Remote Learning - Lessons From Lockdown
Without any shadow of doubt, this whole situation surrounding the closing of schools and developing remote learning has been a very steep learning curve and a roller coaster of emotions, problem solving, upskilling, panic, trial and error and on the spot reflections to try and make sense of it all and make the best of a crisis situation.
During the past week, we have all had an opportunity for some check-in, catch-up and prepare. This morning, a colleague sent me a quote taken from this book:
“The pandemic teaching of mid-2020 was not really distance learning, but rather crisis teaching. But starting now, teachers have the opportunity to prepare for distance learning with purpose and intent—using what works best to accelerate students’ learning all the while maintaining an indelible focus on equity”.
This will strike a chord with many I'm sure and there have been some excellent blog posts offered by teachers, found here, which really sum up the journey well when taken together as a whole. However, seeing our learners face to face for the first time has allowed us to dig a little deeper into the whole situation from their perspective and the purpose of this post is to draw together the themes, problems and successes in order to steer our PLN in preparing for an effective and meaningful blended learning offer and hopefully support others as they wrestle with how to provide the best for our learners should this be the case in September.
The overwhelming feedback from many learners is the amount of work and the time it takes to get it done. They've spoken about logging in and just seeing so many things to do that they either panic or give up. Either way this is not a good start or experience for our learners and any blended offer needs to consider and plan carefully for the amount of work, subjects and realistic expectations in terms of time - both in terms of motivation and wellbeing. Ideally, this should be planned whole-school as our learners were clear that not having the structure of a timetable that clearly and carefully set out what subjects to do, when to do them and how long to spend doing them was a barrier. This should be organised on the basis of all subjects being studied being included but without overloading the learners. Our learners were clear they want a timetable to work to and structure their efforts.
In a similar way, many learners raised issues surrounding deadlines. Some teachers set them and some don't. They spoke of frustration with subjects that did not set a specific deadline for the work to be completed and that this either added to their anxiety or meant that it wasn't a priority and often got lost during the pressures of other work. It was clear that our learners want clear expectations and deadlines for work to be completed. With this in mind, a blended learning offer needs to establish clear routines and expectations in terms of setting and completion of work.
Another aspect learners raised was they didn't always understand the purpose of the lesson, activities and content and felt that sometimes the work being provided was a bit random and unconnected. This came as no surprise to me as it's super difficult to get any progression and sequence across activities in a remote setting and this is an area many teachers need to think carefully about within the planning for a possible blended approach. Learners want to know the purpose and want to see the links between assignment; and from a blended perspective, this will be even more difficult than for just remote learning as the input may come in different formats within the offer and at different times. Ensuring there is clarity across all input options will be crucial to avoid learner confusion and impacting motivation. For this reason, we believe it's vital to ensure any blended learning offer establishes clear guidance and expectations for teachers to provide clear links to syllabus, knowledge, skills and plan sequences of learning not isolated stand alone lessons in order to support the learners to stay in the learning zone.
A surprising bit of feedback was with respect to the level of challenge and amount of new content. The surprise came in the form of a few learners talking to me about the difference between work based on prior-knowledge and work based on new content. They stated that work based on new content takes longer even if video support and additional scaffolding is provided. In all honesty, I hadn't really considered it from this perspective but upon hearing their words it became blatantly obvious. Working in your comfort zone takes less time than working in the stretch zone. The learners felt this caused them lots of anxiety because wrestling with learning new knowledge, content and concepts was harder but the amount of work to be completed was the same. This led on to discussions about breaking the work down into smaller chunks to make it more manageable. In discussion we feel this is a vital area to be addressed particularly in the face to face aspect of the blended offer and that subsequent work should build on this. It is our view that a blended offer should involve creating a weekly or fortnightly cycle along the lines of:
feedback from previous work and summary of connections to syllabus/sequence/objectives (many feedback approaches may be appropriate but the offer needs to consider a small range of approaches to support their learners - whole-class, individual and also differentiated feedback)
introduction of new content in small chunks with opportunities for learners to ask questions and seek clarifications
modelling of assignment/task expectations - walk through tasks with examples to establish clarity
independent work based on prior-knowledge and new content
assess outcomes and generate feedback
Motivation was another clear message from our learners. They struggle a lot with keeping going and establishing a routine. They spoke of being easily distracted or finding it difficult with family around etc. They spoke of a lack of feedback on their work and posing questions that were never answered and as a result losing interest. There is no easy solution to this and the face to face aspect of blended learning would definitely support addressing this aspect. However, it may be possible that a blended learning offer could include a tutor drop-in online. This could be achieved with form tutors acting as conduits of information regarding specific issues and a wellbeing check-in. The blended offer could include a regular time where form tutors would be available for learners to drop in and share any specific issues (although clear protocols would be needed for this to occur online of course). Establishing clear lines of communication that aren't onerous or problematic is vital to both engagement and motivation. Keeping learners motivated is a consideration we cannot overlook as it's crucial to do all we can to keep them in the learning zone without undue pressure on their wellbeing. How can we transfer those positive comments and encouragements to support learners if the contact time is significantly reduced? We cannot underestimate the power of "You are really doing well, keep going!"