Animated drawing of wifi symbol, books and laptop to show different methods of teaching

The Acceleration Of Online Teaching And Learning

The whole notion of online teaching and professional development is not an old one. In fact, I was surprised to learn that its history begins way back in 1981 when the Western Behavioural Sciences Inst in La Jolla, CA, started running distance education for business executives via computer conferencing. Since then, many multinational businesses have grown within the space and traditional businesses have metamorphosised through a move to online learning. 

Kids are turning up aged 5 at school now with a digital-savvy to rival the best. Teachers have access to whiteboards, laptops, internet connections, online resources from publishers, brands, non-profits, digital content, VLEs and it all works swimmingly. Right? Well judging by what I have seen of my son’s first one year and one month of primary school, there’s still room for improvement.  

When faced with a complete lockdown and need to provide proper online teaching, the local education system, appeared to creak at the seams. Maybe it is because it doesn’t seem as though there has been a concerted effort to couple the introduction of new technology in schools, with the introduction of blended learning methodology in teacher training. This would overall raise the bar in state education and without this approach, digital learning and digital content become ancillary to the ‘analogue’ classroom experience.

My first interaction with online digital learning was around 15 years ago in the professional space when a member of my team excitedly showed me Lynda.com, now of course Linked In Learning. Lynda was the gateway to the world of online learning for me – many of the experiments and projects we were attempting to do at that time as an early digital publishing team, were beyond our combined knowledge and capability, and being on tight budgets invariably we would learn software packages or web design techniques via the easy-to-use searchable interface that Lynda provided. I didn’t look back.

Since then, there has been a massive increase in the amount of both office and classroom hardware and software being produced and sold all around the world along with all manner of different attendant courses on how to make everything work.  

In the classroom, the ubiquitous classroom whiteboard is supplemented with voting pads, laptops, iPads, and a whole host of other technology hardware and software products and services. As this has grown, the amount of video content has grown targeting teachers and giving them tips on how to use it.

This year the COVID crisis has highlighted both the need for increased interaction with online resources in any form of education for both teachers and learners.  Our own recently launched TOM – Teaching Online Masterclass is a free online professional development resource for teachers making the leap into remote teaching and learning. Teachers, who hold a crucial role within the education eco-system, are being rapidly upskilled in the methodology of teaching both in the classroom and online using a blend of different learning experiences. This is key to creating the community they create in the classroom, in the online space – a definite challenge. If they don’t, they risk being left out in the rain. Their pupils will become alienated and the process will become soggy and tired.

We have learned from my son’s school that at the flick of a switch, his year one teacher can take the classroom experience and re-create it online with individual 1:1 teacher Zoom time factored in for each and every child online too.  We now have a timetable for home-learning should the school be closed, and if it’s needed will give him 1:1 teacher Zoom time every two days – something which in its own right is no mean feat. 

Teaching and learning are going through an enforced change right now.  With little or no notice, thousands of schools up and down the country are having to adapt and change to home-schooling supported by the teacher online.  Whilst the last lockdown was pretty much a write-off educationally from the perspective of every fellow parent that I’ve spoken to, there seems to have been a huge technology uptick in our local school since. Systems have been geared up to make sure that everything can be run as if it were in the school, and a questionnaire sent before the term even started has made sure that every child has access to the technology needed in a home-schooling environment, if just via a smartphone.  

We are hoping that school stays open, but if not, then this time round, teachers and their pupils have better support.  Let us hope it will be a more fun and educational time.

Animation of students studying in the classroom

Pay Attention. Powering Down In The Classroom.

If anything has been learned in our family since the onset of Covid-19 and home-schooling, it’s that when my 5 year old son would repeatedly arrive home saying school was a waste of time because it was so boring, it appears that he was telling the truth.  That is what I’ve gathered from the brief few months that we were involved in his day-to-day teaching before the summer holiday.

Before, when he found it difficult to get out of bed in the mornings and begrudgingly put on his school uniform muttering the obligatory “I don’t want to go to school every day it’s boring”, he was fully justified in his statement.

