School closures in Spring 2020 focused attention on the potential of digital technologies in education. Teachers, learners and schools have needed to develop new strategies for learning in their own unique context with the time, space, skills and resources available to them. As schools are starting to reopen, it is time to reflect on the ongoing role of digital technologies in teaching and learning.
In his research on organizational change, John P. Kotter (2008, p. 17) notes that ‘a changing world offers not only many hazards but wonderful opportunities.’ Certainly, there are both hazards and opportunities in using digital technologies in education. In my experience, these centre around planning, including levels of access to technology through digital literacy and the availability of resources, and pedagogy, including, for example, the potential to provide explanations and models.
When planning, it is essential to start with the learning. No technology will be of benefit unless it relates to a specific measurable activity in class (see Cat Scutt’s video on this for the TES). As with face-to-face instruction, it is important to plan, prepare and review when introducing new strategies. While the recent and sudden school closures did not leave much room for preparation, the Education Endowment Foundation has developed helpful guidance for schools going forwards. This guidance highlights the need to ‘consider how technology will improve teaching and learning before introducing it’, including by:
- linking it to wider planning, such as a review of other school policies
- developing a plan for support and implementation, considering factors such as training, time and resources
- analysing the costs, as well as the intended benefits, of introducing a new technology.
When our school closed, we quickly developed resources to help teachers acquire skills with new tools, including offering live demonstrations to support access to online and cloud-based learning. This was a new situation for us, in that we needed to model for teachers first in order that they could create learning resources for their lessons.
A strong thread from colleagues working remotely today has been the need to collectively innovate and respond in real time. In my school, this has led to bravery with technology, with colleagues and students working together in their discoveries, leading to a great sense of achievement. We have tried to build a culture of positivity around ‘making mistakes’ for teachers and students alike during this period.
One of the steepest learning curves came when teachers started using online video conferencing to ‘connect’ with their students. There were incidents in other educational communities where strangers were able to enter online meetings and share unpleasant content. Learning from this, we carried out a risk assessment for new ways of working online to help us maintain good practice in safeguarding while teaching remotely. It is obviously important to try a tool before you use it live and read the instructions for safety – we also encouraged parents to be present during video conferencing with students and arranged for another colleague to work remotely alongside the leading teacher. We also set up meeting invitations with passwords and waiting lobbies, giving everyone a more protected environment.
Contact between student and teacher is at the heart of learning experiences. School closure interrupted this connection, and interaction between the teacher and learner in a digital world can be challenging. In our context, using video recordings of updates from staff across the school campus helped. Parents reported that their children really looked forward to these moments, and in future it could be a way of reaching out during other kinds of long-term absence of students or teachers.
Beyond staying in touch, technology offers opportunities for developing explanations and models, and consolidating learning, especially through gaming, retrieval practice exercises and video recordings. In our three schools, we have been creating teacher demonstration videos with interactive whiteboard applications such as Educreations and Explain Everything alongside a variety of quiz-based tools. Quizzing can also be used for assessment purposes (Luxton, 2019). These applications can help tablets and other electronic devices become tools of learning, rather than items of distraction (Wheeler, 2015). Children in our schools as young as five responded with demonstration videos of their own, where they used the teacher model to imitate and saw themselves as teachers when submitting their own learning.
Whiteboard apps have been particularly helpful for helping parents to teach Key Stage 1 and 2 children. Once recorded, the teacher demonstration videos can be replayed at home, stopped and started at the parents’ convenience. Working in this way also enabled greater parental understanding of the methods we use. In our community of international schools based in the Netherlands, we have a wide range of nationalities and our parent body holds a variety of personal educational experiences. They may not be familiar with a UK-based method for teaching, and they all fed back by email that the demonstration videos made home learning more positive.
We shared daily maths and English activities that were compulsory and a range of other tasks that were optional. We focused on these subjects as we were mindful that each family had to balance support for their child or children with remote working and other challenges. We were also mindful that paper-based learning at home was useful and important. The availability of accessible devices at home varied between households, and screen time was a factor we took into consideration. Teachers were flexible about learner outcomes – children could submit work digitally or as photos of paper-based work.
What role will digital technologies play in the future?
I have worked with digital technologies in the international school context for 20 years and before that in UK education in Greater London. I have consistently found that patience and enthusiasm are a good starting point – colleagues will inspire and innovate, and we can develop through collaboration. In each school year, we can learn from and enrich our practice by bringing benefits forward and learning from any challenges.
If you, as an individual teacher, are considering your approach to using digital technology in your classroom, ask yourself:
- What do I need to learn?
- Why are we doing this?
- How am I going to use this tool effectively?
- Were the outcomes similar to, or different from, what I expected? Why might this be the case?
If you’re contributing to a school-wide strategy, ask:
- What is the impact on learning?
- How will we support this initiative?
- Have we given ownership and time to the right groups of people?
- How can we evaluate it?