Online Learning – Lessons for the Future (final)

In the last instalment, we discussed the distinction between online learning and remote learning, and described some issues about their management. We also noted that many students actually do better with that sort of learning than with face to face learning.

In this final instalment, we will compare life then with life now, and provide brief advice for all those implementing online and remote learning.

One sad thing that we have learned from the impact of the virus pandemic is that for many schools, perhaps the majority, life now is not very different from life then, as far as online  and remote learning is concerned.  They did not and perhaps do not know how to manage it.  In a very real sense, it has been years wasted, especially since key constraints existing then have gone.

One constraint is so obvious and that is cost of devices and connectivity.  At the time there were no meaningful tablets or smartphones, and laptops were expensive, slow and unreliable.   The current costs of devices have fallen so low that they are unlikely to go any lower.  And they are fast, powerful and robust.  We saw an excellent example of this in a classroom recently, where the teacher was wanting to switch from online learning back to face to face for a moment.  This she did with the simple instruction ‘lids down’.  This instantly stopped the online learning.  To return to online learning, she said ‘lids up’ and the devices instantly and reliably returned to where they had been stopped.  Similarly, connectivity costs have fallen dramatically while at the same time speed and reliability have improved out of all recognition.   

The second is the need for powerful learning environments, which provide sets of tools for the management of online learning.  Now there are at least four, two of which are free to schools, provided respectively by Google and Microsoft.  Seesaw, J2E and Purple Mash from 2Simple are also important.    

In combination, these mean that there is no excuse for schools not to implement online learning, which is where students learn on devices, but they are in classrooms and teachers manage both the online and the face to face learning.  It remains less easy to implement remote learning, simply because some students do not have a device or connectivity at home. 

Right now we must admit that national education policy with regard to what is worth learning is very unhelpful.  The current curriculum is bloated with irrelevant content, which children have to know because they are tested on it.  This is putting massive time and assessment stress on teachers.  

So why should you implement online and possibly remote learning?  Please note that these are not substitutes for face to face learning, so it is not a case of one or the other.  Firstly, we have seen over and over that many children do better with online learning.  There are obvious reasons for this, such as reduction in peer pressure, and fewer time constraints, and these are just two out of a long list.  Second, there are lots of things which teachers can do using devices that they simply cannot do if the children do not have the devices. We have found over and over again that the benefits provided through the use of devices far outweighs their cost, even when the full cost, including training, is worked out.  It follows that if we want to do our best for our learners, and we take a broad view of what is worth learning, we should offer all kinds of learning, including learning with devices.  It is a pity that the current national view of what is worth learning is broad and bulky but largely irrelevant.

There is a third powerful reason for using devices for learning and that is learners live in a world of devices, and any education which seems separate from that world will be seen by learners as profoundly irrelevant. Equally, it is a missed opportunity to prepare children for such a life.  Devices themselves are ethically neutral, but children need to be prepared for both good and bad uses of devices, and the impact of that use on the children themselves.

What has this got to do with the failure of schools to provide continuity of learning during the pandemic?  We saw through our connections with schools that those schools who did manage to provide some continuity could provide remote learning because they already provided online learning and knew how to make it happen. 

Anyone trying to help teachers implement remote learning should help them answer the following questions:

Am I providing online learning now? (ie are they learning in the classroom, but in a digital environment, using devices?)  Remember this really is an essential first step before doing remote learning.

What are the online versions of all the things I do face to face, including

Setting a task

Making sure they understand the task

Providing help while they are doing the task

Checking on their progress

Marking their work.

Finally, a huge thank you to David Hosier and Kev Shaw, the real innovators.

Want help with all this? Please click here. If you are already good at online learning, perhaps your school is ready to be recognised for its achievements. Please check out the Education Technology Alliance Schools Award at    

Online Learning – lessons for the future (5)

In the last instalment, we discussed aspects of the quality of teaching and learning, and how the same teaching and learning issues needed to be addressed online.  In this instalment, we will discuss our attempts to manage asynchronous online learning, and the reactions of other teachers to what was going on.

