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Our expert panelists discuss what the Covid-19 school closures have taught us about remote teaching, including addressing the digital-access gap in some households and how to keep pupils engaged and motivated from a distance
Expert Panelists: Rachel Hope from the Department for Education’s Teaching Workforce Directorate; Julia Adamson, director of education at BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT; Richard Slade, headteacher of Plumcroft Primary School; and Edd Grinham, head of commercial at Exa Networks (biographies below)
School closures due to the Covid-19 pandemic have resulted in most children being educated at home using technology to access learning activities. But this period of remote learning has highlighted the issues of digital inequality in some households; it’s been estimated that 700,000 children are unable to complete any schoolwork because of a lack of internet at home.
Julia Adamson, director of education at BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, commentds: “A lack of access to internet-enabled devices for some teachers and pupils means that home-schooling is more challenging for some, and in some cases simply inaccessible.
"We asked members of our Computing at School community to tell us about their experiences and they reported widespread issues, such as students sharing mobile phones or using games console or mobile data plans to access online learning.”
Julia delves further into the issues: “Without the level of interactivity that technology supports, teachers cannot manage the students’ learning, support those that are struggling with a task, or encourage those that are succeeding to stretch themselves. In addition, any learning tasks that are set cannot draw on information and resources that are outside the home, and there will be a significant time delay between a student submitting work and receiving feedback from the teacher.”
While there has always been a ‘digital divide’, the current situation has brought it acutely into focus, comments Edd Grinham, head of commercial at Exa Networks. He says: “Even if a household had a device suitable for home learning pre-lockdown, that device might now be needed by siblings or even parents who are home working.
“Without a suitable device, home schooling relies on learning packs (or similar) provided by schools which often requires intervention by a parent or carer who may be working themselves. With only 22 per cent of state schools providing four or more pieces of offline work during lockdown, the lack of an internet-enabled device is surely contributing to the estimated two million children in the UK (one in five) that have done little or no work since lockdown began.”
Recognising the issue, the Department for Education (DfE) has put in place several measures to help disadvantaged children access the remote technology they need.
Rachel Hope from the Department for Education’s Teaching Workforce Directorate, explains: “At the Department for Education, we are working hard to support those who lack access to internet-enabled devices. We are providing over 200,000 laptops and tablets, as well as internet access via 4G wireless routers, for some disadvantaged children and young people who do not currently have access to them from other sources, such as their school.
“In addition to providing over 50,000 4G wireless routers, BT is partnering with DfE to provide in-need families with six months’ free access to the UK’s largest Wi-fi estate, which extends to 5.5 million Wi-fi hotspots around the country. BT will provide in-need families with six months’ free access to the UK’s largest Wi-fi estate, which extends to 5.5 million Wi-fi hotspots around the country.”
Speaking from the frontline, Richard Slade, headteacher of Plumcroft Primary School in London, shares his experience of dealing with the digital access gap: “For some children who attend Plumcroft, the only internet device in the home is a parent’s mobile phone with limited data. The school has worked hard to really support those children to find a way of getting access to enable continued learning and development.
“Plumcroft has 213 children who are entitled to free school meal vouchers, but the school was only entitled to three laptops from the DfE’s scheme, so there’s still a huge challenge to facilitate equity of access to online learning.”
“And even for the three children who qualified for a laptop, if they haven’t got access to the internet then they still won’t be able to engage with any form of distance learning. As a school, we simply don’t have the budget or capacity to start allocating resource for this need.”
Engaging and motivating children
A study from the National Foundation for Educational Research revealed that school leaders believe a third of all pupils are not engaging in school work at all. Teachers in the most deprived schools report 30 per cent of pupils returning their last piece of work, compared to 49 per cent of pupils in the least deprived schools. Teachers also reported that, on average, just over half (55 per cent) of their pupils’ parents are engaged with their children’s home learning.
Distance learning to this extent is a new challenge for most schools, so how can teachers use technology to keep children engaged and motivated when learning at home?
The Department for Education is offering funded support for digital education platforms, which help to maintain the contact and rapport between teachers and pupils.
