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Does e-learning make the grade?

HB Recovery

Abby Beswick23 September 2020

BB54

The way children learn has changed forever. As Covid-19 surged around the world, schools closed, forcing our children out of their classrooms. Globally, more than 1.2 billion students have been affected by school closures due to the pandemic.

The resulting lockdown forced a dramatic change to our education system, with the move to e-learning, where teaching is carried out remotely on digital platforms. This sudden shift away from the classroom raises questions about whether online learning has a place in post-pandemic education, and whether such a move could impact academic achievement.

We speak to local educators, students and families about their experience of remote learning and if it should have a permanent place in our education system.

Mobilising the forces

In the week before lockdown, teaching staff knew they were about to enter extraordinary territory. While most institutions had been using education technology to support classroom learning for many years, moving completely to e-learning, in just a few days, was something new entirely.

At education facilities around the country, staff had to find solutions rapidly in preparation to deliver their programmes remotely. Under lockdown, parents had two weeks of holidays before what would be for most, their first foray into homeschooling families. As students “returned” to school via virtual classrooms, a new era of education began.

Some classes translated well into an online format, while others were more challenging. At high school and tertiary levels, practical courses such as the arts and trades relied on teaching staff finding meaningful ways for students to study them in online platforms. At the start this meant focusing on theory components of these subjects, but as time went on, educators had to keep finding new ways to study the practical aspects of programmes online, with often limited resources available.

Then there was the issue of access to devices and the Internet, highlighting the gap between the haves and the have-nots. Where students didn’t have their own device or access to the Internet, education providers stepped in as much as possible, to ensure these were made available so students could continue their studies.

At EIT alone, around 250 laptops were sent to students and staff also organised access to modems and data for a number of students. Staff also set up a working group to address student hardship issues related to Covid-19. As part of this students could apply for a one-off grant to help them continue their studies from home.

A new education

Scheduling, assessment and academic expectations differed dramatically between institutions, often based on students’ ages. Hasting’s Flaxmere Primary took a flexible learning approach, so students could fit schoolwork around their home life, and where possible lessons were integrated into everyday tasks such as cooking and exercise.

“We decided we weren’t going to lock families into having to do something at 9 o’clock or 10 o’clock because everybody’s situation was quite different,” says principal Robyn Isaacson. “We were really aware of the emotional and mental wellbeing of families because it wasn’t an easy time for anybody.”

The school sent out home packs which included art equipment, books and activities to support what students were doing at home. Two weeks’ worth of food for lunches was also sent to homes in place of the usual Lunch in Schools programme. The reaction from families showed how much it meant to them, says Isaacson.

At the beginning of lockdown, Havelock North High School (HNHS) ran their usual daily timetable, starting at 8.45am, to provide students with structure and routine. Staff constantly reviewed how students were coping and later decided to remove afternoon classes when focus levels dropped, to allow more time for other activities, such as exercise and being with their families.

Engagement varied during different stages of lockdown and between students, depending on how well they responded to the new way of learning. Some, who typically struggled in a classroom situation, excelled at e-learning, while others who thrived on the interaction and dynamics of a classroom found it more difficult.

Academic Business Continuity group was established at EIT to support students through the temporary adjustments and ensure delivery of programmes and assessment.

During and post lockdown the focus has been on flexibility through an evolving situation, including offering students the option to withdraw or defer their studies, says executive dean for the Faculty of Education, Humanities and Health Science, Professor Natalie Waran. “We didn’t want them to feel stressed by thinking they would have to end their studies or pay anything or not be able to re-engage when the time was right for them.”

Lessons learnt

Throughout every stage of lockdown, teaching staff remained in constant contact with students and their families to provide support. Several schools said a positive outcome of lockdown had been the opening of a clear line of communication between teachers and families – one which has stayed open and continued to gain momentum.

Teachers also reported a real sense of community and eagerness to learn within virtual classrooms. “The children were motivated when they were doing things because they had a lot more agency in it,” says Isaacson.

