I begin this blog with a disclaimer: this isn’t intended to add weight to either side in an argument about whether or not to deliver remote leaning as “live” or “pre-recorded” or “screen” vs “non-screen.” I imagine that your school setting has reached its own conclusions about how to offer and deliver remote education in a way that works for your community, your parents, your ethos and your staff. Instead, this blog represents some observations and conclusions around making any live element of your offer work. Much in the same way that I would write about what makes for effective teaching and learning in a classroom, this is what I have come to see as good practice in live online lessons in the schools that I run.
Live online classes – remote delivery of education – is an emerging pedagogy and is very much in its infancy in my schools. At the time of the first lockdown my schools were not in a position to step into this space: a lack of training, software, policies and procedures meant that to have done so would have been unnecessarily risky (GDPR, child protection, unprofessionalism in presentation and delivery to name but a few such risks.) However the space between the original and subsequent lockdown allowed sufficient opportunity to review our original offer, trial new delivery techniques and produce a contingency plan for future lockdowns that included live and online lesson delivery. I have explored all of this in depth in an earlier blog post: A personal review of remote and online learning…
We are self-taught in this new live and online pedagogy. We examined the platforms and chose those the one which worked best for our staff, our families and our learners (we settled on Zoom and produced all the necessary risk assessments, DPIAs and paperwork to give us confidence to use it safely.) We practiced using it ourselves. I personally trailed it for online lesson delivery throughout the 2020 summer holidays by offering to teach my pupils each day throughout August. We researched by watching how others were doing it – Oak National Academy, for example – and we held practices and “dry runs” with our classes so that we could be as ready as possible when/if a further lockdown was announced. And once we started doing it for real, we made it a regular feature of our lockdown staff-meetings: to discuss how the live online lessons were going, what was working well, and what did we need to think about changing. It was a true example of a team of reflective practitioners discussing and analysing practice and pedagogy in order to bring about improvement.
So what have I learned about live online delivery of education? First and foremost I have come to see it as a natural extension, rather than a separate “bolt-on” to existing educational practice and values within the school. For us, that meant looking at our own teaching and learning policies and focussing on our adopted model “Feedback, Autonomy, Challenge, Engagement and Inclusion” based on the Mark Burns and Andy Griffiths “Teaching Backwards” book.
Making sure that how we did live online lessons remained true to this model was important and ensured that our approach was authentic and worked for our learning community. This is how it looked in practice:
We opted to deliver our live online lessons as webinar presentations rather than having lots of little boxes on screen with realtime video feeds of the children. This decision removed the huge array of safeguarding issues in one fell swoop but retained synchronous interaction and live engagement. Lesson length was another key consideration, and this was differentiated accordingly taking into account the age and likely attention spans of children.
Welcome with warmth
This was a vital aspect to our live online lessons: Use of names, waves, personal little asides ( “hello Max, I loved receiving your ghost story yesterday afternoon, it had me on the edge of my seat!”) This set the tone and reaffirms later points (see below) about personalising learning to better promote the child’s investment in the lesson (ie engagement.)
Break down the barriers to participation
I wanted to make sure that as many of my pupils as possible would be able to access any live online lessons that we provided. Part of this was achieved through a device loan scheme in which families were able to be provided with one of the laptops or iPads from my schools on request. Many families took us up on this offer. In addition, I took the decision to post recordings of the live lessons to the school website. Providing this on-demand element to the learning offer meant that if children couldn’t attend a lesson live they would hopefully find another point in the day when they could watch back and catch-up. It also allowed attendees to go back and rewatch key teaching points if they felt they required that additional consolidation. We built in a system of follow up phone calls, teacher emails etc to wrap around the live-lessons too. We referred to this as our after-care package.
Track participation and engagement with the remote learning package
We developed a tracker to help us monitor which children were taking part with the lessons, and which children we would need to follow up with phone calls and emails. Education was not compulsory during the lockdown in the Isle of Man but our expectations for our learners remained high and I was keen that no child would fall through the net and miss out on the various opportunities we were making available for their education to continue.
Clarity for learners about feedback expectations
We produced clear guidance notes for our pupils which were published on the school website. These set out important details as to what work should be sent in, how it should be sent and when. We also provided expectations for which format we wanted to receive work and most of this came to be through jpeg or PDF documents. Specifying this to our pupils enabled us to train the staff in the use of the PDF mark up tool so that we could annotate examples of work – in effect allowing us to replicate the existing marking policy so that the children experienced no difference in terms of the content or style of feedback to which they were already accustomed with from school.