Rachel Hope explains: “Digital education platforms enable teachers to design and deliver tasks for pupils to continue to learn remotely, ensuring an engaging and quality education experience for all young people.
“Using remote teaching technology, schools can engage in two-way conversations with pupils and deliver dynamic content like: broadcasting whole-school assemblies; providing real-time feedback on pupils’ work; enabling collaborative working for pupils on shared online documents and projects; and maximising readily available digital resources.
“These platforms help teachers to organise learning activities, and provide structure for students learning at home. To really engage pupils with new and different online activities, schools might want to consider how they can employ different media to deliver learning content. For example, audio and video recordings; links to existing online resources within task-based planning or digital worksheets; and powerpoints with attached audio providing teacher walkthrough.”
Edd Grinham points out that it’s difficult for teachers to suddenly change their established working habits and expect that the changes they put in place will be successful for all learners - especially considering that many teachers are home-schooling themselves with their own children at home. “Some teachers will try doing exactly what they do in class, and in being busy will feel that they are making headway,” comments Edd Grinham. “But children’s attention will start to wane, and teachers may start to see lower pupil engagement with sessions. Much like physical exercise, longer term repeated activities are far better than one big exertion at the beginning.”
Edd continues: “Having a regular routine along with a regular programme of content and learning activities facilitates a sense of normality. This normality helps pupils self-activate their attention and allows them to ‘switch on’ at the right time.
“Unlike being in a classroom where a teacher can speak to each pupil individually when needed, an online session almost dictates that a “one size fits all” approach is adopted – focus must be given to personalising sessions as much as possible and help nurture and develop a sense of community.”
Pointing out the wealth of online resources that are available, Edd Grinham says: “There is an abundance of learning resources already out there, online or even through television, such as BBC Bitesize Daily or Oak Academy Online Learning. An easy mistake teachers can make is to feel the need to produce their own material - but there is little to be gained by reinventing the wheel. By curating and signposting to relevant content, teachers can use saved time to focus upon questions about the content to determine comprehension of the subject matter.”
Julia Adamson shares some ideas for keeping pupils engaged with learning from home: “Teachers could integrate a wide range of activities to avoid learner boredom and provide a multisensory approach. Offer a mixture of text and media-driven materials so that children who prefer to access media-rich content are not excluded.
“It’s important not to forget that pupils who are self-learning can easily disengage from an experience that fails to grab their interest or attention. A ripple effect of quiet reading, and written exercises should be broken up by impactful media resources.
“Asynchronous learning doesn’t provide the necessary face-to-face interaction of synchronous learning experiences. Thus, a solid support system needs to be in place where pupils can gain additional help. This may be through synchronous methods such as a telephone call or a one-to-one video chat or even a text-based messenger tool, for example, if they need support to engage or access the content.”
Feedback and reward is another important element of ensuring pupil engagement, believes Julia: “This could be as simple as awarding house points and keeping a tally of them, to sending out digital certificates or badges, and recognising achievements in newsletters, class updates and one-to-ones.”
The quality and speed of feedback is vitally important to keep pupils engaged, Richard Slade believes: “Primarily, it needs to be fast and accurate. If there’s a delay, pupils have moved on or potentially disengaged. As a result, it makes it much more difficult to provide the right support at the right time.
“As our key distance learning delivery is through Renaissance and myON, we can see and analyse a range of engagement data. For example, from the data we know that the 851 children at our school have collectively completed over 33,000 books since lockdown started on 23 March 2020. We can also assign projects and these help give children real structure and drive their reading engagement. We can see children are reading as much at home as they have ever been – if not more!
“We’re keeping children motivated through our online Distance Learning Portal that links to myON and also offers a broad spectrum of activities like music and wellbeing support. The core focus of ensuring children are continuing to read and do maths is tracked through myON, Accelerated Reader, Accelerated Maths and Maths in a Flash. This suite of online learning tools from Renaissance allows teachers to create projects that are age and ability specific. Our class teachers can see how many books have been read and completed and then focus a lot of energy on those who haven’t been getting involved.
“We do a weekly analysis and then teachers call pupils/parents to see why students might not be logging in and reading and see what they can do to help. Without the weekly data provided by myON and the other Renaissance systems, we’d be going in to this blind and hoping everyone was doing learning without really knowing.”
