COVID-19's impact on learners
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Patrick McGrath, EdTech Strategist at Texthelp, shares his thoughts on COVID-19’s impact on learners and how to design an effective interim strategy

The Easter school holidays have officially started, although if you’re not a key worker, you’d be forgiven for not noticing. Figures from the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) suggest that in the past few weeks, 94% of UK schools had no more than 20% of students in attendance, accommodating only those students whose parents are deemed as key workers.

School doors closed all over the country but teaching continued, presenting educators with a number of challenges; how do schools continue to teach? how do teachers know that learning has taken place and how do they keep students of all ages engaged?

Education is in the middle of a frenzied digital revolution right now with technology playing an integral role in how lessons are both delivered and how learning is taking place.  Very few institutions had plans in place for remote learning or academic continuity. Schools and universities have since taken on the mammoth task of switching (quite rapidly) to remote learning. This has been markedly different for each institution, depending on the level at which they had adopted technology as part of teaching practice before this pandemic with some finding it relatively easy to transition to learning remotely and others finding it a particular challenge.

The rush to embrace remote learning in such a quick period of time meant that institutions made a rush for digital solutions; migrated systems almost overnight to cloud technology and in many cases educators undertook one of the most condensed and focused periods of professional development of their careers.

For most educators, remote learning is a brand new concept. The vast majority have had limited time to adjust to a changed approach to their teaching practice and are still finding their feet. It is important to understand that moving teaching and learning online involves much more than just uploading files and video links to a learning management system. Teaching remotely requires a different approach. It’s a new kind of pedagogy, a new dynamic and a steep learning curve. While remote learning isn’t a perfect substitute for in-class instruction, there are lots of ways to keep students motivated while they’re learning from home.

Keeping learning alive

The collapse of the structure of what was a typical school day, a timetable and the immediacy of in-class support has meant that educators need to think differently now. Learning needs to be engaging yes, but its priority should be to keep learners engaged and motivated to learn.

Embracing learning platforms such as Google Classroom are essential. These help provide structure and build mechanisms for feedback, discussion and communication. The approach can’t be to simply fill these systems with the same content as would happen in school-based learning and expect the same results.

Remote learning requires a different set of approaches – methods to motivate students to be active participants in their learning. Content that considers a digital and not paper environment with video and audio playing a central role. New ways to deliver assessment and provide feedback, and an ability to track progress. All while sustaining educator to student dialogue.

The reality is that technologies are available today to support these changing sands, but if there is a lesson to be learnt on the scramble to remote learning, it’s that we must carefully consider and select the right mix of technology and prepare everyone with the skills and underlying pedagogy to utilise them.

What’s been clear about this shift is that embracing technology and these new ways of working and learning is no longer just down to our educators. Students and their parents need the same level of support, understanding and involvement in learning and in technology to make it a success.

Accessibility has never been more important

Our schools have been models of inclusion, with a recognition that every student learns differently, and that every student, therefore, needs support in differing ways. Taking learning fully online needs that same focus and dedication to inclusion. We can’t, and shouldn’t, expect all students to access this plethora of digital content and platforms in the same way.

It’s our responsibility to make digital content accessible. It requires planning, and provision of specialist tools such as screen readers if we are to be sure that no student is at a disadvantage and continues to receive continuity of support in the absence of teaching and learning assistants.

Accessible content can no longer be the exception – it has to be the rule.

The future of EdTech

There are many reasons to worry about the prospect of scaled remote learning across the UK, many of which the government was hoping to tackle with its EdTech strategy, but are not yet in place. These include the issue of insufficient infrastructure as not everywhere has stable and reliable broadband connectivity. Another consideration is that neither all schools nor all homes have the technology needed to make this happen, particularly in primary schools. Finally, few teachers have the capacity to create well-designed online materials with their already heavy workloads.

Medium and longer-term will have huge implications for exam boards and will likely expedite the move to all digital/online exams. This has been slow to develop and the exam bodies do not have systems in place to deliver at the moment, but this situation will push them to build these much much faster.

The reality is that, at least until children can all safely return to school, teachers are going to have to get creative with ways of continuing their education outside of the classroom. With a significant volume of information being pushed out which could lead to confusion or poor strategy and the kickback from educators viewing EdTech start-ups as taking advantage of the situation, this is a particularly challenging time.

Coronavirus could well be a “tipping point” to push educational technology into the mainstream, however, it is more likely in the short term to highlight inadequacies to support it throughout the UK.


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