IPPO roundtable report: ‘COVID-19 will do to online learning what the first world war did to flying’

Mother and son learning at home

The pandemic has presented an extraordinary experiment in remote education for children of all ages. Our latest IPPO roundtable, featuring policymakers and specialists from all UK nations, discussed what has (and hasn’t) worked, and what aspects of this new form of learning should be retained for the future

Rachel France

Our latest IPPO policy roundtable looked at the move to remote education following the closure of schools during the pandemic: what worked and what did not, and what is worth retaining now that schools have re-opened.

We drew on an excellent summary of the available research evidence from Dr Mel Bond and Faye Bolan, as well as a global survey of policy by IPPO partner organisations INGSA and OxCGRT. These pieces of work highlight the extraordinary speed with which countries all over the world switched to online provision as lockdown measures were put in place.

How experiences of online learning differed across the UK

Experiences varied between the four UK nations in switching to online learning. In England, the Department for Education (DfE) focused on reducing digital inequalities – for example, by providing 1.3 million laptops to children. In addition, 75,000 4G hotspots were set up, and some providers allowed free data usage. The DfE also founded Oak Academy, which now offers more than 10,000 online lessons and resources across the curriculum for use by schools.

In Wales, an existing online platform, Hwb, was used to provide lesson content, interaction between teachers and pupils, and online collaboration. However, it was reported that the experience of users has varied a great deal, partly because of digital inequalities.

In Scotland, a scheme in Glasgow begun in August 2019 had already provided students and teachers across the city with devices. This allowed relatively swift transfer to online provision when the pandemic was declared, greatly aided by everyone having access to the same software.

All Scottish schools were given access to a library of online lessons (now standing at some 1,800) based on the Scottish curriculum, via West OS. In the more remote Highlands and Islands regions, online learning was already well established; experiences of COVID there underlined that children can learn ‘asynchronously’ provided they are well supported by teachers, for example via online chatrooms. The role of mobile phones in schooling was felt to be an important area for further research.

In Northern Ireland, a digital platform also already existed but the switch to 100% online learning was challenged in the first lockdown by issues around procuring devices for students who had no digital access. However, matters improved with subsequent lockdowns.

Generally, it was regarded as unsurprising that some children found online learning difficult, particularly those who had to share a device with siblings or who had no quiet space at home for study. We heard from one school that supplied all children with headphones to try to improve matters.

Supporting teachers in their role as curator as well as creator

Of key importance in the switch to online learning has been teacher support – to develop their competencies both in teaching online, and in the effective use of technology. The Open University has provided resources to support teachers with training online, while the DfE has provided bespoke support to teachers via webinars.

However, it was felt that in future, consideration should be given to including digital skills and pedagogies in teacher training courses, as well as part of continuing professional development. Research is needed into what teachers need in different settings: with the growth of online resources for students such as on YouTube, teachers will take on the role of curators as well as creators.

How have parents responded to the online switch?

Despite finding home-schooling hard, a survey of parents in England by Parentkind found some positive outcomes of the experience. For example, parents said they knew much more about what their children were learning than before, and were better able to engage with teachers as ‘partners’ in their children’s education. More parents described being able to see changes being made based on their views and experiences.

Particularly noteworthy was the reported popularity of virtual parents’ evenings; these not only saved time, but also allowed parents who are fearful of entering school buildings equal access to teachers.

A priority in Wales is to collect and work with the views of parents about the past ‘pandemic year’, including their perceptions of schooling and of teachers. This will be important as a new curriculum is rolled out over the next five years. In Northern Ireland, it was highlighted that parental surveys were more likely to be completed by children’s mothers than by their fathers. It would be interesting to find out the views of fathers.

Online learning roundtable conclusions

Where is more research most needed?

Research is urgently needed into the issue of assessment, particularly in relation to national exams (GCSE, A levels etc) in light of the problems with grading experienced by students in 2020. In particular, we need to know what online assessment practices were undertaken, and how these affected both academic progress and engagement, as well as children’s health and wellbeing.

What elements of online learning are worth keeping?

Online resources, such as pre-recorded video lessons, can allow schools to provide good-quality cover lessons when a specialist teacher is unavailable. Also, being able to switch to online learning can prevent wasted time due to ‘snow days’ or other emergencies causing schools to close at short notice.

This approach also provides resources for ‘flipped learning’, whereby students study material at home before a face-to-face lesson. Online platforms can also help teachers support students who are unable to attend school for any reason, maintaining a child’s contact with school.

What are the next steps?

Having invested £400 million in online education over the past year, the DfE is keen to build on what has been learnt to develop a sustainable digital strategy for the future.

The Welsh Government is focusing its efforts in three areas: students in the key exam phase (years 11-13); reducing inequalities due to socio-economic status, special educational needs and/or disabilities; and the particular needs of four-year-old children who may have missed key opportunities in developing language, social skills and empathy.

Of high importance is the need to establish the appropriate balance between supporting students’ wellbeing and supporting their cognitive development – that is, between focusing on making up for lost social opportunities and making up on lost learning. This was a focus of an earlier IPPO roundtable on the wellbeing of schoolchildren during lockdown, leading to this ‘summer support’ policy note.

Dr Rachel France is IPPO’s Research Fellow