As Covid restrictions are lifted, school leaders are beginning to plan strategies and allocate resources to ensure that their school’s digital learning environment meets the needs and manages the expectations of staff, pupils and parents/carers beyond the pandemic.
School leaders are building scenarios for a future that incorporates online learning, recognising that there are positives to take forward out of the pandemic. They recognise that their role is to remove barriers and support online learning, ensuring that it evolves in a manner that is sustainable and robust.
A useful approach is to look at capability and capacity, the potential of pupils and staff to take advantage of online learning, and for school leaders to make it happen. Changes need to be measured, appropriate and relevant.
Leading School Learning Through Covid-19 and Beyond is an on-going 18-month research project being led by The Open University looking at how secondary school leaders in England strategically manage and plan for online provision of learning, through the pandemic and beyond (for more details, including a forthcoming free webinar opportunity, see further information).
As we look ahead to September, there are a number of elements to emerge from our preliminary findings about online learning that schools can take forward…
Wider curriculum offering
Online learning provides an opportunity to offer a wider curriculum to year 9 to 11 pupils. There are inevitable clashes with timetables and pupils cannot always choose the subjects they want to study.
It is possible for students to take a subject online so that they can study what they want and avoid timetable clashes. Where running a class is not viable, for example if a small group wanted to study an additional language, online learning also enables schools to run that part of the curriculum online. There is the possibility of schools collaborating to co-run curriculum subjects, too.
There is scope for flexibility within timetables, offering a mix of online and face-to-face delivery. Schools can look beyond standard class numbers by running some classes online. During Covid, schools have been teaching whole year groups and whole school assemblies have been reported to work well.
Online Saturday support classes
Before Covid-19, staff and pupils used to have to come into school for Saturday classes. But due to Covid, schools have been running Saturday classes online, which stops them having to be open physically out-of-hours. It is kinder to staff, too, who would have had to travel in just to run a one-hour class. Saturday classes have proved popular during Covid. One school reported 80 per cent attendance for Saturday support classes between 9am and noon.
Schools are recognising that online learning can provide personalised learning that can be responsive, bespoke and tailored to pupils’ development.
Pupils with different physical, sensory and educational requirements also need different tools. Online learning is generally more accessible to pupils who use assistive technologies (Daulby, 2019), but there are many ways content and learning activities can be designed to offer better support.
Schools have reported that online learning has resulted in a more inclusive environment and that some SEND students have mostly had a better experience as they have been in-school or been given one-to-one support via online break-out rooms.
Schools will continue to utilise learning platforms for learning resources – this can be of benefit to all students, in particular those with dyslexia. This can also support pupils who are too unwell to attend school. Online material can be provided to stretch students, too.
Beyond Covid, schools will continue to use online platforms so that pupils can access learning and submit work for marking. Some pupils respond well to having access to work in advance of lessons.
During the pandemic, online break-out rooms have been employed to provide one-to-one or small group work support. For example, if pupils are struggling with a concept during a live class, they can be supported and then brought back into the main room. Heads also report that some pupils enjoyed having flexibility in their school day, taking breaks when they wish and having some control and choice over the order of their day and what they learn when.
Parents’ evenings and governor meetings
Schools report that parents’ evenings have worked much better online: it puts an end to parents waiting around if one discussion overruns and it stops parents and staff having to come out in the evening after work. Parents have generally reported positively about parents’ evenings being online and there has been increased attendance. Governor and staff meetings are also reported to have worked very well online.
However, schools will still run face-to-face meetings once or twice a year, as they do not want to lose that vital element of parents visiting the school.
The pandemic has brought many challenges. Skills of collaboration, problem-solving and communication have been enhanced through the use of technology and online collaboration.
Collaborating with other schools has brought about a considerable amount of innovation. Working online, schools have drawn upon their local networks, local businesses and the community.
Secondary schools have worked more closely with their local primary schools too. Often they share families and where there has been a break-down in trust or relationships, the other school has stepped in. Sometimes there are safeguarding issues and either the primary or the secondary are better placed to work with the parents.
Although schools have worked with local networks before, the pandemic has seen this work expand. Some schools have formed "communities of practice" for online learning, sharing approaches, problems, solutions etc. Schools have worked with their local authorities and drawn upon other collaborations via TeachMeets and such groups. These digital steering groups are set to continue after Covid.
In some cases, schools have involved local business leaders to facilitate online discussions, enabling pupils to access industry experts. This bringing of the workplace into the classroom through the online space is something many schools want to continue to develop, building closer ties with employers.
Some schools are working to place all of their curriculum online and are collaborating with tech companies to form collaborations and receive funding and support for a whole-school approach.
As the use of online learning develops, school leaders need to explore how they support the development of teaching and support staff as well as how we develop pupils’ and parents’ digital skills as resources for learning. Any vision for online learning can only be delivered by staff who are equipped to provide this.
As school leaders look towards September, consideration needs to be given to how skills can be integrated into the day-to-day professional practice of all staff, whatever their curriculum area or role, rather than things being left to a few specialists.
School leaders have shared how they are considering how student-facing staff are supported in their development, for example in understanding how digital technologies can support day-to-day learning habits as well as subject-specific practices.
Teaching staff need access and time to keep up-to-date with new approaches and new ways of using technology to support and record learning, wherever it takes place. Consideration also needs to be given to the IT environment and how it can be used for teaching and learning, and to appreciate the value of innovation and specialisation as well as safety and standardisation.
Remember: pupils’ confidence in online learning and their satisfaction with its use appear to be determined, to a certain extent, by the confidence of their teachers.
There are still barriers for staff to using and embracing online learning, not least workload, capabilities and confidence. During Covid-19, some schools have advised how middle leaders and heads of departments have embraced online learning and have been supporting staff to make online learning happen. School leaders are also considering how to equip them with coaching skills in order to help them support teaching staff.
In terms of change-management, schools within our project have been agile and flexible about changes. But any online strategy needs to be contextualised. Turning your strategy aims into meaningful terminology for staff to use in their practice is important.
A key factor is ensuring that the people who need to be engaged understand why it is happening, why it matters, what the impact is – especially when you are talking about bringing online learning into the curriculum. Some schools have set-up digital focus groups drawing upon a range of stakeholders.
Leading School Learning Through Covid-19 and Beyond
The research project is being led by The Open University and is looking at how secondary school leaders in England strategically manage and plan for online provision of learning, through the pandemic and beyond. Visit www.open.ac.uk/projects/leading-online-learning
A free webinar
The research team is hosting a free webinar when their interim findings will be discussed. Taking place on June 29 from 4:30pm to 6pm, the team will share findings from the initial pilot study and invite school leaders and other attendees to contribute. For details, visit https://bit.ly/34UCooq
School leaders are invited to complete a 10-minute survey and take part in an online 30-minute interview (all participants will receive a £20 Amazon voucher). For the survey, visit https://reading.onlinesurveys.ac.uk/covid_survey_2021 and to book an interview slot, go to https://squ.re/3pqNlr6
Daulby: Using assistive technology to give SEND learners independence, Impact, January 2019: https://bit.ly/3imEqFL