Online learning: is it here to stay?

We need a national strategy for a consistent provision of online learning at all levels and across all subjects.

By the time schools closed on 20 March for all but the children of key workers and the most vulnerable children, most teachers were already busy preparing home learning packs and getting to grips with online learning software.

For some schools, online resources have been a central part of their home learning support for some time. But for others, tight budgets have meant that investment in technology and training for teachers has had to take a back seat and many teachers lacked experience in using online learning platforms. Schools have had to consider how best to provide resources for children who did not have access to technology at home or whose families did not have the skills to support children with online learning.

Some schools have been able to lend laptops or tablets to students who do not have them at home but that has not been possible for all. And although in April the government committed to providing laptops and tablets for the most disadvantaged children, these are intended mainly for specific groups of children, such as those with social workers or older children in Year 11. Access to internet connections also varies widely between households and even regionally.

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Widening education gap

A report published by the Institute for Fiscal Studies on 18 May found that children from less well-off backgrounds were spending less time learning online than children from better-off backgrounds.

Crowcroft Park Primary School is in Longsight in Manchester, an area which ranks high in many of the government’s poverty indicators, including a higher number than usual of children within each household. Fifty-three percent of children at the school are eligible for pupil premium, the grant given by the government to schools in England to decrease the attainment gap for the most disadvantaged children.

“There’s been a lot in the media about how better-off families are doing better with education, as if better-off families are more committed to education and less well-off parents are not bothering,” says Year 2 teacher, Nick Moors. “But it is very difficult if you are living in a small house with an extended family to find somewhere quiet to sit for home learning. If you share your bedroom with one or two other siblings, where can you go?”

Staff spent the weeks before lockdown preparing physical home learning packs for children to take home.

“Many of our families do not have technology at home for online learning, but the learning packs have been successful,” says Nick Moors. “We phoned around to find out how families were getting on with them and most had been working through them. Some parents send in photos of the completed activities from their phones or by email and these are celebrated on our school website and blog.”

As it became clear that distance learning would need to continue for some time, the school has begun to make more use of the online learning platform ClassDojo to set home learning challenges for children, alongside providing physical learning packs. Like many other online platforms, ClassDojo can be used on a smartphone using mobile data.

Other schools were in a better position to take advantage of online learning technology. A former software engineer, Tom Phillips is a Year 3 teacher at Moorlands Junior School in Sale, Greater Manchester.

“It was obvious that school closures were coming, so I spent the week before getting all our teachers and children up to speed on Google Classroom and how to use it to replace classroom lessons.”

Again, his school is also providing learning packs for those without technology.

At secondary schools, teachers were also preparing for online learning. Shivan Davis is an English literature and language teacher at The Hurlingham Academy in south west London. The school was already using the online platform Show My Homework, and since lockdown this has become the school’s main way of teaching and communicating with children.

At St Paul’s School for Girls in Birmingham, Assistant Head Julie Mason says that they already had a good bank of resources on the online learning platform Firefly. Having already used the platform for the past five years, they were able to adapt to the current situation. Teachers use it to set work and students to upload their assignments. It even has immersive reader functionality for children who have difficulty with literacy. Since 20 March they have been using Firefly to measure engagement. Any student who hasn’t logged on gets a phone call home phone.

Many schools were already using online platforms like ClassDojo, Show My Homework, Google Classroom and Firefly to set homework and award merits for good behaviour. Some have been able to adapt quickly to using these platforms more extensively for online learning, setting work for students and uploading resources like films, worksheets, texts and quizzes and linking out to resources from providers like BBC Bitesize Daily, the Oak National Academy, Pearson and White Rose Maths.

Asynchronous vs synchronous learning

A smaller number of schools seem to be providing synchronous learning via video conferencing software. Some teachers said this was for child protection reasons and reports about the online security of some of these platforms. For others it is just not practical.

“Trying to teach in real time would require all thirty children in a class to be organised enough at home to log in at a specific time, and that is just not the case,” says Nick Moors. “For younger children you are dependent on parents to organise them. Some parents have their own work commitments which mean they cannot be available to engage with home learning. Some families either do not have a laptop or computer or it might be shared between children. The resources we are posting are not time-specific and families can fit them around other daily commitments.”

Tom Phillips agrees:

“It would be impossible to effectively communicate with thirty children. The more confident ones would dominate and others might be overlooked. Then there is the technology – some people have better broadband than others.” – true both for students and teachers.

