The coronavirus crisis has seen a huge shift to online learning and, while students look set to be able to return to classrooms in September, remote learning will play an increasingly important role.
So how can technology be used successfully for online learning?
Claire Arbery, Director of the West of England Institute of Technology, a consortium which includes Weston College in Weston-super-Mare, Yeovil College, Bath College and Gloucester College has seen how technology has been used successfully.
At both Yeovil and Weston Colleges the rates of engagement have proved to be higher than they might usually see in lessons delivered in classrooms.
“We’ve found 98% engagement with our lessons, in some cases higher rates than when students were coming into the college,” said Claire.
Weston College was already leading the way in delivering online learning, explained Claire, after the college had invested in digital platforms after being awarded flexible learning funding from the Department for Education.
“We started using Office 365, creating online resources for our learners, before the pandemic had started. We were well along the journey with tutors on how to use Office 365 to support learning in the classroom,” she said.
“We had started to share our work with Office 365 with the other Colleges in January as part of our collaboration plans.”
Like schools and colleges across the country, the initial period after the announcement of a lockdown was intense.
“The principals at both Weston and Yeovil Colleges had a clear vision of what needed to be achieved,” said Claire.
“We engaged with all our tutors to check they had everything they needed to be able to teach remotely starting from day one.
“The crisis has really highlighted the need for good digital skills and technological ability. Digital skills will be a thread through every industry going forward and will be an increasingly essential part of how we interact in the future - like the ‘track and trace app’, or using your smartphone in a bar or restaurant to place an order - but many people do not have those basic skills.”
Weston College has seen good rates of engagement across all students and has aimed to ensure inclusivity. Yeovil College has managed to maintain expected progress for well over 80% of their learners, in a crisis where over 2 million children have not engaged in learning at all.
“Weston’s students with SEND have also shown good engagement, which has been celebrated in the Principal’s weekly #MyVirtualCollege e-newsletter – this digital document enables staff to showcase students’ work alongside staff innovations, which has all helped to keep us all connected.
“We’ve made the transition in a really positive way for everyone.”
There is still much to learn about online education.
“Teaching is different digitally, ‘the sense of ‘chalk and talk’ is for the classroom, and pedagogy of digital teaching is slightly different. We’re still trying to understand what that will be in a digital environment,” said Claire.
However, she believes that, for some students, digital learning offers some positive aspects.
“Digital learning has removed some of the social pressure of the physical classroom, the sense of not wanting to raise your hand to answer a question in front of your peers,” explained Claire. “For some students that is helpful.”
Secondary schools could learn from Weston College’s example.
“We’ve been using Office 365 for homework and it’s certainly a good foundation. Google Education and Google Classroom also work well,” she said.
Weston College has also embraced new opportunities during the lockdown period – making its short courses available digitally too.
“There’s been good uptake from the community, many who now find they have the time available to upskill, to complete short courses such as Mental Health Awareness and Team Leading,” said Claire.
“We’ve seen an increase in people enrolling on Level 2 or Level 3 qualifications, and we’ve offered those remotely.”
Weston offers a wide FE curriculum, with degree courses, apprenticeships A levels, T levels and vocational courses.
“To develop remote learning across all aspects was no mean feat, yet staff have all managed to adapt. We’ve had to think of ways of addressing some challenging situations, such as visits from external verifiers and how to complete practical assessments, but we’ve succeeded.
“People are finding ways around these challenges.”
Now Claire and the team at Weston are looking ahead to September, where they expect the approach to education will be a blend of online learning and classroom.
“We are looking forward to seeing students back on campus, but also supporting them with complementary digital learning alongside the face to face teaching on campus,” she said.
Ensuring that all students had adequate digital access was a priority and Weston College sought to address the ‘digital divide’ by identifying students in need and lending laptops from its own ‘bank’.
Yeovil College has already created a learning space for the year 11 students that will join them from September and have at least 10 weeks of work ready to deliver digitally should restrictions be re-imposed.
Of course, Claire acknowledges that there have been many challenges, not least the issues that so many of us have faced; working from home with her two children also at home and studying.
“On a personal level, I’ve been battling poor broadband speed, despite living in an urban area. It’s been tough. The coronavirus crisis has highlighted the real need for good connectivity. It will be essential if we are to make this work for everyone in the future.”
The coronavirus has also highlighted the need to be flexible and adaptable, across all education settings.
“Weston College prides itself on its innovative culture, and we’ve been able to be agile at a challenging time. It’s also shown that we are probably more resilient than we thought we’d be,” said Claire.
“We’ve had some really positive feedback from our students.”
Tips for teachers - with thanks to Kate Hobbs, Assistant Principal - Education & Training at Bath College:
- A useful function of Google Meet or Microsoft teams is that we are able to record our online sessions which are then shared back to the students. This allows students to recap and ask questions after the session has finished.
- In terms of assessment, using websites such as Padlet, Google Forms and Kahoot allow us to check learning and keep students engaged.
- The online model has allowed us to develop how students can work collaboratively. Online compositions, and cloud storage systems allow students to share their work and even work on the same document at the same time.
- When you are delivering a session in the classroom students can see the 'whole you'- they can read your facial expressions, body language and any gestures or signals you give you. Teaching online limits this, therefore placing the focus on your voice. Try to vary your pitch, pace and volume to convey your thoughts and emotions. This will help to convey the meaning of your lesson and keep students engaged.
- Keep it simple – focus on what aims you want to achieve in a session/day/week and make the delivery suit that – don’t overcomplicate it – focus on the impact you want to have.
- All teachers want to share what they know, reach out and others will help you.