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What role will digital technologies play in teaching and learning in the future?

Written By: Emma Darcy
10 min read

When the country went into lockdown on 23rd March 2020, I can honestly say that I had never been busier. As Director of Technology for Learning for the Chiltern Learning Trust and on the Senior Leadership Team for Denbigh High School in Luton, my services had never been so suddenly in demand. I have long been a passionate advocate of the power of technology to support engagement and raise attainment and, under any other circumstances, the fact that all staff in all schools now had no choice but to immerse themselves in technology for learning and understand its potential might have been seen as a beneficial step. However, this was an international pandemic, people were dying in their tens of thousands and the last thing I felt was any sense of positivity. I identified fully with Ty Goddard, writing about educators in April and describing ‘the fierce intensity of now’ (Tes, 2020).

Now, eleven weeks on, I find myself looking back on the journey that has been undertaken since that first day in March, reflecting on, not just my own experiences working remotely across eleven schools in Luton, Central Bedfordshire and Bedford Borough, but also on the national and international picture. Just where are we now with our use of digital technologies, what have we learned and where are we planning to attempt to go in the future? Firstly, I am cautiously optimistic that things will never be the same again in terms of how we view and value the use of technology to support learning. I am fortunate that in my current role I work with staff and senior leaders who have always had the vision to make the use of educational technology a priority. However, when encountering others, both in this role and in previous roles, it has been apparent that this view is not always widely shared, despite comprehensive, research-informed recommendations being made, such as by the Education Technology Action Group (2020). I have heard technology for learning described as expensive, time-consuming and – worst of all – not a priority. I hope that the recent experience of school closures sharpens the focus of senior leaders moving forwards, and that all schools will look now to develop robust technology for learning strategies, responsive to the needs of their learners and tightly linked to school improvement plans.

Effective approaches to online and digital learning

During this period, what have been the most effective approaches to online and digital learning? Of course, there has been no shortage of recommended online materials, with the government even suggesting their own (GOV.UK, 2020). However, resources are only ever as effective as the pedagogy that supports them. To quote Harvard University (2020): ‘Focus on the pedagogy, not just the platform’. Within the Chiltern Learning Trust, as well as maintaining regular dialogue with pupils and staff, we surveyed all of our parents and carers just before the Easter holidays to ascertain which strategies had been most beneficial to learners. The key word here was ‘engagement’. Providing comprehensive resources to support learning was only the first step – for pupils and parents to really feel that completed work had worth, it needed to be seen and evaluated by a teacher. For pupils immersing themselves in home learning, that regular, ongoing contact with staff was vital in ensuring that pupils felt their work still had a clear purpose. Of course, it was not just engagement with the work itself that was important – regular telephone calls to pupils and parents to check on wellbeing and support with any issues were highly valued and appreciated.

The second key word that parents and pupils praised considerably was ‘consistency’. Home learning is challenging, both for pupils and parents. Time is a precious commodity and expecting individuals to access a school website/ YouTube/ a learning application to first locate and then complete their work was impractical and ineffective, as was any expectation for physical worksheets to be printed out. Many of our pupils live in economically deprived communities and it would be wrong to automatically assume that there is access to either a printer and/or limitless paper in the home. Fortunately, all pupils and staff across the Chiltern Learning Trust use Google Classroom. This tool has proved invaluable in supporting teaching and learning across all schools and all key stages. Staff are able to set work quickly and easily and at a time to suit them. Pupils go to one online area to see what work has been set, the expectations and the deadline. Work can be submitted electronically and pupils can ask for support with tasks as and when they need it.

Access to technology, e-safety, e-safeguarding and data

Of course, this does not automatically solve the issue of access to technology in the home environment. Many pupils in our schools have limited access to devices at home and as a result are unable to work at set times. Technology in the home environment may be old and unreliable, and in some cases, pupils may be reduced to working on a family phone. Jane Goodall (2020) states that: ‘We also need to realise that not all families will have everything we might like them to have, and not taking account of that could further disadvantage some of our most vulnerable students.’ Across the Trust, we introduced GSuite to help address this issue, knowing that it was a device-agnostic platform and would work on any form of technology, be it an iPad, Chromebook or desktop computer. The ability to work offline also supports pupils with limited connectivity.

At Denbigh and more recently at Putteridge High School, the next step taken to facilitate easier pupil access to devices was the introduction of a parental buy-in 1:1 scheme. Denbigh’s journey to this solution is documented by UNESCO as a worldwide best practice case study in ‘Developing and delivering a successful technology for learning strategy in the UK’ (UNESCO, 2020). The fact that such a high proportion of pupils had been supported to purchase a reliable and robust mobile device that they were used to using in the classroom and at home became invaluable when learning moved fully online due to lockdown. The focus could then shift to supporting those pupils who did not have access, as opposed to starting from scratch with a school-wide audit of technology requirements.

Wherever and whenever technology is used, e-safety and e-safeguarding are also at the forefront of the discussion. Both by introducing a consistent platform across the Chiltern Learning Trust and by carefully selecting a mobile device for our 1:1 schemes that could be managed centrally, it has been possible to provide pupils with the benefits of online learning while still ensuring remotely that they are able to stay safe. For example, if access to a specific website is required for schoolwork and is blocked, those restrictions can be removed centrally and ‘pushed out’ to all learners. Likewise, pupils’ usage of their GSuite accounts can be monitored and measured, both to evaluate engagement and ensure responsible use. In many ways, the move to home learning has replicated the practices that were already in place in the classroom, albeit now in a different location. I am in full agreement with the guidance from South West Grid for Learning (SWGfL) (2020): ‘Online or offline, effective safeguarding requires a whole-school approach. Planning for online or distance learning activities should include the school’s safeguarding team as part of the planning process.’

