Taking the Realistic Approach to Online Home Learning

Don’t be over-ambitious, or over-stressy, about teaching children at home, advises edtech consultant Jodie Lopez.

If you are working in a school your life has likely turned a bit upside down lately. You may be manning the front line by providing a semi-schooling experience for the children of key workers. Or you may be at home waiting for your turn on the rota. You may also be sourcing or creating online learning resources.

I have worked in education technology for many years, having previously been a primary school teacher in London. Now I am suddenly working from home while parenting and semi home-schooling a 6 year old and a 3 year old, and even I find it is a strange world we have all been thrown into. By my very nature I am a pragmatist and a realist and I would love to share with you some of my top tips for schools and look at how I would be approaching the current crisis if I were back in school again in my ICT Coordinator role.

Take it slow

I cannot overstate this. Take. It. Slow. I suspect the next few weeks will be a time to take stock and figure out what is going on, as well as a time to find resources which suit your school, pupils, and family situations.

There is no need to jump straight to what you think will be your online home learning solution. Even at best estimates it usually takes 6 months to get any big platforms and set-ups in place across a school. Even if you were all in one building you would not expect everyone to be up to speed immediately. It’s is a good idea to follow the same procedure as you would at school by getting a couple of teachers to feel confident, then they spread to the next few, then they trickle down information to the next few and so on.

Start with what you have

You will all have something to start with which you and parents are already accustomed to using. This may be your school website, where you can add links and resources for anyone to access from home.

You may have a text message service. My son’s school is sending a text message each morning to give a few tips for the day and sending links back to the more in-depth information they are adding to the website. They also, crucially, send messages to say they miss my son and also are calling each week to see how we are all doing. Safeguarding has priority at this time and the simplest technology facilitates that very well already.

If you already use some sites such as Purple Mash or Show My Homework or something similar, then continue using these and just see if you can increase your usage and use them to ease people into the coming weeks.

Free resources everywhere

There are so many free resources available. I have put a few together in this Padlet for my son’s school and nursery to share with parents. Yet there are so many more education technology companies offering freebies. Some are downloadables such as the TTS home learning booklets. Some are online such as Twinkl and Mangahigh and TeachingTimes’ Classroom Resources. Companies who usually charge for subscriptions, at least for their premium content, are offering to provide free content. It shows the power of the educational technology community. Their generosity has been a delight to see, although not a complete surprise.

You will need to be a little cautious with these offerings. There is no likelihood that suddenly you will be billed or forced to join so do not have any worries there. However, it might be worth just sending the links to parents so they can pick and choose and you can take your time picking what is really going to fit your school long term.

Some edtech offerings are always free such as Teach Your Monster to Read which is an online game covering phonics phases 1-3. This is already a popular resource with teachers and is funded by the charity The Usborne Foundation so is never charged for, apart from the app versions.

For those platforms which are bigger and need to be set up i.e. Kinteract, Learning Ladders, Google Apps for Education, Microsoft Teams and so on…some of those will carry a cost later, once the extended free time is over, so think carefully if you want to commit to them longer term. If they go well and they fit what your school needs day-to-day, then it might be worth trying them now. At least you will have already overcome the onboarding phase which is the most difficult part of bringing any technology into school and if parents and students and staff all learn how to use it now, then they will have amazing ideas on how to keep using it later on.

Rolling it out across the school will involve setting up accounts individually for every student and so on. MIS integration is usually the best way to do this, so it is not to be taken lightly. It could be a good investment of time right now if you find the right platform but if you have doubts then I would hold off completely for now.

Safeguarding is key

Safeguarding at all levels should be top priority of course. This should inform decisions all the way along. For example, are online lessons the priority when you need the staff resources to call families to check how they are? And if you need a technological solution parental contact, maybe that is more of a priority than finding the right maths platform.

Beyond the usual safeguarding of children who may be vulnerable, any uptake of education technology has to keep safeguarding in mind too. Any companies who already occupy the edtech sphere should already have taken care of everything you need from a GDPR position, but it is still essential to ask all the relevant questions about this.

Consider also the implications of running online learning from home. This will also be a fear for even the most tech-savvy of us. It shouldn’t paralyze us or prevent us from trying to put solutions in place but nothing should be rushed. Every effort should be made to upskill staff quickly and test out software:

  • Do you know where all the settings are?
  • Can you be sure that only your own pupils can access the lessons?
  • Are you making sure acceptable use as agreed with students to ensure i.e. that they do not screenshot the teacher screen and share photos of their house around social media?

Now is the time to think through worst-case scenario. This is how we ensure the worst case does not happen.

Aim for one level above where you are now

Every school has a level of technology where staff and senior management feel comfortable, even if it starts and stops with using the website. Your aim at first should be to go one level above where you are now:

  • If you only have a website with information – add more pages and add links to useful websites and upload newsletters
  • If you also use social media – start using this more to communicate with families for example using Facebook live sessions in a locked down group for parents. The parents often need the support more than the pupils so live lessons for them are as important, if not more so, than live lessons for students!
  • If you have used Microsoft Office365 or Google Apps for Education already as file sharing for staff then consider rolling out file sharing to pupils too and giving them their email addresses for this so you can send lessons and resources this way
  • You may also want to use Google Drive to make videos and share links to pupils rather than having videos on public sites such as YouTube
  • Later you may want to ramp this up a further notch by using Microsoft Teams or Google Classroom.
  • Each step takes time and effort and increase the staff workload so consider this only when everything else has settled down and staff/pupils/parents are ready for the next step

Be realistic and flexible

The most important thing in all of this is to be realistic.

Be realistic about the capacity for your students to learn at home – do they have wifi? Laptops? Are siblings trying to get online at the same time? Are parents working from home too and so will need the desk/laptop?

Be realistic with staff – do they know how to work everything? Will they need a lot of support? Do they have a laptop? Do they have their own children at home now too? Are they fit and well?

Be realistic with parents – do they need to work alongside their child, overseeing learning? Do they know how to work the tech? Do they know how to login?

Be realistic with workload – how much extra time will staff spend making resources in ways they never have before? Is there content that cannot be dealt with remotely which will need to be left for a future date? If they are teaching online for a normal timetable will they have time to prepare for lessons and have breaks? Will constant online contact with pupils and parents eat into their day too much?

Be realistic with yourself – do you feel confident to oversee all the wonderful learning? Is it reasonable to try? What systems do you need to work from home? How can you stay in touch with staff and know what is going on?

And be flexible. You may get it totally right from day one – or you may not. It will be the same for every member of your school community. So be flexible. If they are overwhelmed, be prepared to roll back expectations a bit. If they are struggling with lack of structure, be prepared to ramp things up a bit but take it one step at a time.

There is no magic solution, no textbook with all the answers so I am afraid we are in for a very steep learning curve, perhaps more so with the technology than the curriculum content. These are difficult times and we must be prepared to stay calm and change course as required, and maybe one day in the future you will be the author of the definitive book on implementing online learning during a pandemic!

Ask for help

There are loads of people who share your anxieties and lots of people who have been shouting about edtech from the rooftops for many years. Contact them via Twitter, Facebook, email or phone. They want to help.

Jodie Lopez is an Edtech Business Consultant and owner of LovEdtech. She delivers podcasts, is a regular on webinars and her specialist subject is technology on a shoestring.