It’s now almost exactly a year since the UK education system went into lockdown. The ruling that schools must close to almost all pupils was a shock to teachers, pupils, parents and everyone involved in the education system – and the repercussions of the immediate crisis continue to ripple through our lives.
Over the course of the last year, there have been significant problems to grapple with, enormous challenges to overcome, and a technological learning curve steeper than anyone would ever have envisaged back in 2019, when Damian Hinds, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Education Technology (APPG), brought in the government’s EdTech strategy.
Out of this immensely difficult period, however, have come some elements of hope – evidence of good practice in extraordinary circumstances, and opportunities to reorient out educational system to serve everyone involved much better. The APPG has produced a report on the first period of school closures, focusing on the experience of schools in England. Entitled Lessons from Lockdown: What we learned about Educational Technology in 2020, it is available from the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA), of which Across Cultures is proud to be a member.
The report looks at how educational technology was used during the first lockdown – assessing what worked well and signposting future developments. It is clear that COVID-19 has given an enormous boost to what was already a steadily growing trend. EdTech was an important part of education well before the pandemic, helping to enhance learning and ease teacher workloads, partly by taking care of ‘back of house processes’. For students with SEND, it promoted accessibility and inclusivity, and for all students, was able to encourage positive parental engagement.
During the lockdowns, EdTech became even more important – in the words of the report, something like an ’emergency service’ for education! As Damian Hinds makes clear, it is also set to be a crucial part of the future of teaching and learning as we begin to return to normal.
March 18th 2020
At 5pm on March 18th 2020, the first country-wide school shutdown in modern times was announced by Boris Johnson. From that point on, the APPG report notes:
‘We saw parents, childcare workers, teachers, lecturers, school leaders, academics, industry, celebrity experts, civil servants, Parliamentarians, and Ministers unite behind the collective aim of helping educate our nation’s children during a time of crisis.’
The report describes the EdTech sector as an ‘unofficial emergency service’ during this period, with BESA members themselves, including Across Cultures, providing £36 million in free educational resources and support to schools and families during March-June 2020. Staff at the Learning Village, for example, quickly produced a suite of resources and ‘how to’ instructions, to show students, parents and teachers how best to work with the Learning Village remotely (see our COVID-19 response resources).
‘EdTech found its way into teachers’, pupils’ and parents’ daily lives and routines in a way hitherto unimaginable.’
Some schools were able to pivot quickly from in-person learning to remote provision. Others faced greater challenges. Prior to the pandemic, the APPG notes, there had been ‘genuine resistance’ from some teachers, who did not see the benefits of EdTech products within the classroom. APPG research indicates that at the beginning of lockdown, only 66% of teachers felt that they had the competence and capacity to deliver remote learning. The scale of the challenge facing staff in March 2020 is thus very clear.
A steep learning curve
What happened next is described by Caroline Wright, Director-General of BESA, as a ‘collective and awe-inspiring effort’.
Schools encouraged their staff to explore and trial new technologies. School partnerships quickly pooled and created resources. Dynamic and responsive online platforms galloped to the rescue, training up teachers, adjusting their platform for self-directed learning, and coming up with imaginative ways to help students maintain their motivation.
As we settle down into some of these new ways of working, the APPG report is an opportunity to take stock. What worked well? What lessons should we take into the future?
What worked well for the Learning Village?
Across Cultures is the creator of the Learning Village, a blended learning programme teaching English as an Additional Language (EAL) to new arrivals and intermediate learners. Through our offline small-group sessions and teaching resources, and our comprehensive online programme with its three ‘learning journeys’, we teach functional English, a full phonics programme and the language needed to access the curriculum at primary and secondary levels.
Used by hundreds of schools around the world, Across Cultures was well-placed to help in the national effort to teach and learn safely during the lockdowns.
Firstly, the fact that our programme is easy and intuitive to use worked in our favour. On the Learning Village, clear and simple instructions guide you through set-up and all the next steps. The APPG report notes this as a valuable feature of EdTech resources in general:
‘the level of intuitiveness built into [EdTech] programmes … allow[s] pupils to get started and continue with their learning journey with little, if any, input, from parents or the teacher.’
However, pupils on the Learning Village were by no means left to their own devices. We quickly produced documents, webinars, training and instructions explaining how to operate small-group teaching remotely through the Learning Village. We promoted the benefits of collaborative learning and the importance for children of feeling supported by an individual teacher – including through the sending of certificates and messages of encouragement. The APPG again notes these precise features as being those that lead to the most effective online learning.
Among our most popular features are our multi-player games and competitions. These games extend learning beyond the player’s own classroom (or kitchen table!), as they engage with learners at a similar level nationally or globally. These games operate entirely safely, with no pupil able to make direct contact with another during the game, but instead playing alongside them in parallel.
The APPG report states:
‘Used imaginatively, features such as quizzes and competitions can also assist learners [to] overcome some of the challenging features of remote learning … pupils [are] excited at the prospect of winning prizes.’
Winning a game or a competition – or simply scoring a higher score than previously on any of our learning modules – is highly motivating for our learners. We took care, during the lockdowns, to highlight the Learning Village’s reward system, where good work leads to learners being able to purchase virtual items to personalise their secret underground caves or private islands. This ‘motivational and incentivising structure’, as the report describes, is a very popular element of our programmes.
‘…the EdTech APPG heard that … platforms where children can “learn and earn” by receiving points, stickers or badges as a reward for their efforts, seem to be more successful in maintaining students’ levels of engagement.’
For teachers in lockdown, the ease of providing feedback, and of viewing and managing student engagement and progress through our programme, were perhaps our most important features: ‘frequent feedback, personalised guidance and courses of study that adjust automatically to target students’ weaknesses’ are, according to the report, highly supportive features.
Throughout the lockdown, our focus, as it always has been, was on how best to support children who are new to English – and who, in this most challenging of years, faced an even more unfamiliar situation than most. We wanted to make sure they could continue to learn and to understand that they remained part of their school communities. Click here to read testimonials by three schools detailing how they used the Learning Village to do this during this period.
There are many challenges for the future – and the government’s EdTech strategy will continue to be revised and updated. While many things will return to normal, education will – as it always has – change and develop still further. The report is clear about this:
‘we are not just seeing a period of emergency remote learning, but the emergence of a new normal, in which it is inconceivable that the use of EdTech will be relegated to pre-COVID-19 levels.’
There will be some elements that schools, pupils and parents will wish to retain, even as ‘normal’ schooling resumes. And there will, the report is certain, be ‘a deeper, lasting integration of EdTech into the education system.’
To ensure that ‘bold steps’ into this new future can be taken, the report highlights the lessons that must be learnt from lockdown. These include the following:
The UK’s EdTech sector is world-leading. Built on ‘insights, ideas and inspiration’, its creativity and level of innovation helped us grapple with the challenges of 2020. Just as securely, they will help us capitalise on the opportunities offered by the rebuilding of education in 2021 and beyond.