Schools are back! It should be a welcome breath of normality for many students, teachers and parents after the extended summer and long interruption to education. There has been much speculation about the ‘new normal’ and what it will look like; aside from the split break times, masks, class bubbles and other logistics, will the way we teach change? Has the recent experience with technology and remote learning changed anything in the long-term for teachers and learners?
Lessons from lockdown
Lockdown plunged many educators in at the deep end of remote learning and figuring out how best to reach their students whilst supplying high-quality and indiscriminate education. It brought an almost overnight change and unprecedented access to digital resources for schools, with many edtech providers giving the content away for free. Teachers could trial new practices and platforms like never before. In June, Teacher Tapp asked what activities teachers had carried out that day, and around a quarter of state-funded secondary school teachers had hosted online lessons, posted video lessons and created online quizzes. In July, almost ⅔ of the Teacher Tapp respondents said they would change the way they used technology in the classroom or to set homework once schools were back properly. Online marking and effective feedback solutions can be a time-saver for teachers.
There is also an opportunity for schools to improve digital literacy. The future of work for many will be centred around computers and novel technologies, and there is a strong and growing case for schools to prepare children for this. At an industry collaboration earlier this year, EDU’s Lucian Cosinschi suggested that we think of tech as paper – use it to support teaching, rather than take over teaching. It is so pervasive in our society that digital literacy is becoming as important as reading and maths; why not use it as a medium for those subjects, at least some of the time? There is, certainly, a balance to be struck – we all know the woes of too much screen time and the benefits of different learning methods and social interactions – but using technology as a tool and letting learners safely explore subjects through digital means can enrich their experience and will help them learn how to use it safely.
Individual schools’ approaches to this will probably differ substantially, just as we saw so many different solutions to the lockdown crisis. It will rely on the willingness, expertise and innovation of schools and teachers, not to mention probable additional budget. Whilst some teachers now have great experience of using technology for remote teaching, the implementation is entirely different to using tech in class, and I wonder if many will return to their previous teaching habits. Although there are some new restrictions – schools are limiting the proximity of teachers to students, making one-to-one teaching difficult, sharing resources may be limited or prohibited – much classroom teaching is likely to be unchanged. After months of lockdown, normality (or close to it) should be a wonderful environment for learners and teachers alike and many may just go back with business (and teaching practices) as usual.
So classroom and in-school teaching might look similar to pre-lockdown. Local lockdowns are continuing, though, and if schools close or class and year group bubbles have to self-isolate, then teachers will hopefully feel more prepared to jump in with a technological mediator. This week, a bubble of 90 students from one school has had to self-isolate for 14 days and we seem set for more such instances over the coming months. Schools should now be better equipped to continue delivering lessons remotely in these cases, providing a blended model, though the short timeframes are nobody’s friend.
Providing additional or differentiated support for learners could also improve greatly with the increased use of tech. We know that one of the biggest challenges facing education is the learning gap between privileged and disadvantaged learners and lockdown has exacerbated that. The National Foundation for Education Research found that teachers think 44% of students are ‘in need of intensive catch-up support’; for students in deprived areas, the learning gap from lockdown is thought to be four months, as opposed to around three months (i.e. the actual duration of missed school) for other students. Edtech could be used successfully to help those learners, providing them with additional or different resources. During one of the Education Technology’s Sofa Sessions, Think Simple’s Abdul Chohan discussed how digital resources and technologies give us a way of ‘plugging the gap’. They enable educators to reach more students, to engage students at different times and in different ways, and individual solutions can be implemented quickly and effectively.
There are plenty of obstacles to this. Time is a big factor in providing good quality education and how this might fit with in-class lesson planning and teaching will probably be decided school-by-school, if not teacher-by-teacher, though many, many content providers can help with this. The bigger issue is inequity of access to technology. Of course, this adversely affects those who are already disadvantaged. The Government is attempting to redress this, providing devices and internet access to some students throughout the 2020–21 academic year, though there are significant concerns from the likes of the Children’s Commissioner that the number of available devices is simply too low.
Out-of-school, but not out of class
Access to learning was a big problem in the UK before lockdown. According to the DfE, pupil absence in England has been increasing over the last few years. In 2017–18, one in nine children were ‘persistently’ out of school, and in state-funded primary, state-funded secondary and special schools, over 50% missed more than 5.5 days of school across the year. Prolonged absence is generally due to exclusion or illness but can also include young carers and absence for religious festivals, and it means valuable learning time is lost. Edtech has the potential to support these learners remotely, keeping them in contact with their teachers and peers whilst in a different setting or at flexible times. We just have to give them and schools the opportunity and the means.
The legacy of lockdown?
Improved workloads for teachers with online homework; better digital literacy amongst young people. These will make a real difference to individuals’ day-to-day lives. In my view, however, the real legacy of lockdown should be continued education – engaging the learners that can’t make it to class or are playing catch-up. Lockdown has shown us that it’s possible as long as people have access to it. My hope is that we can take the experience forward and apply it not just in times of crisis, but for those students who are at risk of falling through the cracks, who are out of school but still deserve to access their education. Unlike lockdown, my hopes won’t be realised overnight. Blended learning means adapting schemes of work and pedagogy; it means a shift in the culture of schools and better access to technology for all learners. But it could be the herald of equity in education.
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