Online learning success requires leaders to manage expectations

5 Apr 2020, 5:00

Faultlines are emerging in the home-based school system, but there are ways to protect families and teachers from the aftershocks, writes Dr Sarah Charles

Educational technology’s potential for positive impact is plain for all to see, but parents and teachers alike are quickly learning its limitations. After the task of managing the initial, massive shock to the school system caused by closures, school leaders will now need to focus on negotiating a path through the risks and challenges of this new normal.

Just a few weeks ago, it was estimated that some 60,000 children in the UK were home-schooled. The UK lockdown caused that number to rise to millions overnight, resulting in a seismic shift from traditional schooling methods to the use of edtech to support home learning.

With a matter of weeks – if that – to prepare for closures, teachers across the UK raced to put together physical learning packs and a plethora of online learning resources. For many, this was too little time to devise coherent whole-school approaches, let alone to train teachers to upend their usual practices.

In addition, a vast number of celebrities have taken to social media to deliver content and a raft of companies are providing free access to their software and resources. This explosion in the production of curriculum resources – albeit well-intentioned – has caused some parents to suffer overload, and many are reporting feeling stressed about which to use with their children from this over-abundance of choice.

Teachers who are parents themselves are experiencing both sets of stresses

Yet, that problem is a relatively privileged one, because even if a school has a well-planned and well-communicated digital learning strategy, it will have no impact if children have no access. That the learning gap may widen between the technological haves and have-nots is of grave concern, and it causes a dilemma for schools. If they do not fully exploit the potential of technology to support home learning, the majority of children may miss out on several months of learning, leading at best to stagnation and at worst to regression. However, doing so almost guarantees that a sizeable proportion of disadvantaged children will fall further behind.

The concern about widening inequality has led some trusts, such as Academies Enterprise Trust, to purchase extra devices to enable all their pupils to access digital learning during the school closures. But then, what of students of more disadvantaged schools and smaller trusts with tighter budgets? The new context is likely to shine a spotlight on the disadvantage gap, not just within schools but between them.

And while school leaders ponder how best to protect their vulnerable pupils, they must continue to build up their teachers too, because the digital divide also exists for them. Even assuming that all teachers have the hardware, it is questionable whether CPD has done very much to boost their confidence or their competence to exploit the digital resources at their fingertips, especially at a time of austere school budgets and after a lengthy accountability focus on no-frills curriculum basics. As a result, the move to online learning threatens to exacerbate rather than alleviate teacher workload and stress.

Digital access also has the potential to create an “open all hours” expectation of teachers from school leaders and parents alike. Parents may only see their own home-learning struggles, and school leaders must set reasonable expectations for their communities, informed by a bigger-picture view, while resisting the 24/7 temptation themselves. Though their resources may be, teachers simply can’t be on hand all the time without having a serious impact on their wellbeing. The teaching profession is already under considerable strain, and this will be especially true for teachers who are parents themselves and are experiencing both sets of stresses.

The teaching community is remarkable for uniting in times of challenge. There exists an excellent community of teachers who are coming together to share both their resources and experiences about online and home schooling. Together they will succeed in keeping teaching and learning going, provided leaders don’t lose sight of the twin pillars of professional development and care.


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