Supporting remote learning

Online learning is not the next big thing, it is the now big thing. - Donna J. Abernathy

For Edufuturists’ Dan Fitzpatrick, butterflies were bouncing around his stomach as he opened his eyes this morning, a million thoughts of remote learning quickly rushed back into his head and the flood of emails from anxious colleagues made his phone light up the dark room. It’s Monday and it’s the first day of school closures in the UK.

An image of the EduFuturist team and Rachel Coathup

On Thursday evening Boris Johnson, UK Prime Minister, announced that students were having to put education on hold. For many schools, this could not be further from the truth. Dan’s school has spent the last week tweaking their online learning strategies, using Google for Education, so that they can utilize it for full-time distance learning, during the COVID-19 schools closures. Today is judgment day. #HomeSchooling is the number one UK trend on Twitter as it reaches midday. Parents, teachers and students from all over the country are sharing stories of how learning is taking place at home. One thing is evident, there is a huge gulf between their experiences.

Dan’s school is following normal timetables and teachers are teaching in real time using Google Classroom and Google Meet. First reports back are full of hope. It’s working very well. Many other schools and colleges are following suit, using cloud technology to make learning happen in real time. However, we're afraid that over the coming weeks many senior leaders in education are going to hear these stories of students learning and making progress, using cloud technology, and ask the question “Why aren’t we doing the same?”.

School is not the building, it’s the community

A culture of connectivity must be at the heart of a school. When this happens relationships happen, when relationships happen learning happens. The life-blood of a school is this web of communication. School is not the building, it’s the community. Over the past decade cloud technology has advanced so much that it now offers schools ways of connecting that wouldn’t have been dreamed of last century, whether you’re using Google for Education, Office 365, Apple Education or other cloud platforms. Other cloud tools that assist this communication are offering phenomenal accessibility features (see Jason Carol’s Blog “Coronavirus and Remote Learning”, where he explains how the Texthelp tools can help with distance learning.)

In a simplistic way, when it comes to educational cloud technology, our schools, colleges and universities can be categorized in three ways:

  1. Those who have embraced this technology to assist with home and school learning
  2. Those who have been cautious and kept it at arm's length
  3. Those who have outrightly rejected this technology

As we enter a time of school closures, we are now finding that schools in the first category are only having to make adjustments to their online systems to be ready for full remote learning from home. Those schools in category two are struggling to catch up, but with hard work some are making changes. It is those schools in category three that will struggle the most. Many of these schools are sending packs of worksheets home to students. This is the best they can do given the circumstances. However learning depends on connectivity: access to a teacher, affirmation, timely feedback, dynamic information sharing, an authentic audience etc. This can’t be done at home with a worksheet, but it can be done at home with tools like Google Classroom, Google Meet and the Texthelp tools.

In February this year, the Secretary of State for Education in the UK, Gavin Williamson called for silent corridors and mobile phone bans to be the norm in UK schools. In an environment where communication is key to success, could we be banning two key ways that physical and digital connectivity can take place? For many students this week and beyond, their mobile phone is the greatest tool they have to connect them to learning. How do we tell them when they return to the building, that their greatest learning asset is now banned?

The ‘not so’ lone voice

A few years ago BBC radio reporters relied heavily on an editor to edit their broadcasts. This is no longer the case. Many journalists have had to become skilled editors. Indeed, BBC recruiters now ask for this skill when appointing new reporters. We are in an age in education when educators can no longer rely completely on their school IT manager to sort out their technology; they have to be skilled in digital learning. This is not saying the IT manager is no longer necessary; indeed some of the heroes of the last few days have been these men & women who are helping us all to get connected remotely. What we are saying is that it cannot be only their job.

For years now, key staff in schools have championed the move to cloud technology. Some have been a lone voice that has fallen on deaf ears. Some have been asked to do countless training sessions for teachers, who’ve either adopted this technology, on varying levels, or let it wash over their head. Over the past week a lot of these key staff have had to step up and spread the message again, this time to teachers who need to listen and need to adopt these digital learning skills.

While these key staff are no doubt excited by the prospect of moving their institution to cloud technology, they are also being asked to move mountains in a short period of time. If you are one of these key people, you might be delighted to learn of some remote communities that have been established to offer support and guidance.

Here are just a few:

  • The Virtual Classroom (see tweets from our friends at C Learning)
  • The Global GEG Staffroom (see tweets from our friend Cat Lamin)
  • #DigiLearnSector Discuss (see tweets from our friend Chris Melia)

On our recent episode of the Edufuturists podcast (which you can listen to below), Global GEG Staffroom contributor and edtech expert Rachel Coathup explained how it is important for educators who are immersed in distance digital learning to consolidate what they are doing. One of the remote communities above would be a great way of doing that.

Do exams not matter anymore?

On Friday, Dan helped lead one of the most emotional assemblies he had ever been part of. Students cried, teachers cried and confusion reigned. The news that all GCSE and A Level exams in the UK have been canceled have left many in shock. A day later, the government explained that teachers will submit grades for their students, based on a host of previous work. This way of grading is similar to the Icelandic way. On episode 20 of the Edufuturists podcast Icelandic teacher Ingvi Omarsson explained that students are graded on continuous assessments and assignments, judged by the teacher. It is worth noting that Iceland has a much smaller student population than the UK but if we are effectively telling students that end point assessments don’t matter this year, then could a system similar to Iceland’s be the way forward?

Teaching towards an end point assessment has always been the model in the UK system and this pandemic has shown the shortcomings of this type of approach. Summative or linear assessment has merits in that it gives one single point of checking and a final summation of all that students have ‘learned’. However, much of what exists in the UK by way of examinations does so in the form of long memory tests, based on a knowledge curriculum and learning by rote. This ‘closed book’ method of testing is the only time in a person’s life where they will not be able to search or ask for support with an answer. Imagine the average workplace being somewhere that you can’t access help or ask a colleague for the best way to complete a task!

Search engines have become synonymous with finding the answer to almost any problem and most people’s response to a question is to ‘Google it’.

Surely, a fairer and more consistent approach would be to use formative or ongoing methods. Indeed, if summative assessment was so important, why are we saying those exams don’t matter now anyway? What is making those decisions in lieu of exam results? Teacher predictions + prior attainment + ongoing formative data! We have shown that what really matters in this season is the ongoing measures of progress rather than an end-point. We are arguing that this should be the deciding factor regardless of the crisis.

When it’s all over

We heard the story last week, that during one school’s efforts to make sure their staff were ready for teaching entirely online, one teacher asked if the apps they had been asked to download would be easy to delete when everything is back to normal. Will schools, colleges and universities ‘delete’ the distance learning tools and procedures they’ve worked so hard to adopt when the pandemic is over? Will it be business as usual for most of our schools? For the sake of our students’ learning, their futures and their sanities, we sincerely hope not.

If remote learning is successful, and there are many indications that it will be for schools who are doing it well, big questions are going to be asked. When students eventually return to their school building, the most important question that will need answering centers on the point of learning in a school building if it can be done anywhere with a half decent internet connection. Will schools, colleges and universities have to make face to face learning more meaningful and experiential? Will digital learning for those schools who are new to the table become the norm and if not, why?

Finally, another hashtag trending today is #StayAtHomeSaveLives. In these worrying times stay safe, protect the vulnerable and remember that physical isolation never has to mean social isolation.

If you would like to hear more from the EduFuturists, check out some of the other resources we have created with them this year. You'll discover more about industry trends such as Education 4.0 and the college of the future >>Check it out<<