Learning to fly with online learning

What are the online learning challenges – and opportunities – for schools in this bizarre new reality? Lord Jim Knight, chief of education at Tes Global; and Nic Newman, partner at Emerge Education, offer their insights

For thousands of teachers across the country, the rapid move from classroom to online in response to the coronavirus pandemic must feel like learning to fly a plane as it hurtles down a runway.

While that shift has been impressively swift, it has highlighted a range of pressures and opportunities for teachers, children and parents that must be addressed as we head into an unusual summer term.

A paradigm shift

What is already clear is that the paradigm for learning has shifted. In a matter of days, classroom learning has become distance learning and that’s not what our teachers are trained to do. Like the early days of TV broadcasting – when programme makers found their way by copying the conventions of radio – lots of schools are just trying to replicate the school day online.

The background for these challenges was highlighted in the OECD’s Teaching and Learning International Survey (Talis), which found the UK’s approach wanting when compared to the rest of the world.

The report said that despite UK schools having amongst the highest level of ICT resources in the developed world, just 40% of teachers say they “always” or “frequently” allowed students to use ICT. This put the UK in the bottom quarter of the countries listed.

These findings shouldn’t detract from the fact that our teachers are working tremendously hard in trying circumstances, and our focus should be on supporting them to make the best of the situation right now.

There is a clear need for strong and supportive advice from central government, whose view appears to have been to use a combination of tried and tested tech alongside traditional approaches. Evidence shows that the real gains come when practice is significantly modified to take advantage of the technology.

And we must be careful not to unwittingly increase the socio-economic and digital divide and double down on the principle of equal opportunity

Schools should not feel pressured to take on new tools, but simply using the tech used on-campus is going to fall short. Our advice to teachers is to accept that this is a marathon and not a sprint and that things are very different. They shouldn’t try to replicate the school day online and instead pace things slowly, sending out simple guidance along with suggestions of free tools and learning activities that can be done at home.

online learning

But it doesn’t end there

Edtech providers are already playing a supportive role in developing new products to support existing customers, launching free tools and resources and providing advice and support. Leaving aside the small number deluging schools in marketing messages, this is arguably an opportunity for edtech to come of age.

There is a need for a longer-term strategy for distance learning and the government and our major institutions will have a key role in providing this.

The BBC’s decision to launch 14 weeks of curriculum programming and resources from 20 April is a great start. The huge success of Joe Wicks, with his daily online PE lessons, shows there is a big appetite for broadcasting education as part of the mix.

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Parent involvement amplified

With the shift to learning at home, the role of the parent in their child’s education has been massively increased. Parents, understandably anxious about how this disruption will affect the educational progress and wellbeing of their children, will feel ‘at sea’. They also need to be mindful that this is a long haul rather than a sprint, and their principal role is to protect the wellbeing of their children, rather than being proxy teachers.

Schools could help by articulating as clearly as they can the role that parents can play in their children’s learning – especially in understanding the context of their child’s learning within the curriculum.

Parents would be able to support their children’s learning much more effectively if they were able to understand the context in its simplest form, through a two-page outline of the curriculum and learning priorities for the academic year.

And we must be careful not to unwittingly increase the socio-economic and digital divide and double down on the principle of equal opportunity. Reinforcing this scaffolding of skills for the families of children who are traditionally at risk of falling catastrophically behind over the six-week summer break should be a priority for schools.

Thinking beyond academic progress

Of course, we mustn’t make the mistake of focusing purely on academic progress – mental health and wellbeing must also be prioritised.
Social isolation will be a major issue for children and we would like to see more consistent engagement between teachers and pupils. This has to be manageable in workload terms, but it could be feasible for each class to be encouraged to come together once a day through video conferencing technology.

The implications for the future of education policy will be far reaching, but it’s still too early to predict precisely what they will be.

What is clear is that many parents have now become key stakeholders and actors in their children’s education; they are seeing first-hand what their children are doing, what motivates them and what they enjoy. Essentially, they’re now in the classroom and they may, in the future, expect to have a greater involvement.

We are by necessity having to find our way quickly. There is a real appetite to share thinking about online learning across the education technology sector – a fact borne out of the enormous attendance of educators at a digital summit we helped to lead at the end of March, and the decision to hold another in June.

By working together and grasping the opportunities presented by education technology, we will emerge from the haze of this difficult period – and focus on a future that must surely see education technology take a far more prominent role in teaching and learning.


Find out more about Tes Global: www.tes.com/tesglobal

Find out more about Emerge Education: emerge.education

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