So, what have we learned about online learning?

Written by: Jess Pentelow | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

What are your lessons from lockdown when it comes to effective blended learning and use of edtech? Jess Pentelow looks at what we have learned about creating safe, supportive and effective digital learning environments


Will our recent experiences of online, remote and blended learning change our approaches to edtech and education more broadly?

Pearson’s recent survey (2021) – involving more than 6,800 educators – shows an increase in positive upskilling and receptivity to technology, with digital skills soaring over the course of the pandemic for both teachers (81 per cent) and students (64 per cent).

Similarly, 90 per cent of UK learners in Pearson’s Global Learner Survey (2020) feel that online learning will become a key part of education moving forward.

The pandemic has already highlighted that, for effective digital provision to be fully achieved, the digital divide across access to devices and high-quality internet needs bridging. It has also shown that an inclusive, community-wide approach to edtech is vital: if our students are to thrive around technology, their teachers, parents and carers also need clear guidance on how to use it.

So how can we build on this momentum? As many schools undertake a fuller return to life in physical classrooms, this seems like an opportune time to review what has been learned. Bolstered by these lessons, we can explore how to harness technology and its advances to support progress for every student, wherever they learn.

Our recent work with educators has inspired this collection of tips, ideas and practical advice for creating safe, supportive digital structures to benefit everyone in education.


Collaboration, Collaboration, Collaboration

The benefits of collaborative learning are well established – improving students’ higher level thinking skills, information retention and team-work skills, as well as self-esteem, confidence and motivation (Johnson & Johnson, 2009).

While the shift to online learning alters the methods by which students and teachers collaborate, it does not necessarily entail a move towards isolation. Many tools can be useful to facilitate collaboration – including the use of shared documents for tasks, discussion boards, group chats or a balancing out of focused calls with breakout rooms. As we saw on social media in every lockdown, teachers were also able to collaborate and share resources that support student engagement.
From our conversations with educators, it has become clear that – whether through distance learning for all, or a targeted integration of edtech in future classrooms – tools that reinforce a whole-class dynamic, offer insights on engagement to teachers and students alike, and allow you to safeguard interactions from the sidelines are the ideal.

This does come with a caveat, though. Not all interaction leads to meaningful collaboration and learning; naturally we cannot assume that such tools will automatically result in good educational outcomes. As such, it is important to ensure that activities are carefully crafted to naturally lead to discussion and interaction, that social skills are cultivated, that groups can work towards a common goal, and that there is always space made for reflection. In short: transferring what works in the physical classroom into the digital sphere.


Confidence-boosting with effective feedback

From what we have seen this past year, every online interaction becomes increasingly important when a teacher or pupil cannot be physically present in the classroom. This is especially true of feedback to engage and motivate students. When it comes to giving effective feedback online, we should build on the foundations of effective practice in the physical classroom. Namely, feedback should be timely and thorough, focus on the task and specifics of students work (not the students themselves), and should include targeted information on how to improve and areas of strength.

Within this new era of edtech, automated feedback is a feature that some teachers are increasingly incorporating into their marking. In addition to its time-freeing and consistent qualities, this form of feedback has benefits for students, with timely responses supporting engagement. The applications of it will vary, though, as teachers’ abilities to tailor feedback and manage students’ specific issues mean their roles of mentors and guides remain as important as ever.


Motivate and engage

When we picture the average classroom at ease, we most likely see a room full of curiosity and sharing. However, for times when the vibrancy of the classroom is replaced by learning-from-home or online learning, the following suggestions may help maintain engagement levels:

  • Setting challenging but achievable tasks – and acknowledging when they are tough.
  • Ensuring instructions are always clear and understood – and that students have a straight-forward recourse to let teachers know when they are not.
  • Enabling both collaborative and autonomous learning.
  • Providing opportunities for self-direction, for example, by giving students a choice of tasks or approaches.


Empowering more student-led learning

Feedback from our survey (2021) revealed that 43 per cent of secondary school teachers have seen an improvement in independent learning skills among their students. Edtech tools offer myriad opportunities to facilitate this further.

How best to do this in digital settings? The educators we have worked with have emphasised that, again, teachers should assimilate what works well in the classroom environment:

  • Scaffolding – initially guiding students, then gradually removing that guidance.
  • Modelling – fostering a digital environment in which students can observe the behaviour of their teacher, peers, or other role models.
  • Reflecting – building in opportunities for students to reflect on their own achievements.

To help support students to work independently online, you can encourage them to keep journals, or find other creative ways to reflect on their learning. Online polls to collect feedback can also be helpful indicators of individual progress and opportunities for change.


Partner up with parents and carers

The shift to online or tech-enabled learning is something educators, students and families have been navigating together. While this involved a steep learning curve, the move online has also created new ways for schools and their communities to cooperate.

During each lockdown, many schools shared advance timetables to ensure as many families as possible could engage with their child’s learning. In addition, the potential for technology to boost community engagement has continued to be explored in the school setting – be it in the form of virtual parent evenings, or even providing a family portal where parents and carers can access deadlines, feedback and other communications.

Bolstering these advancements with advice on supporting students helps them to get the most out of home-based learning, for example by offering support around differentiated activities.


Conclusion

As we navigate the on-going impact of Covid-19, the education sector could feel like a strange new world for a little while yet. Nevertheless, it is important to recognise that the digital landscape is one we can most definitely shape and strengthen for the better. Edtech has a great deal to offer this generation of secondary students, but it is the people who deliver it – our nation’s educators and the wider learning community – who hold the keys for driving positive change.


Further information & resources

  • Johnson & Johnson: An educational psychology success story: Social interdependence theory and cooperative learning, Educational Researcher, June 2009: https://bit.ly/3xS9qCY
  • Pearson: Global Learner Survey, August 2020: https://bit.ly/2Q5tS21
  • Pearson: Schools see multi-generational upskilling in digital due to pandemic, April 2021: https://bit.ly/2StYs6q
  • SecEd: Guide To Effective Project-based Learning, Pearson, April 2021: https://bit.ly/3gqQMf9


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