As the coronavirus pandemic continues to cause headaches for organisations around the world, we take a look at the uniquely challenging situation facing the education sector, and how it’s prompting a new model of hybrid learning…
Of all the sectors that have been forced to adapt quickly to a remote way of working, schools, universities and educational institutions have been one of the hardest hit by the changes.
We say hit hard not only because of the sheer numbers involved (8.89 million pupils in England alone, 506,000 teachers across the UK, as well as 2.8 million students and staff across higher education), but because of how high the stakes are. Early years education plays a vital role in childhood development, and universities are where our young people hone their skills before heading out into the world as adults and embarking on their careers. The toll coronavirus has taken on the development and prospects of two of the UK’s younger generations has been immense.
During the first national lockdown, schools were forced to close their doors to in-person teaching for 16 weeks and they now find that they are in the same situation again Most schools faced an entirely new situation on an unprecedented scale, and many were left struggling. Despite the common use of virtual and interactive technology in physical classrooms, few schools had the systems and processes in place that allowed for mass-scale remote teaching.
With so little warning, and so few tried-and-tested options available to them, a lot of education providers simply waited, offering very little in the way of at-home learning opportunities and hoping schools would reopen as quickly as they had closed. So when the weeks ticked by and things didn’t reopen, parents, who were already juggling childcare duties and working from home, then had to fit in home-schooling as well.
While schools were scrambling to even maintain contact with some of their pupils, universities faced a different challenge. The government urged them to stay open, but leaders feared for staff and student safety and wanted to send everyone home. Most universities were quickly able to spin up virtual lectures, collaborative online spaces and course resources in a bid to stem the outbreak. But that’s not what most students had signed up (and paid thousands of pounds) for, and there were complaints about access to remote learning from all corners of the country.
Homework didn’t work
Pre-pandemic, most schools had only begun tentatively dipping their toes into the online learning environment, and many of these only through one of the many available homework-setting platforms. They had used them to set tasks for children to complete over the weekend, and automate marking. So when lockdown forced closures back in March, these schools simply began setting more and more homework in a bid to fill the days, and then the weeks and months that followed. To many parents, it felt more like a time-killing exercise (with children all but teaching themselves) than a meaningful attempt by schools to deliver an education virtually. And with closures being maintained on a rolling basis, with no definite endpoint in sight, many of those schools continued in that vein right up until the summer holidays.
The push for a solution
When the closures stretched into the summer holidays and the pandemic showed no signs of abating, schools knew they needed to use the six-week holidays to get a reliable, quick-to-implement virtual provision up and running.
They anticipated that even when schools reopened in September, it would be under a pall of uncertainty and with the constant threat of learning-bubbles and whole-school closures. Closures that would necessitate a two-week period of isolation for pupils and teachers, and a requirement for online provision of lessons at a moment’s notice.
It’s this hybrid system of sometimes remote, sometimes in-person lessons that schools and other education providers are likely to be relying on for some time to come. Outbreaks among student populations at a third of the UK’s universities have made online lectures the primary provision for undergraduates living away from home for the first time, and schools are being forced to react sometimes overnight to ensure lessons can still be delivered while children are at home.
Luckily, we’re at a moment in time when all the tools are there to ensure education can be delivered anywhere, any way, to anyone. And there are plenty of benefits to remote learning that have become apparent over the past few months.
Remote classrooms give schools a way to keep pupils and staff safe by allowing them to learn and work from home, all while maintaining that all-important teaching element. Applications like Microsoft Teams and Google Classroom give teachers and pupils all the tools and integrations they need to deliver lessons and complete schoolwork effectively from home. Whether it’s delivering a live-streamed lesson or enabling collaborative work in a small-group ‘notebook,’ the tools are there for education to continue in a fun, engaging, and safe way.
New provision, new features
Over the past nine months, millions of classrooms have found a home amid the easy-to-use interfaces of Microsoft Teams, Google Classroom and Zoom. Microsoft Teams alone now boasts a staggering 115 million daily users, while Google Classroom doubled its active users in the first few weeks of lockdown. It’s a testament to these tech companies that, rather than sitting on their laurels and enjoying the boost in figures, they have stepped up to add, design, tweak and spin up new features and integrations to make delivering education in the age of COVID a more engaging experience for everyone. Schools, teachers, pupils and parents around the world are benefitting massively from this continuity of education.
The strength of applications like Microsoft Teams, Google Classroom and Zoom For its part, Microsoft Teams integrates seamlessly with the whole Office365 suite of applications. Making it a simple click to create and share a Word document, download attendance stats to an Excel spreadsheet to keep an eye on pupils’ progress, or share a PowerPoint presentation in a lesson. In many ways, it has streamlined both the learning and teaching processes, and there are no doubt elements of the virtual classroom that educators and pupils alike will want to carry on with even once COVID-19 is over.
Why we need hybrid
It’s important to remember, however, that there are certain populations of children and higher-education students who will struggle, if not find it impossible, to access education through a virtual classroom. And for that reason alone, schools will need to implement a hybrid system for delivering lessons and setting work.
Younger children, for example, tend to require a higher degree of in-person support that you simply cannot replicate in a virtual classroom. Early Years children and those in the lower Key Stages need hands-on guidance, social interactions and tactile learning opportunities to develop those all-important skills that come online in the younger years and provide a foundation on which many other skills are built. And just try getting a 30-strong group of four-year-olds to sit still while you deliver a lesson to them at home – no matter how engaging your lesson plan is, it’s just not going to happen.
Similarly, virtual classrooms don’t provide the environment necessary for older pupils facing other challenges, such as those requiring additional support in the classroom, those with tricky family and home lives, and even those who are relied upon to provide care for younger siblings or other family members. For the estimated 700,000 child carers living in the UK today, in-school learning is as much about having a break from their responsibilities at home as it is about getting an education.
While online education tools are making strides towards enabling accessibility through their platforms, such as Microsoft Teams’ Immersive Reader and live captions, there is no substitute for the 1:1 support that can be given in a physical classroom.
It is these vulnerable populations of children we can expect schools to prioritise for when it comes to accommodating pupils on-site in any hybrid learning environment. With social distancing measures in place, space is at a premium, so schools are going to need to prioritise equal access to education if they can only have half the number of pupils physically in school. That might mean having one group in class all the time and another based primarily at home. Or it might mean a rota of 3 days in class, 2 days at home. Schools will no doubt decide for themselves how to ensure access to education for their most vulnerable pupils, but however they do it, it will require an element of remote access for some pupils.
Is your school, college or university set up for remote learning? For tips on how to get the best from Microsoft Teams, read our blog posts on the best features for schools. Alternatively if you’re an IT manager looking to get started with Microsoft Teams, we’d be happy to talk you through it contact us and we’ll get in touch.