A Time to Reflect and a Time to Plan

A New Reality for Formal Education
We are now 5 weeks into a new reality where schools, colleges and universities are closed and learners, of all ages, are learning from home. During this time education providers have responded to this crisis by attempting to provide supports to their learners, so they can continue to learn at a distance. The challenge has been different depending on each level of our education system – from Early Years or Higher Education and beyond, everyone is facing new challenges. For schools, in particular, this is a new challenge that is forcing principals and teachers to consider how they can continue to support their learners at a distance. It is particularly challenging for sixth year students and their teachers who have just learned in recent days that the Leaving Certificate has been delayed till early August , and these are new and unchartered waters for all . Having weathered the initial 5 weeks, schools have learned that they will remain closed till early May. Many schools have been trying to move teaching online in recent weeks and in particular to recreate ‘live teaching’ events over the internet, using a range of tools such as Zoom, Teams, Google Hangouts etc. However, such approaches can be extremely challenging to implement for teachers and learners and we need to consider a range of approaches when moving education online.

Formal Education Moves Home

In the past month our homes have been transformed, and they are now places where work and education are taking place under the one roof. This is a new reality for those lucky families that have the digital capacity to learn and work from home, but we also need to remember that not everyone is so lucky and this crisis is exposing many of the pre-existing inequalities in our world. This new reality for education assumes that people have access to the internet and to devices that allow them to connect to the internet. However, there is growing concern that Covid-19 is widening existing gaps in our society and in our education system and schools need to be mindful of these challenges in designing their response to the crisis.

On March 12th formal education moved to the home and families, with support from their schools are now engaging in, what some are now calling remote learning (DOCX).

Remote learning can encompass a wide variety of learning opportunities. While technology can be a supportive tool, districts and schools should also consider ways that student learning can continue offline. This could include exploring the natural world, activities to support students’ local communities (with appropriate social distancing), and engaging, hands-on projects and artistic creations that stem from students’ own passions and experiences.

But is it remote learning or is it in fact remote formal education where teaching, and a range of other educational supports, are being provided remotely to learners. Schools are now trying desperately to provide remote learning experiences, using a range of technologies that includes books, TV and the internet. The MA Department of Education have captured some of the ways that these technologies can support remote learning as follows:

Examples of remote learning tools include large-group video or audio conference calls, 1:1 phone or video calls, email, work packets, projects, reading lists, online learning platforms, and other resources to effectively engage with students. These tools could be used to deliver lessons, provide individual student support, provide resources (including instructional material and student assignments), connect students to each other and their teacher, and provide feedback on student work (DOCX).

In reality what we now have is Emergency Remote Teaching, which is a response to this crisis and it is not

While this new normal is providing exciting learning opportunities for some families, it is also placing untold pressure and stress on other families who don’t have the digital capacity to engage with such remote supports and further expose existing digital divides. What is becoming clearer is that we need to consider how best to use technology to connect with learners and their families, so they are supported in their learning, and while simultaneously not creating additional stress for them and their families. This is an almost impossible task in the current climate, where schools are attempting to design educational programmes that address the needs of their learners from a distance. The first few weeks of the crisis have enabled schools and learners to try out a range of approaches and undoubtedly some have worked and others have not worked as well, as was intended. We are in the midst of the largest social experiment in history and it is highlighting the important role that schools play in our society. All over the world people are realising how important schools are to the fabric of society and some, people such as Bill Gates believes that the crisis is showing just how irreplaceable schools are to society. He stated:

“There are a few things, like business trips, that I doubt will ever go back. There will still be business trips, but less,” Gates said. “In the case of high school, I think the social activity — making friends, hanging out — that you get by being there physically, that’s totally irreplaceable.” Bill Gates

Bill Gates unterview screenshot

However, in the meantime schools will continue to play a key role in the lives of their learners and already the Department of Education and Skills has provided a set of guidelines to help schools in that regard. These cover both primary and post-primary and provide practical suggestions for teachers and schools over the coming period. They outline a range of supports that schools can provide, one of which is online teaching.

Moving Education Online

There is currently a major focus on online education as described below by EPALE, the Electronic Platform for Adult Learning in Europe:

The education sector is responding to quarantine with a sudden shift to online learning. Nonetheless, online teaching requires careful thinking about how learners and teachers are equipped for the shift and serious consideration about whether the teaching style is still effective when taken from the classroom and transposed to technological devicesmore

Teaching online is not the same as face-to-face-teaching and many in Irish education are experiencing that at this time. Online teaching typically comprises of 3 elements and they are as follows:

Grpahic of the 3 key elements of learning online

In recent weeks schools have raced to provide students with access to all 3 elements of online education and some have even developed new combinations to meet the needs of their learners.

  • They are preparing content and uploading it online to their virtual learning environments (such as ClassDojo; Edmodo; Moodle etc.), webpages or collaboration platforms (Microsoft Teams).
  • They are providing learners with ‘work’ for them to complete at home. This school work is typically housed on a school virtual learning platform or webpage or it is communicated via email or a school administration platform (such as Aladdin).
  • They are hosting ‘live’ classrooms online. These are scheduled events where the teacher and their learners are online together at the same time using tools such as Teams, Google Hangouts and Zoom.

Ideally all three elements should work together and provide a quality learning experience for the learner, as each element can compliment the other. Ultimately, using these tools schools are trying to create engaging learning experiences that their learners will interact with and complete. The range of activities will vary depending on the age and digital capacity of the learner and their parents.

We are also seeing new combinations where schools are designing learning activities for their learners around other forms of media, such as books, textbooks and TV programmes. The use of public sector broadcasting to support formal education has emerged in recent weeks across Europe and this is also the case in Ireland where RTE has created ‘School on TV’ to help learners learn at home. They have teamed up with Microsoft Ireland to broadcast DreamSpace HomeSpace. Here schools can link their learning activities to the TV programme and the online remote lesson.

Consider All Options

In supporting learners from a distance schools should consider how they might best design learning activities that meet the needs of their learners. They should consider the following in designing a programme of learning over the coming weeks:

  • The digital capacity of their staff
  • The digital capacity of their learners and their parents
  • The digital infrastructure in the school and in their learners’ homes
  • The types of learning activities that will be relevant and engaging to their learners
  • How they will provide feedback or comments on their students’ learning
  • How they will connect and interact with their learners appropriately
    • Which elements of online learning will they utilise and why?
    • If they do decide to use elements of online learning, how will they use these?

Where possible schools should decide as a staff how they will achieve this, so there is a co-ordinated approach across the school. Easter has hopefully allowed schools to regroup and catch their breath after a couple of really hectic weeks, so they can consider what are the best approaches for their learners over the coming weeks. Because learning from home is not the same as learning in school and we need to recognise this and consider how best to support our learners and their families at this time.

In such discussions schools should consider what is most appropriate for their learners and not rush to use a particular technology just because they’ve heard that another school is using it. Remember moving online is challenging and takes time, time we don’t have, so we need to consider what we can do over the next few that best meets the needs of our learners? This may involve a range of approaches, one of which is live teaching and we will consider this in our next blog post.

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