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Remote Learning

 

It’s fascinating when you step back for a moment and reflect on change - big change that has happened under your very nose.  We’ve all read (and probably written about) being glad to see the back of the annus horribilis that was 2020.  But, it was not all bad.  From the closing of the ozone hole over the Antarctic, through the 48 animal species brought back from the brink of extinction to the banning of child marriages in Palestine and Saudi Arabia, some good stuff did happen.

 

And in education, among the chaos of government guidance, the strains on the teaching profession and the inequities of children’s nutrition coming to the surface, we saw good things too. The subject of remote learning is firmly in that ‘good’ category.  Teaching, like all other fields, has to stay dynamic and responsive to technology and research, and learning how to better teach children while they are away from school, whilst clearly a sub-optimal way to do it, has to be a positive thing.

 

Whilst finding golden rays through the clouds, let’s also celebrate the research of Professor Daniel Mujis that grew out of Ofsted’s monitoring visits as published this week. These he tweeted, rather humbly, on 11th January: “I've compiled some tips from our research and interim visits on what works well in remote education. Bottom line: keep it simple.”

 

These ‘tips’ are worth considering as they affect us all, whether we are teachers, governors, parents or children.  In his preamble, the professor refers to some common “unhelpful myths” about remote education, including the idea that “remote education is fundamentally different to other forms of teaching”, that the best forms are digital, and that the best way to deliver remote education is through live lessons.

 

He goes on to set out these guidelines for teachers, which are worthy of quoting verbatim:

1. Remote education is a way of delivering the curriculum

Professor Muijs says that a “remote education curriculum needs to be aligned to the classroom curriculum as much as possible”.  “And, just like the classroom curriculum, it needs to be carefully sequenced and ensure that pupils obtain the building blocks they need to move on to the next step.”  “Curricular goals should be made as explicit remotely as they would be in the classroom.”

He adds that when using textbooks or worksheets, it is best if teachers still provide feedback and assess learning.

2. Keep it simple

A lesson we could all take on board in so much of life, the professor encourages teachers not to “overcomplicate” online learning with too many graphics.

“More important is attention to the key elements of effective teaching,” Professor Muijs says. “For example, it’s useful to provide pupils with an overview of the bigger picture and where a specific lesson or activity sits within a sequence of lessons or activities.  It’s also vital to have clear and high expectations, and to communicate these to pupils.  Just as in the classroom, most pupils will be novices in what we are teaching them, we can’t expect them to be able to discover new content for themselves through tasks, projects and internet searching.”

He also goes on to talk about the ‘chunking’ of curriculum content into manageable steps.

3. Focus on the basics

“Beware of offering too much new subject matter at once,” Professor Muijs says. “Make sure key building blocks have been understood fully first. We need to assess pupils’ knowledge to determine this.  Consider the most important knowledge or concepts pupils need to know. Focus on those.”

4. Feedback, retrieval practice and assessment are more important than ever

“Learning isn’t fundamentally different when done remotely,” he says.

“Feedback and assessment are still as important as in the classroom. It can be harder to deliver immediate feedback to pupils remotely than in the classroom, but teachers have found some clever ways to do this.” 

He adds that immediate feedback can be given through chat room discussions, one-to-one interaction tools, interactive touch-screen questioning in live recorded lessons and adaptive learning software.

5. Consider the medium

Professor Muijs points out that students tend to spend longer on online lessons if they are on laptops than on phones – with tablets somewhere in between.  This is an important (if perhaps predictable) piece of information that teachers need to consider.

If pupils do not have another device, non-digital approaches should be considered.

“It is also worth considering where to host content,” he adds. “In the battle for attention against the internet, we need to consider whether we avoid hosting video lessons on certain platforms like YouTube, for example, because of their advertising algorithms distracting pupils.”

6. Live lessons are not always best

Professor Mujis’ comments about live lessons are one of the stand-out features of the research. 

“Some think that a live lesson is the ‘gold standard’ of remote education.  This isn’t necessarily the case,” he says. “Live lessons have a lot of advantages. They can make curriculum alignment easier, and can keep pupils’ attention, not least as the teacher has more control over the learning environment.”

But he says live lessons can lack flexibility and interaction, and it may be better to use a “flipped learning“ approach, where new content is taught through a recorded lesson before pupils put this into practice and receive tutoring and feedback.

7. Engagement matters but it’s only the start

Professor Muijs says focusing on whether pupils are “engaged” can be distracting.

“While it is important to engage pupils, this is only a precondition for learning, not the thing itself,” he says.

“There is only so much a teacher can do to engage pupils remotely.  We therefore need to make sure that efforts to engage don’t distract us from teaching the curriculum.  We also need to check whether pupils have actually learned the content we want them to through assessment.”

Many professional organisations have come out and praised Ofsted for dispelling common myths about remote education, particularly the notion that live lessons are a gold standard.  For some reason, this idea seems to have caught hold in some circles and has created an expectation that schools should be putting all their efforts into providing a stream of live lessons.

In Schoolsworks, we are working hard to get Google Classroom working consistently and well for all. Our teams remain committed to improving remote learning for our children, for as long as is needed.

 

Chris Seaton

January 2021