Learning from lockdown
The government has confirmed that they want a full time return to school in September. However, with the threat of localised lockdowns, as we have seen in Leicester, and the possibility of children having to self isolate if their school has seen an outbreak, remote teaching will like be reality to some extent at the start of the new academic year. So how important is it to get distance teaching right to prepare for this scenario in the near future?
The DfE’s Rachel Hope says: “As part of schools’ planning preparations, I encourage schools to set up on digital education platforms, as this is the critical piece of infrastructure to support learning both in the classroom and at home, should there be localised lockdowns. In the long term, schools will also benefit from these platforms, through better knowledge sharing, reducing teacher workload, and streamlining processes to save time and money.”
Understanding the needs of learners at home is key for schools to get distance teaching right, believes Julia Adamson. She says: “It’s important to identify which students are struggling because of lack of sufficient connectivity. Or do they lack access to a device or basic digital skills? Schools should start to build plans to address those needs and inconsistencies – so that the provision that they offer is available to every learner.
“We also lack sufficient research-based evidence to say what a highly effective remote teaching environment looks like and what the underlying pedagogies should be. This makes it harder for schools to “get remote teaching right” because we simply don’t know enough about what ‘good’ looks like.”
Edd Grinham agrees that assessment of pupils’ home environment needs to happen so issues can be addressed for future home learning. He says: “It is important to consider ‘pupil voice’, how pupils are responding to these new experiences and not just rely on assessments and gradings to analyse the success of remote working.
“A good use of on-site school time would be to prepare for periods of remote schooling, do students have access to the learning materials they need? Are schools able to provide them with copies of printed texts and equipment they can use? Are the devices they use administratively locked down – do they require software installations or updates?
“Ultimately I don’t believe we’ll ever will get to a point where remote-schooling is perfect, nor should we strive to arrive at a point where it is not further developed. Continual improvement is vital for education, just as any other sector.”
Learning over summer
Many kids have missed out on quality education whilst home working – is there an argument to use remote learning technology over the summer holidays to help children catch up?
Julia Adamson says: “For many, the summer holidays will be a very welcome break from the rather intensive few months of home learning and access to remote learning technologies, for others maybe less so. If there was an argument to use remote learning technology over the summer holidays to help children to catch up – the first question to answer would be which children need the most support – and have they got access to the tools and systems to enable them to access this additional support.”
Richard Slade points out that getting children to catch up on missed learning may be easier said than done. He explains: “One of the many things that’s fascinated us during lockdown is that during the two week Easter break and the May half-term, engagement dropped even though these two holidays were during the peak of lockdown when people couldn’t go out or do other things anyway. To expect masses of learning to take place during lockdown in the summer break feels like an unrealistic expectation.
“The concept of catch-up over the summer would seem to have logical merit but the practical implementation of it is very difficult. If it is merely optional then from our holiday data during lockdown, it seems unlikely that there would be mass take-up by those that may really need it. If it were to be made compulsory then I think you would lose a lot of goodwill from parents. In addition, it’s highly unlikely that schools will have any staff coming in over the summer break. High expectations about levels of learning taking place at home during the summer is also a real challenge.
“Instead, our plan is to keep the myON projects going each week over the summer – The core aim is to keep pupils reading throughout the summer break because the vast majority are now in the habit.”
Edd Grinham says that there is benefit to leaving the summer holidays to “relax, refresh and recharge batteries”. He says: “While we’ve been learning from home and working from home, one thing people have reported difficulty with is having clear boundaries between school, work and home - so encroaching on summer holidays poses another potential problem area.
“Schools are unlikely to be able to maintain the same levels of engagement throughout the extended period, but there are still opportunities for flexible projects to keep those young brains and bodies active. Here is where on-demand rather than synchronous activities are going to be more suitable. Maintaining some light, but regular communications between school and home will help serve those warm connections that were established before the country entered lockdown.
“As a parent myself to two Primary school children, I imagine I am in a similar boat to many who are facing the upcoming summer break and wondering how I can keep my kids entertained whilst continuing to work from my, now home-office when there is no school work to be done.”
