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Digital lessons learned for the education sector during COVID-19

Cath Everett Profile picture for user catheverett March 17, 2021
Repeated lockdowns in the UK have accelerated digital adoption in the education sector by as much as five years. Here are case studies of how two organisations coped and how they now intend to build on their digital foundations.

An image of a student learning from home on their laptop
(Image by Steven Weirather from Pixabay )

While enabling remote teaching and learning has not been easy for most schools across the UK, the fact that lockdown has accelerated digital adoption means the foundations are now mostly in place to build on for the future.

After months of enforced home schooling for many children, selected groups of learners across the UK are now starting to return to the classroom.  

But things have changed massively since the first lockdown took place last March. While the vast majority of schools may have kept their doors open to cater to the children of key workers, they also had to find ways to accommodate the needs of remote learners at the same time.

To this end, some teachers were assigned to work with classroom-based students as their colleagues focused on digital teaching, while others were required to look after both using webcams and other technology. This situation led to a number of teachers adopting a so-called ‘flipped learning' approach, whereby students engaged with learning material before class, and classroom time itself was spent in deepening their understanding of the content via discussion with peers and undertaking activities based around it. As Chris Rothwell, Microsoft's director of education, points out:

If we go back to the first set of school closures, no one had ever had to do remote learning before, so the whole sector had to learn how. In the first lockdown, it was pretty limited and a lot about pastoral care. There was a lot of printing off worksheets and there was a divide between public and private schools and those in more affluent areas. But most schools are now delivering some form of live engagement and delivering work digitally. It's an incredible turnaround.

James Browning, who joined non-profit Academies Enterprise Trust as their new Chief Digital and Information Officer in February, agrees that the shift has been huge, with the adoption of technology in the last 12 months having gone further than was previously expected over the course of five years.

While the focus of the first lockdown was on ensuring learners of all backgrounds had access to the basics, such as laptops, in subsequent ones it was about enabling secondary considerations, with ISPs and mobile providers, for instance, "stepping up to the plate" and providing free-of-charge data connectivity.

Tackling digital transformation challenges

But Browning believes that schools in Scotland had a "massive advantage" over those in England as the government there had already invested in a national online learning environment called ‘Glow' from ICT products and services provider, RM Education, the use of which "skyrocketed". Glow is a collaboration platform for both teachers and learners, which provides basic functionality, such as email and office software, as well as access to education-specific applications and workflows. Wales had also introduced a similar, although "less well adopted" platform.

But the situation was very different in England. Browning explains:

In England, there were a staggering number of schools with no platform at all so they were effectively starting from scratch. In Scotland, it was already there and available to all schools. In England, it was just a matter of putting something in for your school or trust or local authority group, which meant it was a walled garden and you couldn't share resources.

Another big challenge, he says, was "giving teachers the headspace to develop new digital skills":

The biggest gap was around teacher confidence and expertise. It's fine to make training available but people don't always have the time to do it, particularly in a pandemic situation. It's a mixed picture - those that had technology embedded in their strategy before the pandemic found it easier than those simply responding. So it's a key strand going forward, but helping teachers to feel more confident with technology will take time.

Nonetheless, Browning believes there is a lot of optimism about the future. With the technology basics now mostly in place and teachers' confidence levels on the rise, he expects to see a couple of trends occur.

The first involves enabling collaboration beyond the school's four walls to ensure learners benefit from the expertise of teachers elsewhere. The second entails using predictive analytics tools to mine student data, ranging from attendance and attainment to behavioural information, in order to enable the best outcomes for them - as long as it is used within ethical frameworks and codes of conduct, that is.

A third trend, believes Rothwell, will see teachers employing software to help reduce their own admin burden. For example, being able to mark learners' work with their voice rather than the written word could save significant amounts of time.

