Educational Technology: Reflections on a Pandemic

At the pandemic’s peak 1.6 billion students were out of school. This move was abrupt and unprecedented, leaving policy makers and practitioners scrambling to provide a safe and expedient way to provide learning at home. Remote learning became the quick fix. The lack of access and connectivity meant that students would be denied schooling for weeks of shut down.

According to PISA, just over 2/3 of students in OECD countries were in education environments where digital devices had sufficient capacity to deliver learning; but not even half of 15 year olds were in schools with a pre-existing online support platform.

Microsoft Education (2020)

A number of barriers were quickly identified and shared, including:

  • [list]availability of technological infrastructure,
  • addressing student emotional well-being,
  • addressing the right balance between digital and screen free activities
  • managing the technological infrastructure.

I think many of these obstacles remain current, often reflecting geographical or socio-economic trends within countries and regions. I accept and understand my positionality in writing this – as a relatively tech-confident teacher, with a simple home life (no childcare responsibility) and a relatively affluent catchment for my school where the majority of students had access to devices and could log in. My conversations with colleagues on Twitter make it exceptionally – and painfully – clear that this is not the case for most, and certainly not all.

In a paper on reimagining Educational Technology by Microsoft, an excellent graphic captures the “shockwaves” of the experience:

Navigating Disruption, Microsoft Education (2020)

In the first zone, we’re simply finding out how we navigate this new (digital) world. We are trying to make it work, and understand how to ensure colleagues and students are coping too. In the second stage, we start to understand how it works better, and perhaps develop some ‘habits’ of digital learning. In this phase, technology shifted from being a vehicle for delivery/ transmission to a mechanism for collaboration, social connectedness and culture building. This was true of some students: who found themselves with more choice and voice, and exceeded expectations finding ways to help themselves and collaborate with others. It was also true for staff: collaboration among teachers and leaders emerged because the focus was clear, and we had some ‘digital champions’ who could help and coach further development. The final stage is about growth, and thinking about how and where we want to keep these digital trends to supplement, augment, or improve our teaching and learning experiences.

With the one year anniversary of the coronavirus concept this week, I thought it might be interesting to reflect on some of the challenges and solutions that education technology has brought to this particular experience. I have been hugely inspired and borrowed some information from Microsoft’s excellent “Education Reimagined” paper (download), and while I don’t necessarily agree with all their conclusions, I accept their role as a technology provider is inherently focused in a particular direction!

Defining the Terms:

I think it’s really important to start with a collective understanding of what some of these things actually are. It feels to me like a lot of us – particularly in the first zone of this – have used some of these words interchangeably, and they really aren’t quite the same! We should also talk about “synchronous” experiences – where users/teachers are in the same digital space at the same time; and “asynchronous” experiences, where they are not!

Online Learning refers to learning that is facilitated wholly by the use of digital tools

Distance Learning occurs when teachers, students and classrooms are separate and uses a range of approaches including online usually over significant physical distances.

Remote Learning has emerged to describe emergency measures to move instruction from physical schools to homes in online and offline modes

Blended Learning involves a ‘blend’ of face-to-face and digital experiences usually delivered as part of a physical classroom experience

Flipped Learning is a pedagogical approach that inverts the traditional method of the teacher leading learning, instead handing responsibility over to the student. Students receive and engage with material prior to the classroom learning through videos/ tutorials delivered online.

Hybrid Learning is a hybrid approach that builds on the successes of flipped, blended, remote, distance and online learning to intentionally create learner-centered experiences that are profoundly personalized, relevant and engaging.

(Microsoft Paper, 2020)

I’d like to add to that thinking with the classic understanding of what excellent teaching looks like, from @atharby’s “Making Every Lesson Count”

For some of our activities here, I think that technology offers different ways of doing these components – and we can judge where they work best, and the cost-benefit of deploying them. I’d like to think about a number of different “educational technologies” within this framework, and offer some limited thoughts – accepting that I haven’t used a lot of things, and might not have a reliable experience.

I’ll begin by taking “challenge” off the table. I believe that this is the function of context, and the relationship between teacher and student. Whether that’s face to face, remote, or via Morse code seems irrelevant to me – it’s about the personal context. This has not changed. However, how we deliver and meet that challenge is different.

Classroom Technology – Visualisers and Boards

These have been invaluable before we went remote, and even more important when we did. I don’t know what I would have done without a visualiser to teach with from home, and now I use it more than ever in class. The permanence of the work – I keep a notebook of work, rather than erasing things from a board – and the ability to pre-prepare diagrams etc. is amazing, and a complete transformation of my teaching practice in the classroom. A number of excellent authors have written about visualisers, and I think they are here to stay – and they hit almost all of the MELC objectives if you choose to use them like that!

Classroom Technology – Student Notebooks (iPads/Surface etc.)

This is not an area on which I have great expertise. A number of better thinkers love them, and some schools who have created a meaningful culture and system of their use can rightly claim huge benefits in learning. Personally, and with my limited experience, I regard them as a tool only – they can have some benefit, but I don’t believe they fundamentally transform our pedagogy.

Subject-Specific Online Resources

A number of these have emerged over the years, designed primarily to focus on explanation and deliberate practice. Examples include Hegarty Maths, or Maths Watch – sites designed to give opportunities for students to brush over a specific concept, and then practice a number of questions in that area. Some of them incorporate explanation/modelling, others simply focus on deliberate practice.

