Teaching, technically speaking

Schools are now thinking about reopening, after being mostly shut since March and cancelling this summer’s GCSE and A-Level exams. As you would imagine, this is far from straightforward.

How will schools be able to reopen?BBC News
In England, ministers say schools should prepare to begin to open for more pupils from 1 June. This would be for those in nursery and pre-school, Reception and Years 1 and 6 at primary school. At secondary school and college, Years 10 and 12 would return first. Only a tiny fraction of the regular school population are likely to attend. Schools in Wales will not reopen on 1 June, while those in Scotland and Northern Ireland may not restart before the summer holidays.

Many teaching unions and councils, including my own, have major reservations.

Ministers under pressure over schools return dateBBC News
The decision to begin reopening schools came after the reproduction, or R number – the number of people that one infected person will pass the virus on to, on average – came down across every part of the UK. But multiple research groups, including those at the University of Cambridge, show it varies across the country – it has come down most in London but is higher in the north-east of England.

Leeds City Council statement on re-opening primary schoolsLeeds.gov.uk
Due to a variety of factors, it would be impossible for all schools to operate to the Government’s timetable of opening Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 from June 1. While some schools will begin to gradually expand their intake from this date, Leeds will not expect all our schools to open to all those pupils from day one.

Only time will tell if this is the right step to take. Italy, which closed its schools at the end of February, initially for just a week, isn’t expecting them to reopen until mid-September, if not later. Teachers, parents and children alike have had mountains to climb, and they’ve still got perhaps four more months to go.

Italian lessons: what we’ve learned from two months of home schoolingThe Guardian
The Digital Economy and Society Index rates Italy 24 out of 28 European countries in its “digitalisation index”, and last year Italy’s national statistics agency, Istat, reported that 23.9% of Italian families have no access to the internet. As one teacher said to me: “We’ve discovered how democratic pencil-and-paper is.” The attempt by many teachers to get less-privileged students the necessary laptops and internet connections is one of the untold stories of this crisis. By 19 March, the ministry of education claimed to have distributed 46,152 tablets throughout the country. Since then, an emergency budget has created a €70m fund for providing computers to those without. Even if the necessary hardware is distributed, one special educational needs teacher told me that online classes just don’t work for children who need bespoke lessons: “Those who are already doing well at school are now doing even better, but those who were struggling are just falling further behind.”

They aren’t the only ones. Here’s the view from China.

The coronavirus exposes education’s digital divideThe New York Times
Students in some places have hiked for hours and braved the cold to listen to online classes on mountaintops, the only places they can get a decent cell signal, according to Chinese news reports. One high schooler in Sichuan Province was found doing homework under a rocky outcropping. Two little girls in Hubei Province set up a makeshift classroom on a wooded hillside.

For children of the millions of migrant laborers who work far from home to keep China’s cities cleaned and fed, another problem is a lack of supervision. These “left-behind children,” as they are called in China, are raised mostly by their grandparents, who are often illiterate and cannot help with homework even when it is not delivered via smartphone app.

I don’t think our position is that much better.

Outdated IT systems pushed to the limit by large-scale remote working, say schoolsThe Independent
Technology in many schools is like the “dark ages” compared with other sectors, the headteachers’ union warned. … One headteacher is desperately trying to raise funds as he says funding cuts have left the school without the cash to carry out critical IT upgrades needed to run a “virtual school” for 1,200 pupils.

Some central support has been made available, from the big players…

UK schools will get tech support from Google and MicrosoftComputer Weekly
The government has also written to organisations overseeing schools and children’s social care, such as local authorities and trusts, to advise them how they can order devices as part of its £100m investment to provide internet access and computers to disadvantaged children.

… as well as from some lesser-known software companies and training providers.

UK education providers are helping teachers, parents and students respond to the impact of COVID-19 worldwideGOV.UK
Century Tech creates personalised learning pathways for students and powerful data for teachers to ensure that every child gets tailored, high quality education. They are offering free maths, English and science resources here.

Personalised learning pathways sounds a little dry. How could we jazz up what Century Tech are offering? What buzzword comes to mind?

‘AI teachers’ to be offered to British students off school due to coronavirusThe Telegraph
“AI teachers” will be offered to every student in the UK that is forced to miss school due to the coronavirus, it has been announced. … Like a human teacher, the virtual tutor tracks how a student learns, adapts to their strengths and weaknesses and constantly adjusts lesson plans.

The educational impact of this pandemic is not restricted to just schools, of course.

Breaking: All University lectures to be online-only in 2020-21Varsity
A leaked email seen by Varsity outlines plans for all lectures in the 2020-21 academic year to be conducted virtually. Head of Education Services, Alice Benton wrote to Senior Tutors today (19/05) to inform them that the ‘General Board’s Education Committee’ has ‘agreed that, since it is highly likely that rigid social distancing will be required throughout the next academic year, there will be no face-to-face lectures next year.’

University of Cambridge shifts lectures online for 2020/2021 academic yearCambridge Independent
The University told the Cambridge Independent: “The University is constantly adapting to changing advice as it emerges during this pandemic. Given that it is likely that social distancing will continue to be required, the University has decided there will be no face-to-face lectures during the next academic year. Lectures will continue to be made available online and it may be possible to host smaller teaching groups in person, as long as this conforms to social distancing requirements. This decision has been taken now to facilitate planning, but as ever, will be reviewed should there be changes to official advice on coronavirus.”

Online lectures ‘likely’ to continue at Edinburgh Uni for ‘some time to come’, VC warnsThe Tab
In an interview on Radio 4 Today, Peter Mathieson said having “hundreds of students packed into in lecture theatres” would probably not be “safe or possible” when asked about Cambridge University’s recent decision to move all lectures online until Summer 2021. … “We haven’t talked about a fully online model,” he said. “Lectures may be online and we were doing that anyway – we’re very good at that, but actually small-group teaching will continue.”

That’s just as well. As we saw above with schools, moving online is not without its challenges.

Universities beware: shifting classes online so quickly is a double-edged swordThe Guardian
But can this rapid shift to online teaching and learning actually work in the long term? Several problems have already emerged. Online teaching needs more than just the basics. Lecturers need access to a computer that supports teaching software and a reliable internet connection. Meanwhile, for students, even basic hardware and software are far from guaranteed in many homes, as families share equipment and internet providers struggle with increased traffic.

Author: Terry Madeley

I work with student data and enjoy reading about art and design, data, education and technology.

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