Coronavirus and education: Making the most of remote learning (part one)

This post was written on Friday 20 March before the government published its list of key workers for whom schools will keep open their doors.  It is the first of two blogs offering advice on making the most of remote learning for the young people who will no longer attend school from Monday 23 March 2020.

Schools close their doors today to a majority of pupils.  Those doors are unlikely to open again for many months, begging the question, ‘How can we support pupils’ learning whilst they’re at home?’  In this blog I offer some advice to ensure the next few months are not wasted…

We need to consider the following:

What will education look like for the children of key frontline workers who will continue to attend school so that their parents can provide essential public services such as healthcare, emergency services, food deliveries, and so on.

What will education look like for the most vulnerable learners – pupils with Education Health and Care Plans, and those who, for a variety of reasons, have social workers – who will also continue attending school so they can be fed and kept safe from harm.

What will education look like for other vulnerable learners – those with SEND who do not qualify for EHCPs and those on the fringes of agency support who we, as teachers, know are at risk but who are not officially in receipt of specialist support, and those eligible for free school meals – who will, in all likeliness, be denied access to school for a prolonged period of time and yet may need pastoral support as well as access to learning. What will that pastoral support look like? Who will provide it? These pupils may also need differentiated learning materials and may struggle to access our online learning platforms. What will this look like in practice? How will be ensure their disadvantage isn’t doubled?

What will education look like for all other pupils who will now study at home? Will we provide physical learning packs (and, if so, how will we minimise the risk of passing on the virus via paper?) or access to online learning, and will online learning include an element of teaching via Skype, Zoom or another video-conferencing service?

A warning: this article will pose more questions than answers because each school must make their own decisions about what they think is right for their pupils and their contexts. But in asking some key questions, I hope to help you navigate this unprecedented crisis…

What’s happening and why?

The Education Secretary Gavin Williamson announced last night (March 18) that schools would close for all but the children of key workers and the most vulnerable pupils.

Schools will close their gates tomorrow (March 20) and they will remain closed for an indefinite period – we would do well to anticipate schools being closed until the summer.

Schools will remain open over the Easter holiday for the types of children I mention above.

Key stage 2 SAT, GCSE and A Level exams have been cancelled and pupils will receive their certification via other means, to be outlined tomorrow (March 20). This will allow pupils to progress to the next stage. The government promises pupils will not be disadvantaged by this situation and those who are unhappy with the outcomes they receive can appeal.

What should schools do now?

The immediate repercussions of this are perhaps obvious but I would suggest that schools need to take some quick decisions on who they think will need to stay in school and this may extend beyond the government’s definition. After all, teachers and leaders are best placed to make a call on which pupils would be left vulnerable if sent home.

Schools also need to decide how to staff lessons in the short-term, particularly over the Easter break as this is unusual. They also need to consider how they’ll keep their site open and safe – this will involve a core team of support staff as well as teachers. How will all these staff be selected so that it is fair and how will they be kept safe? If they have children, will they be looked after in school? What will teachers who work from home do and how will they be kept in the loop and supported?

The government has said it will ensure schools are supported financially so we can assume any additional costs incurred as a result of the coronavirus will be paid for centrally after the dust settles. This might include waiving the usual pay policies so all staff, in school or at home, continue to be paid as normal for the foreseeable future, including those who are forced to self-isolate. This might also include making extra payments, perhaps even overtime, to those expected to work the Easter holiday.

There will be longer-term decisions to take over the coming weeks but, right now, schools need to ensure that pupils are in meaningful education from Monday. So, what might we consider?

How will schools ensure a continuation of learning?

I appreciate many schools have already been working hard to produce learning packs and to build online platforms, but these will need to be kept under constant review to ensure they are working, and we are likely to need to provide work for months, not weeks. As such, you may wish to ask yourselves the following questions:

What form should the curriculum take?

