This month the government published new legislation that suggests schools have a legal duty to provide “immediate access to remote education” to children, should they miss school due to coronavirus. Despite the best efforts of everyone to get the physical fabric of schools back up and running for all pupils since September 2020, COVID-19 figures are rising again and large numbers of pupils (around 6-7% of them by one estimate)1 and teachers are away from school, self-isolating or sick. It seems clear that access to coherent learning across remote and in-person settings is one of the most pressing challenges we face in education, and not just in the UK.
A research paper from University College London's Institute of Education2 found that pupils across the UK studied for an average of 2.5 hours a day during lockdown, with one fifth of pupils (2 million) doing no schoolwork or less than an hour a day at home. Just over half (55%) of pupils' parents were engaged with their children's home learning, with the most deprived schools reporting the lowest such engagement.
We know what some of the reasons were for these differences of course: the home circumstances which meant inconsistent access to the internet and/or computers, no suitable place to study, being a young carer for an adult or for younger siblings, little or no parental engagement, or being a vulnerable child. But there is another reason – because of what was on offer. Teachers in the main were not prepared for this massive change in pedagogy and had to learn as they went along. Many changes were announced at extremely short notice, so schools had to build systems of communication at the last minute, working with what they had rather than what was known as best practice. Digital literacy was amassed in an urgent flurry, and in this disorienting blizzard of information, both teachers and pupils, not to mention parents, got lost and felt isolated – left out in the cold as Spring broke.
But here we are in the cool light of October, with the rise of COVID-19 statistics as well as other seasonal illnesses and various structural issues contributing to increasing chaos on the system again after a relatively quiet summer. Some counties in the UK currently have national “circuit breakers”; others are taking a more regional approach to mitigation measures for the present. Is it reasonable to suggest we could have learnt from the early part of the year and built back better over the summer? What are other countries doing?
The World Bank3 and UNESCO surveyed the responses to COVID-19 of education systems across the world.
Where connectivity was reasonably efficient, countries used digital platforms; some having one portal or access point, some having one national programme for learning and others collating different digital resources, including digital versions of textbooks which were provided for free. Occasionally countries coordinated all the schools into one communication system – for example, Bulgaria put all schools onto Microsoft Teams while Cambodia connected all schools through Facebook.
Where connectivity was less good, TV and radio were used to broadcast programmes. Some used live broadcasting whilst others offered packages of existing resources.
Where connectivity was poor, radio and SMS (Maldives), or paper packets of resources were provided to individual students.
Some countries of course have used all three methods in an attempt to enable all pupils to have access to some education, some going to exceptional methods to secure access. Kenya, for example, organised Loon Balloons to float over Kenyan airspace,4 carrying 4G base stations. Many countries have zero-rated portals (allowing access to certain websites for free) or have found other ways of supporting students to have access to free browsing. Countries distributed netbooks and tablets, prioritising regions with stronger socio-economic vulnerabilities and in some cases (e.g. Argentina and Peru), these were preloaded and used to access information offline. Public media used dedicated channels with more or less extensive programmes of lessons and resources for students across the age band and these timetables were widely distributed. The Austrian Ministry provided guidelines for distance learning to teachers and in China teachers received guidance on teaching methodologies including through live-streaming of online tutorials and MOOCs.
Perhaps the most impressive achievement, certainly on paper, is the planning of the largest simultaneous online learning exercise in human history, in China. The initiative, entitled “Ensuring learning undisrupted when classes are disrupted”,5 was planned over the course of two weeks of teleconferences with school management agencies, online platform and course providers, telecom providers and other stakeholders. This included mobilising all telecom service providers to boost internet connectivity for online education and upgrading bandwidth, collating over 24,000 online courses on 22 validated platforms, offering teachers advice and choice in the most appropriate methodologies to facilitate learning, and providing psycho-social support and information about the virus and protection against it.
We don’t yet know, and won’t for some time, to what extent national policies have been successful – in fact it’s not completely clear what success looks like. But is there anything we can learn? Some principles appear to have clear consensus, but need a variety of practical measures to enable them to be realised:
- All students and teachers need access to the internet via a laptop or tablet. Here in the UK the promises of laptops and connectivity have been woefully overplayed, leaving many teachers angry and confused as to why those promises have not been kept.6
- Students deserve an education that is intentional, personalised, and sufficiently resourced. To do this requires a coordinated, quality-assured resource library and teachers who know how to translate classroom practice into online teaching. The UK has a plethora of resources, many offered freely, but teachers have had little guidance in making judgements about their worth or how to use them.
- There needs to be targeted, appropriate support for vulnerable children who are at risk of becoming disengaged and eventually dropping out. There should be a national strategy for identifying and supporting them. What we have in the UK currently depends on individual schools and individual teachers, often at considerable cost to their workload and work-life balance.
It is clear from the research that access to digital devices and wi-fi connectivity is a necessary, if not sufficient, factor in successful remote learning, and one that many other countries seem to have carefully addressed alongside other factors in a suite of support. What could that look like in the UK?
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