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Online learning: Caught between a rock and a hard place

This lockdown is different for schools. It is very hard on teachers, parents and children. We are managing constant government policy and guidance changes. These are almost always at the last minute and communicated through the newspapers. The stress of this haphazard communication alone is taking a heavy toll. But the impact of the policies is worse.

The DfE have laid down minimum expectations for the numbers of hours of remote learning. Gavin Williamson then proclaimed live lessons as the ‘gold standard’ of remote learning, but without citing any evidence for this, or showing any understanding of how schools work. Live lessons might work for children in households where each child has their own device, their own space to use it, reliable high speed broadband, access to a working printer and a supportive and skilled non-working parent. But the reality for the majority of families is different. Multiple children trying to access a single device, often a phone which is reliant on expensive data in a single room. Without a printer, children or their parents attempting to copy out worksheets and other learning resources. The broadband cutting out as the teacher delivers a vital piece of information which is not retrievable as the lesson is live. Even in the best of circumstances, many parents find supporting online teaching difficult. But this is not the best of circumstances.

In the first lockdown, many parents were furloughed. This time that number is reduced. Fewer employers are allowing employees flexibility or being understanding of the fact they have children at home. Far, far more parents are being expected, required and pressured to go into work or work more hours from home. The increased number of key worker children in schools is clear evidence of this. The government is wanting Schrödinger’s lockdown: where people are staying home, but the economy is fully open. The consequent pressure on working parents is immense and causing huge stress to families.

Live lessons do not work for these parents. They need to be on their computers when the learning is being delivered, so often there is no device available for the child. They are not available to support the children and it is adding to the strain on the family, as well as the broadband.

But more importantly live lessons do not work for many children. They provide routine and structure. But there is no flexibility. Being online is far more intense than being in the classroom. It is different and needs a different approach, including the opportunity for increased breaks. If the teaching is live, there is no chance to review or to listen again. Anything that is missed is missed. In the classroom, there would be interactions with teachers, often support staff and other children to help them. Differentiation is very difficult with online teaching and even more so with live lessons. Children miss the interactions of others that help them inform and shape their views and understanding.

Over recent years, there have been ongoing concerns over the length of time children are spending online. Yet we appear to be following an educational approach that both increases the length of time that children are online and minimises their opportunities to be offline. The inflexibility of live remote teaching means that fewer children are able to get out for their daily exercise as it is nearly dark by the time they finish their lessons.

For teachers, online teaching is far harder than teaching in a classroom. There are the issues of managing the technology, the fear of the constant judgement, and often criticism, of watching parents and the enormous task of completely reviewing our entire way of working overnight. What has been achieved by school staff in terms of developing and sharing learning online has been extraordinary, but that comes at a price: exhaustion and the risk of complete burn-out. Teachers are now being threatened with pointless OFSTED inspections from people who have even less idea about delivering online learning than they do. This adds to the pressure for no clear benefit.

So why have we got to this place? We are in the middle of a global pandemic. This has placed a huge pressure on the government who are dealing with the unknown which I recognise as difficult. But their reactive approach, incompetence and inability to make timely decisions have exacerbated issues. But this crisis is shaped by their underlying misconceptions about education.

The government both believes that teachers are lazy and confuses teaching and learning. This means that they do not believe that teachers are working or that children are learning unless the teacher is standing in front of a class and talking. The only way to reproduce this when the majority of children are learning from home is the live lesson. This misses that the teacher speaking and children listening is only a small part of the learning process.

The demand for live lessons misses that teachers are continuing to work to produce online and other learning when they are not standing in front of a class. Further, learning is more than school, it is more than listening to a teacher. It is about the engagement and participation in the process. Actual learning takes place through the child processing and interacting with the material. In school, this is best supported by interaction with the teacher. It might seem as if having the teacher live online is the best way of replicating this, but it is not. The access issues are greater than the advantages for the majority of children. Access to the teacher, the exchange of information, the responses to learning are key. But these can be replicated without live teaching and arguably more effectively.

The real problem with learning in this lockdown is the complete devaluation of the other skills that children might be able to learn. I wrote in the first lockdown about the importance of allowing, recognising and valuing the other skills that children were developing. The opportunity to bake a cake, build a wall, go for a nature walk. The things learnt by looking after a sick relative or dealing with a death. The government obsession with catch up and missed curriculum ignores this and feeds into the panic behind the high demand and low flexibility remote learning curriculum. This in turn is creating a real need for catch up and increases the gaps between those able to access every aspect of an online curriculum, including live teaching, and those who are not. Some of these children will be in school, but many will not. They will be the children of ordinary working parents who are struggling to meet the demands of their jobs and their children’s education and will often feel they are failing at both.

Most children are not in school. We need to be able to deliver education that fits with family life and the reality of our IT capabilities rather than pursue a tarnished ‘gold standard’ based in misconceptions about education, distain for teachers’ professionalism and commitment and a lack of concern for children and families’ wellbeing.

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