Guest blog: The digital learning trap

We’re delighted that Dr Ciaran McIvor has penned this latest blog post for us. Ciaran is a teacher who is currently teaching mathematics at St Malachy’s College in Belfast. He has a particular interest in the use of technology to enhance teaching and learning in mathematics. Prior to teaching, Ciaran graduated from Queen’s University Belfast in mathematics, and went on to research and devise many novel electronic architectures, mathematical and arithmetic techniques and algorithms for modern data encryption schemes. His book, based on cryptography, was published several years ago. In this blog, Ciaran explores the effect of the recent schools shutdown on his pupils’ learning. 

Ciaran McIvor headshot and Texthelper holding calculator and pencil

The effect of the pandemic

As lockdown was thrust upon us, our entire society and schools as we knew them, became a thing of the past almost overnight. This has had an effect on all those involved: pupils; teachers and support staff; parents and guardians. The regular routine of heading off to school in the morning for a day of teaching and learning, whilst parents go about their daily lives, has changed. Largely, this has been replaced with home-schooling. What this looks like varies massively. From my experience, the degree to which people have adapted to the changes depends on numerous things. 

What technology is available at home for pupils and how savvy are they at using it?

Most of us think that young people nowadays are experts in all things digital and we would be right to think that. But there is a ‘but’! I have come across examples of pupils not knowing how to send an email or not being able to remember login details for school learning platforms. We must understand that our young people are used to instant messaging on social media platforms and many have smartphones which store and regurgitate important information for them. Email is the new ‘snail-mail’ for young people and many have never really used it before. They have no need to remember information that seems important to us such as login details or phone numbers. Simply put, technology has advanced so quickly over recent years that our way of working is somewhat outdated and cumbersome for many of our pupils.

What technology is available at home for teachers and support staff? 

The vast majority of teaching staff are using their own home computers and mobile devices at home. So, some of the more tech-minded teachers have the best of everything to work with and they are excellent at doing this effectively. Others have outdated PCs and mobile devices, not fit for purpose in these times of home teaching and learning, through no fault of their own. And this is also true for a lot of pupils and parents! As a result, the teaching and learning experiences of pupils and teachers is a minefield of the “haves and have nots”! Teachers are superb at doing their jobs in the classroom – after all, this is what we were trained to do. We can assess, provide constructive feedback, communicate, engage, motivate, and set challenges to enable our pupils to make progress. We can do this really well in a real-life, working classroom. But we are in danger of losing a lot of pupils or of many falling behind in this new digital learning environment because we cannot employ all of these teaching and learning tools as effectively.

What about parents and guardians? 

Some children are blessed with parents and indeed siblings who have the time and know how to help with learning at home. But the reality is, many parents do not have this expertise. Many have still been going to work or are juggling a hectic life by working from home. There are homes with multiple children to look after and some with no adults at all present throughout the day. We cannot possibly envisage the range of different scenarios and challenges faced by families. 

All of this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how the pandemic has affected schooling. If we were foolish enough to believe that a ‘one size fits all’ approach would solve the problems of remote learning, then we are in danger of falling into the digital learning trap. There is clearly huge disparity across households in how effective home schooling has been. And this is the great thing about actual, real-life schools. In these fine institutions we try to create a level playing field for all pupils. We seek to provide opportunities for all pupils to excel both academically and on a personal level. The inability to recreate this has been, for me, one of the biggest problems of remote teaching.

Tools and apps for teaching maths remotely

Firstly, it seems as if remote learning is here to stay for the foreseeable future, albeit in a blended learning environment. Authorities need to audit staff and pupils with regard to the technology they possess at home and with regard to their technological knowhow. They must provide up-to-date technology for those in need and they must provide training on remote teaching and learning for the staff, pupils and parents who require it. They must provide clear leadership and a clear strategy moving forward.

The good news is that there are many excellent tools that we, as teachers, can use to help us advance our own practices.

A few teaching apps that have been invaluable in allowing me to create bespoke videos and resources for my classes, include:

Within Google Classroom, there are also tools that have enabled me to create self-marking assessments and get data on student progress, such as EquatIO.

There are also excellent online learning platforms such as CompleteMaths, which are really good for formative assessment and tracking progression and will play an increasingly important role in my future blended learning environment.  

Experimenting with new strategies

I am continually trying out new things to see what works. I like to ask my pupils what they think and I am fortunate to be able to speak with and share ideas with like-minded colleagues. Good channels of communication and open and honest discussion across all levels of education will enable us to improve the effectiveness of remote learning and help us to avoid the digital learning trap!   

If you’d like to hear more from Dr Ciaran McIvor, you can check out the math panel discussion he joined earlier this month, delving into what online math teaching looks like in the wake of Co-vid schools shutdown.