Distance learning? It's business as usual...of a sort

The technology froze – and then sent out multiple copies of the set work to the entire class. This, says Stephen Petty, would have surprised none of his pupils

Irate man puts his fist through a computer screen

Distance learning” did not begin well for me this week.

As was perhaps foreseeable, Monday morning saw thousands of fellow home-based teachers and pupils simultaneously logging on to the likes of Show My Homework, Teams, Kerboodle and Google Classroom. 

Many of these much-revered teaching tools soon began to quiver visibly under the sheer weight of traffic. The quivering eventually ceased on my screen and was replaced by an apparent permafrost.

The learning tool now began to ignore me completely, however many times I thrust the mouse or poked the keyboard. 

Or, at least, I thought it was ignoring me. Suddenly the system lurched back into hyperactive life, revealing in a rapid sequence of flashing screens that it had plainly registered every single repeated instruction. My first piece of set work of the day was not going to be easily missed by that class – it was now heading their way multiple times. 

Business as usual: achieved

This would surprise none of the young recipients at the other end. They have their doubts about me and new technology. “Try to make them think it’s business as usual,” our SLT had advised us last week, so I suppose I had at least achieved that. 

In some ways, it did feel like business as usual for me, as I am quite used to being helplessly stuck in traffic first thing Monday morning. The difference this week was that I could no longer unload my frustrations onto those selfish, smug, sliproad-exploiting cheats who queue-jump their way around clogged-up Oxford. 

This time, I just sat there at home on my computer, sadly aware that absolutely nobody was to blame. Quite the reverse. Everyone concerned was just trying to crack on with their work as soon and as best they could in these uniquely dismal circumstances

Given the ongoing congestion, I eventually plucked up the courage to take a break, despite its not coinciding with the official school bell for the end of period one. This, of course, felt deeply wrong. It was as if I had become a ring-road cheat myself. 

Good questions

I went for a short walk in the sunshine and came across a very earnest non-teaching neighbour. He had a few questions for me, which he bellowed from a suitable 20 metres away down the path. 

“Why are teachers on the list of key workers?” he asked. Weren’t we just looking after the children of the “real” key workers?

It was a good question, and I thanked him for it. I suspect the truth is that the government just didn’t want us teachers to “cry about it”, as my classes would put it. 

He also doubted whether we could possibly predict GCSE results accurately. How could we allow for the common phenomenon of the “boys’ late spurt”, as he put it, with understandable hesitance.

It was another good question. I do so hope Ofqual are discussing it. I decided it was time to get back to work. 

By the afternoon, the system had cleared a little. I was even starting to spot notifications coming back to me from students. On closer inspection, I realised that some of the little snakes were already submitting work for marking. I hadn’t allowed for this, not on the very first day.

And, of course, one young comedian in Year 10 had responded in kind and posted his work back to me several times over. Let’s hope I never have to predict his exam grade one day. 

Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams' School in Thame, Oxfordshire

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