Dan Worth

Coronavirus: How to maximise distance learning

With schools closed, teachers are getting to grips with remote learning – what does research say about best practice?

Coronavirus: How to make the most of distance learning

The gurus, the Silicon Valley starlets, a select group of professors of education (and a few teachers, too) always said it would happen. They claimed that if you could harness the power of technology, algorithms, virtual reality and intelligent software design, you could turn education upside down, inside out, and spin it into something truly beautiful.

A child could be the master of their own learning, sitting at home orchestrating knowledge, all with only the lightest guiding hand of an omniscient teacher, who would be sat somewhere in the ether, presiding over thousands of pupils.

It hasn’t happened yet. In truth, that vision probably never will. But over the past few weeks, teachers have been forced into a version of it. Coronavirus has swept the world and closed schools, causing an unprecedented shock to the education system. The vast majority of pupils now have to learn from home and, while some schools have opted for printed booklets, many have sought out digital distance-learning tools as the conduit to continuing provision.

Most pupils, and most of their teachers, have no real experience or skill set in working that way. There has been no training, no preparation, no time to find the right thing, to use in the right way for the right purpose. Most have gone into it blind.

So, will online distance learning work? Actually, the more pressing question is: can we make it work?

In this age of research-informed teaching, you may expect answers to be ready and waiting on Google Scholar or JSTOR. Sorry to disappoint you, but there is not a broad base of research around remote learning for this age group. In fact, there’s barely any available research on how a child can learn remotely from their teacher for extended periods of time.

As Stephen Fraser, deputy chief executive of the Education Endowment Foundation, admits: “Based on UK evidence, there is not a lot to go on.”

This is because most existing research on distance learning is linked to higher education environments, where learners tend to be more committed to their learning (after all, they have chosen to be there and pay for it) and are mature enough to be able to regulate their behaviour in order to learn remotely (most of the time, at least). But in schools, learning rarely happens this way, and so it’s pretty rare to find any research on it.

How useful is that higher education research? The educational and developmental differences for that age group make it very difficult to translate it into a school context. Also, the situation that schools are currently finding themselves in is so unique that it adds a further complication, says Keith Heggart, from the University of Technology Sydney, who has researched the use of Google Apps for Education for remote learning with higher education students.

Most remote learning plans in higher education are set up with the luxury of ample time to prepare – and the results of the research will reflect that. For schools across the world, Heggart says, there has simply not been time to set things up properly. “Due to the immediate nature of Covid-19, we are seeing a sudden shift towards online or distance learning,” he explains.

That means finding the right tool for the right job – and testing it comprehensively before deployment – has not been an option.

“In this case, often it [will have likely been] a matter of finding a pragmatic solution to a problem that can be implemented immediately rather than an elegant, scaleable and pedagogically sophisticated solution.”

In short, most teachers grabbed the simplest-looking free tool they could find. And why wouldn’t they?

So, while we could look at the research from higher education and make grand proclamations about whether this will work or not – and what, specifically, might work in which context – the usefulness of that research in this specific situation is likely to be negligible.

How about we turn to the research that has been done with the right age group? As mentioned, it is sparse and could do with more robust challenge, but it may at least give teachers a steer.

SOLE traders

Take, for example, the School in the Cloud concept developed by Sugata Mitra. The idea won him the 2013 TED Prize of $1 million (£860,000), but the professor has long been an advocate of the idea of self-organised learning environments (SOLE). He claims that pupils are more than able to learn by themselves if given the right tools and only initial direction by an educator (a view that has come under heavy criticism among some teachers).

Specifically, SOLE relates to the idea of an educator setting children something to learn and the child then using the internet to find the answers to the question. This may include group work or, if based remotely, online collaboration.

In the current situation in many schools, a teacher would set a task via a platform such as Google Classroom, then children would go off and complete that task either on their own or collaboratively, using something like Microsoft Teams. As the Association for Learning Technology explains, the teacher may pop into this learning journey as a partner, but never as a dictator of what comes next.

