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    

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