Who are we now?
Elly Tobin, senior consultant at Consilium Education, has been listening to teachers and students talking about their experiences of online learning.
What are we to make of it all? Where have we come from and where are we going?
Given the challenges ahead, searching for the silver lining in our approach to learning will be important. Since we can’t change what has happened, we must adapt. Adjustments will require a cognitive reframing for the way we view our schools. A good starting point, it seemed to me will be listening, so over lockdown I interviewed teachers and students and asked what they were going through. Here’s what they talked about.
Many of the people I connected with found it difficult to judge who was not engaged in the virtual classroom. Nadia commented, “ In the classroom I can tell who is not ‘getting it’ just by looking at my students but I can’t do that in the same way online.”
Some teachers found it hard adapting to digital presentations: the feeling that they were ‘digital immigrants‘ in an unfamiliar world created anxieties. The intimacy that online teaching created was also an unusual and sometimes unwelcome aspect of online learning where students had a glimpse into the private world of their teachers like never before.
Since lessons were not interspersed with the social interaction of their usual classroom, teachers had to keep in mind the short on-screen attention span when planning. Some students raced through the curriculum at a faster pace than others, so people felt extra pressure to create extended learning tasks to maintain their enthusiasm. For others, group or pair work was difficult to get going.
Working online was often exhausting for teachers concentrating and staring at a screen for hours with a wide range of classes. Reassuring students that they are there for them and supporting them was also harder in isolation. A pleasing outcome for many was the flexibility in the working day and receiving more student thanks in messages and emails than ever before.
Could eLearning be faster for students who study without on-campus distractions? Definitely for some. Sofia, a teenager I spoke to was able to complete two weeks work in 5 days over lockdown. With the extra time she enrolled in an online fashion course delivered on FutureLearn. Some liked the opportunity to revisit the recorded lessons at their own pace, while ten year old Sienna reinforced for me the possible inequality in online learning because of differences in home environments. She talked about her friend’s internet frequently crashing so that he missed half the lessons. She also pointed out that her classrooms are decorated with visual aids reinforcing learning points. Not being able to look at those charts to help her with assignments was stressful. Another student told me she was never sure when to ask a question in an online lesson and that made her nervous, so she stayed silent, unlike in class where she participated more.
Most students missed the activities that punctuate a normal school day, like break times with friends from other classes and lunch time in the cafeteria. The novelty of the virtual classroom wore off after a while and all students missed their friends and the social interaction with teachers. It seems lessons were less fun in general. “We don’t joke as much with each other or our teacher and you can’t see if people are laughing in the same way.” One senior commented “I need my teachers there to guide me in the right direction, to encourage me that I’m doing OK. They’ve been doing that in emails and messages but it doesn’t replace the reassuring chat and smile.” Older students about to graduate also missed the social interaction in this, their final year.
So – where’s the silver lining? Students of all ages may become more independent learners as they explore the new parameters of learning online. Virtual learning can give students the chance of being in control of their learning at their own pace. Some students may find the freedom they gain creates opportunities for more leisure time and learning beyond the curriculum. Clearer focus may result from having the time to reflect and go back on the lessons at home. Deep, as opposed to superficial learning can take place for older students who develop essential independent research skills to prepare them for university or work.
However, these questions aren’t going to go away. Which classes are to be held on campus, when and for how long? Are all subjects equal, in terms of the need for face to face time? Will parents need to be more included with the learning, becoming important touch points for teachers? If (when?) students have to learn from home, how can schools ensure equality of access to the technology? Do students have the same broadband capacity and are they competing for access at home with parents and siblings? Will schools provide laptops for students?
Building school communities requires skill and effort. How can school leaders use their skills and compassion to make staff and learners feel they belong again? How can they maintain the school community with its traditions and values, its role models and mentors? What training might teachers need? Above all, how are learners interacting and learning with and from each other?
Perhaps we all need human interaction and personal connections above all else. The very best aspects of technology have kept us in touch but schools provide essential communities where future generations learn to work together, solve problems, develop confidence and establish their values.
The end of the beginning . . . . ?
We will certainly learn more about the effectiveness of blended learning ,what it is and what it is not and how separation from the communal classroom environment impacts learning. However, let’s not forget that face to face education has been essential to growing and developing communities throughout history. Let’s hope that element of education can also continue successfully into our joint futures.
Elly Tobin is a Senior Consultant with Consilium Education. Formerly Director at the International School of the Sacred Heart and Principal of the Joseph Chamberlain Sixth Form College in Birmingham, she specialises in the teaching of EAL and supporting the establishment of new international schools.