As the weeks wore on however, the initial enthusiasm turned into ‘lockdown lethargy’ for many. By the end, “students and staff had had enough”, says HNHS principal Greg Fenton. Exhausted and fed up with the limitations of distance learning, it was obvious how much everyone was looking forward to reconnecting at school, he says.

While the lockdown learning experience taught flexibility, it also took away the richness of being with other people. “As soon as we were able to come back onto campus, you did see students delighting in the fact that they were together again,” says Waran.

Fenton agrees. For him, there’s no substitute for the classroom, particularly when it comes to the social

A number of EIT’s international students travelled home, adding distance to the list of complications, but if they wanted to continue their studies, staff worked to make it happen. An aspects of engaging, sharing and collaborating. “The best environment for that is a face-to-face environment. Conference of course gives hints of it, but it doesn’t go far enough in terms of generating the energy that happens in a classroom.”

What about the future?

Like it or not, lockdown forced staff and students to embrace e-learning in a way never explored before and demonstrated the potential to incorporate online learning into our classrooms. While some believe online learning results in a poor learning experience and a drop in academic achievement, others believe a new blended model of education will emerge, with significant benefits.

Flaxmere Primary School has changed its whole daily programme as a result of the lockdown experience. Every morning students can now choose from a wide range of activities that support their emotional and creative wellbeing, such as eating breakfast with classmates, going for a bike ride, walking, doing yoga, dancing, and art. Traditional subjects like maths, reading and writing are integrated into this time. After lunch all children take part in discovery learning, which focuses on science, technology and the arts.

The experience of remote learning at home has unlocked new interests in their children and through this new programme they now have the freedom to pursue these, says Isaacson. The school has also kept its online learning grids in place to support the learning independence children have gained.

EIT will continue to offer an online format to students who want to stay at home or are unable to return to the classroom. A project is underway to look at the future of e-learning, and how resources and technology can be best used to support this. Waran, who has been an international researcher and educator for many years, teaches several online programmes and believes with the right approach, remote learning can be as effective as traditional methods. It’s about creating a high-quality learning experience online, as well as giving people access to learning if they’re not able to attend classes on campus, she says.

“If you’re going to teach in a very engaged way online, you just have to keep developing yourself so you understand how to do group work effectively and how to give students the same sort of experience as being in a classroom, even though they’re sitting in their own living room, looking at a computer.”

Waran sees a future where students can move between multiple institutes and programmes via e-learning, allowing them to create their own learning experience. Online platforms could also offer students the option of learning specific skills or knowledge, instead of a full qualification.

Is online learning as successful?

It’s still early days in terms of assessing student achievement for online learning, but the signs are good. EIT found in some cases student results were better from online learning. A wellbeing survey about students’ learning experience during lockdown was also largely positive.

At Flaxmere, the experience has been overwhelmingly positive, including academically. Sampling of students’ reading, done two weeks before lockdown and when they returned showed 85% of children had improved or stayed the same. Reading will be re-tested this term, along with maths.

Children’s creative expression has also taken huge leaps, says Isaacson. In fact, the creativity expressed by students through their artwork during and post lockdown has been so impressive the school is planning a public art auction.

The pandemic has not only disrupted the academic system, it has been a catalyst for change. It’s not yet known what role e-learning will have in our classrooms and beyond, but it’s clear that it has the potential to offer significant benefit to learners of all ages, which deserves to be explored.

Case study: Teacher Deborah Taylor

Deborah Taylor spent much of lockdown in her downstairs office at home, hoping her two children didn’t break things upstairs while she was teaching science online.

The Havelock North High School teacher juggled full-time work and parenting to her four and six year-old children during lockdown, while her husband continued his job as an essential worker.

It made for a challenging time of personal and professional growth for all of them. “It was stressful at times because the children would come in regularly when I was teaching, doing conference calls, asking for food, or having a tantrum or having a fight but my students found that entertaining.”

Pre-Covid, the online resource programme Schoology was a regular feature of Taylor’s lessons. In the days leading up to lockdown, however, she and her colleagues needed to rapidly upskill and expand their use of technology in preparation to transition to online-only classes.

