Understanding Distance Learning

“We want live lessons!

“I have 3 children and only 1 computer. Only 1 child can do live lessons at a time!”

“Stop asking us to print out materials for our children!”

“Please provide more materials for us to support our children!”

“There is too much work!”

“There is not enough work!”

These are some of the main points myself and my fellow Principals have heard from parents over the past few weeks. So, what is Distance Learning and how can we ensure the very best for our children during these unprecedented times?

Not even during the Second World War did all schools shut down in the UK, so for this global closure of education establishments to be taking place, we have to accept the severity of the Covid-19 Pandemic we all face, and come together as one, supporting each other to maintain learning as best we can.

Technology has been around for many years now, yet never in its entirety has it superseded the need for teachers.  If you look at how children were taught in the 1800’s, you will find they sat in rows at desks, facing the teacher and a chalkboard.  Today, we sit the children at their desks facing whiteboards.  Whilst technology is now found in the classroom with candles being replaced by light bulbs, the concept remains the same.  This is not flippancy, for whilst I acknowledge the curriculum has changed with the development of pedagogy too, we do not see a seismic shift in the fundamentals of how children are engaged with their learning:  If it’s not broken, why fix it? It would be like trying to make your own homemade tomato ketchup when most of our favourite brands can be purchased and cannot be beaten after 151 years of production.

So overnight, we are asking children to sit in front of a computer and log on to a screen to engage in their lessons.  This is a ground-breaking shift and suddenly, we require the children to be attentive and disciplined in a newfound way, and we need them to not only focus, but download, read and interact with materials without the beady eye or physical support of a teacher.  For our children, computers in the main mean surfing, gaming and video streaming: fun, not learning and we must be careful that as educators we don’t fall into the trap of making our lessons solely “fun” with lessons that are purely ‘Edutainment’ or ‘Technotainment’ in value.   

I have read how some teachers are being asked by students to upload lessons on ‘Tik Tok’ or their ‘Insta’ account; words and phrases that too many teachers of a certain generation are alien to. There is a clash of generations with students placing value in technology, which is informal and bitesize in nature, whereas teachers require them to use it formally and increase their attention span. Currently Tik Tok and Instagram are not being used by AAESS so that lessons are not trivialised.

The problem with technology in general, is that there are so many incompatibilities: Will your charger for your laptop fit your friends?  Does your Mac allow you to open all the pages you need as Java script may not be running? Is the App you require available for Android?  

Therefore, are there a set of apps, programs or platforms that lend themselves to the perfect learning environment for all abilities, ages, and subjects?  

In a world where technology develops and changes so fast, research is limited to answer this fundamental question and certainly in the situation we find ourselves in right now.  I was privileged to attend this year’s BETT (British Educational Training & Technology) conference in London and sit in a lecture by Dr Alison Clarke-Wilson from the UCL Institute of London who is an expert in educational technology.  Her lecture was entitled, “The Billion Dollar Edtech Question: Can We Prove It Works?” and explored the value of technology in education.  I was surprised that after an hour, her answer to the big question was a simple, “No!”  Like most who attended that lecture, I guess I was looking for the Golden Goose and that one stop solution to enhancing learning through a computer chip.

With this in mind, it has now been left to Principals and their teams to create new pedagogy for a virtual classroom that inspires, enthuses and ignites learning from the bedroom, dining room table or living room at home.  As educators we are presented with ‘shiny’ boxes and literature from a multitude of companies, all selling their wares and abilities to enhance learning, yet, few have the provenance of tried and tested research. 

Microsoft Teams was immediately identified as the solution with the ability to provide live lessons.  Likewise, Google Hangouts was suggested as an alternative.  Zoom was a tool also promoted.

These were the knee-jerk solutions to a problem presented by people with no or little experience in using these for educational purposes.  For sure, they may have used them for business to hold meetings with other adults and professionals within their field, but now these platforms were being pushed with one key concept: they could simply re-create the classroom.  But do they really provide key learning environments and opportunities to study for children?  Quantitatively they have the logistical platform, but qualitatively, do they improve educational outcomes?  

At Al Ain English Speaking School, we used the enforced Spring Break as a trial period for live learning.  After this initial period, we noticed quite quickly the following issues:

Parents with more than 1 child with only 1 computer, could not access live lessons simultaneously;

Many parents wanted to support each child during their lessons;

Students were keen to chat to their classmates they missed over this medium and were disengaged;

Students and parents could not revisit the teaching if needing reinforcement of key concepts;

Could the bandwidth in Al Ain cope with all students in the city accessing video streaming?

Could the video service servers keep up with the demand from around the globe?

The timings of live learning didn’t always meet the needs of the working parent.

Safety was also a priority using these platforms: could children be exposed to harmful material during a live lesson from hackers?

As a result, we took the decision working with our Assistant Principal and e-Learning co-ordinator Mr Robert Rudling, to use Google Classrooms, so students could access the class at any time and anywhere.  More importantly they could come back to the lesson again should they need or not understand, and the students could ask questions of any aspect and at any time about their learning and could receive personalised feedback on every piece of work. 

Did we get it right the first time?  No, not entirely, and we are still evolving, but we listened to parents and staff (and continue to do so), and we moderated the learning ourselves.  As a parent to a Year 1 and Year 10 child, I was immediately able to evaluate the work set for these students, alongside several of my senior team members who have children in the school.  Dare I say this, but my wife has been my biggest critic as she became the home-school teacher to our 6-year-old boy. I have listened!  However, I can see at first-hand how teachers have risen to the challenge, learned new techniques and worked even more hours than before.  We have even produced interactive teaching tools to guide parents and develop their understanding too.

The key point that parents have requested, is that there is interactivity with the student.  

Parent-teacher consultations online have been developed within our school, but essentially, students and parents have valued hearing and seeing their teacher more than anything else; live or recorded.

I conclude this article as a parent, and not just as an educator, where I have first-hand experience of my two sons’ distance learning.  The first week was frustrating; getting the boys into a routine, printing off materials for them to learn, uploading work for my younger son for his teacher to mark and understanding some of the key concepts to deliver. I am a secondary teacher, not a primary teacher!  However, after my own initial anger at the situation, embarrassment as an educator, and

shortcomings as a parent, I realised with my wife that following a routine, trusting the teachers’ instructions, and working closely with my sons, we actually can get through this and it is a wonderful time to bring the family together, despite the challenges that it creates.  It is also a real honour to see the progress that your child makes too, something that is normally only reserved for the teacher.

Distance Learning will never replace the need for our teachers, but what it does do is bring you closer as a family.  It also should make you value your children’s teachers and their skills and the craft that they deliver on a daily basis.

The teachers miss your children.  They miss the routine and they miss delivering their expertise.  They too are experiencing lots of anxiety abouthow

to continue the learning to ensure the pupils do not fall behind, with some converting parts of their homes into a classroom that can be used as a backdrop for their videos; learning and researching new skills and techniques as well as planning and delivering the lessons and answering individual requests and questions that they receive.  Please take this time to support your child’s teacher.   It is easy to criticise, it is easy to get upset, it is also easy to become an educational expert.   Many teachers are parents too and are now also full-time teachers for their own children as well as yours.

Like me, I’m sure you want this over, to get your children back in class, and your children learning with their peers next to them.  So please spare a thought for the community, the children and your teacher.  We are all doing the very best we can!

Andrew Thomas B.Ed (Hons) M.Phil NPHQ


Al Ain English Speaking School

Andrew gained his Master of Philosophy degree through the study of technology in education and has delivered many conference speeches on technology in education, including BETT Middle East, and at the British Educational Research Association.

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