Online learning: There is nothing remote about it

Written by: Bob Harrison | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Learning cannot be remote. But it can take place online. Having seen the various official contributions to the remote education push, Bob Harrison despairs…


As I judge the entries for the Learning Reimagined Awards – which celebrate the most inspirational uses of technology for learning around the world – I cannot help reflect on how incredibly quaint and outdated these innovations make the Department for Education’s remote education efforts look.

I look at the views from Sanctuary Buildings on remote education (DfE, 2020) and I want to reach for the remote control.

I shouldn’t be surprised – the DfE has studiously avoided engaging with educational technology ever since the coalition government disbanded Becta, the national centre for ICT innovation, research and advice, in its 2010 “bonfire of the quangos”.

To add to that folly, the then education secretary, Michael Gove, schools minister Nick Gibb, and “spad” (special advisor) Dominic Cummings, ramped up the ideology so far that the word “learning” was effectively verboten in the context of technology.

However, I think that perhaps it is another word that should be for the can – “remote”. The Oxford English Dictionary’s definitions of “remote” all lead me to the realisation that the DfE, with its quaint “Example Lessons for Remote Teaching” (2020), does not have the remotest clue about technology for learning.

The first OED definition of remote reads thus: “(Of a place) Situated far from the main centres of population; distant.”

In the context of a second pandemic wave disproportionately affecting the North of England, it is a perfect description of where the DfE’s attitude has left it. The department is worlds away from school leaders’ and teachers’ concerns about how children learn, and how to ensure fair and responsive assessment systems amid the disruption.

A further OED definition reads: “Having very little connection with or relationship to.”

This is spot-on when we consider the notions of so-called remote learning that are being espoused by the DfE. Many trailblazing schools and colleges made technology integral to their learning and teaching years ago. Thoroughly inclusive – and fed-up of waiting for support from Westminster – they have worked to ensure that all learners have access to technology and online learning. The DfE is once again worlds away from this work.

But perhaps it is the third definition that hits the nail on the head the hardest: “(Of a chance or possibility) Unlikely to occur.”

Since its inception, few in the profession considered the full delivery, as billed, of the government’s laptop-for-disadvantaged-pupils scheme as anything but “remote”.

The recent news, quietly revealed to schools on a Friday before half-term, that allocations were being slashed by as much as 80 per cent has sadly but all to predictably proven the cynics right.

Sadly, for those learners who have yet to receive a laptop and for schools which are getting 20 per cent of the devices they were promised, learning opportunities will be very remote indeed.

This of course did not prevent the DfE from bringing in its Temporary Continuity Direction in October, which placed a legal duty on schools to provide remote education for any pupils who are absent due to Covid-19.

The Example lessons for remote teaching are at least honest enough to admit that the DfE is not in the business of online learning. Indeed, broadcasting talking heads, it seems, is engagement enough for ministers.

As my colleague, and chair of the Educational Technology Action Group (ETAG), Professor Stephen Heppell has pointed out, the approach is more “remote from education” than it is “remote education”.

Recent research from the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF, 2020) offers a more constructive view about effective digital learning. Sadly they too fall into the trap of talking about “remote learning” and “remote schooling”. The main finding of the meta-analysis is that the crucial factor – whether face-to-face, online or in a blended model – is the quality of teaching. But online teaching demands a different skill-set in order to translate into online learning.

It is unclear who is setting out what this skill-set is. And in the meantime, we are left with a raft of confused terms – remote education, remote schooling, remote teaching, remote learning – all used synonymously.

So, let me attempt to offer some clarity.

  • For “remote education” read: a system that is not related to the needs or contexts of learners.
  • For “remote schooling”: individual learners singing (or not) Land of Hope and Glory to their laptops, led by an archbishop.
  • For “remote teaching”: Oak National Academy or talking heads broadcasting lessons to passive screen-savers.
  • For “remote learning”: A convenient myth.

Learning cannot be remote. But it can take place online. Like the best classroom teaching, it is the result of a skilfully designed combination of co-constructed content, creativity, collaboration, and communication in a community supported by caring, capable, confident and compassionate teachers.

And there’s nothing at all remote about that!


  • Bob Harrison is an assessor of learning design with technology at Stanford University and is a visiting professor at the University of Wolverhampton’s Education Observatory. He is a former teacher, lecturer, principal and a current chair of governors. He was a member of the ministerial action groups ETAG and FELTAG. Read his previous articles for SecEd via https://bit.ly/3eMX9qj and follow him on @bobharrisonedufollow him on @bobharrisonedu


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