In November 2020 the media reported that OFSTED has found that the home learning experience has been at best patchy, and often failing to be aligned with the classroom curriculum. Remote learning increased in response to the Covid-19 pandemic when schools closed earlier in the year. Even since they opened in September 2020, digital home learning has remained a vital tool for schools to enable them to teach pupils in either self-isolation or who’ve been shielding following a positive PCR test.
As well as delivering lessons online, many teachers have also had to organise more face-to-face teaching. This has increased their workload and put more pressure than would be usual on schools. OFSTED’s ‘COVID-19 Series: Briefing on schools, October 2020’ report comments:
“Leaders in a few schools explained how they were trying to mitigate the additional demands on staff of providing remote learning, for example through the help of teaching assistants, or having staff who took a particular role in leading or modelling remote education. Some leaders talked about learning platforms that ‘assessed pupils’ work automatically’, which they felt was helpful in reducing workload.”
Parents and teachers have found it more difficult to manage pupil behaviour – including pupil’s ability to concentrate during their online classes as it’s reported that many boys played games instead. Parents have also had to work from home while supporting their children’s e-learning, and their ability to provide or access smart devices such as tablets, and PCs, has increased this pressure. This has particularly been felt by those with several children, and whom may not have the financial resources to purchase each child a device for them to use for home learning.
Vanessa Leach, Managing Director of Tute, an online teaching partner for schools and non-mainstream establishments, says – despite the challenges – she’s not sure that home learning doesn’t align with the classroom curriculum. However, she finds:
“The challenges created by blended learning make providing high-quality learning at home more difficult – by no means impossible, but certainly difficult. The pandemic has made it more difficult, but the schools are getting much better. They are doing more home learning and using different tools, and it’s going to be here for a long time.”
She says teaching assistants can provide practical support, allowing teachers to set the teaching and learning objectives to ensure that there is a clear scheme of learning. The role of the teaching assistants, who go some way to relieve pressure on school leaders and teaching staff, is to “co-ordinate and ensure that students are accessing work and handing in any assignments and homework.”
They often sit in on live lessons, supporting with behaviour and logistics. “They know what work is set and support the students to complete it, and to submit it to the Tute teacher to assess”, she adds. She says there are some strategies that can ensure that home learning is aligned with the curriculum, and finds that there is a wealth of knowledge on Twitter and YouTube about how to use digital home learning and teaching tools from both a practical and pedagogical perspective. She nevertheless admits that access to devices – including a printer – can be a challenging issue.
Justin Reilly, former teacher and CEO of safeguarding software provider Impero, offers some criticism. He suggests there has been a lack of “granular direction from the Department for Education (DfE)”. Subsequently, many schools haven’t yet worked out what technology they need to provide online home learning. To make matters worse, he schools often won’t engage with the market to find the solutions they need. However, he adds: “Those that have found an answer aren’t necessarily getting all teachers to hit the same standard and have experienced different levels of success. Some schools will have many different versions of curriculum delivery in a remote or hybrid setting.”
He nevertheless adds: “Specialised teaching assistants have played an essential role in supporting pupils with SEND, and it makes sense that schools have relied on them more heavily while grappling with remote learning. The simple fact is that many teachers haven’t had to teach remotely before, so it’s been a brand new challenge.”
He believes the involvement of teaching assistants or staff who specialise in remote learning, offers a logical solution to many of the challenges created by remote learning. With the right hybrid learning setup, he finds that most teachers can deliver their curriculum as usual. As for teaching assistants, he thinks they often do much more than is often recognised:
“We will always have children with specific barriers to learning that deserve support, and more direct attention. In a remote learning environment, where teachers are being stretched, teaching assistants become a vital piece of the jigsaw in ensuring all learners have access to the same high standard of education.”
Establishing blended learning
Leach says many schools didn’t do blended learning. Subsequently it has taken a while to establish it. However, many teachers have now found effective tools and learnt from others, which has significantly improved their ability to deliver blended learning – involving live lessons via home learning platforms as well as via some face-to-face lessons.
She nevertheless admits that it was more straightforward when children and teachers were at home, when there wasn’t any face-to-face teacher-pupil contact:
“Now, some students may be at home self-isolating, so teachers are trying to deliver the same learning outcomes for those in the classroom and at home; or the teachers may be ill with COVID-19 and unable to deliver lessons, leaving the teaching to supply staff who have less knowledge and skills in that particular school’s blended provision. Not only do teachers need to provide the learning for the current curriculum; they also need to ensure that the gaps left by school closure are filled.”
There have also been online safeguarding issues to consider that have added to the home learning challenges. She reveals that some local authorities in Wales stopped live, online learning for this reason. To address safeguarding issues, children were either emailed their assignments and tasks, or asked to access them via platforms such as Microsoft Teams. Focus has shifted too, from being about pupil wellbeing to being about getting children back to school safely, and now to ensuring that their learning gaps caused by school closures are more than adequately addressed.
She adds: “Teaching assistants have had the same issues that everyone has had, including the worries about family. They also need direction from the class teacher or department in which they work. You would expect the teachers to direct the teaching assistants working with specific children to know what was expected of each child. Teaching assistants have been quite key, and they have been able to support online learning and co-ordination. Where safeguarding was an issue, we’ve seen teaching assistants participating in online lessons so that there were two adults present.”
Continuing Professional Development
So, what are the best strategies for teachers and teaching assistants to overcome the challenges of remote teaching and home learning? Continuing Professional Development (CPD), advises Leach, is crucial. Schools leaders, teachers and teaching assistants should also reach out to experts. They can provide teacher training and advice. This process has to involve students – requiring teaching staff to share their goals and learning objectives with them and their parents.
Pupils in particular need to know where they are, where they need to get to in terms of their learning, and how they will achieve the objectives. Students and parents can also offer feedback on what’s working well, and together they can determine whether any additional support is required to support the children to enable their performance to improve. “Consistency and routine are important: things like the frequency of setting work, how it is submitted online, where help can be sought needs to be planned”, says Leach.
Successful remote learning is also dependent on the allocation of resources. Reilly explains that there is an expectation that parents may need to step up, and that there has to be a working model in place of how to “implement hybrid learning and an assessment of the effectiveness of different models in different contexts.” He therefore believes there has to be a collaborative effort, and yet teachers in his opinion still need more guidance and support than they are receiving from school leaders and from the Department for Education “to get hybrid learning set up properly.”
He adds: “A key element of remote teaching is eliciting interaction between the student and the teacher. It’s understandable when learners are left to their own devices, that they will lose concentration. Asking questions and encouraging them in return, and generally creating opportunities to interact is key. We have long known that parental involvement in learning raises attainment. It is not all about enforcement – rather it is about showing interest, learning together, modelling how to tackle problems, and creating motivation.”
Tools and platforms
Leach concludes that schools need to undertake an audit to find the best tools and overall platform to achieve their pedagogical and safeguarding needs. This may include live teaching capabilities, the scheduling of lessons in an accessible way for the benefit of pupils: the delivery of lessons, tasks, and assignments with simplicity for the benefit of teachers, students, administrators, and parents. Cyber-security generally speaking, as well as from a safeguarding perspective is essential.
There may also need to be the ability to securely file-share, and a strategy that enables a one-stop shop that offers clear procedures to link with other EdTech software, apps and tools. Device operating system and application compatibility can often be challenging. So, ideally, there should be a high level of home learning platform integration with a range of devices and applications. Beyond this, there is a prerequisite to consider that there will be a difference between online and class pedagogy. Goal and objective sharing is also a must-do, as is the delivery of consistent teaching and learning.