'Ofsted needs to embrace online learning'

Why would Ofsted not encourage a maths teacher to take advantage of free online maths websites, asks Bradley Lightbody

Bradley Lightbody

Online learning: Why is the Ofsted inspection framework a digital desert?

A bit like the plot of the film Yesterday, it is as though a power cut hit Ofsted in early 2019 – but it wiped out the existence of the internet rather than the Beatles.  The digital world has been entirely excised from the education inspection framework (EIF) with not a single criterion reference to anything digital and likewise the first wave of inspection reports are a digital desert. Ofsted has denied any policy change and points to the standard disclaimer in the Ofsted Inspectors’ handbook: "Ofsted has no preferred teaching style."

However, by inclusion and exclusion, Ofsted strongly influences what schools and colleges prioritise. Nationwide, CPD linked to memory and spaced practice is on the rise following the emphasis given to neuroscience research by the Education Inspection Framework. Consequently, should we conclude that Ofsted is downgrading the significance of online learning and the development of students’ digital skills? Prior to the EIF, both aspects were included in all inspection frameworks, and inspection reports routinely presented good practice examples of online learning.

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Ofsted is missing a trick

Many of us will remember the Ofsted good practice checklist for "good" lessons published in 2005, which included the criterion interesting and relevant use of ICT”.  The promotion of ICT and/or online learning has continued through every inspection framework right up to 2018, which included the criterion “participation in distance learning activities, such as online learning and the use of the [virtual learning environment (VLE)]".  However, the EIF has excluded all things digital across every inspection category:

  • Quality of education: No reference to online VLE resources to support learning beyond the classroom or digital classroom tools to facilitate interactions and especially the many apps to underpin "all response" Q&A and spaced practice quizzing. No reference to the many online feedback tools that permit whole-class, subgroup and individual learning support, or peer to peer collaborative learning tools. No promotion of independent online learning beyond the classroom or advance (flipped) preparation for lessons.
  • Personal development: The EIF specifies the importance of building skills for future learning, employment and life in modern Britain but without a single reference to digital skills or wider employability skills. Prior to the EIF, all other inspection frameworks included ICT skills as a core skill alongside English and mathematics. This was in keeping with official 2016 government guidance: “As a minimum, all children should leave school digitally literate with the skills needed in the workplace and to realise social outcomes. To this end, digital literacy should be seen as a core skill alongside English and maths.”

    This guidance was amplified by the House of Lords report in 2017, Growing up with the internet: Digital literacy should be the fourth pillar of a child’s education alongside reading, writing and mathematics, and be resourced and taught accordingly." More recently, in June 2019 the outgoing secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport, Jeremy Wright, in a speech during London Tech Week, stated: The best way to future-proof our economy is to make sure we have a digitally skilled workforce at all levels.”  Clearly it can be argued that the EIF’s broad, generic references to knowledge and skills embrace digital but why not make it explicit and endorse the importance of digital skills? Why the hesitancy? Ofsted itself operates within a digital environment, as evidenced by the recent Ofsted advertisements for digital content managers.
  • Behaviour and attitudes: Whereas Ofsted criteria  from 2015-18 included a specific criterion in relation to guarding against online grooming, exploitation and bullying, this criterion has been removed from the EIF. It does appear in a truncated form in the schools’ inspection criteria but otherwise it requires a deep dive into the more obscure publication Inspecting Safeguarding to discover it. This begs the question, why make it implicit within the headline criteria rather than explicit? "Behaviour" might also usefully address appropriate personal use of social media.

The scale of Ofsted’s retreat from online learning is evident from the following quotation from Ofsted’s January 2009 specialist report on Virtual Learning Environments (VLE): As the routine use of computers becomes all-pervasive, there is an expectation that VLEs will form a significant part of the next generation's experience of learning … The best VLEs enhance learning, giving learners the opportunity to reinforce aspects of their work as well as the chance to catch up on missed material.

Ofsted’s prediction was accurate because, a decade later, it would be very unusual for a teacher not to make extensive use of a VLE for extending and supporting learning. In addition, the technology has significantly advanced. VLEs are increasingly giving way to learning management systems (LMS), sporting a wealth of AI-enabled adaptive learning tools to track and guide progress, provide personalised feedback and prompt additional support and acceleration as appropriate.  

In 2020, the majority of people, not just students, are comfortable online. We regularly communicate online, shop, download music, stream films, book holidays, conduct banking, access government services and find what we want to know via Google. No doubt, following Christmas 2019, many more homes will sport a smart speaker and will ask Alexa.  In Bolton College, the students already ask Ada, their own home-grown digital assistant, for assistance with any aspect of their study programme. Online learning has moved well beyond the realm of the tech enthusiast and is a regular day-to-day reality for students and teachers.

What about online learning?

Even a cursory glance at the digital tools provided by LMS providers like Itslearning, Century Tech, Canvas and Google Education will reveal the substantial benefits for students in engaging with online learning. Teachers also gain from automated marking, feedback and common high-quality resources.

Those benefits were acknowledged by the Department for Education’s Technology Strategy publication published in April 2019 at a time when the EIF was being finalised: "Edtech is not a silver bullet. In the 21st century, it should be seen as an inseparable thread woven throughout the processes of teaching and learning. It’s senseless to pretend it isn’t something that every teacher and every learner uses, every day. What we should concentrate on is when and in which ways it is best deployed to support these processes.”   

A month earlier in March 2019, the chief executive of the UK Education Endowment Foundation, Sir Kevan Collins, commented: “The question is no longer whether technology should have  a place in the classroom, but how technology can most effectively be integrated.” Clearly there is a limit to what any teacher can impart within the short space of timetabled lessons but teacher-selected online resources can be available 24-7.

Consequently, why would Ofsted not encourage a maths teacher to take advantage of the many, many free online maths websites and YouTube channels to offer stretch and challenge and additional support as appropriate? The EIF also fails to acknowledge or reflect the Digital Teaching Standards published by the Education and Training Foundation in April 2019, again at a time when the EIF was being finalised. The standards specify embedding digital resources and tools across seven different aspects of teaching, learning and assessment. There is an expectation that teachers will work towards, gain and apply the digital standards but the EIF contains no similar expectations within leadership or management expectations or teachers’ CPD provision.    

It would appear that Ofsted, in formulating the EIF, is not only out of step with the Department for Education but has missed an opportunity to give leadership to schools and colleges in relation to directing good practice for the integration of online learning within the classroom. A bare reading of the EIF "implementation" criteria gives the impression that learning is something that happens between a teacher and students within the confines of a timetabled lesson with nothing beyond.  No doubt that was never the intent but that is its impact.

Bradley Lightbody is managing director at Collegenet.co.uk  and author of Great Teaching and Learning 

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