Covid challenge: How to make blended learning engaging for students

Written by: Colin Hegarty | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

From the end of September, government Covid guidance requires that schools have in place remote learning contingency plans. Colin Hegarty looks at what your blended learning strategies must consider

Teachers know that the best learning occurs when students are engaged in a range of meaningful activities. During the Covid-19 lockdown schools adopted a wide variety of remote teaching methods to ensure students remained online and engaged. The variety and creativity on show proved teachers’ determination to use technology as tool of engagement, not just of content delivery.

However, online engagement remains a challenge and is something we must consider given the very real prospect of blended learning continuing in this Covid world.

Just a few weeks into the new term and schools across the country have already had to instigate short-term closures in response to confirmed coronavirus cases. Furthermore, the government guidance to schools on full re-opening includes a requirement to devise a remote learning plan (by the end of September) in case of further school closures.

Having got through lockdown, the remote challenge is far from over. Now, with the prospect of moving in and out of the classroom, with remote learning an on-going reality, how can schools effectively engage students in meaningful activities at distance?

Throughout lockdown we saw schools answering the remote learning challenge in myriad ways, on and off-line – YouTube tutorials, online workbooks, hard copy learning packs and online lessons. There is no single model and no agreement on what works best.

However, as identified in the recent National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) report into lockdown learning experiences (Lucas et al, 2020; Headteacher Update, 2020a), it has been shown that technology that promotes online conversations or activities that involve consolidating previous learning or revising, have “higher pupil engagement levels and an increased probability of having highly engaged disadvantaged pupils”.

Meanwhile, the NFER’s latest report into the challenges facing schools and students on full return (Sharp et al, 2020; Headteacher Update, 2020b) states: “Evidence on distance learning highlights the importance of interactive learning, consolidating learning and supporting pupils to self-regulate their learning as effective strategies as part of a mixed diet of provision.”

Evidence suggests that those who have adopted creative methods, using a variety of technologies, have seen higher engagement across the board. Further, the technologies that seem to deliver the highest engagement are those that foster conversation, collaboration and personalised experiences.

While live-streaming of lessons proved popular during lockdown – indeed my own live-streamed year 11 lessons attracted more than 700 students tuning in live, with comments and questions in the hundreds – it does not necessarily encourage participation.

Similarly, we know that teachers are not just static, front-of-class lecturers. In the classroom, teachers help children through intervening when they see that they do not understand. They are brilliant at supporting; they nudge reluctant learners, encourage and praise. It is extremely hard to do this remotely. Teachers just do not have the visibility nor the capacity.

Where technology can really support engaged learning is where it goes beyond video chats and live lessons, enabling greater personalisation for each student, providing individualised feedback, encouraging independent learning and helping teachers to provide relevant and timely support.

This is where technologies such as AI and machine learning can earn their “hero” status. Using AI technologies, personalised content can be delivered remotely to students and allow for instant feedback – key to encouraging continued engagement.

These technologies also provide greater insights for the teacher through rich and immediate data feedback. The best personalised learning technologies are those that can shift seamlessly from the classroom to the online environment and back again, complementing and supporting teachers to deliver a truly blended experience.

Similarly, tools that are as powerful in the classroom as they are remotely ensure students enjoy consistency, making the move between class and home learning environment much less disruptive.

One of the key challenges of remote teaching is teachers not being physically present to notice the subtle signs that students are struggling. However, with digital platforms giving them easy-to-access data on the immediate progress of each student, they can see where support is most needed – even at distance. Keeping teachers at the heart of learning, technology can enable them to direct that support where it is most needed.

Finally, it is important to state the role that school leaders have in supporting blended and remote learning approaches.

In its latest recommendations, the NFER warns that when schools tentatively reopened in July, “only 38 per cent (of school leaders) were focusing their staffing on remote learning provision. Senior leaders needed to deploy more of their staff to in-school provision due to the additional demands of split classes and social distancing”.

With the need for on-going blended strategies, teachers must be supported in their efforts to move between remote and in-class provision. With squeezed resources this is a big ask. However, leaders must promote the adoption of tools that support fluid movement between learning environments. Similarly, they must ensure that these tools are proven, based on sound research and evidence.

What is clear from the pandemic is that ed-tech cannot replace the expertise of teachers but can complement teacher-led learning and support them to deliver their best, whether in the classroom or remotely.

As the NFER’s research suggests, schools should seek to focus on blended and remote learning strategies that promote pupil engagement but also bear in mind the additional burden on teacher time that this creates.

This is where leaders have a huge role to play in ensuring that blended approaches are underpinned by tools designed to complement teaching both in and out of the classroom. Add to this personalised technologies that create individual learning experiences for each student and the goal of effective, engaging blended learning can be realised.

  • Colin Hegarty has been teaching for more than five years and currently works as an Advanced Skills Teacher in London. He is the founder of HegartyMaths and education and schools director at Sparx.

Further information & resources

  • DfE: Guidance for full opening: schools, last updated September 17, 2020a:
  • Headteacher Update: Study reveals most effective remote learning approaches, June 2020a:
  • Headteacher Update: Covid safety measures will hit teaching standards, research warns, September 2020b:
  • Lucas Nelson & Sims: Schools’ Responses to Covid-19: Pupil Engagement in Remote Learning, NFER, June 2020:
  • Sharp et al: Schools' responses to Covid-19 The challenges facing schools and pupils in September 2020, NFER, September 2020:

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