These resources have been around in certain subjects for a long time, and with good reason. For short-answer and quantitative subjects, they are superb ways of providing extensive and effective practice opportunities. The facility for teachers to login and see progress improves their utility for schools – particularly when effectively integrated in to a planned curriculum model.

However, they are focused on certain subjects with valid reason – it doesn’t work in the same way for qualitative, extended writing, or creative subjects. For them, there aren’t quite equivalencies – and this is a real shame, I think!

Revision-Specific Online Resources

For me, @SenecaLearn or Adam Boxer’s Carousel are online resources designed to enable effective deliberate practice. Their intelligent algorithms allow students to practice the things they get wrong more often, encouraging them to raise their challenge, and cover the specification effectively.

They feel like they could be effective throughout a course, as retrieval practice and deliberate practice, but they do not intend to replace classroom instruction and modelling – that’s not their purpose.

Instruction-Specific Online Resources

For me, something like Oak’s online curriculum falls squarely in to the approach of a resource that is designed to focus on Explanation & Modelling. Expert teachers, with pre-recorded videos, show high quality explanation and modelling. These resources seem to work really well for the concept of introducing topics, or in areas and schools where teachers can’t directly instruct students – the emergency remote learning phase – but I am not sure of their longer-term utility in learning unless they are inherently incorporated in to a flipped learning model of curriculum planning.

Here, we might conceivably see some schools adopting “Oak” lessons as videos, or segments showing explanations/diagrams that a less-confident/non-specialist teacher is not ready to teach, and then offering lesson time as a dedicated time for deliberate practice, questioning and feedback. This, I feel, would be possible but bold – schools might adopt it if a teacher were on long-term sick leave, and they had no specialist cover, for example – but otherwise, I think people would rightly be concerned about it as a long-term curriculum plan!

Integrated Virtual Learning Environments

I think this is the area where the pre-existing school environments have been able to capitalise most effectively in the pandemic. For those schools who had VLE platforms (Frog, moodle, Firefly) in their routine already, this integrated approach has enabled them to continue to provide resource pages (documents, PPT, PDF, videos if you want) to their students, but also – crucially – to address the potential for feedback, marking and discussion. Students used to getting homework via VLE, managing tasks via VLE – and parents used to portals, teachers used to setting tasks – all reduced the shockwaves of the initial pandemic experience.

Being able to integrate with *your* MIS, and therefore set work directly to *your* class, and get work from your students is perhaps the biggest structural advantage that these platforms offer. It does, effectively, give personalised online learning. If you want, you can integrate that with asynchronous remote experiences of videos etc., but you can actually keep track of your students, their progress, and their specific learning and needs.

For a whole school environment – rather than bespoke quantitative subject/revision focus – I think they are invaluable. We couldn’t have coped without a well-understood VLE, and it enabled all teachers to participate and set work asynchronously, that could be marked and returned to students digitally. They close the gap for the essay, creative and non-multiple-choice questionable subjects – and although they can be expensive, can be arduous in terms of marking routines, and can be an adjustment requiring support and training – they are still the part of digital learning that I think is most sustainable and most powerful of the tools.

Virtual Classroom Environments

We have used Microsoft Teams to deliver synchronous lessons during remote learning, and I have been surprised at how effective and positive it has been. I know others have had success with Google Classrooms. Armed with a trusty visualiser, with microphone enabled, we’ve been able to share resources, deliver lessons and interact with students throughout.

These approaches have – effectively – been able to allow us to do all components of the MELC model, but I think their greatest power has been in the form of human and pastoral communication. They have enabled us to feel connected and communal, even at distance – and although cameras aren’t the same, my students have seen me, heard my voice, said hello (met my cats) and been able to connect on a personal level, rather than just as learners.

I think these approaches have been enormously powerful during remote learning, but post-lockdown and pandemic, I think they will quietly go away. There might be a few schools who continue to offer a blended learning approach for students with long-term illness, or perhaps even on snow days/short term circumstances – but I think they will gently fade away once we can replace them with face to face contact and pastoral conversations.

Where I think these things might remain is in the professional and parental realm. I am hugely enamoured of the remote conferences and CPD opportunities – without travel costs, inconvenience or time -and I think a lot of that might stay around. Similarly, I could see optional video conference parents evenings being maintained in some places: the concept of fitting many parents/teachers/students in to a crammed hall between 6-8pm just because the calendar says so is slightly discombobulating even now. Reflecting on these things, we may well decide that the initial disruption has moved us in a direction we’re comfortable with, and we’ll keep them.

Reflections:

As we start to settle in to Stage 2/3 of this, we can start to think about ways in which what we’ve experienced as a major disruption might influence our future directions of teaching. We have realised the immense power, I think, of teaching face to face as something that we took for granted – and the flexibility that a school environment offers to complete the MELC cycle of expert teaching.

I believe that some of the technology will be retained – certainly, we’ve opened a box of tricks that we can’t put away – but it will inevitably be hugely context specific. I would argue that all schools should have some kind of virtual learning environment as a method of supporting their regular classroom experience, and I can’t imagine life without a visualiser. For all else, I’m open to persuasion!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s