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.