Will work be sent home in paper form? If so, how much work will be sent each time and how often? How will the work be returned so it can be marked? What role will parents be expected to play in helping their children complete this work? Will the work be related to class learning or will it be a discrete project? Will it be meaningful and help pupils to make progress or just ‘busy work’? Will pupils be able to complete the work even if they cannot leave the house? How will you ensure that no child is disadvantaged by the work?

Will work be made available online? If so, will it be entirely online or a mixture of online and offline work? How will you minimise the impact of too much screen time? How will you identify those pupils who do not have internet access or who cannot afford to use the internet for long periods? What of those who do not have a device or a good enough device to access the materials? Will some pupils be disadvantaged by their lack of digital literacy skills? Will you need to help parents with costs including their increased electricity bills? If so, how will this work logistically?

Will online learning be created entirely by your school, or will you use external platforms such as BBC Bitesize, or indeed a combination of both? How will you help pupils and parents to easily navigate the materials without putting blocks in their way by creating too many clicks? How will you assure the quality of external platforms? How will you cover the costs of using commercial products?

What will be the nature of curriculum content?

Will your learning packs or online platforms require pupils to process new information, perhaps in the form of flipped or blended learning? Or will it provide opportunities for pupils to practice prior learning? Or indeed both? If it will present pupils with new information, how will ensure they understand it? How will mitigate the risk they will encounter misleading or inaccurate information if conducting research for a project, say, and don’t know how to spot fake news? How will you counter the problem of some pupils simply not understanding new information because you are not there to assess and diagnose their progress?

Here, it may be worth reflecting on what the evidence says about homework…

EEF’s meta-analyses show that the impact of homework, on average, is five months’ additional progress. However, beneath this average there is a wide variation in potential impact, suggesting that how homework is set is likely to be very important.

There is some evidence that homework is most effective when used as a short and focused intervention (e.g. in the form of a project or specific target connected with a particular element of learning) with some exceptional studies showing up to eight additional months’ positive impact on attainment. Benefits are likely to be more modest, up to two to three months’ progress on average, if homework is more routinely set (e.g. learning vocabulary or completing practice tasks in mathematics every day).

Evidence also suggests that how homework relates to learning during normal school time is important. In the most effective examples, homework was an integral part of learning, rather than an add-on. To maximise impact, the EEF says it’s also important that pupils are provided with high quality feedback on their work.

Some studies indicate that there may be an optimum amount of homework of between one and two hours per school day (slightly longer for older pupils), with effects diminishing as the time that pupils spend on homework increases.

John Hattie (2008), meanwhile, says that the effect of homework on pupil outcomes is 0.26 overall but is 0.15 at primary and 0.64 at secondary. Therefore, it is small at primary but large at secondary.

Hattie also goes into some detail about the kinds of homework that work best. The highest effects, he says, are associated with practice and rehearsal tasks. And short, frequent homework tasks that are closely monitored by the teacher have the most impact on pupil progress.

The optimal time per-night for pupils to spend on homework also varies by age; the older the pupil, the more time they should spend on homework. This is an imperfect science but, roughly, I would argue that the following is a good guide: pupils in the primary phase should do no more than about 20 minutes a night, pupils in key stage 3 should do about 40 minutes, pupils in key stage 4 should do about 60 minutes, and pupils in key stage 5 should do about 90 minutes a night.

Finally, MacBeath and Turner (1990) suggest that:
• Homework should be clearly related to on-going classroom work.
• There should be a clear pattern to class work and homework.
• Homework should be varied.
• Homework should be manageable.
• Homework should be challenging but not too difficult.
• Homework should allow for individual initiative and creativity.
• Homework should promote self-confidence and understanding.
• There should be recognition or reward for work done.
• There should be guidance and support.

So, what might be the implication of this for remote learning..?

I would suggest the most effective type of remote learning to set is retrieval practice but, of course, we can’t expect pupils to practice prior learning between now and the summer, we must introduce new information to them at some point, so we may also need to consider the use of online teaching…

Read Part Two



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