Digital Learning

Ensuring a safe return to school through strong leadership and effective technology

When lockdown came, few schools were prepared to switch to online learning overnight. Firefighting had its place, but now is the time for fireproofing. argues Stewart Watts, Vice President EMEA at D2L
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The education sector has shown great resilience throughout lockdown. The return to school has provided challenges for staff with frequent changes in policy. The government has recommended staggering teaching times and establishing ‘protective bubbles’ and schools must also factor in the possibility of local lockdowns. The priority to date has mostly been to ‘keep the lights on’ but now schools need to put contingency plans in place.  

When this year’s crisis hit, schools had to pivot to digital forms of learning at incredibly short notice. For many schools, there was a rapid departure from the norm – hybrid or blended learning may have been a long-term strategy, but few schools had plans in place to switch to online learning overnight..

Inevitably, there was an element of firefighting in handling the immediate crisis. Teachers drew heavily on IT teams, as well as their chosen edtech suppliers and course designers, to get their virtual lessons up-and-running, providing students with digital content and regular catch up sessions.

It will be important to take a different approach this term, leading to a longer-term strategy that works seamlessly. Now is the time to put measures in place to safeguard learning across all situations or outcomes and most importantly, to ensure the continuity of education.

Schools can create engaging hybrid learning via modern learning platforms.

It is vital that schools establish clear expectations of what hybrid learning success will look like and communicate this vision to teaching and administrative staff as well as students.

They must embed a successful hybrid model into the school’s future learning culture. Those anticipating a prolonged period of online learning should commit to providing great learning experiences so students achieve agreed and clearly defined learning outcomes. Most importantly, the quality of teaching must continue to be the same standard as if pupils were still in the classroom.

Establishing an effective blended-learning strategy

While we cannot foresee exactly how the coming school year will develop, these initial adaptations to the learning environment will no doubt require a careful and well-balanced blended learning strategy, one that minimises unnecessary disruption as much as possible. This will require far more complex and sophisticated education technology and teaching solutions.

Schools must put the necessary technology in place to enable a smooth transition to fully online or hybrid learning at short notice, should the need arise. Teachers should be regularly updating content and creating an online pool of engaging learning materials in a variety of formats, whether audio, film, interactive quizzes or even establishing a class forum.

This way students will be able to learn anytime and anywhere, regardless of geography and personal circumstances, and stay in contact with their teachers and fellow classmates.

Changing the learning cycle: delivering a fully asynchronous learning experience

While such changes and relative uncertainty abound, student progress will need to be measured in more advanced ways. Moving beyond simply counting how many students have completed their assignments, online learning will need to become far more dynamic and data-driven. Teachers will require continuous insight into individual learning pathways to connect specific online and offline experiences.

With classes online and in person, and activities completed in school or remotely, they need tools to keep track of where students are, and how they are progressing with their studies. In this instance, the ‘one size fits all’ approach is no longer viable, teachers must know how each learner is doing in comparison to the rest of the class. 

With live learner data, teachers will have a complete overview of students’ progress – from which tasks have been completed, where they excelled or where they might need to improve. Artificial intelligence (AI) diagnostics will provide deep insight into how individuals are coping, enabling teachers to step in and identify where a student may be struggling or falling behind in their work. In doing so, schools will ensure teachers will be able to teach all students, irrespective of external factors.

Ensuring staff are adequately trained to use edtech

Training for staff must be a priority. At the beginning of lockdown, across the world, we saw that many teachers had received little to no introductory training in the effective use of education technology. They may have gained some experience over the past few months, but  it is important that staff are trained to use and apply different technologies effectively throughout their classes.

Teachers need to be given the opportunity to familiarise themselves with edtech and explore how best it can be applied, or even tailored, to their classes or subjects.  

Moving beyond online pedagogy, staff will need to have a general understanding of different online tools and workflows. Senior leadership must support in Continuing Professional Development (CPD) for teachers.

It is important that educators are onboard from the beginning, that they understand the benefits of edtech and most of all, how to use it. With support, they can explore new ways of learning and identify the most practical learning solution for the current situation.

Technology can then begin to make their working lives easier. A modern learning platform can function as a hub for all learning experiences including classroom-based, blended or hybrid instruction, fully online, competency-based learning, and even CPD for the educators themselves. It would provide a single port of call, simple access for teachers and students and the required scalability to accommodate a sudden increase in activity. Together with organised tutor training on platform tools and ongoing support from technical teams, such technology can help alleviate concerns as teachers navigate their new normal.

Effective leadership – working with your technology provider

Meeting future student needs through a flexible, engaging hybrid learning model will require strong leadership and strategic planning. Firefighting has its place, but now is the time for fireproofing.

From this month, edtech providers and their technical teams will play a central role in course or subject delivery and design. Edtech providers should be seen as ‘partners’, offering advice on course structure and delivery. The right partner provides more than just technology – they also support implementation and training, offering instructional design advice to help deliver against each institution’s strategic vision for online learning.

It is vital that staff and teachers communicate with one another, and also with their chosen learning provider, to raise any concerns. This will be an opportunity to iron out any issues or pre-empt potential problems. to ensure that the technology is well-established within their classes and can meet the needs of both students and teachers, A trusted senior leadership team must be in place, that has the authority for rapid decision-making and the skills to step in when and if mistakes occur.

While things may indeed remain uncertain for a while, effective, long term blended learning strategies, coupled with effective leadership will provide a much needed safety net. Now is the moment forleadership teams to assess how equipped their schools are and to ensure that learning and technology strategies are in place to meet future educational needs and cope with unforeseen events.

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