Promote reflective practice within the staff team
We facilitated staff reflection time in staff meetings to openly discuss this developing pedagogy. We used the time as an opportunity to share new features of the platform that we’ve started to get our head around; to share successes; to dissect the elements which hadn’t worked so well. We also took temperature checks from parents and pupils to feed into these discussions.
Just as routine is a vital component in regular classroom management, we came to realise quickly that the same would be true of remote delivery.
We generated a timetable for live lessons and stuck to it religiously (which helped families with broadband and device management; helped parents have a clear overview of their child’s day which in turn helped them manage structure at home; and it built school/teacher expectations for engagement and participation from the outset.)
Constant engagement prompts
We needed to make sure that children remained active learners rather than passive viewers on the other end of the screen. To aid this we made regular use of the “raise hand” feature of the platform. “Show me a raised hand to indicate you’re ready to move on.” “Show me a raised hand that you’ve jotted your response into my chat box.” “Show me a raised hand when you’re ready to listen.” This technique coupled with the regular reference to children by their names helped to maintain this sense of active learning within lessons.
End with clear expectations about what happens next
All of our live online lessons ended in the same way. I asked my teachers to recap expectations for what would now happen in the space between this live lesson and the next. I wanted it to be explicitly clear for the learners: this is the task you need to complete…. this is the time it needs to be completed by… this is the email address / share point for handing it in to me… This is the timetable for the rest of you day. We developed the habit of sharing this information as a slide which would be screen shared with pupils. I never wanted lessons to finish without this clarity – we wouldn’t be seeing the pupils in the way that you would do after a lesson in a school, so I was adamant that we wouldn’t leave them with uncertainty hanging over the experience.
We introduced the webinar “walkie-talkie” feature into our remote delivery in which the teacher could control access to real-time voice contributions. This reaffirmed the personal connection to learning for the children and allowed teachers to prompt, model, converse with and probe/target children in normal discussion. This became a highly effective teaching tool: a genuine opportunity to replicate discussions of this type – discussions that feature naturally in normal classroom delivery (Q&A sessions, mini-plenaries, debates, misconception checks etc) – and utilise the resulting learning dialogue to move all pupils’ understanding forward.
This is the tool which teachers found the most useful for modelling new learning. Slides, pictures, powerpoints etc were all prepared prior to lessons and were shared with the pupils in realtime through the screen share feature of Zoom.
As soon as the children begin to log into the session a task would be set. This took many forms, from “thunks” to calls to respond to a prompt in the chat stream. The immediateness was key. It signalled from the get-go that this is a lesson, and emphasised the expectation to children that they would need to take part. Active learning rather than passive.
Personalise the experience as much as possible
We came to realise that constant use of participant’s names throughout was really important. It kept pupils alive to the idea that they may be called upon to give a response. Furthermore, namechecks simply helped to maintain and hold the interest of children at the other end of the screen. Personal moments such as screen sharing their work or referencing a child’s birthday at the start or end of a lesson injected that important teacher:pupil relationship into the lesson. So all in all, frequent reference to children by name became a hallmark of our live online lessons.
Encourage high levels of synchronous interaction
My teachers made expert use of the chat stream and the associated tools to manage the visibility of the chat stream (all pupils, an ability or other teacher-directed group, or just the teacher.) This required the teacher to have a good level of understanding of how to use the technical features of the platform to switch these options on or off during the lesson and in response to what they were teaching and how they believed pupils would best respond. Some pupil feedback suggested untargeted questions put to all pupils meant that the quickest responses appearing first in a public chat stream could be off-putting or demoralising to other children and/or didn’t allow the teacher to accurately assess which children were able to respond independently and which had relied on seeing the responses of others first.
Beyond this we developed other methods such as training the participating children to switch their own settings on the chat stream so that they became more adept at selecting to whom they would interact with during a lesson.
On Screen Familiarity
We quickly developed a corporate look to progress a sense of consistency for our learners.
This included a focus on helping our learners with their lesson preparation – “What You Need / Lesson Objectives” slides were shared at an early point in each live online lesson. (W also got in the habit of pre-sharing this screen as a PDF the day before the lesson along with the access link.)