Shivan Davis is using his school’s online platform to set work for his students, but he has gone one step further.

“For a lot of English literature, teacher presence is an important part of the lesson. You need to guide the students through analysis of a text, annotating as you go. This was not possible with the platform we were using so, during the Easter holidays, I borrowed a webcam and filmed my own English literature tutorials and uploaded them to YouTube.”

YouTube is a platform that students are already using on a daily basis and which they can access on smartphones. Shivan says he has had really good engagement from the students, including some very useful feedback on how to improve his presentation skills!

Julie Mason is one teacher who has tried synchronous learning with her A-level history class. Firefly has embedded Microsoft Teams into the platform.

“It is not for every teacher and it is not an obligation at our school, but I find the students really enjoy it. At A-level, they’re more than capable of doing their own research and getting on with tasks, but for a subject like history they do really benefit from discussion and interaction.”

Online learning means more work for teachers

Online learning has generated extra work for teachers and Ross McGill of Teacher Toolkit says teachers are working harder than ever. As well as making sure their own classes have adequate learning materials and feedback, and communicating with parents and children, most teachers have been on a rota to go into school to supervise vulnerable children and the children of key workers.

“If you set a week of tasks for 30 children, you then have to mark each one and give more elaborate than usual feedback because you are not in the classroom to explain anything. Even if you have only set five tasks for the week, that is 150 pieces of work to mark and feedback on.”

Online learning is hard for students and parents too

There is no doubt that a whole day of virtual learning would be difficult for anyone to focus on. And Ross McGill says it is difficult for parents to manage.

“Teachers have a different kind of relationship with children, mediated by certain rules and there is an emotional line you do not cross. Even teachers find it difficult to teach their own children.”

That said, most schools have seen increased parental engagement with their online learning platforms but some have also had to lower expectations of how much online learning children can do in a week, with older children seeming to cope better than younger ones.

At Shivan Davis’ school in London, they have reduced the number of hours of online lessons children are expected to do each day and engagement has improved.

For a lot of the families at Nick Moors’ school, English is a second language. Nick has offered coaching for parents in using the online learning platform. Most have signed up, and he follows up with regular phone calls to offer encouragement, but some still struggle to engage.

“It's impossible to cover the curriculum in the same way as you would in the classroom. KS1 children are only five and six so we’re really dependent on the parents. We’re reaching the children who engage, but those who don’t engage are really missing out.”

Impact on SEND children

Children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) are also struggling with lockdown as routines and relationships are disrupted. Those classed as vulnerable are entitled to a school place, but according to researchers at the University of York, only 10 percent of families surveyed in their sample have taken up this place.

At Nick Moors’ school they have been offering 30 places a week for children of key workers and vulnerable children and take-up has been about 20 percent. Some SEND children have health issues and parents have not felt comfortable about sending them to school. The school has been providing learning resources specific to each child’s need, but they have had less online engagement from SEND children and parents have said they prefer physical packs.

At Shivan Davis’ school they have also seen lower levels of engagement with online learning from SEND children which suggests they are struggling, but the SEND team is offering extra support with learning over the phone.

Teachers know children are missing out on education during this period and are keen to get back to the classroom, as soon as it is safe to do so.

“We need to find a way to make up for this lost time,” says Nick Moors. “Our attendance targets are 95% because every day at school counts. Even one day out of school can have an impact on a child’s education.”

Is online learning here to stay?

Even when children get back to the classroom, with social distancing regulations still in place, things are not going to be the way they were for the foreseeable future. Not all children will be returning to school at the same time, classes may have to be split, with half the children attending in the morning and half in the afternoon. Online learning could the bridge this gap and the investment of time and effort teachers have made during this time should bring benefits in the future.

“Nationally, online education provision has been patchy and there’s a huge disparity between the best and the worst resources,” says Shivan Davis. “It is clear that those students not being provided with online education, or who are not engaging with it, are going to fall behind. We need a national strategy for a consistent provision of online learning at all levels and across all subjects.”

“This is not a situation that anyone wanted,” says Julie Mason. “But to try and see the positives, I can see two long-term benefits. Firstly, it has accelerated our rate of teacher engagement with technology which was one of our goals as a school. And secondly, our children are gaining a skillset that prepares them for higher education and the world of work.”

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