During our period of home-schooling, the only digital interaction with educational resources he had which was set by the school, was to look at and then print (good job we are one of the few that have a printer) the Twinkl worksheets which were emailed each day for him to fill in.  You would think it is an easy task and job done, but on many days, we had flat refusals from him.  Not because the subject matter was too difficult, or the subjects themselves were things he wasn’t interested in, but rather because there are only so many apples and pears or balloons or bears or bicycles an intelligent 5 year old can count or order or spell and then colour in, without going completely and utterly insane.

This is an issue which educationalists, parents and students have been talking about for a long time now.  Very little seems to have been done about it

Graesser and Person in the American Educational Research Journal 1994 (yes 1994!) stated “A researcher claims that on average, students in class only get to ask a question once every 10 hours!”  My son has complained of the same – “I am not allowed to ask many questions so I have to sit around and it’s boring”.   This coming from a child who constantly asks us questions about the world around him as part of his learning process.  And this research from 1994 (yes 1994!) backs up my son’s repulsion to the current way he and his subjects are taught, yet in the UK state sector certainly, very little has been done to ensure that children receive the digital and one on one stimulation they need at school which they receive in every other area of their everyday life.  Various Ministers in the UK have claimed to have sorted out the education system, but have they?  Not from our perspective.

I used to stand up at conferences and wave my arms about a lot encouraging audiences, mostly involved in education in one form or another to change the way they were doing things a bit.  Just a bit. Ten years or so ago, I used to plead, that in the same way, the audience themselves used Google and Youtube and Facebook, and indeed played a myriad of games which were appearing on phones and PCs as apps, it was vitally important that in order to avoid alienating the children they wished to educate, they needed to change direction radically and move education beyond the printed page.  Imagine a maths or history curriculum delivered as an adventure game?  Ironically that would fit right in with the way Netflix are making TV shows and movies for children right now, giving them choices and allowing them to learn from mistakes.  Now and again, after presenting I would be approached by someone who agreed, but more often than not, I would be met with the phrase “leaving no one behind” or the equivalent motto of the country that I was in.

Examining the complete and utter chaos of the A level and soon GCSE fiasco this year in the UK (particularly in England), the irony 10 years on, is that in the UK the very government who coined such fluffy phrases, commissioned an AI programme which seemingly was designed to make sure of just that – those from the most deprived areas would most certainly be left behind. 

The reality is that in just about every school education system around the world, whether or not every child at school has a laptop or an iPad, whether or not the school can stream video as part of the learning process in the classroom, it is all down to how much spend there is in education at a governmental level.  And in the UK, despite the government fluff, in real terms, it is diminishing year on year.  And as this happens more and more will continue to be left further and further behind.   

Perhaps, bearing in mind the workplace is about to revolutionised by AI with millions of jobs replaced by algorithms, this was the plan all along.

One of the most forward-thinking groups in education right now is based at the University of North Carolina Greensboro in North Carolina.  The Transforming Teaching Through Technology group based within the School of Education, have partnered with several schools and placed creativity at the centre of process through the creation of Maker Classrooms which emphasise making, creating and inventing.  

I remember seeing a video they made a long time ago – around about 2008 called Pay Attention!  It is of course still available to view on Youtube and in it, there were some statements made which 10 years later, I’m hearing echoing in my ear each time I have to focus on teaching my 5-year-old son.  High school students are quoted as saying “We have learned ‘to play’ school. We study the right facts the night before the test so we can achieve a passing grade and thus become a successful student’ and “When I go to school I have to power down”.  What is astounding is that the video is about a decade old and still we hear the very same phrases!

My son’s teacher is smart and fresh out of university.  Mrs Jones (not her real name) has from what we can see, been teaching the kids in as blended a way as she can with the elderly equipment and bad internet connection that she has.  For my son, the most important parts of home learning she sent before the summer break were the occasions where she made a video of herself reading a story.  I thought they were great.  Considering that they were filmed on a phone, the quality was first-rate, she was good at making the stories interesting and, in my view, if teaching young frustrated children becomes too much, she should pursue a career as a voiceover artist!  Each day when we signed into the school system to download what would inevitably be Twinkl’s colour in/match/draw-on/add-up worksheet, he asked if there was a video she had made to watch.  