If that sounds a little unstructured to you, then you would share the view of many teachers who have criticised Mitra’s work. But plenty support it, too. Research by Mitra and a teacher at a school in Gateshead, where this was trialled – admittedly on a small scale as a one-off experiment – presented some interesting results. They asked a group of eight-year-old pupils five GCSE-level questions around animal behaviours. They were then given 45 minutes to research them using the SOLE method, which they had been made familiar with, and then tested them on what they had learned.

They were tested again three months later, with the teachers having done no additional teaching on these topics. Surprisingly, considering that the questions were at GCSE level, the results they achieved were far better three months later than after the first 45-minute revision period. “The individual scores in the later test were actually higher than on the day they researched the questions,” the paper summed up.

“The children explained that they had researched further in their own time; some had discussed the topic with their parents and then discussed it with their classmates. This may explain the strange result of a test result improving over time with no formal inputs in the interim,” states the paper (Mitra and Crawley, 2014).

While this research is on a small scale, it can perhaps offer some encouragement to teachers at this difficult time that pupils, at least within primary age, do appear to engage and learn around topics they are asked to investigate – and that they retain and remember this information when tested. This is crucial, as it suggests that if teachers provide the right guidance for their learning at the outset, via whatever platform they are using, they can have some confidence that being left to learn alone might end better than they would expect.

The blended approach

Another institution with an emphasis on remote learning for the school-age group is the Khan Academy, founded over a decade ago. It provides online courses for students across a range of subjects and is often used in a blended learning model: ie, in conjunction with teacher-led direct instruction.

So, in our current scenario, the teacher may set a Khan Academy video as the instructional component of the lesson and follow it with number of problem sets; or the teacher would do the initial instruction and assign problem sets via Khan Academy (there are numerous other platforms that provide problem sets, including Times Tables Rockstars and Hegarty Maths).

In one study looking at the implementation of Khan Academy online resources alongside traditional teaching, across several schools, it was found that many students would use the resources available, even unprompted, to augment their learning of subjects, such as maths, and that those who did improved their outcomes.

Again, like Mitra’s, this research needs to be robustly tested, evaluated and replicated, but again it offers some hope: children, it seems, can learn remotely if needed.

But should we be surprised that this is the case? Just look at YouTube: children regularly seek out all manner of weird and wonderful content they are interested in – from how to make slime to guitar lessons. They are, no doubt, also adept at using it for helping with homework or revision, as Ben McOwen Wilson, YouTube’s managing director for the UK, recently postulated in a Tes article on the impact of YouTube educators.

“The reality is [that] young people are spending a huge amount of time online. We [often] ask, ‘What on earth are they all searching for?’ Well, they’re searching for help with their homework.”

As such, he says, teachers need to recognise this and utilise it as a resource, whatever the topic. “I would love for teachers to feel that, whatever topic they’re trying to bring to life for pupils, there is a channel or there are videos on YouTube to help them to deliver their subject [for] the breadth of talent and learning abilities in their classroom.”

But with YouTube, Khan Academy and SOLE, we are drifting into flipped learning territory: the learning process by which pupils are delivered the core content via video tutorials for homework and then, in class, the learning is explored, misconceptions challenged and skills practised.

The trouble with this model is that pupils are unlikely to get that class time replicated in the digital world in the current context. Video conferencing is too messy – with its delays, signal hiccups and sound issues – to have proper discussions between teacher and pupils, and trawling through every student individually is just not practical time-wise. Yes, you can set the pupils a video to watch, but unless you are going to then consolidate that learning properly, you aren’t necessarily going to gain much, says Fraser.

“It’s important during the planning phase that schools don’t jump to technology solutions that might replace the strength of the relationship between teachers and pupils that has been built up over the past two terms,” he says. “They [teachers] have to think about how to sustain those relationships and use technology to enhance teaching and learning, not replace it.”

This means, for example, not just sending an email with instructions to watch a video, read a webpage and answer some questions. Teachers must guide and instruct classes before providing resources that complement this, using video lessons, presentations and lesson plans. In short, you can’t just believe a flipped approach will work if you are only going to do half a flip.