Rethinking assessment through digital technology

Assessment has looked very different during this time of home learning. While schools such as Denbigh are justifiably proud of their 96 per cent engagement figure in online learning, there is a huge awareness that much of this learning takes place in a busy home environment, often at irregular times of the day and against a backdrop of the economic challenges that currently face many of our communities. In terms of the measures we have chosen to use, it is encouraging to note that in the new NFER (2020) research: ‘Schools delivering learning content to pupils through online conversations (as part of a range of measures), have higher general pupil engagement levels and an increased probability of having highly engaged disadvantaged pupils.’ Although the work set has been purposeful and tightly mapped to the curriculum, marking and feedback has had to evolve, offering as always praise and encouragement and making allowances for particular home circumstances. The academic rigour and high expectations are still there, but delivered sympathetically by teachers who know and understand their classes, whether they stand in front of them physically or virtually.

However, it is worth mentioning that, through the use of Google Classroom, teachers are able to provide excellent feedback directly on digital work. Whether pupils have taken photographs of an art project, written an essay or completed a science experiment, teachers can respond by either giving summary feedback or by writing directly on the work itself, much like in a workbook. School systems and processes can be followed even though the pupils are learning from home and features such as the ‘comments bank’, which allows staff to re-use the same detailed feedback, genuinely helps to reduce teacher workload. The ability to schedule work on Google Classroom also serves two important purposes: 1) Teachers can control their own workload, choosing when and how they prepare resources and give feedback to pupils. If they wish to work later in the evening due to their own childcare/other commitments, staff can choose to do so and it will not affect when work ‘goes live’ for the learners. 2) Likewise, if pupils cannot work during certain times as a result of lack of access to a device, they know that the work will have been set at a specific time for them, with a realistic time period for completion and that all the resources required will still be available to them.

Developing pupils’ and teachers’ digital skills

Neil Selwyn (2019) states that: ‘Digital technology is not something that teachers have to adapt to in the best way they can. Instead, digital technology should be something that you engage with on your own terms, to achieve your own goals and to address your own needs. Used appropriately, digital technology can be a powerful addition to any teacher’s r√©pertoire.’

One of the main positives that has become evident during periods of home learning is the rapid acceleration of both pupils’ and teachers’ digital skills. The pupils’ development I suspect we are not surprised with; where young people have both motivation to learn and access to technology, they will be keen to experiment and self-improve. Much of my work over the past seven years has been with staff across the Chiltern Learning Trust and this has encompassed all areas of technical proficiency, from those staff who are enthused and engaged by the possibilities that technology offers, through to the self-confessed ‘technophobes’ who are often extremely honest about their own limitations. I have, over the years, tried many methods to coax, engage and inspire confidence, but I have never seen such progress with staff’s digital skills as has been evident during school closures.

Looking to unpick this and understand the progression, I have reached two simple conclusions which others may or may not agree with. 1) Staff have upskilled themselves because they have had no choice – their learners have depended on them to do so and they have felt a strong sense of responsibility to rise to the challenge. 2) Staff have had no choice but to push themselves out of their own comfort zones. Working from home, without the technical support of technicians, network managers and other colleagues, each individual has had to show the same set of skills that we encourage in our learners – predominantly, problem-solving, resilience and a growth mindset. The technophobes in many cases have become the technophiles.

Supporting this staff development has been a range of professional development opportunities available online. The online community of educators across the globe had been very supportive, sharing resources, advice, successes and failures with each other. Within the Trust, we were aware of how fortunate we had been to have already developed a technology for learning strategy across our schools and as a result, looked to share skills and expertise with others via our Home Learning Hub. The hub was set up in response to the need for all staff across the Trust to access high quality teaching and learning materials, share common practice and develop a comprehensive understanding of the most effective way to deliver high quality online learning to pupils. Built as a Google site, the hub links through to regularly updated resources provided by all schools within the Trust and our Directors and Specialist Leaders of Education (SLEs). The site also links through to the exceptional series of films on our Chiltern Teaching School Alliance’s Leadership Development in Education YouTube channel, where educational experts such as David Didau, Mary Myatt and Dame Alison Peacock gave up their time to provide free online CPD webinars on topics such as wellbeing and workload, diverse leadership and professional culture. Subject-specific and phase-specific advice has also been provided by both the Home Learning Hub and the Leadership Development in Education channel, as had guidance on ‘moving forwards’.

It has been rewarding to hear teachers comment that this period of time has given them the opportunity to access some genuinely world class CPD. This in turn has supported their use of technology for learning, informed their pedagogy and provoked further discussion on future direction for schools.

To conclude, this leads me to my three main areas for further question and comment:
  • How should schools learn from and capitalise on the use of technology for learning that has characterised this period of lockdown? What learning has there been for leaders at all levels in schools when quality assurance is needed in teaching and learning?
  • What is the best way forward for teachers and schools to ensure that no learner is left disadvantaged by lack of access to a device? Should this rely on government funding or can schools develop their own plans?
  • What should teaching and learning look like moving forwards and how can teachers ensure that we are fully equipping our young people with the adaptable digital character and skills that they will need for their future careers?
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