So, what have we learned about online learning?

Written by: Eylan Ezekiel | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

What are your lessons from lockdown when it comes to effective blended learning and use of edtech? Eylan Ezekiel looks at what we have learned about creating safe, supportive and effective digital learning environments

Will our recent experiences of online, remote and blended learning change how we approach edtech and education more broadly? Research by Pearson last month suggests so, with 35 per cent of 6,817 educators surveyed reporting an improvement in the independent learning skills of their pupils (Pearson, 2021).

Similarly, 90 per cent of UK learners in Pearson’s Global Learner Survey (2020) felt that online learning will become a key part of education moving forward.
The pandemic has also highlighted that, for effective digital provision to be fully achieved, the digital divide across access to devices and high-quality internet needs bridging. It has shown that an inclusive, community-wide approach to edtech is vital: if our students are to thrive around technology, their teachers, parents and carers also need clear guidance on how to use it.

As our schools undertake a fuller return to life in the physical classroom, now is an opportune time to review what we have learned about online learning. Bolstered by these lessons, we can explore how to harness technology and its advances to continue to support progress for every child, wherever learning takes place.

Through our close work with educators in recent months, we have assembled a collection of tips, ideas and practical advice for creating safe, supportive digital structures to benefit everyone in education.

Collaboration, Collaboration, Collaboration

The benefits of collaborative learning are well established – from building key listening, team-work and conflict-resolution skills, to improving self-esteem, confidence and motivation (Johnson & Johnson, 2009). Group tasks can also fire up imaginations and improve socialisation.

While the shift to online learning alters the methods by which pupils and teachers collaborate, it does not necessarily entail a move towards isolation. Many tools can be useful to facilitate collaboration – including the use of shared documents for tasks, discussion boards, group chats or a balancing out of focused calls with breakout rooms.

As we saw on social media in every lockdown, teachers were also able to collaborate on resources for engagement.

From our conversations with educators, it has become clear that – whether through distance learning for all, or a targeted integration of edtech in future classrooms – tools that reinforce a whole-class dynamic, offer insights on engagement to teachers and pupils alike, and allow you to safeguard interactions from the sidelines are the ideal.

In their feedback to us, teachers have reported the benefits of supporting collaboration explicitly by, for example, assigning clear roles to pupils in virtual group tasks. A child who knows that this time they are the chair, the reporter, the researcher, is a child who knows how to contribute positively and take ownership of their learning, and who will work more efficiently with their peers.

Similarly, in aiming to minimise distractions during carpet-time sessions, some teachers have used a shared document so that every pupil can contribute while their focus is on others. This supports peer feedback and retrieval practice opportunities – led by the teacher – while providing fuel for pupil collaboration.

Boosting confidence with feedback

From what we have witnessed over the past year, every online interaction becomes increasingly important when a teacher or pupil cannot be physically present in the classroom. This is especially true of feedback, and its role in engaging and motivating learners. When it comes to giving effective feedback, the educators we work with have advised following what we know works in the physical classroom. As such, feedback should be timely and thorough, focus on the task and specifics of pupils’ work (not pupils themselves), and should include targeted information on how to improve and areas of strength.

Motivation is key

When we picture a primary classroom, we most likely visualise a place of curiosity and play. It is a joy to be a part of, and no doubt what brings learning to life and encourages pupils to tune in and learn.

For those times when colourful classroom walls cannot surround our primary classes or more technology is introduced, there are numerous ways of maintaining levels of motivation and engagement. Here are a few that have been reported to us by educators:

  • Engaging different audiences for pupils’ work, from parents and carers to community members, local charities and businesses.
  • Acknowledging with calm and empathy when tasks are tough.
  • Ensuring your instructions are always clear and understood – and that pupils have an easy recourse to let you know when they are not.
  • Enabling both collaborative and autonomous learning.
  • Offering opportunities for some self-direction, for example, by giving students a choice of tasks or approaches.
  • Providing clear expectations and the opportunity to explore topics to a higher level. For example, if a pupil wants to create a guide to dinosaurs after a lesson on classification, let them do so and guide them to different websites, even if this stage is not in your planning!

Empowering independent learning

As all primary educators know, our pupils are naturally dependent on teachers and interdependent with peers – yet feedback we received from our survey (2021) revealed that three in 10 teachers believe the past year has improved their pupils’ independent learning skills.

How best to continue this trend in digital settings, or when utilising more technology in the classroom? Again, the educators we work with advise building on previous successes in the classroom, with:

  • Showing – telling your pupils what they are aiming for, and showing them what “good” looks like.
  • Scaffolding – initially guiding pupils in their learning, then gradually removing that guidance.
  • Modelling – fostering a digital environment in which pupils can observe the “good” behaviour of the teacher, or others.
  • Reflecting – building in opportunities for children to reflect on their own work.

To help support their digital journey, you can also ask your pupils to keep journals or draw their feelings. Online polls to collect pupil feedback can also be helpful indicators of individual progress, as can video or audio diaries.

Partner with parents and carers

The success of online learning (as with all learning) can be only amplified when it is paired with support from parents and carers. The shift to tech-enabled learning has been a steep learning curve at times, but has also created new ways for schools and their communities to cooperate.
Some tips we have picked up from educators to further boost home engagement include:

  • Providing tech tips and support – when technology and software are being introduced, or pupil access is mediated by families, supplying online help and FAQs can help households get to grips with new systems.
  • Considering what is at home – for example, families with slow wi-fi connections may need alternative texts that minimise what is being downloaded.
  • Offering print-out versions of your lessons – essential for any pupil who does not have easy laptop access.
  • Planning and facilitating screen breaks, which are key for pupils, families and educators alike (to help, you can encourage some positive wellbeing practices where possible – to reduce stress and anxiety, and boost endorphins).
  • Sharing links to specific support for parents and carers engaging with lockdown learning, such as support, resources and guides from Pearson, Nasen and the NSPCC (see further information).

As Covid-19 continues, the education sector could feel like a strange new world for a little while yet. With this, it is important to recognise that the digital landscape is one aspect of modern life that we can most definitely shape and strengthen for the better.

Edtech has much to offer this generation of primary pupils, but it is the people who deliver it – our nation’s educators and wider learning communities – who hold the keys for driving positive change.

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