Thursday, July 16, 2020

What should schools, colleges and Universities do in September? …7 actions

Let me start with a tough question. Weighing your wish to return to schools or campuses, given the current surge of Covid cases, is the return to the classroom or chasing the cash worth a single dead student, teacher or parent? Or should we see the September return as an opportunity to change things for the better and by that I mean for teachers, lecturers, students and parents? We need a reset.

1. Blended learning

Hang your hat on this phrase, use it as your strategy. See all future education as an optimal ‘blend’ of teaching and learning methods. Look at the whole learning journey, not just the delivery of ‘lessons’. It starts with learner engagement, learner support, delivery of learning, feedback, formative assessment and summative assessment. You may also want to add ‘wellbeing’. Before Covid, kids and students got ill, students didn’t turn up to lectures (40%), snow fell, floods happened. Covid just universalised something that has been happing for as long as there’s been schools, colleges and Universities – absent learners. Note that Blended Learning is not Blended Teaching, just as Zoom and some pre-recorded videos is not serious, online learning. Blended learning recognises the types of learning, context for learners and resources available. It is the art of the possible.
What is Blended learning?

2. Effortful learning

Endless talking heads on Zoom is not nearly enough. It can be useful for that personal touch and some synchronous stuff will help keep learners on schedule, but most online learning will be asynchronous, not in real time. If you do use lectures and direct instruction, record them. Leaners need to stop, rewind, repeat, revise. Some may have English as a second language. They may have difficulties getting access to the home computer or find a space at that time. To be honest video, on its own, is pretty poor without effortful learning. 
Pre-recorded videos with multiple choice questions is also never enough. Take the advice of Roediger and MacDaniel, two academics who know their stuff on online learning. Students need to make the ‘effort’, cognitively, to learn. That does not mean just taking notes, although that is important. It’s what happens beyond this. Don’t underline and re-read, make the effort to turn away from the page and recall. That’s effortful learning, along with generative learning, where the learner generates new work and doing, real assignments and projects. Then there’s interleaving, retrieval practice and spaced practice.
Video is never enough

3. Feedback

Self-study needs feedback more than anything else. You need to find a way of supporting learners. It’s a lot of work to do this without any automation, so try to use a platform that does this well. It may be automatic scoring of simple tests but at a higher level, platforms automate more sophisticated personalised learning. It’s not just subject-matter feedback but motivational feedback. This matter more at a distance. In Universities, proven adaptive learning systems and entire courses are available.
Adaptive learning

4. Re-use

Students commonly use Google, YouTube, Wikipedia and other learning resources, such as Khan Academy, Oak Academy, Picmonic and Duolingo for learning. Make this part of your curation process. Don’t think you have to do everything from scratch. Other people have created online experiences that are likely to be better than anything you can do, so use them. We have to get over the idea that all lessons have to be built from scratch by every teacher and lecturer.

5. Data-led

Make sure your organisation has a platform that gathers data about your learners, At the first level, descriptive data about who does what and when. At the second level it should also do some analysis, namely who is doing badly and needs help and what things are not working. At the fourth level data should be predictive, telling you what students should be doing next and at the fourth level prescribing and automating that process. Through personalised and adaptive learning.  This takes the workload off individual teachers, lecturers, schools, Universities.
Learning analytics

6. Technology

You need to know what your students tech context is. An audit is a must. And don’t go buying tablets and falling for that ‘device fetish’ thing. Know what they have and can use, as well as their bandwidth and physical context. Many more students have smartphones than desktop computers and laptops. Above all, don’t go all negative on the ‘digital divide’. Quantify the problem and deal with it. Make sure you’re using a platform that works on mobile and all the main browsers and operating systems. Use whatever platform your school or University uses and recommends. Don’t go UDI on this.
Device fetish

7. Comms

Don’t use the language of the classroom for self-study. Naming online learning a virtual ‘classroom’ is unhelpful. E-learning sound too old school. ‘Homework’ is what you used to do before computers with pen and paper. Us the language of the technology and channels you’re using. Chat, post, text, share… Then communicate a ‘lot’ with students. You need to put them at ease, motivate, and encourage. You also have to schedule, nudge and remind. Be precise in telling them what you expect and what they have to do in terms of work, time, dates, deadlines, formats and ways of submitting effortful learning. Then give good feedback – this last one really matters.
Students have always studied at home, with ‘homework’ and revision for exams. Blended learning just ups our game on this. See online learning as a holistic approach to school, college and University teaching. In fact, when you shift from ‘homework’ to ‘online learning’ you simply up the efficacy of self-study and raise attainment for all. I’d drop the word ‘home-WORK’ as evidence suggests it demotivates students. Seeing self-study as part of your normal school or University life surely encourages autonomy and prepares you better for life.


Necessity is the mother of invention. I hope that this human tragedy  allows us to transform the learning landscape to be better and more inclusive through Blended Learning. We have an opportunity to use contemporary technology reduce teacher workload and improve learning at the same time.


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