So, schools will begin to reopen in England from June 1st 2020, starting with primary schools and — more specifically — Years 1, 6 and Reception. There is controversy out there about how safe this is for children and teachers, whether it’s the right time to do this, and indeed how many parents will be confident in sending in their offspring to school at all. Whatever your position on that, this reopening still marks a watershed moment where we move from schools only being open for vulnerable children/critical worker kids to schools welcoming an increasing number of children and distanced home learning drawing to a close.
As we begin to move towards this ‘new normal’, I think it’s worth reflecting on the last two months of school closure and home learning to identify if there are some useful lessons we can draw from it. It’s difficult to know what lasting changes we might see in the education sector following coronavirus, but here are my main takeaways.
1. Technology can help with learning
I’ve believed this for a long time, but it’s been encouraging to see many other schools come to this conclusion too (in practice if not in articulated thought). It’s not necessarily been in all the snazzy ways that the EdTech proponents sometimes promote, but rather in the mundane but vital things like distributing learning resources via your learning platform, or providing digital tools to complete tasks, or allowing interactive communication between students and teachers via video conferencing or text chat. I wonder what kind of correlation there is between the amount of learning that has happened during lockdown and to what extent schools have made use of technology in their approach.
2. Kids need computers
With all of the benefits that technology can offer with home learning, it’s only possible if children actually have access to computers and the internet. That the UK government has put in place a scheme to provide these devices to families in need betrays the reality of a digital divide. At my school we have sought to provide loaner iPads for families who need them, which has definitely helped.
Once children are back in schools, the problem still stands though: if you’re going to use technology as a learning tool, it works best when there is ubiquitous access to it. We are incredibly fortunate to have a 1:1 iPad programme at my school, but it saddens me that this still is so rare in the state sector. I dream of the day when giving every child a computer is as obvious as giving every child their own pencil and exercise book.
3. Teachers need decent computers too
Our teachers are all assigned a modern iPad with a keyboard and Apple Pencil. This could have been considered excessive, but was has been so helpful during lockdown. Need to write your end of year reports? No problem – type away on that Smart Keyboard. Need to create PDF worksheets for your learning platform? Just use the PDF creation features built into the share sheet. Need to add the answers on top of a digital work sheet? Simply use markup tools and the Apple Pencil. Need to screen record an explanation to help students? There’s the built-in feature or something like Explain Everything.
4. There’s lots of options out there
A recent study in the US showed that 52% of students were using Google Classroom as the platform for home learning. Which means that Google must be doing something right (although not everything). But that means that nearly half of the students were using something else! We use Showbie, but I know that Seesaw, Microsoft Teams, Tapestry and Purple Mash are widely used. This is heartening in many ways, showing that there is still lots of innovation in the area of learning platforms and that schools are willing to find the best solution for their context.
5. But choose your technology carefully
Not all technology is created equally. If you’re in a position to evaluate and implement a technology solution, you need to have a clear idea of the problem you’re trying to solve, a vision of how technology can help and then a plan of you’re going to make that happen. You can then evaluate a potential technology stack with that in mind.
6. Technology can help with learning once we’re all back at school
My hope is that schools, having been plunged into the deep end of implementing a learning strategy with technology during school closures, will not file away the experience under ‘crazy things we did during lockdown’ but will actually implement some of it in the ‘normal’ classroom (i.e. the one where teachers and children can share a room unhindered…perish the thought!).
Sure, there’s probably no need for Zoom lessons once the teacher is standing in front of the class, but could video conferencing come in handy in any other ways? Maybe to link up with another classroom from across the globe? Or record explanations for children to refer back to?
And whilst printing, photocopying and physically handing a paper resource out to a class has many benefits, perhaps digital workflows and PDF annotating has a place? As a school, we’ve basically gone to zero photocopying whilst the school has closed , saving time, money and paper. Could much of this usefully continue?
I am sure that teachers at my school are looking forward to the option of using a wider range of apps with students – Book Creator, Clips, Keynote etc etc – rather than just Showbie. But you can sure do a lot with ‘just’ a combination of PDFs, voice memos, text annotation tools and the pen tool. I am hoping these competencies and confidences will not be lost but rather built upon in time.