So, while YouTube, Khan and Mitra may give us confidence about a child’s utility to learn alone, if we want this to work, we need to ensure teacher engagement is still central to the learning process.

That means regular catch-ups and trying to lecture via video conferencing tools as much as possible. The former can be done via regular planned tutor time with small groups of students – say, four logging into a conference tool at a time – to review learning and support wellbeing. This could be timed so every group gets a feedback session weekly. For the latter, there is a whole range of video casting tools), but you could always record a video on your phone and put it on YouTube, too.

Heggart goes even further than you just having to be present: he says the key to distance-learning working is that it includes elements of a teacher’s sense of personality and teaching style.

“It is essential that students have a sense of who you are and what kind of person you are – there’s no one physically in the classroom, so you need to reach out and connect in different ways,” he says.

He says that this can be done via anything as simple as having a fun, personal (but, of course, professional) avatar for any profiles on online systems, through to ensuring any lectures or voice notes you record are read in your natural voice, not a slow, monotonous “robot” voice.

Digital distractions

As promising as all this sounds, the potential drawbacks of online learning need to be made clear. This is not to suggest they are immovable barriers to it happening successfully, rather that it’s better to know your enemy.

First, neuroscientist Jared Cooney Horvath wrote recently for Tes about how shifting teenagers into using tech for “work” not “pleasure” would be a lot harder than many thought. Citing research from the US, he pointed out that students reported using a computer for entertainment purposes – gaming, watching video clips, social media use – for around 32.5 hours per week, while time spent doing school work online, either at home or in school, was just 5.5 hours.

“The issue isn’t that students lack the ability to sustain attention. It’s that, once in front of a computer, they revert to the primary function (passive consumption of rapidly shifting media content) they have spent years establishing,” he says. “To learn effectively via computers, students must expend deliberate cognitive effort battling temptation and quelling response patterns cultivated over thousands of hours.”

These are legitimate concerns and no doubt many teachers will share them. But if we can continually remind students to put screen-time locks on tempting apps and to monitor their transgressions into non-work uses, we might begin to address the problem. Perhaps the continual use of tech for education may even begin to solve this issue.

Another concern is access. Data from the Office of National Statistics says that 7 per cent of homes have no internet connection. If even a fraction of these households include children, that is a lot of pupils who will be unable to access remote learning through digital channels. That said, some schools have addressed this with wi-fi dongles (small devices that connect to your smartphone, tablet or laptop and allow you to access the internet) for those in need.

And what about access to a suitable place to learn? The English Housing Survey revealed last year that more than 300,000 households were squeezed into too few rooms. How do the children in these homes “go to school” at home when they don’t have the devices, connections or space? To that, there is no easy answer.

Engagement is obviously also an issue: how will work done be monitored and assessed? Admittedly, this is an issue for non-digital online learning, too, but behaviour sanctions are hardly going to work remotely. Some schools are using “distant” punishments: the promise of the sanctions being enforced when the child returns to school. But how effective that will be is yet to be established.

And finally, it’s also worth acknowledging that, for all of teachers’ good intentions to try to deliver lessons remotely, some may struggle to adapt to this new way of working. Schools need to be aware of this and make allowances if things don’t go as well as hoped.

“It’s not reasonable to assume that teachers automatically have that skill set simply by virtue of being teachers,” says Heggart.

Constant training, mentoring by those more comfortable for those who are not, best-practice sharing – essentially continuous CPD – is going to be a must.

In truth, it is impossible to know how this situation will truly affect the teaching world. However, teachers are incredibly resourceful, committed and passionate about learning. For the most part, they won’t let the children down. They will seize on the small promise of the studies mentioned, they will absorb the advice detailed here and they will overcome challenges as they arise.

And when it is all over, we may not end up with the vision that those tech gurus, darlings of Silicon Valley and professors desire, but we will have a cohort of pupils who will be much better off because their teachers made the best of online learning – because they made it work or, rather, because they refused to allow it to fail.

Dan Worth is deputy commissioning editor at Tes

This article originally appeared in the 3 April 2020 issue under the headline “Going the distance”

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