Study reveals most effective remote learning approaches

The use of virtual learning environments (VLE), phone calls, online conversations and retrieval practice can improve pupils’ engagement in remote learning, a study has found.

The research, however, highlights the huge disparities in pupil engagement caused by the digital divide and poverty.

The study was published on Tuesday (June 16) by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) in partnership with the Nuffield Foundation. It is based on survey findings from more than 3,000 teachers and school leaders taken between May 7 and 17.

The results show that teachers believe certain disadvantaged groups to be less engaged with remote learning, including those with limited ICT or space to study at home (81 per cent), vulnerable pupils (62 per cent), SEND pupils (58 per cent), pupils eligible for Pupil Premium funding (52 per cent), and young carers (48 per cent).

Overall, the surveys reveal that 71 per cent of primary school pupils are getting involved in remote learning activities, while 63 per cent of secondary students are engaged.

This means that around a third of pupils are not engaged in remote education.

However, for schools with the highest proportion of free school meals (FSM) pupils, these engagement figures drop to 55 per cent (primary) and 48 per cent (secondary).

Across all schools, teachers say they are in regular contact with, on average, 60 per cent of their pupils. Again, this figure is lower in the most deprived schools (50 per cent).

And, on average, only 42 per cent of all pupils returned their last piece of set work – a figure that falls to 30 per cent in the most deprived schools.

The report warns that the digital divide remains a significant barrier to home learning for the poorest pupils and is a “widespread challenge” for schools, with teachers going to great lengths to deliver work to pupils who do not have online access or ICT at home.

Overall, school leaders report that 23 per cent of their school’s pupils have limited access to IT at home. This is defined as one or more of the following issues: poor broadband access, little or no IT equipment in the home, or having to share equipment with other family members. The teachers surveyed reported this figure to be 27 per cent.

And 93 per cent of school leaders from the most deprived schools have some pupils with limited access to IT at home compared with 73 per cent of school leaders from the least deprived schools.

The report adds: “Pupil engagement and disadvantaged pupil engagement are both lower in the most deprived schools. Teachers in the most deprived schools are in contact with fewer pupils and also feel that fewer of their parents are engaged.

“The proportion of pupils with little to no IT access in the most deprived schools is double that of the least deprived schools. Teachers in the most deprived schools are more likely than those in the least deprived schools to say that all areas of the curriculum are currently getting less attention than usual.”

Elsewhere, the study highlights a number of factors associated with either higher or lower engagement among pupils.

It finds that schools using a VLE saw levels of engagement eight percentage points higher than schools with no VLE use. This increases to 13 percentage points among disadvantaged pupils.

Schools using telephone or video calls to inform pupils about learning activities had levels of pupil engagement three percentage point higher.

But schools using their websites to communicate with students and parents saw lower engagement levels (by five percentage points, dropping to eight for disadvantaged pupils).

However, the report adds: “While VLEs and telephone or video calls are positively associated with pupil engagement, they are only used by 52 per cent and 69 per cent of senior leaders respectively. On the other hand, 80 per cent of schools use their website, which is negatively associated with engagement.”

The most common method of engagement reported by the schools was text message and email. And many school leaders, especially those in deprived areas, said they were delivering or posting out materials because of the problems with ICT access.

In terms of teaching and learning approaches, the report finds that schools delivering content to pupils via “online conversations” saw higher engagement, especially among poorer pupils. Also effective was setting activities involving consolidating previous learning or revising.

The report states: “Senior leaders report that their schools are most likely to be delivering learning by using materials produced by external providers, such as educational websites or apps (92 per cent), or online resources such as pre-recorded video lessons (90 per cent).

“Where schools are providing their own resources, these are generally workbooks, or worksheets (80 per cent). Less than half (44 per cent) of leaders’ responses relate to teachers producing their own pre-recorded lessons for sharing with pupils, and only a minority say that their schools are using active forms of teaching and learning led by the pupils’ own teachers, such as live remote lessons (14 per cent) or online conversations (37 per cent).”

Carole Willis, NFER chief executive, said: “The report supports a growing evidence base highlighting the risk of the attainment gap widening as a result of this pandemic. There is a pressing need for a comprehensive and long-term plan to address this issue.

“The findings suggest there is a strong case for extending the government’s scheme to fund digital provision to all year groups, alongside all schools being supported to put in place effective VLEs.”

Commenting on the findings, Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “This analysis shows that children who already face the greatest challenges have suffered the worst impact to their learning during the lockdown, and that the digital divide is largely to blame.

“We urgently need a national plan on how we help these children to catch-up, and a key part of this is to ensure that all disadvantaged children have access to the technology they need. This is something we should have been doing as a society anyway, and the coronavirus crisis has exposed our failure to get to grips with this issue.”

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, added: "Limited access to IT at home is a significant challenge for schools serving the most deprived communities. Disruption to full-time education could continue for some time yet. It cannot be right that some children miss out on part of their education for want of a computer. It is essential that the government act now to provide internet access and technology to the 700,000-plus children from disadvantaged background without a computer or connectivity, and close the digital divide.”

The report is a second in a research series focused on the impact of the Covid-19 lockdown. A third report is due out later this week exploring schools’ provision for vulnerable children and children of keyworkers during the pandemic.

Lucas Nelson & Sims: Schools’ Responses to Covid-19: Pupil Engagement in Remote Learning, NFER, June 2020: