Following the Welsh Government’s decision to re-open Wales’ schools on June 29th, Nerys Defis considers some of the challenges of remote learning and its impact on schools, teachers, pupils and parents...

For some, the re-opening of schools in Wales at the end of June signals a return to some normality, following disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. A move that enables education to return to its familiar realm – the classroom.

In reality, the classrooms our children will return to, will be far removed from the familiar.  For the remainder of the summer term, the ‘new-normal’ will be sporadic, not daily, visits to school. Class numbers will be significantly reduced and some pupils will not return at all before September.

According to Welsh Government guidance published on June 10th, it is expected that only a third of pupils will be able to attend school at any one time. As a result, whether they decide to send their children back to school or not, parents will continue to educate their children from home for much of the school week.

The experience of home schooling has been an eye opener for many parents. Motivating their children to complete tasks may be a challenge; teaching methods may have changed since their time in school; whilst working with their child may have also proved to be a wonderful and memorable experience.

For teachers, the move to online teaching seemed to happen almost overnight. A matter of setting up activities on platforms such as Google Classrooms, adapting resources and getting stuck-in. Without a doubt, our teaching workforce has developed a wide range of technological skills over the past few weeks in order to remotely convey their lessons, and learning ideas, to their pupils.

In the best examples, teachers (and support staff) have been creative in adapting their traditional whole-class, face-to-face teaching into online teaching experiences. Some examples are the provision of screencasting guidance videos; the creation of demonstrative clips; a willingness to model, engage and even sing to their pupils, whilst using a range of apps and software.

Nevertheless, not all teachers have comfortably embraced online teaching. This could be due to a lack of time to adapt, illness, absence and even a lack of confidence. Whilst some schools and classes prepare well-adapted materials for their pupils, others continue to work in a more traditional manner. Tasks are listed, passages of workbooks and PDF worksheets are copied online. Many activities are closed tasks, as opposed to being open-ended, and therefore pupil voice and differentiation possibilities are lacking.

Effective online teaching is by no means just a matter of placing teaching content in a digital format. This is a view shared by experts in the field of online teaching such as The Open University, who trialled their first fully online course almost 20 years ago.

However, whilst online teaching is not new to higher education settings, or to secondary settings to a lesser extent, within the primary sector it maps out new territory. Certainly, sector-leading examples of effective online teaching in the primary sector are less well-explored.

One area that has been increasingly explored during the recent lockdown, is the experience of online-teaching from a learner’s perspective. The evidence so far suggests there is much variety and some inconsistencies. Factors such as the nature of the provision; pupils’ access to the provision; and the amount of available support, can all have an effect.

This variety is highlighted by UCL Institute of Education’s ‘Schoolwork in lockdown’ report. Professor Francis Green found that both the nature of work prepared for pupils varied greatly, as did the amount of time pupils spent on schoolwork. Strikingly, 21.6% of pupils surveyed in Wales were doing no schoolwork or less than an hour’s schoolwork every day, the second highest rate in the UK after Scotland at 26%.

Furthermore, the type of provision given to pupils in Wales also varied from other UK regions. The research suggests that pupils in Wales are provided with less online lessons than other parts of the UK: 14.6% of pupils in Wales were receiving four or more online lessons per day, compared with the highest rate of 28% of pupils in the south-east of England. The nature of the online provision in Wales also differed, with only 2% of pupils receiving online synchronous teaching, compared to 12.5% of pupils surveyed in London.

What does not seem to be considered within Professor Green’s report is that some local authorities in Wales have made policy decisions that affect teachers’ choices in delivering online lessons, such as advising teachers not to teach on-line sessions without another member of staff also being present.

There is also no discussion of tasks that may require daily engagement from the pupils but do not require interacting on a lesson-by-lesson basis. Such examples would be extended tasks and projects, activities that will span over a number of lessons and that enable more pupil autonomy and creativity. 

However, the overall message within the Schoolwork in lockdown report seems to be as relevant to Wales as to all other areas of the UK, namely that: “The closure of schools, and their only-partial re-opening, constitute a potential threat to the educational development of a generation of children.” Moreover, those threats to educational development are particularly acute for pupils from deprived areas and backgrounds.

One aspect of online learning that particularly affects disadvantaged pupils are accessibility issues. For some learners, the online provision may be excellent but their access to it is limited.

In the Welsh Government’s ‘Our national mission’ action plan, Education Minister Kirsty Williams noted her goal of ensuring that ‘no child is left behind’. One example of this in action was the announcement on April 29th of a Welsh Government £3m package to support ‘digitally excluded’ learners during the coronavirus pandemic.

Such developments indicate the Welsh Government’s awareness of the challenges faced by disadvantaged children and their positive steps towards supporting those learners. However, yet more learners remain hampered by dated equipment or even sharing the household computer with other family members. Added to internet speed issues in some areas of Wales, there seems to be a plethora of access issues for schools and local authorities to consider.

As we look towards the longer-term provision of online teaching for our pupils, it is worth listening to the views of Wales’ children, as captured by the Children’s Commissioner for Wales’ survey, ‘Coronavirus and Me’. Over 23,700 children between three and 18 years of age took part in the survey, and responded to questions on issues such as play and leisure, feelings and education.  

The survey’s ‘free text’ answers capture the extent school closure has affected children’s lives in ways that facts and figures do not. Comments from year six pupils highlight their missed right of passage as they move from primary to secondary education. Older secondary school pupils are overwhelmingly concerned by the uncertainty of exam cancellations. Even feelings of anger are discussed when pupils deem that their exam preparations and effort have seemingly gone to waste.

The survey overview also captures a sense of isolation. When asked how they could be better helped, many children and young people simply stated they “would like greater support and contact from their school”.

Existing research has shown that, without careful pastoral care, isolation is a familiar by-product of online education. Lack of support with schoolwork is one contributing factor. This could be lack of home-support or could be a lack of interaction between pupils and their school.

Some schools are contacting pupils and parents on a daily basis, but this isn’t feasible for everyone. And even when schools are reaching out regularly, messages and phone calls can be ignored, with no possibility for staff to be entirely sure that all learners are coping well.

In reality, the move to remote teaching brought on by the coronavirus lockdown, has left very little time for reflection. This is by no means an issue for Wales alone. An independent report for UNESCO looking at ‘approaches to distance learning during COVID-19 school closures’ found that, at the point of writing in March 2020, 165 countries had announced school closures as part of their strategy to slow the spread of coronavirus. These closures were affecting over 1.5 billion students worldwide.

UNESCO’s report advises that educational planning should take a three-phase approach during the pandemic. In Wales, the initial ‘stop gap approach’ has taken place, with the mainly safety-focussed, swift closure of schools. This ensuring of safety is rightly considered the most important element.

Currently, it seems we are in the second phase of pandemic educational planning. Practices are developing and evolving; long-term solutions are being considered to the challenges of online, remote teaching.

Once again, current worldwide school closures are found to expose and magnify already existing inequities within education systems. However, the report also considers that pedagogical innovation and blended learning during this time could ensure “inclusive and equitable education for all”.

The question for Wales’ education sector is – how do we achieve and deliver this inclusive and equitable form of education? Compared with many countries, Wales is in a comparatively strong position. Technological solutions and blended learning are a real possibility. The Welsh Government’s introduction of the Hwb learning platform, and the inclusion of a wider suite of software in 2019, now looks like a stroke of genius. The technological infrastructure is already in place.

Further professional development of teachers will be key in moving forward and ensuring the Hwb platform is fully utilised. However, the UNESCO report also emphasises that the focus of education should be a development of the whole child. Technology will aid the learning process, but we must also remember it is also a means of communicating and supporting – for both pupils, parents, and also for the teaching community itself.

“The point is to ensure teachers have the resources, skills, support and conditions to teach, and that students have the resources, infrastructure and support to learn.”

(Thinking about Pedagogy in an Unfolding Pandemic, p.1)

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