You will remember from our first instalment that one of the first things that happened was that some students turned up at the second lesson having already done it – or at least they thought they had. To get a handle on what is going on here, distinguish between three learning contexts; classroom learning, online learning and remote learning.  The innovation we had been developing was online learning – ie using networked devices in the classroom as a learning environment alongside the traditional practices of the classroom.  The students who had done more lessons had logged on at home where they were doing remote learning.  And you will remember that in response to the fact that many students had no remote access at home, and in the interests of equity, we opened up the computer rooms after school and at lunchtimes, providing remote learning opportunities in school.  This did indeed reduce differential rates of progress, but it did nothing to help the poor teachers manage the continuous requests for support, via email, on the corridors and so on, which resulted by opening up the learning beyond the face to face of the traditional classroom.

In one of the schools we had implemented chat rooms in Moodle, to try and support interaction in the online settings.  This made things even worse and at the time we shut them down. 

In the event, we scheduled windows in time for the students so that if they emailed then, they would get a response, and set contact times outside of lessons.  These dedicated teachers had windows at the weekend too.  Once this was done, it was extended to all teachers of ICT, as it was then.

Many of the students really liked online learning, and did better in that environment.  This is a really important outcome, and is by itself almost enough to justify the effort of setup and delivery.  (Some students did worse of course).  At the time we did not pursue why this was, but the students certainly pursued the teachers of other subjects, asking them why they were not doing it.  In one school, we were asked by one subject department to help them and with the blessing of management this was set up, also in Moodle.  Two issues surfaced at once – not all the teachers in that department were happy with what seemed to them to be a substantial additional workload (ask yourself why the ICT teachers did not think that), and even when running, there were simply not enough computers in the school and at home to support access requirements.

In the next and last instalment, we will consider briefly why this initiative remained far ahead of its time, and make some general points.

If you are already good at online learning, perhaps your school is ready to be recognised for its achievements. Please check out the Education Technology Alliance Schools Award at    

Online Learning – lessons for the future (4)

In the last instalment, we discussed how you could know that learning has taken place, and issues around entitlement. In this instalment we are going to discuss aspects of the quality of teaching and learning.

One of the good things about  face to face lessons is the ease in principle of formative assessment and real time feedback.  Let’s compare this with online learning, with the potential variations in both time and place. In face to face lessons, you can look at their work, check their progress, ask them questions, point out next steps – for some of them at least!  They can ask you questions, if they get finished you can set them extension work, if they don’t get it you can provide alternative approaches, and so on.  In fact, that’s the point of teaching!

At first glance, it would appear that all of this – the heart of teaching – is much harder to do in online contexts.  And indeed it is.   At the time, we didn’t try to deal with all the issues, and got many of the advantages of face to face learning with some gains from moving learning online. One of them, which was the novelty of the alternative instructional framework, lasted longer than we expected.  There were students who continued to prefer it throughout the course.  And there were some ways we used online techniques to check knowledge – for example MCQs – and managed progress, through requiring that a minimum score was achieved in tests before the next module became available.     

Let’s not overestimate the ease of doing learning support and assessment in lessons at all, let alone doing it well.  After all, there may be thirty of them, and at any one time several may want your help, because they don’t get it or they have ‘finished’.  So these online techniques proved a valuable supplement.      

In the next instalment, we will look at our attempts to manage asynchronous online learning, and the reactions of other teachers to what was going on.

If you are already good at online learning, perhaps your school is ready to be recognised for its achievements. Please check out the Education Technology Alliance Schools Award at

Online Learning – lessons for the future (3)

In our last instalment, we looked at rates of progress, and how they can be vastly different by giving students access to many sessions at once. In this instalment, we will look at the general issue, has any learning taken place at all?

The first thing we did was to check which students had actually logged on, and how long for. Even in the classroom setting this was useful ‘how are you getting on then Tim? Helpful if you made a start’ – and so on.

