready masts being rolled out in the UK were spreading coronavirus. Masts across the country were vandalised and even set on fire – one of them in the catchment of Pete’s school.
“By the time we came back (in Feb 2021) it was an ‘established fact’ among a small section of our kids that COVID was being spread by phone signals. That’s all circulated by WhatsApp messaging – the irony of which was pretty obvious to the majority of kids. Key stage 3 and 4 already covers learning about fake news and I think the curriculum is really good on that. But the fact that we had a fake news event with real consequences has led to really lively and informal discussions amongst the kids about fake news, and from what I’ve overheard they’re no suckers.”
Keeping up with fake news is even a battle in the primaries, says Ellie.
“Things move so fast that we’re forever chasing our tail. By the time we’re aware of a new fad or platform or whatever, some children will have already fallen prey to it. Think about the pastoral care teachers did in the ’80s and ’90s; well, that was all about road safety and stranger danger and ‘don’t play football on level crossings’. It still is today, but into that mix you’ve got to add Russian troll farms.”
Ellie commends her school for trying, at least, to nip fake news in the bud. “There’s a constant message about how to use the internet responsibly and respectfully. We have Safer Internet Days and workshops where we work with the pupils to distinguish between real and fake information in the content. It’s all about teaching them analytical skills; looking for evidence and teaching them to trust their instincts, too, not just go along with something because everybody else is. We don’t want to make them anxious about what’s real and what’s not, but we need to build their confidence and make them aware of the dangers at an early age.”
“Things move so fast that we’re forever chasing our tail. By the time we’re aware of a new fad or platform or whatever, some children will have already fallen prey to it” – Ellie, primary teacher, Bath
It’s clear to all the teachers interviewed here that children have been using devices much more frequently during the lockdowns. That might, the teachers agree, make it harder for them to reduce their use now they’re back in school full-time.
Mobile better blues
“Pre-pandemic, it was generally the year 6s – the older ones who’ve started to walk home on their own – who had smart devices and used socials – TikTok, Snapchat and, especially, WhatsApp,” says Ellie, “but since we reopened, and we know because we make them hand in their devices at the start of the day, we’ve seen an increase in ownership among years 4 and 5.”
Ellie suspects that her primary children appreciate handing their phones in. “They’re all on a level playing field; they can just get on with being kids. At the end of each day, I hand back my tutor group’s phones and it feels like I’m kitting them out for the world outside the playground. Of course, as soon as they get them back, they’re straight back on them doing TikToks or whatever, and if they’re staying late for clubs or football, that’s when you get the phone-related incidents.”
Putting the toothpaste back in the tube
Trouble they may occasionally be, but none of the teachers we spoke to were keen on an outright ban on smartphones on campus.
“Given what’s happened and how they’ve actually become even more essential,” says Pete, “I think it’s time that we allow older kids, at least, to use phones in class as a tool and that some lessons are structured around the fact that smartphones are like our third arm, nowadays. Personally, I’d like to see more focus on coding and app development in the curriculum and I think phones would be really essential for that.”
“I think it’s time that we allow older kids, at least, to use phones in class as a tool and that some lessons are structured around the fact that smartphones are like our third arm, nowadays” – Pete, south London state school
Education secretary Gavin Williamson isn’t as accommodating – he wants to see mobile phones outlawed in schools.
The secretary acknowledged that technology has almost entirely facilitated education in the past year. “Technology has been invaluable in keeping children learning during lockdowns and we support its use,” he said, adding a big ‘but’: “the lack of regular structure and discipline will inevitably have had an effect on their behaviour.”
Williamson opined that mobile phones were obstacles to “calm and orderly” classrooms. Banning them, he says, will tackle cyberbullying, the “inappropriate use of social media” and, when inaccessible at break times, will encourage “exercise and good old-fashioned play”.
In France and China, mobile phone bans are enforced by law. Williamson says he would prefer school heads to set their own policies and that the government will be consulting with them later in the year. “I firmly believe that mobile phones should not be used or seen during the school day, and will be backing head teachers who implement such policies.”
Jayne wishes Williamson all the best with that. “It’s a debate that’s going to go on and on. Ultimately – unless the state properly intervenes – with the issue of mobiles, or rather how children use them and what they see on them, it’s going to be a hard task asking kids to hang up their mobiles after a year of being attached to them.”
So, is Jayne suggesting the genie is out of the bottle? “I think that genie escaped when Matt Bianco went on Saturday Superstore!”