As a science and biology teacher, that meant looking for innovative ways to adapt practical work into a format compatible with online learning. Often this meant finding simulation videos students could watch or small experiments they could do at home with the resources available.

Going into it, Taylor admits having high expectations of her bright, capable students but as she, her students and families adapted to their new reality, it became clear she needed to make some adjustments. “I got feedback from parents that it was too much and some students were getting quite stressed about it, so I definitely toned it down.”

There were other issues, not usually encountered in the classroom. Many children weren’t comfortable being seen on video during conference calls so turned their cameras off; others turned their audio off, instead emailing questions; and some didn’t ask questions at all. In spite of this, Taylor had almost 100% attendance for her online classes. Students wanted to learn, even if they weren’t on board with the format.

While a few kids thrived in the online environment and enjoyed the flexibility it allowed, for most it was a poor second to their usual classroom, leaving many feeling stressed, confused and isolated, she says.

As a teacher, online lessons required a lot more time and planning compared to usual lessons, which was also challenging.

After eight weeks in lockdown, it was clear most students and teachers were “just so happy to be back” in the classroom environment.

The lockdown experience, and her 18-year teaching career have left Taylor in no doubt about the value of face-to-face learning, which she says offers significant social and educational benefits.

While technology has its place as a valuable tool for teachers and students, Taylor doesn’t predict a shift to online-only learning.

“Students learn best when they’re helping each other, when they’re working as a group. They get better understanding of concepts through talking and communicating with each other, and that’s just not possible online, so it’s definitely not a permanent thing.”

Case study: The Berryman Household

Covid-19 hit the Berryman family hard. While Anna ventured into a new world – remote teaching her year 2 class from Peterhead Primary – her husband Arron was forced to stop work completely. His new business – heavy vehicle inspection company COF’s Hawke’s Bay – had been due to open in a few weeks, but instead the gates remained locked while they stalled in limbo. “That’s when the pressure hit – the bills were coming in and we were not open,” says Anna.

Their two children Piper, 17 and Harry, 15, who both attend Taradale High School, also faced challenges as they navigated online study amid a backdrop of global and family pressures.

Teachers sent each of the kids daily tasks and deadlines for each subject, and remained in regular contact via Zoom and email. While Piper and Harry missed their friends and usual school routines, the dedicated students put their heads down and worked hard.

At first, things seemed to go quite well, but the dramatically different workloads and expectations between teachers started to take a toll. There was also frustration if they needed help while studying. Often they would resort to Google to find an answer – something that could have easily been dealt with by asking the teacher if they were at school.

Improving her technology skills was a positive for Piper, but as a visual learner, she missed reading from the whiteboard and the face-to-face interactions of school. “I really did miss my friends and felt isolated,” she says.

From Anna’s perspective, there were too many demands on her children, who were working long hours to complete their daily tasks within an already stressful lockdown context. “By the fourth week, both of my children had just had enough; they were mentally and physically drained. They were beside themselves. There was too much work and they couldn’t even keep up with it.” Anna contacted the teachers explaining her children needed a break to spend some time with family and relax and found them extremely understanding and supportive in response.

When Piper and Harry returned to school it was frustrating to discover a huge disparity between the work done by their classmates. “They (teachers) did put a lot of work onto us. I was rushing around to finish it before we went back to school but then when we had got back to school, no one had done the work anyway, so I was kind of just sitting there doing nothing so that was kind of painful,” says Piper.

The Berrymans are relieved to be out of lockdown. Their business has opened, the children have returned to school and life has largely returned to normal. For them, remote learning brought few benefits and can’t replace face-to-face interactions with friends and teachers.

The experience did offer a few positive takeaways though, says Anna. Namely a growth in personal resilience for all of them, and a changed outlook on life in general. “We took a lot for granted before, whereas now it’s the small things we value – time with our family, and not spending so much time at work. You’ve got to count your blessings.”

Lead photo: Florence Charvin. Havelock North High School teacher, Deborah Taylor, juggling working from home with family life.

Secondary photo: Florence Charvin. The Berryman family working and learning from home. 

Abby Beswick23 September 2020

BB54

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