Dealing with the repercussions of lockdown

One educational institution that is keen to build on the digital transformation brought about by the pandemic, meanwhile, is international private group, Cognita Schools. Just before lockdown struck, digital learning advisor Andy Perryer, who focuses on the needs of the organisation's 40 UK schools and their 10,000 learners, had fortuitously rolled out wireless, touchscreen devices and screens to teachers so they could operate from wherever they wished within the classroom rather than being confined to the whiteboard. But, as he points out:

It didn't set us up for online learning, which is completely different to classroom teaching, and why it was so challenging at the start.

To try and address this situation, the first week of school closures in March 2020 was spent training teachers on how to use the Microsoft Teams collaboration platform for teaching purposes by enabling them to "learn, experiment and play" in order to build up their confidence. Perryer says:

Initially we said lessons didn't have to be live all the way through because it's important to think about things like student screen-time and wellbeing. So we suggested going for a hybrid approach, for example, by providing videos and discussing them afterwards to get the best of both worlds. Teachers now have the confidence and knowhow to deliver more live content, but it's taken quite a long time to get there.  

As for supporting learner wellbeing, Perryer believes that doing so is imperative because "if children aren't happy, they can't learn". Based on the lockdown lessons of Asian colleagues, the secret to success was found to be encouraging teachers to conduct 15-minute check-ins with their students each morning. Perryer explains:

It was similar to form time and had nothing to do with education per se, but it unlocked the social aspect of learning. And it changed everything. The children were able to see their friends so social isolation was reduced, and we could form building blocks of pastoral care to let people know they could come to us if they needed to. We even started having year group, key stage and whole school assemblies.

Specialist areas were also created on Teams for like-minded individuals to network. For example, a Physical Education group created its own version of the Olympics, with winners awarded medals by Cognita's chief executive. Optional support groups for teachers were likewise set up as were technology classes for both parents and children to learn how to use Teams more effectively.

Keeping the best bits of edtech in place

Now that learners are back at school though, Perryer is keen to ensure that "the best bits of edtech continue to remain in place" and is developing a five-year strategy on that basis. For instance, because Teams helps "remove barriers to learning", the idea is that, in future, international students could be invited to attend particular classes held in the UK and vice versa.

Another advantage is that if a local student were to break their leg and have to stay at home, "it doesn't mean that learning has to stop", Perryer says.

But he also believes that implementing technology, such as Microsoft's OneNote, has the potential to save teachers' time, thereby enabling them to "engage in more social educational activities that a computer can't support". He explains:

We feel that platforms like [Microsoft's] OneNote [digital notebook] will play a very important role in this: teachers can save time away from the photocopier with features like digital distribution. They can see work being created in real-time, and use digital inking or voice notes to offer rich feedback more quickly. Also using auto-marking quizzes means teachers can spend time acting on the results of this low-stakes data rather than spending time marking it. While they may all be marginal gains, they offer real-life opportunities to enable productivity.

Another school that is eager to continue reaping the benefits of technology into the future is Hugh Baird College, a higher education institution catering to the needs of 6,000 students in eight buildings across three campuses in Bootle, Liverpool.

In anticipation of the UK's second lockdown, it kitted out its 150 or so classrooms with cameras and microphones to ensure that live lessons could still be delivered to remote learners. But the aim, says head teacher Rachael Hennigan, is to continue providing them with this kind of flexible access in future. She explains:

In higher education, we have quite a lot of mature students who struggle time-wise. For example, they're trying to drop the kids off before rushing to college and so, for mental health reasons, wouldn't mind a day working from home.

Another area in which technology has made a big difference though is in pastoral care. As Hennigan points out:

In the past, not everyone would use counselling services face-to-face but attendance has shot up online. The distance makes things a bit easier - if you're studying at home and you just have to click three buttons, it's less effort that walking down a corridor. Also if you're talking about personal, emotional subjects, the distance makes it easier as you're not looking someone in the eye.

My take

While enabling remote teaching and learning has not been easy for most schools across the UK, the fact that lockdown has accelerated digital adoption means the foundations are now mostly in place to build on for the future.

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