The trouble with schools is that we’re still closed and I’m just not comfortable with that.
There’s enough talk about all that’s going on just now and I’ve tried to keep out of it, but I do like to get my thoughts down and unlike Twitter etc, a blog is a quieter way to do it. That way all three of you who regularly read this can choose whether or not to read it. I also like blogs more than a personal diary as it’s good to get some feedback, just so that you know your thoughts aren’t completely off the mark.
Anyway, that’s enough of me justifying why I’m adding to the melee – onwards.
I’ve learned a lot since the school closure; mainly about online learning and running a ‘remote’ school. It’s felt as if we’ve had to set up a whole new school with every system, procedure and responsibility being examined and in the main, revised. (Thanks to all our staff in school for helping us achieve that).
I’m happy with how we are working pastorally (lots of competitions and games going on to keep that all important sense of belonging). With regards to the vulnerable students, obviously, it would be better if they were in school, but we are in regular (for quite a few students) daily contact with them and so far, I think they feel supported albeit from a distance.
It’s the online learning that we haven’t cracked yet. When the rumours started that we might close, my initial thought was to utilise Google Classroom (we often use this in school), to begin an online learning programme, which would involve students logging on for their usual lessons at the normal times. If a student had history, lesson 1 on a Monday they would log in to that ‘class’ and find online work and resources set for them. We also asked the teacher to log in at this time and be there to answer and queries or give feedback.
I’ve just completed two separate online surveys with parents and students (I’m following this up with a teacher survey) to find out how they are managing the work set. Interestingly, the parents and students have given more or less the same answers with the exception of a question asking about the quantity of work set. The majority of students want less, whereas the parents say it is about right. I’ve had about a 30% return (from both parents and students) at the moment, from a good cross section of the school community and so, enough for me to begin making a few judgements.
I’ve included some of the main answers at the end of this blog if you want to look at it later, but for now, this information raises a number of issues and questions we have to address, not only in the current crisis, but looking forward, towards the future as online learning and home-learning continues to grow. I’m no online learning expert, but here are some of the observations I’m making and conclusions coming to:
Access to a digital device
Nothing particularly new here. It’s not just a question of having access to a digital device or connectivity in the house. This is what the bulk of surveys schools and local authorities focussed on prior to the closure. Rather the issue is to do with how often the device is available to the learner. While the vast majority of households are now connected (over 98% in our school) and the vast majority have a device in the house, almost a third have less than 3 hours per day access and for houses with more than one device, in many cases there are bandwidth issues.
I don’t have an easy answer for this. Some schools have successfully given every child a device to take home or introduced a lease system. I’ve never successfully managed either well in previous schools. Some are not able to afford the lease and if we have provided devices for students, the sustainability of such a model is not manageable. (I’m looking for advice here!). It is something we do need to address however, which leads me to my next point.
Avoiding a widening gap
In our first two weeks of closure we noticed that a large minority of students were not logging on. This is backed up in our survey which shows us that 11% were not engaging, plus all of those who don’t have easy access – another 10%. 40% are logging on for less than three hours per day. Initially I thought we had made a mistake; should we have tried to make the activities more engaging in the first week or so, in order to encourage students to log in more frequently. One teacher rightly challenged this and said, “but what about my high ability students? They’re progressing really well”. It felt as if I was damned if I do (try to make it more accessible, but higher ability loses out) and damned if I don’t.
We could differentiate the work and offer more fun work to those that don’t engage, but that would do nothing to narrow the gap, which let’s face it is a wealth/deprivation gap. The bottom line here is: pure online learning will lead to a widening of the gap between those who are engaged/supported at home and those who are not. The issue we have to address here is, how we can engage these young people who don’t have easy access to a device and are perhaps not supported at home. For anyone out there who thinks that schools will one day will become obsolete, I hope this experience will show that schools will always play a part in the lives of young people. Especially if we want to avoid a section of society becoming disenfranchised.
The pedagogy we use
This brings me on to the next issue. Perhaps we did get it wrong by expecting all of our students to log into lessons at the normal time. What seems to have happened is that teachers have overcompensated for the amount of work they expect their students to complete in one online lesson and often provided more than anyone in the class can hope to complete. We have also not taken into account the demand for a single device across a household and all the other various distractions that will occur when working from home. Therefore, we should have built in flexibility.
Extended or project-based work lends itself much more readily to online learning (although I imagine it’s harder for a subject such as maths – Post some good examples of extended maths work someone!). When it comes to online extended or project based work I have 6 rules we ought to try and follow. I’ll post them in full separately, but here there are in short:
- Begin with a driving question – What do you want them to answer?
- Identify the difficult concepts – What do you actively need to teach/discuss?
- Identify the products – What outcomes do you want to see?
- Clarity with regards to assessment – Knowing how well they are performing?
- Introduce milestones – What are the deadlines for the various products?
- Provide an opportunity to answer the driving question – A solid conclusion
Not long before all of this began, we were discussing the timetable for next year at school and I raised the possibility of some students following a much more independent timetable. What if we identified learners who were motivated and who could be trusted to work independently (not necessarily the highest ability students)? We could give them less lessons in front of their teachers in some subjects and instead setting them extended or project-based work. Would they learn more? Are they held up in their classes at present?
We could have them in their own set(s) and timetable a teacher as normal, where the teacher would use the time to give these students more small group or individual tutorials/feedback and seminars/lectures, when a difficult concept needs to be addressed. These students in the time gained would work independently in the school (we’re lucky enough to have open spaces), in the classroom or even with the older students, at home.
Would this encourage other students to follow a similar route? In time it might. Good online learning for all doesn’t happen overnight. We were never going to make a success of this and unlikely to during the sudden school closure we are undergoing. Good online learning needs to go hand in hand with good habits of learning which includes resilience and self-discipline. It needs to begin in the school and be supported by the school. If you saw how many times I’ve checked my messages and wandered around aimlessly while writing this, you would soon realise how much I need these habits. Why weren’t they developed in me while I was at school?
What this time will show us is how important it is to embrace on-line learning and to see it as a partnership between the home and school. It is a fantastic opportunity to develop 21st Century good habits of learning. Not only can the school support and develop this, but as I’ve said many times before, it helps create a sense of self-belonging; another vital ingredient to ensuring engagement by all and developing a sense of community.
What will happen after we go back? Will the growth in homeschooling continue at a faster pace? Home schooling is not the answer, but if we are to win our students back, we must be more flexible in our methods, allowing students to fly at one end and being there to support and guide at the other.
Here’s a summary of the main points for both parents and students together:
- Around 80% have access to a digital device other than a phone for more than three hours per day (even if having to share with others).
- Around 12% have access for less that 3 hours and the remaining 8% have either no access or no connection.
- The vast majority are using the online curriculum we are providing and about 6 – 10% using paper versions (but not necessarily all of those who have no access)
- Around 45% are logging in at the prescribed time and another 42% once a day to do the work. Around 11% once every few days. Everyone is logging on or participating at least once per week
- Around 60% are logging on for more than three hours per day
- 38% of the students think the work is too difficult, while 17% of parents think this. Very few think it is too easy.
- Around 45% want the times they do the work to be more flexible and around 25% want more extended or project-based work.
- While, 45% are saying they are progressing but not as much as in school, 12% are saying they are making as much progress and 16% saying they are making almost no progress. The rest are not sure.