Last reviewed 23 February 2021
Michael Evans considers how effective remote learning has been as an alternative to face-to-face learning in the classroom during the Covid-19 pandemic.
A sudden requirement
Remote learning is nothing new. One of the most successful examples is Australia’s School of the Air, that celebrates its 70th anniversary later this year. Since June 1951 countless numbers of isolated Australian children have received a remote education that is on a par with that received in a conventional school.
The coronavirus pandemic created a similar need for remote learning in the UK, but while the Australian system had been refined over the course of many years, schools in Britain were only given two days.
On Wednesday 18 March 2020, schools were told that they were to close at the end of the week, except for vulnerable children and the children of key workers. Remote lessons were to be provided online for pupils forced to stay at home.
Remote learning seemed to be the obvious solution, but there were multiple problems. Schools suddenly found themselves having to provide online lessons for 90% of their pupils when few teachers had any experience or training with respect to remote learning. For an indeterminate period, as well as being faced with rapidly having to get to grips with the technology involved, teachers had to devise appropriate online lessons that would keep their pupils engaged, while continuing to educate the small number of children who were still in school. A survey of just over 1,000 teachers found that almost half had difficulty aligning remote learning with the school’s curriculum.
Many schools were very successful, but others were less so. Some already had contingency plans in place, but others simply had to make it up as they went along.
A clear social distinction emerged regarding access. Within the strictures of the national broadband network, children from more affluent homes tended to have better internet connections and were more likely to have better IT equipment. Independent schools had a particular advantage in this respect.
For children in low-income families, in many cases the only method of access to remote learning was by means of a mobile phone and timetabled lessons were problematic when several children in a family were at different stages and had to share equipment.
Initially there was very little live online teaching and many older pupils, realising that supervision was limited, simply opted out of remote lessons and found something much more interesting to occupy their time.
The challenges were enormous.
Young children missed out
Young children in particular found distance learning to be exceedingly difficult. For them remote learning was a real challenge. Activities that can be fun in the classroom soon lose their attraction when viewed on a small screen, especially when they are viewed alone. Boredom rapidly set in and bored children soon became naughty children.
Parents, who were forced to work from home, suddenly found themselves having to become surrogate teachers, trying to keep their children on task and explaining to them what they had to do. Understandably 41% of parents reported that they had little or no time to give to this kind of support.
Lack of socialisation and lack of exercise have also been major concerns for young children, as has the amount of time spent in front of a small screen. For years concerns have been raised about the amount of time children spend slouched in front of a TV, smartphone or games console. Of necessity these concerns were all put on hold.
It was clear that this group should be high on the priority list for returning to school at the earliest opportunity.
A sudden new lockdown
Restrictions were eventually relaxed and by the start of the Autumn Term in September, it was announced that 92% of state schools in England were open.
Schools were also expecting to reopen after the Christmas break and some opened on 4 January, but later on the same day a further lockdown was announced, and they were told to close for most of their pupils from 5 January. This time government guidelines changed, and parents were told that if only one of them was a key worker they could send their children to school.
Anecdotal evidence suggested that many parents who had been run ragged trying to cope with remote learning during the first lockdown, decided to send their children back to school regardless.
The Sutton Trust reported that during the first week of January 2021, 37% of primary schools said that they had at least one in five of their pupils in attendance, rather than one in a hundred during the first lockdown in March 2020. During the following weeks attendance rapidly rose to one in four and even one in three.
Problems continue with a widening socio-economic gap
Learning from previous experience, many schools had contingency plans for a second closure. There was more equipment available for home-based pupils and it was possible to refine remote provision, but once again it was children from the more affluent families that saw the greatest benefit.
Technical difficulties were still a real problem. Sutton Trust reported that in January 2021, 35% of parents with the lowest incomes still did not have access to suitable facilities for their child’s online learning.
For disadvantaged pupils in years 3 to 11 who relied on a mobile internet connection for face-to-face education, the government worked in partnership with network operators to provide additional support.
Two thirds of schools reported using their limited financial resources to buy IT equipment for needy pupils, but in the most deprived areas this need was so great that 56% of school leaders said that they had not been able to meet the requirements of even half of their pupils.
The government had attempted to deal with this problem by instituting a major programme of laptop distribution, but by January 2021, it was reported that only 560,000 of the promised 1.3 million had been delivered.
There were many initiatives throughout the country that attempted to address this shortfall. Large numbers of redundant laptops were refurbished and distributed to schools, but clearly a major challenge remained, particularly with the most deprived pupils.
In spite of all these efforts, there is clear evidence that the gap between the haves and have nots was widening. During the second lockdown 40% of children in middle class homes were said to be completing more than 5 hours of online learning each day, while in working class households only 26% of children managed this.
Signs of success
In spite of all the problems, there have been some notable successes and hundreds of schools and groups of schools have risen to the occasion. During the second lockdown 54% of schools were reported to be using online live teaching, as opposed to only 4% during the first lockdown.
Many schools were able to timetable a virtual school day, with the usual range of subjects and lessons, and breaks at the normal times. Pupils were even able to see each other and their teachers using programs such as Zoom.
But effective remote learning is expensive, with many previously unforeseen costs and it is worth reflecting that educating an Australian child by means of the School of the Air costs approximately twice as much as educating that child in a conventional school.
Here in the UK, however effective remote learning can be, even in the most successful schools, it can only ever be a stopgap until full-time conventional education can be resumed.
In March 2020 the coronavirus pandemic led to the sudden closure of schools except for vulnerable children and children of key workers, with remote learning provided for all others.
Although remote learning was the only answer, there were multiple problems. Teachers lacked training and experience to implement this and many children, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds did not have appropriate home facilities or technology.
Concern was expressed about the difficulties young children had with remote learning and how they were missing out on activities that would be regarded as part of normal development.
In January 2021, a second sudden closure revealed that although much progress had been made, there were still serious deficiencies with respect to IT equipment, and a widening socio-economic gap.
In spite of all the problems there were definite signs of success, with hundreds of schools having risen to the occasion.
Remote learning is expensive, with many previously unforeseen costs involved and even the most successful remote learning can only be a stopgap until the resumption of full-time conventional education.
Australian School of the Air