Thursday, November 30, 2023

Schools Out For… Ever?

Around the world, millions of children are stuck at home unable to return to school or sit their exams, with no end in sight. Here in NZ, we’re lucky to have our kids back in the classroom but how will lockdown have impacted their learning and what might things look like going forward? Nicky Dewe asked an online learning expert for his predictions.

During lockdown parents across the nation had to embrace online learning at a breakneck speed that left some of us with whiplash. Whilst previously we were perfectly happy to leave everything education-related in the hands of those highly capable teachers, suddenly we had to get onboard with overseeing the daily lessons ourselves. For many of us, it meant agonising sessions of trying to get our little darlings to concentrate on something for more than 30 f**king seconds. Stressful, to say the least. On top of that, we were also confronted by our own shortcomings when it came to the curriculum. Apparently maths has completely changed since we were at school. Small voices saying  “that’s not how you do it anymore” did not go down well. 

So yes, we rejoiced when the school gates reopened and the job was passed back to the professionals, but it did leave lingering questions about how the system will cope in the wake of such profound change. Kids will now be at varying levels and dealing with different challenges in the aftermath of Covid. Will online learning become a bigger part of the picture going forward? 

To find out more, I chatted to someone who is already firmly ensconced in the online learning space, former teacher and now CEO of Kiwi company LearnCoach, Dave Cameron. LearnCoach is a social enterprise that provides online tutorials to help kids studying for NCEA as well as free resources to support teachers in schools. He told me how things went during lockdown and what might work best as we head on through 2020 and beyond.

Dave Cameron is a former teacher and the CEO of LearnCoach

What effect did the lockdown have on people’s attitudes to online learning do you think?

Teachers in schools already knew that online was playing an increasingly big role but as a teacher you’re so swamped with things to do that there’s often no time to get your whole class set up and to learn how it works. Then the lockdown forced that to happen – there was no choice. It meant a lot of people who had been slowly starting to look at online learning jumped on really fast – a year’s worth of onboarding happened in a few weeks.

What were some of the biggest challenges during this time?

The biggest form of chaos that came during lockdown was that people realised that students are not self motivated and a huge amount of structure and discipline comes from turning up at school and having those routines of paying attention and getting through work. Teachers tried to do the same thing on a zoom call only to find that only four out of 20 students would turn up and then they’d turn their cameras off so those teachers would have no idea if students were even paying attention. I think that was incredibly difficult because I think there was the assumption that students would turn up and be as engaged as they are when they’re physically sitting in front of you. That’s not the reality at all.

Now that we’re back at school, what role should online learning play? 

The problems we’re facing now as we’re going back into schooling are the ones that have always been there. Students don’t have access to help outside of school in most cases and there’s very little flexibility in the school system that will allow a single student to go at their own pace. You can’t speed up a class or slow it down, you just have to keep chugging along. Those kinds of problems are just part of schooling that we’ve always had. And yes, computers are terrible at some things but they’re great at giving access and letting you do it in your own timeframe.  

Will online learning ever become a substitute for face-to-face teaching?

Personally, I strongly believe it is a support to in-school learning. School plays such a valuable role on the personal level: Making friends, motivating students to keep going or holding them accountable. If you think about your favourite subject at school it was probably because you had your favourite teacher there. People play a really critical role. But the problem right now is that if you’re a teacher you spend a lot of time regurgitating information and managing policy and workflow so that you can’t spend a lot of time on that personal stuff which is your highest value. So if you get a computer to do the regurgitating of content and give the quizzes and the tests, it frees up the teacher’s time to do the much more valuable work. I view it as very complementary.

What kind of kids benefit most from online learning?

Students who are motivated themselves or who have motivated parents and teachers who are pushing them, do much better online than students who are left on their own and don’t have as much support at home or at school. The first and best thing that online does is provide access. If you’re at home and you don’t have anyone to help you, an online programme is there all the time and it’s very low cost and often free. If you’re motivated and you’re confident then online is fantastic but if you’re not confident then you’ll probably never try. Having teacher, parent and community support around you tends to be the biggest indicator of whether students will do well online or not.

How can parents best help their kids right now?

The number one role a parent can play is being like a coach because you can’t expect to know all of the content or what has to be done in school. The best thing you can do is encourage them to do something, because if a student is left to their own devices then almost everything is more fun than studying. Making sure they carve out some time to do something specific like watch a video and answer some questions – often that’s enough. Encourage them to do something and find out what those next steps could be.

What will the impact of lockdown be on the rest of the school year?

I think there’s going to be a period of chaos. You’ve got 30 people and a teacher who is supposed to tell them what happens next and nobody has a clue. If you say you’re going to start from scratch that undermines all the hard work that some kids have been doing at home and if you jump ahead then you’ve left a chunk of the class behind. It’s figuring how to get all these people who went off in their own direction to step back in together again. I think the best thing would be to introduce an innovation budget so that when you get those teachers or schools who have good ideas for what their students need – either to catch up because they got behind or to excel if they’re getting ahead – you can run with that. Right now there’s no time or funding so they’re going to have to go back to the traditional model which relies on everyone being together and they’re not. I think the digital side will play a really big part because it’s one of the only things that can reach a lot of people in a really low cost way and get right into people’s homes. I think that’s going to be needed to reduce those barriers to catching up.

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