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Coronavirus lockdown – Will there be an online learning legacy?

Distance learning isn’t perfect, but it will most likely have a more prominent profile in education after this episode is behind us, says Lord Jim Knight…

Lord Jim Knight
by Lord Jim Knight
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The shutdown provided us with an opportunity to re-evaluate many aspects of education, particularly the role of online learning. There has been a long standing interest in the role of online learning in our schools, but in the past few months it has jumped suddenly from the edge to the mainstream.

While primary teachers quickly grasped the challenge of moving learning online in extremely difficult circumstances and worked swiftly to employ a range of existing technology platforms to help support children’s learning during the lockdown, larger organisations and government began to produce resources to support homeschooling.

Schools and organisations across the sector joined together to develop Oak National Academy and the BBC launched three months of online and broadcast programming for pupils of primary and secondary ages.

As we begin to look beyond lockdown it is becoming clearer that online learning will remain a part of schooling. We know it is not perfect, and experiences have ranged from the good to the poor, but I think that online will have a more prominent profile in learning after this episode is behind us.

Now schools are slowly reopening, it’s time to test how a blend of online and offline learning may work.

Heads and teachers have concerns about the practicalities of social distancing, especially with younger primary children, so we may see a situation in which schools operate in shifts so that they can accommodate pupils as safely as possible.

While part-time schooling may be a headache for heads, online learning could help to supplement face-to-face classroom teaching.

In the meantime, schools will continue to focus on delivering at least an outline curriculum for children over the next few weeks – and make a special effort to target additional learning support to children who need it.

I think it would be helpful if schools, government and parents – and the broader education community – could shift their expectations and make this brave new temporary world more about social and emotional support and contact for pupils, rather than just learning outcomes.

In those distant days before the pandemic struck, we struggled to strike the right balance between the academic, the emotional and the social.

Since we’re in a time where the rapid reinvention and re-evaluation of learning has become commonplace, I believe that we should play to our natural instincts as social and emotional animals and focus more on the emotional and social aspect of schooling.

Technology can make this easier to achieve. It is, for example, easy for classes to come together regularly in an online learning or video conferencing platform so that children maintain a sense of class community, learning and pastoral leadership from their teacher.

It’s an opportunity for pupils to gather in a common space and connect with each other as well as learn.

I know there are many primary schools across the country already adopting this kind of approach with morning and afternoon ‘check-in’ sessions and I think it is useful to look to these for inspiration. There is certainly a need for wellbeing support at this time.

Educare, a subsidiary of Tes, has seen huge demand from schools for its online training around children’s mental health which it developed with the charity Young Minds.

At the end of all this we will need to reflect on what we have learnt about teaching, learning, technology and ourselves. I am sure the debate about the validity of Year 6 SATs will gain further traction if teacher assessments provide an adequate solution this summer.

The role of parents as partners in children’s education will also be a consideration, given that parents have had to step up and play a far more prominent role in their child’s learning in recent weeks.

It has been an extraordinary time for our primary schools. Heads and teachers across the country have proven their remarkable energy, their commitment and their inventiveness in shifting schooling to the online realm.

As we begin to look forward to at least a partial return to normality, the next challenge will be to ensure that some of the changes leave a lasting legacy.

Lord Jim Knight is chief education and external officer at Tes Global, an international education business supporting schools in their work to improve children’s lives through education. He is a Member of the House of Lords and a former schools minister. Follow him on Twitter at @lordjimknight.

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