Technology and teaching: towards a 'blended' approach

It might reasonably be argued that much of the technology used by schools during lockdown is not especially new but, for many, it is new in being used in the day-to-day delivery of learning. During lockdown, individual schools and teachers have met with varying levels of success in this regard, some excelling, some floundering, some using these technologies to teach old stuff in old ways, others using the same technologies to develop completely new pedagogies and practices and to develop new styles and types of relationship with the pupils or students that they serve, and with their families, to facilitate new communication techniques and to foster new collaborative relationships among pupils or students, among teachers and between teachers, pupils and parents. As a parent and education professional who spoke to us put it:

It struck me how massive a challenge it was for the teachers to all of a sudden shift to this online world and how there was a big skills gap between what they needed in the classroom and what they needed to be [effective] online.

(Manjit Shellis, assistant director for wider learning, Birmingham Education Business Partnership, focus group - parents, guardians and carers, 23 July 2020)

Against this background, we may see a new set of ‘outstanding’ schools emerge in the wake of COVID-19; these are likely to be the schools who have used the technology of the online world to excel during lockdown, and those who learn from these schools, post-lockdown. These will not necessarily be those who have hitherto been judged ‘outstanding’, either by the inspectorate or in their communities. Instead, these will be those schools who have mastered the world of online learning - and in particular socially connected online learning - those who can convene groups and facilitate virtual classrooms, those who can host conversations between students, teachers and parents and those who genuinely ‘get’ the potential and practice of online assessment and parental engagement.

Already established in a range of business settings, beyond COVID-19 the use of digital technology will become increasingly normalised in our schools. Indeed, in the upper-secondary phase and in further and higher education, where childcare is not an issue, this technology might mean that ‘working from home’ will become as common in our learning organisations as it already, and increasingly, is in our businesses. Moreover, with concerns about the potential of university campuses to become hotbeds for virus transmission, a number of higher education institutions - including, to considerable media interest, the University of Cambridge - have already announced plans to move away from an emphasis on lecture-based delivery and towards a blend of online and small-group- (or bubble-) based delivery, at least for the 2020-2021 academic year.

This is not, though, about online activity, or on-screen passivity as it is sometimes experienced, replacing face-to-face ‘in-the-room’ learning and collaboration. Although there will be activities that do switch completely from offline to online, the post-virus world is more likely to commonly involve online strategies and techniques augmenting or complementing ‘in- the-room’ learning, creating a school environment characterised by blended learning and blended working. And, of course, this is the type of blending that is taking place in other spheres - in how we shop, work and engage in leisure. In short, schools are preparing young people for a blended world; modelling that blending in how schools work is a contribution to such an education - not so much a ‘click and collect’ experience of schooling as a ‘click and engage’ approach to learning, and one that, a decade from now, is likely to be as embedded in our practice as the use of email and smartphones are now.

Summary and key messages

Many schools have transformed, or have begun to transform, their online practice during lockdown. The challenge now is to sustain this practice, rather than ‘putting it back in the cupboard until we need it again’, as one conservative head teacher remarked to us. Teachers’ often newfound willingness to engage with technology needs to be harnessed through a national continuing professional development strategy that enables teachers to build on the skill set and the confidence that many have begun to develop during lockdown.

The willingness of these schools and teachers during lockdown to embrace digital technologies has been impressive but there is now a need for a much more systematic approach to the development of educators’ and education leaders’ digital literacy (Zhou and Wolstencroft, 2020).

Recommendations

  • 10.1 Unilaterally raising the capacity and quality of digital and online provision to that of the best schools needs to be a national policy priority and a priority within every local authority, every multi-academy trust and among comparable bodies in the independent sector.
  • 10.2 In due course, and within an agreed time frame, schools should be required to develop and periodically update a blended learning strategy that clearly outlines how digital and online technologies support learning in and beyond the classroom, assessment and liaison with parents.
  • 10.3 It should be recognised as a priority by policymakers that closing the digital divide is key to closing the attainment gap between advantaged and disadvantaged children.
  • 10.4 Forthcoming inspections should capture the use of digital technologies in schools and their impact on learner outcomes.
  • 10.5 Consideration should be given to the development and funding of dedicated adult and family learning programmes for parents and professional development programmes for school staff, so as to build digital literacy, capacity and confidence system-wide.
 
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