Matt Jenner, Head of Learning at FutureLearn, discusses how edtech can help support schools and teachers during closures and the opportunities it could bring for greater global collaboration and innovation for the education sector post-COVID-19
It has been almost a month since the UK government ordered all schools, colleges and universities across the country to close until further notice. On a global scale, 1.37 billion students have been affected by school and university closures in 138 countries and nearly 60.2 million teachers are no longer in the classroom. As a result, teachers across the world have had to accelerate their digital transition and deliver classes and lecturers online. Many schools and universities were unprepared for such an unprecedented shift and teachers are having to quickly adapt to teaching their students online.
Challenges of teaching online
Teachers are incredibly resilient and dedicated to providing quality education to their students, even if it is from their own homes. However, we’ve found that many are struggling to navigate the new and unfamiliar territory of managing classrooms remotely. At FutureLearn, we surveyed over 2,000 teachers to find out their immediate concerns, and found that over 75% hadn’t done any of their teaching online before.
At the start of the pandemic, many teachers were already beginning to express concerns around moving teaching online and what little support, pedagogical guidance or technological resources existed to achieve this. Aside from the immediate logistical concerns of moving the classroom to the internet, we asked teachers about their primary concerns with ‘going online’. Teachers were concerned about how they would support their students and keep them interested and engaged. There was also the question of accessibility to think about – while connectivity is something a lot of people don’t have to think twice about, some students will have limited or no access to devices or a reliable internet connection at home.
Teaching with existing technology
Teachers can take some comfort in the fact that there are a number of trusted online resources to guide them in the transition to online teaching. There are also several ways to utilise the technology and resources already used in schools in order to support online learning and ensure students can still receive a quality education. Having the knowledge to choose between these resources can be challenging, even for experts with the gift of time – teachers wanted immediate and practical guidance – another outcome from our survey.
Many schools already use platforms such as Microsoft Office 365, Google Apps such as Google Classroom, and video conferencing such as Zoom or Blackboard Collaborate. These are trusted technologies and, while the feeling of urgency and the many solutions now springing up can make it tempting to do so, those that already rely on these resources shouldn’t suddenly rush to assume technology is the solution. In fact, now is the time to keep things simple. The first priority should be to focus on simple interactions with students, ensuring they can get online, stay in touch, and not be left behind. This will help the teacher to develop core digital skills, alongside their students, and identify anyone facing immediate barriers. Parents should also be involved, but not relied upon as they will have conflicting priorities as they balance work, family, home and other demands on their time and attention. Once these core digital skills are in place, students and teachers can get back to following a timetable with planned activities for learning based on a curriculum adapted for online and the current situation.
Once on solid foundations, teachers can start to explore ways to engage and interact with their students. Learning online is different to the classroom but there are steps that can be taken to help make it effective. There are many online resources being shared to help provide teaching continuity which can appear helpful but can also be overwhelming.
FutureLearn has created ‘How to Teach Online’ which has been designed and built as a response to the Coronavirus crisis. It’s not another resource – it was built around our knowledge that most teachers won’t know where to start. On the course, teachers will be guided and given a structure to follow so they can quickly learn how to adapt their practice for an online context and work with new approaches and techniques to keep their students engaged – both online and offline.
Community of educators
Never have so many teachers across the world been suddenly forced into a predicament that risks their students’ access to learning. But rather than focussing on the negatives, we know teachers can be stronger when bonded together as a community. We wanted to create the space for educators to work together and help each other achieve a common goal – ensuring continuity of learning for their students.
For me, the power of online social learning lies in its ability to create a community of practice. This is where a group is formed with a shared purpose to help, and learn from, each other. With schools and campuses closed and human contact cut to digital-only as a result of the government’s social distancing measures, it is easy to feel alone. Many suggest that education technology removes the ‘human’ side of teaching, but this couldn’t be more wrong.
Online social learning provides an opportunity to create a global community of people who otherwise wouldn’t have connected, and allows them to share their experiences and advice with each other. ‘How to Teach Online’ currently has over 40,000 enrolments with educators from almost 200 countries worldwide. What’s more significant is that thousands of comments from educators across the world have poured in, sharing stories and experiences of how different individuals in different settings are adapting and adjusting. We have also had the privilege of over 30 mentors joining us from across the FutureLearn partnership and supporting teachers in the course. These are experts in the field of learning and teaching and their advice has been hugely popular with teachers taking the course. I have seen first hand just how important this interaction is for the teaching community, engagement in the course has been phenomenal. At a time when day-to-day activity seems challenging and uncertain, it is so important for teachers to have the space to share their resources, practice new skills, learn from one another, discover tips and refine their approaches for the current situation.
The future of education
Though the value of edtech has been widely acknowledged throughout the education sector, the sudden shift to online learning from the classroom has still been an unexpected and tricky-to-navigate experience for many. However, teachers are now realising the vast potential of education technology not just in these extraordinary circumstances but in the long term. With campuses and schools closed for the foreseeable, we know that some will be desperate to return to normal. A message we have repeated in the course is that this experience of online teaching is not normal, a lot more planning, pedagogy and resource goes into effective online learning. This is why we must be kind to ourselves and remain compassionate – only then will we look back and reflect on what’s happening now and hopefully embrace the positives once we return to the classroom.
As schools and universities find their feet in this new landscape, and continue to develop their confidence in utilising the many edtech solutions available to support them through present circumstances, this will also bring changes to the sector over the longer term. We still do not know how Coronavirus will impact future intakes or how long lockdown will be in place for. We do know that once the dust has settled, teachers will be better prepared to embrace some of the positive impacts from online learning and how technological solutions can support current approaches.
FutureLearn’s course ‘How to Teach Online: Providing Continuity for Students’ is free to join and the next course will begin on 27 April.
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