Rachel Hope adds: “Over the summer, pupils can draw on support from the BBC, which has launched its own education package across TV and online, helping to keep children learning and supporting parents while at home.”
Remote learning in the future
The lockdown has forced the education sector to embrace educational technology in ways like never before. New research from Renaissance has revealed that nearly two-thirds (65 per cent) of teachers and senior leaders say they are more confident using educational technology compared to pre-Coronavirus. This learning experience can be advantageous for the future, should schools have to close due to snow days in the winter, or other reasons, not to mention if there were further lockdowns.
Julia Adamson says that to prepare for future distance learning, there needs to be a robust foundation established. This foundation should include a basic underlying infrastructure: “Quality broadband, should be ubiquitous, like water and electricity – it shouldn’t matter where you live or what you can afford – it needs to be there for everyone,” comments Julia.
Other layers of the foundation include device access, and for those families that do not have this, there needs to be a support mechanism in place to ensure that they can.
“Teachers too will need support and training to develop the skills and capabilities to be able to facilitate effective remote teaching and to support home learning,” says Julia. “And we’ll need to ensure that there is evidence-based research to inform remote teaching practices so that the remote teaching is as effective as possible for as many learners as possible.”
Using the snow day example, Edd Grinham says that schools who are able to quickly adopt remote learning for a day or two are more likely to do so for health & safety purposes. “This would not only benefit those directly involved, but also reduce the added strain on our roads and travel infrastructure,” says Edd.
Richard Slade says: “There is such a wide variety of ways distance learning has been used and developed due to necessity that if we go back to the ‘old normal’ then we’ve not learned from all the success that digital learning has brought with it in the last few weeks. The ‘new normal’ of schooling, especially when all children are back in school, must be a blended model that embeds the best of what we’ve all been driven to create during lockdown with the core benefits of being physically present in a classroom.
“My core message is to keep our distance learning systems working and embedded when schools open so that if they do have to close again, it’s a minor adjustment rather than a sudden restart. As a profession, let’s grasp the opportunity to create a ‘new normal’ for learning.”
Rachel Hope urges schools to act now if they do not have a digital education platform in place so they don’t get left behind. She says: “Evidence shows digital education platforms can make a significant difference to schools, when their doors are open, by improving learning outcomes, particularly for pupils who are struggling. Adapting to remote education has benefits now and well into the future whatever scenario may arise which could force schools to close their doors.”
Rachel Hope, deputy director, Teaching Workforce Directorate, Department for Education
Rachel is responsible for teacher services. She brings policy and delivery expertise into single multidisciplinary teams to tackle one of the Department’s biggest challenges – ensuring there are excellent teachers for every child. This includes services to support those entering teaching profession as well as those already teaching in our schools. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Rachel has also been leading the Get Help with Technology programme which is supporting schools to set up digital education platforms and providing laptops, tablets and internet access to vulnerable and disadvantaged children.
Julia Adamson, director of education, BCS - The Chartered Institute for IT
Julia Adamson is the Director of Education at BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT. Julia plays a lead role in managing the National Centre for Computing Education a £84 million government funded programme to upskill thousands of teachers to deliver a world class education in computing across primary and secondary schools. Julia started her career as a primary school teacher specialising in science and technology and progressed into school leadership support and teacher CPD for ICT before moving into the charity sector where she has been focussed on developing opportunities for young people to benefit from technology.
Edd Grinham, head of commercial, Exa Networks
Edd comes from an education-based family with both parents and a sibling who teach, despite this, he sought a career in marketing and has focussed upon technology. Originally in healthcare and now at Exa Networks, as part of Edd’s wider role he continues to work with and oversee the delivery of a nationwide and online programme of events and training for teachers around the use of technology.
Richard Slade, headteacher, Plumcroft Primary School
Richard Slade is the Headteacher of Plumcroft Primary School in the Royal Borough of Greenwich, London. The school has over 850 pupils and is expanding onto a second site for a further 420 pupils. Richard has a 16-year history of turning around failing/underperforming schools. He has an expertise in using assessment data to transform outcomes for all pupils and accelerate the systemic improvement of schools.