The weak link in online teaching? Reliable internet

Pupils complaining about a loss of internet access is the new 'the dog ate my homework' – but when it happened to Yvonne Williams, her perspective changed instantly

Yvonne Williams

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IT education can look so easy to the outsider.  

But those of us online know only too well the pressures of maintaining the teaching. 

Initially, it was learning how to use the various apps and IT platforms. Being conversant in apps is like being multilingual.  Each new acquisition takes time to work out. 

But the elephant in the virtual classroom now is the one thing out of the control of teachers and schools: Connection to the internet. 

An intermittent and interrupted service

For years we have wrestled with an unsatisfactory service in my neck of the woods.  A passing gale or thundershower can leave us staring at the thick flashing orange line on our hub seething with frustration.   

Luckily the connection, though intermittent, is usually restored. 

On other occasions, the men working in the road outside school would cut through the internet cable. It often took longer to restore the problem in those situations.

In the past, though, I could compensate for these shortcomings by leaving home an hour earlier in the morning. I could then use the school IT to send out emails or update the necessary systems.

And, of course, teaching could carry on in the good old-fashioned way. 

Stranded without broadband connection

Now, though, the internet is literally vital.

Despite this, I’m often sceptical when my students report problems with the internet – if I can use it why can’t they?  But on the last day of June, my lost connection was on a different scale altogether.

Earlier, my Year 11 lesson had occasionally dropped me out of Teams, but with judicious disconnecting and re-connecting, I could return.  

The discussion seemed a bit surreal with the mini-gaps in between discussion of motive and opportunity in detective fiction, our chosen genre.  But I am used to bridging these short gaps in transmission.

Eventually, though, the orange light on the router glowing brightly become permanent and it was clear I was out for longer than a few minutes. 

It wasn’t just a matter of losing a lesson – I could phone the school who would send out an email to explain and my lost lesson could be reprised later.

The bigger concern was that, in less than an hour’s time, I had a string of parents’ evening appointments to host, neatly booked on a new and unfamiliar app. Things were looking desperate. 

If I couldn’t connect online, then I would be writing a string of emails to send at some unspecified point when service resumed and then having to manually re-arrange appointments on Teams. Both options are time-intensive –and still reliant on internet use.

The 50 minutes I was cut off were probably the longest in my teaching career. They left me with a lot of work to make up to restore the continuity of teaching. 

I could certainly empathise a lot more with the students who have been left without the hardware or the local bandwidth to work online.

Compensating for the lack of connection

In fact, in that moment, I would have sacrificed a great deal for the certainties offered by some schools that have to operate beyond the bandwidth.

Vic Goddard, head of Passmores Academy (featured in the show Educating Essex) may have come under attack because his academy has no online presence in the education ether.  

But if many of his students either didn’t have the equipment or the bandwidth to access the same service as other students, some accommodation has to be made.

He has compensated for the lack of infrastructure by sending out work every three weeks so that everyone can access the work and return it for assessment.  

If the critics in the political and media echo chambers want to do something useful to help educate the younger generation, perhaps a quick look at the broadband infrastructure of the country might not be a bad place to start – after all, if remote learning will have to be blended with in-school teaching for a while longer, it's going to be vital we do.

Yvonne Williams is head of English and drama in a school in the south of England.

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