The fact that students can work from home if they have online access there remains to this day a fundamental issue regarding equity. There is no point in setting online homework if there is no access at home. The lack of universal high quality filtered broadband and suitable devices continues to bedevil online learning and in our view remains a disgrace. At the time , a key barrier was cost, both of devices and access. Today, prices have fallen and functionality grown to the extent that cost should not be a barrier.

Schools cannot be expected to deliver a free at the point of delivery universal entitlement to an education which includes online learning without getting this issue sorted out. The issue should be a thing of the past but while the value of online learning is systematically undervalued by policymakers students miss out.

Why should online learning be part of an education entitlement? Because it provides invaluable learning opportunities which cannot be delivered by any other means. We will write more about this in future.

At the time, we got round the issue of home access by opening up the computer suites before and after school, and at lunchtimes, and this worked well, with the additional advantage of face to face support, and the usual disadvantage of teacher time taken up.

Of course, neither online learning or face to face learning are guarantees that learning has taken place. In the next instalment, we will look at assessment.

If none of this is new to you, perhaps your school is ready to be recognised for its achievements. Please check out the Education Technology Alliance Schools Award at

Online learning – lessons for the future (2)

In our last instalment, we described what happened when courses went on line in a secondary school. The issues we encountered are really general ones.

The first one is simply that unless learning activities are scheduled, you get massively different rates of progress through them. This is no surprise, of course. Students have varying abilities and interests, and both of these affect their engagement with the learning activities offered. This is a key feature of face to face lessons – they schedule learning. And in doing so. they disguise the progress which some students could have made. Are some students really held back by face to face lessons? This anecdote implies that they are. At the same time, the face to face session tends to ensure that all students have actually learned something. At the time, with online learning, you could certainly tell if some students had learned nothing because they had not logged on at all.

So it looks as though in face to face lessons, the price of holding some students back is that all students meet the learning requirement of the lesson. Is this really true, by the way? Of course, it depends.

In practice, both colleagues went back to scheduling in some form or other. But both also added a wide variety of broadening activities to the scheduled units.

In the next instalment we will look at what we did to check learning had acutally taken place.

By the way, would you like your school to be recognised for the great work you are doing with educational technology? Check out The Education Technology Alliance awards at

Online learning – lessons for the future (1)

As the secondary ICT coordinator for York LA, I was fortunate to work with the ICT leads for York secondary schools, who, with one notable exception, were a far sighted, clever, hardworking team of colleagues. Great days – we all met termly to follow national and local agendas – and to share practice.

Two schools requested support for online learning. We used Moodle to set up and deliver KS3 ICT courses, which were intended to be followed in class time. Two things happened, which surprised us.

First, some students with online access instantly logged in to the courses at home and pursued the online lessons until they ran out of steam. In one school, at the first lesson after the launch, when asked to start the second lesson several students said they had already done it, including the assessment tool which was a MCQ. One student claimed to have finished the term’s lessons, including a written assignment. Much the same happened in the other school.

Secondly, email traffic looking for support exploded. Emails about the course arrived at all times of the day and night and during weekends.

This is what happens with online learning in practically all settings. You can get huge variations in rates of progress, students don’t consider that teachers may occasionally not be at work, and feedback to ensure the learning gains have been made needs to be rethought – all very different from face to face lessons, where students are expected to learn the same thing at the same time and find out how well they have learned it. Online learning disrupts both the time and place of learning. It is not a substitute for classroom based learning. It is a fundamentally different mode of learning. This was a key finding of relevance to all schools. The date? 2005 – an unbelievable 15 years ago.

How these issues are managed in general depends on all sorts of factors, especially the attitudes of the teacher and the school.

Has that 15 year old lesson been learned? Right now, simply buying devices for students while they are forced to be at home is not enough (see Where is the guidance for teachers regarding the management of online learning?

We’ll write more about this in the next instalment.