When the lockdown came for us in teacher education here at UOB towers, it was like we had been building up to this, technologically, for some time. Little did we realise it, but the past two years that we had been piloting webinars, developing online teaching pedagogies and moving face to face delivery to online delivery were going to become very relevant. The reason we were developing this was quite simple: mentors having to drive a long distance to mentor development face to face sessions were delighted to sit and have a webinar from home instead with a cup of tea beside them and with no commuting. We had just started to experiment using the flexibilities offered by this technology with some of our trainees when the university shut its doors for COVID19 and our entire programme, overnight, moved online. The same content got taught at the time it was scheduled. Live and exceptionally well attended webinars replaced face to face sessions and it was as seamless as switch as you could imagine. From the trainees’ end, this was a bit of a shock (they relied on the physical library more than I thought), but to their credit they have been very resilient despite the challenges of losing physical interaction with their peers and tutors as well as a change in approach to teaching. No matter what we try to do as tutors, we cannot replicate the live synchronous and emotive experience of learning that happened in the physical classroom (I am from the reader response school of thought) and I think we all see the online version as an inferior substitute to the real thing. Though, to be fair to online live webinars, there are some sessions which have proved to better suited to webinars – ‘preparation for assignment’ type seminars where thinking time, intense question and answer sessions and the ability to record everything have proved to be a superior model.
We are fortunate in our School of Teacher Education to have well designed Virtual Learning Environment technology underpinning our delivery. Technology that was designed and used to deliver taught and assessed units within courses (as opposed to Zoom etc., being designed for business). The students, as I said, overnight, have remained enrolled in units, enrolled on courses and ‘attending’ designated sessions as timetabled. The staff are teaching as much as they ever were and apart from some tricky assessment modifications we’ve by and large ensured that the trainees have had a smooth transition in terms of academic input. This shows that we are benefiting from the level of technological infrastructure in homes, with trainees and with the university. Indeed, business and charities are in a similar position – the flexibility of technology has enabled us all to deploy social distancing as a strategy to push back against the R rate.
Thinking about schools now, it is clear that the way forward will be an adherence to the current rule no unnecessary close social interactions. If you can work from home or learn from home using the flexibility of technology you should and alternatively if you can run your business or attend somewhere with social distancing then you can do that. That’s the way the UK has chosen to keep R down (there are other models: Sweden, South Korea and so forth). Some people have to go to a workplace and more people will go back to a workplace as they open up with social distancing in place, but some people can continue to work from home. The same doesn’t quite apply to pupils in schools. Most pupils will have to go to school and be taught via traditional pedagogies by teachers in face to face sessions for some of the time if not all of the time. In the classrooms, social distancing can and will have to be practiced (due to smaller numbers in school through rota systems). Some pupils will learn online effectively, because they have the environment and technology to do so. Some pupils who could stay at home will go to school because they don’t have the learning environment to learn from home. Those pupils who can learn from home will be taught by teachers using online pedagogies to supplement the face to face teaching. Teachers and schools from September will need to be able to teach face to face and to teach online. What teachers and schools are doing, on behalf of the government, is deploying the flexibility offered by technology to reduce social interactions. It could be that once the R rate comes down and test and trace becomes much better in terms of its success rate that the government will switch to an approach where social interaction is not so heavily repressed, but until we see the infection rate come down and the test and trace capacity increase we have to think about logistics based on current approaches.
My job as a course leader of teacher education is to ensure that the teachers coming in can teach online as well as face to face. We are already doing this for the outgoing cohort. They would normally have run a face to face ResearchEd style conference to finish the course. This year, they will run that conference as an online conference. Live webinars will replace the keynotes and the breakout presentations. They will put on an entire day of live webinar based learning for each other. We are already looking to enhance next year’s cohort’s knowledge of TEAMS and so forth as part of our planning.
When I look to the future (as someone who has written frequently about technology in education), I can see that blended learning is about to become a reality for everyone. You can have social distancing in schools because you must – for those who will attend school. You can have live teaching online because you must – for those who can study from home for some of the time. I know that live webinars are not as good as face to face sessions, but that’s not the important part right now. What’s important is to keep unnecessary social interactions to a minimum whilst maximising safeguarding and education. There will be regional variations as well – schools and parents in an area seeing a rise in transmission could expect to be placed back on extensive lockdown. Teachers will be, for next year at least, waiting for the COVID19 phone call as opposed to the OFSTED call.