It's always been part of my e-learning strategy to increase the use of digital technology among students and teachers – though my timescales have been somewhat compressed by recent events.
In lots of ways, though, we are better prepared for distance learning and teaching than ever before. The level of technology available to students is such that communication, collaboration and sharing resources, assignments and feedback has never been easier. Our school uses Microsoft Office 365 – though similar options are of course available through Google and other providers. In particular, we have been focusing on using Teams for classes, for remote learning.
I've been inspired by colleagues and educators around the world: both those at the bleeding edge of using technology in education, and those less comfortable with it, who have nevertheless embraced the challenges and opportunities of digital learning. Every teacher I've spoken to in recent weeks – in my school, on #edutwitter, or friends who teach in schools around the world – has demonstrated tremendous passion for our students’ wellbeing and continuing education. It's both heartwarming and humbling.
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It’s been a steep learning curve for everyone, but we’ve certainly learned a few key lessons ourselves:
- It’s OK to find it hard – while some people (myself included) love the tech, and enjoy playing and experimenting with it, many others don’t. And that’s fine!
- It’s OK to be honest with your students – don’t try to pass yourself off as an expert if you’re still finding your feet. Your students will understand that you are figuring things out; some of them will be equally nonplussed, while others may actually be able to help you (and their peers) to figure things out.
- It’s OK to make mistakes – indeed, it’s inevitable. Not everything will work perfectly, every time. Don’t panic, don’t obsess over what went wrong. Instead, learn from it, try to figure out a different way. And on that point…
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help. There are lots of places you can seek support. Your school will have staff who are more confident with technology and there is a lot of help available online. Microsoft have been pushing out tons of videos, Wakelets, blog posts and tweets offering support and suggestions; they have been really proactive in sharing useful sites, and responsive in answering queries and questions. There are lots of inspirational teachers out there, sharing ideas and lessons learned, too: a Twitter search for #edutwitter is a good place to start.
As to what we’re doing with all this tech? Well, at its most basic level we can use Teams (for individual classes, or year group cohorts) to communicate. Often that will be by text, but the video-conferencing in Meetings means we can actually teach lessons from home with relative ease, talking to our students, fielding questions, sharing our screens to model answers and annotations, or demonstrating our working. We can set homework assignments, mark and grade online, share links and resources. Of course, this is important for curricular skills and knowledge – but also for safeguarding and emotional wellbeing.
Many cynical adults may think students are delighted with the idea of staying off school – no doubt some are. But most young people I’ve spoken with are unsettled: fearful of the risk to their health and to the livelihoods of their loved ones, concerned about the impact on their futures. The chance to see a familiar face, have a little normality, a little human contact means a lot to them: we are using Teams with our form classes as frontline pastoral contact. Even something as silly as sharing videos of penguins walking round aquariums, or pictures of "drunk" elephants, can raise a smile and lift their spirits – and ours, too.
What exactly the future holds for digital learning remains to be seen. How will we maintain long-term engagement and enthusiasm? For teachers, as much as the students?
Ever the optimist, I prefer to consider the opportunities. What new ways of engaging with learning will we develop? What interesting strategies will we work out, together, as a profession? And what bold, new creativity will we unleash in our students?
Andy Leask is an English teacher at St George’s School for Girls in Edinburgh, and has been responsible for developing the school’s e-learning policy