Virtual Teaching and Learning: How is the experiment going so far?

How did the forced shift to remote teaching and virtual learning work out? How was the virtual classroom experiment for schools, teachers and students?

Virtual Teaching and Learning. How is it going so far?

On Wednesday 18 March 2020, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that schools in the UK would close that Friday until further notice, except for vulnerable children and those of keyworkers. Six months later and children have returned to the classroom, apart from those in extenuating circumstances. So how was the virtual classroom experiment for schools, teachers and students, and how did the shift to remote teaching and virtual learning work out?

The challenge of accessing a virtual classroom

Some UK schools had been using virtual teaching, learning and online resources, and platforms such as ClassDojo, Firefly and Google Classroom, for some time. For schools on a tight budget, investment in technology and teacher training had not necessarily been a priority with many teachers having had no virtual teaching experience before lockdown. Many schools have also had to decide how best to support those children who did not have access to technology at home, or whose parents are unable to support them with online learning.

In April, the Government announced that disadvantaged children across England would receive laptops and tablets as part of a push to make remote education accessible to all. The government also pledged to provide 4G routers to give disadvantaged secondary school pupils and care leavers access to the internet. However, there was some criticism that the number of units available was not sufficient. According to a report released through the Children’s Commissioner, ‘data shows that a third of trusts received fewer than 10 laptops for all their year 10s, and 27 received just a single device. One secondary school reported that their allocation was only enough for about half of the pupils in the year group who needed one. One primary school headteacher estimated that 70% of her pupils lacked adequate internet access but that only three received devices. In the words of another headteacher, the scheme offered “too little, too late”.

Mastering remote teaching and learning

Let’s be honest. Not all teachers have been comfortable in a virtual classroom. This is where good quality teacher training and support has been vital.  Some pro-active schools anticipated that closure was coming and trained staff immediately to ensure they had the basic skills required to use the virtual teaching resources at their disposal. Teachers inevitably had questions and turned to each other for help and guidance which has been a positive from the pandemic; some were concerned about safeguarding through video conferencing, as was being reported in the media, and others found it simply wasn’t practical to coordinate a whole class of students to be online simultaneously. Many teachers found posting resources which could be accessed and completed at a time to suit students and their families, was the best approach.

Online learning has undoubtedly generated extra work for teachers. If you set a class of 30 children four virtual tasks a week, that equates to 120 pieces of work to grade per week, with more extensive feedback required than if they were in the classroom. Overall schools have lowered their expectations as to the achievements of pupils during this time. As well managing virtual learning materials and feedback, and communicating with parents and children, most teachers have also been in school to supervise any children in attendance. But should the responsibility for the quality of remote teaching come back to the school? Do they have the right ICT capabilities and resources to make effective virtual teaching possible and to ensure teachers have the level of support and equipment they require to be able to perform in their virtual role?

Virtual learning is hard for students and parents too. Lock down learning has proved most challenging for families with younger children who need the extra help, support and guidance of parents to complete any virtual learning tasks they have been set. Whilst older children are easier to engage online, they are more susceptible to online distractions such as phones, email, games and social media. There is no doubt that a whole day of virtual learning would be difficult for anyone to focus on, and it has been difficult for parents to manage too.

A 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. In response many schools created hard copies of work for pupils. These packs were dropped off at children’s homes or made available for collection with teacher support offered via telephone.

The impact on vulnerable children and those with special educational needs

Children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) have primarily struggled with changes to their routines and relationships. According to researchers at the University of York, only 10 percent of families with vulnerable children surveyed had taken up the school place they were entitled to.

Taking on a second wave

With no end in sight for the current societal restrictions including face masks and social distancing, how will UK schools fair if they were to close for a second time? Are schools, teachers, parents and students now better prepared for virtual learning in a virtual classroom? Should all students return to the classroom, or is a virtual and in-school hybrid model a better alternative?

According to the BBC, ‘Closing a school due to Covid-19 will ”not generally be necessary”, the government says. If pupils cannot come in, schools are expected to have a home-working plan ready to go. Teachers’ unions have suggested schools need more support. NASUWT said schools need resources to cope with any disruption, including support for remote learning and cover for staff self-isolating.’ Read the full article here

With social distancing regulations in place, classrooms will not be the same for the foreseeable future. According to experts, just one day of missed school can affect a child’s education. Could the continuation and formalisation of virtual learning as a constant component of education help our children to catch up on all they have missed? Do we need an online educational strategy?

One positive is that the pandemic has seen schools accelerate their engagement with technology, and support staff and students to do the same. The implementation of a well-designed ICT strategy can provide excellent CPD opportunities for teaching staff, exciting educational opportunities to pupils and prepare our young adults for higher education and the world of work.

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