Video is central to his life.  He is part of the post-millennial generation, and like every other child in his class and school, he has had wide access to technology since the minute he was aware of its existence.  Leaving no one behind doesn’t come into it!  Every parent has a phone with an internet connection.  Full stop.  For him and all of his peers, Youtube Kids, Youtube (under supervision) and Google (restricted) are his primary sources of information.  He ‘talks’ to Google and Youtube to find exactly what it is that he wants to know or see, and he has a program which reads out the text of sites like Wikipedia to him as he’s still getting up to speed with fluent reading.  The app highlights each word, something which for me in a past life placed me at the centre of great ridicule when I suggested to those I worked with that a simple karaoke-style reading app would effectively teach many millions to read.  It appears that in the case of my son and his friends, today something similar is doing just that.

All over the world children are returning to the classroom after a long period of learning in different ways.  Mrs Jones is once again going to have her work cut out in a couple of weeks time.  Children all over the world have for months been enthralled and educated by a myriad of different multimedia apps and services and of course Youtube.  When they re-enter the classroom in the coming weeks, once again the dragging of heels in our and many other households each morning will start all over again, as they are forced to power down in the classroom.  Paying attention doesn’t come into it.  Waiting 10 hours to ask a question does.

Teacher standing in front of her students at school

Preparing Students With Disabilities To Return To School

This is the second article in our series of educator insights. In this second article, Leader of Learning Support, Kate Macpherson talks about how she’s preparing vulnerable students to return to school.

Many countries worldwide are beginning to reduce restrictions. They are starting to open up their town and cities to some semblance of the life they knew before covid-19. This includes schools. 

Our students have not stepped foot inside their school gates for a couple of months. Other countries will be longer. When my state government announced the return to school timeline, I asked my students to give me an emoji rating of how they felt. Their responses included ???????, and some a whole combination of these!! These responses were from my year 9 class and none of them have a disability.

Let’s Talk About Students On The Autism Spectrum

Since the announcement, I’ve had a few phone calls with families who have a child with a disability. The parents’ reaction has led me to wonder – how do we prepare a student with a disability to return to school? Especially students on the Autism spectrum. Many who have already struggled with all the changes occurring in their life, and that’s not including what is happening in the world at the moment. Change is not easy for these students. 

Some of the concerns raised in my conversations include:

  • I’m not looking forward to seeing my classmates
  • I’m worried about the workload when I return
  • What will I do without my iPad at school?
  • I’m nervous about seeing everyone again – I like being home 
  • I don’t want to wear my school uniform again
  • I don’t know what to expect when I return
  • I don’t want to go back to school, I like learning from home

So, how do we prepare our most vulnerable students at this time? 

Let’s Start Slowly

  1. Find out from your students what they are worried and excited about – it’s always important to focus on the positives!
  2. Normalize your students emotions, especially their fears of the unknown. As their teachers, we also have our own fears and worries about what is to come and how school will look and work.
  3. Ensure all staff who have contact with this student are aware of these feelings so they can respond appropriately for their subject. Have a common response so as not to confuse the student in these preparations.
  4. Be willing to talk about their return to school – don’t be afraid to have these conversations with your students.
  5. It is best to gradually build up their return to your classroom. Seek their feedback about what they liked about your subject or class during remote learning, and ask them to suggest ways it could work in the physical environment.
  6. Plant little seeds about changes your school is making due to social distancing guidelines and personal protection measures.
  7. Support your parents as well as the student – this is difficult for them as well!
  8. Encourage parents to gradually build up the transition back to face to face learning
    • Start putting on the school uniform gradually, adding one item each couple of days until they are wearing their full uniform in the last couple of days of remote learning
    • Slowly reestablish bedtime and morning routines that they would be expected to follow once back at school – a lot of my students are rolling out of bed a few minutes before their morning homeroom!
    • Start to bring back some of the pre-lockdown norms and expectations at home such as limiting screen time, (difficult when we are expecting them to still work on their computer during the school day, but this refers to the fun screen time).
    • Discuss the differences and slowly ease back on the fun screen time.

I do not know exactly what our return to school will look like at this stage, but I do know that there are many families and students who need our support to make it as smooth as we possibly can in such a time of uncertainty. I am aiming to keep them informed and to slowly build up their positive mindsets and willingness to cope with, yet another, change!

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