Remote learning for children – Challenges, Concerns, Solutions and Opportunities’

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By Education Today

Posted on January 14, 2021


12 min read

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Remote learning for children – Challenges, Concerns, Solutions and Opportunities’

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, between 50,000 – 60,000 children in the UK were being home-schooled.  This is surely to rise considerably over the next couple of years.  Indeed, according to Andrew Halls OBE, Headmaster of King’s College School in Wimbledon, this is set to rise to about 300,00 children by 2025.  Despites its challenges and concerns, more and more parents are turning to an online education to educate their children. They see the potential and opportunities that lie in this system and the downsides of physical schools. 

When asked why parents prefer an online home education to the physical schools, they often give the following answers:

  • E-Learning is easy to use and is more effective
  • The work cannot get lost
  • It offers unlimited access to education resources
  • It offers more opportunities for sharing and presentation
  • It offers real individualised learning
  • It improves computer skills 
  • It offers an interactive and innovative learning environment
  • It can be accessed anywhere in the world
  • It can be accessed at any time of the day
  • It is good for the environment
  • There are fewer cases of bullying and feeling intimidated in the classroom

What is obvious, is that when online education is poorly delivered it does cause a great deal of concern and worry for the parents and students alike. In a recent survey by YouGov[2], nearly three quarters of parents with school-age children (73%) had spent time home-schooling their kids during the coronavirus outbreak. Among this group, two thirds said keeping their children disciplined and motivated was very (26%) or fairly (39%) hard. The second most cited challenge was finding enough time, with half of home-schooling parents saying it has been very (17%) or fairly (31%) hard.  On the 21st April 2020 The Guardian[3], a parent expressed his frustrations with online learning:

“It’s extremely challenging trying to keep a teenager motivated with schoolwork whilst simultaneously holding down a demanding full-time job,” says Jo Jarvis, an account manager from Leeds whose 13-year-old son, Evan, has been assigned lots of English work but little maths. He believed that ultimately the role of mothers, fathers and carers was key to the success of students’ learning. Ward adds: “Sadly, whilst some parents will push their kids to learn, others won’t have the time, skills or the inclination to do so.

In many ways he is correct; so much of the success in home learning online depends not just on the student, but with the teachers and parents alike.  One cannot assume all teachers have the technical capabilities of delivering online lessons.  One hopes that the teacher’s skills have kept pace with technology and that they know how to use this technology as a result of training and experience. One can also not assume that all of that highly evolved and integrated classroom technology is available in the home of the teacher or the student.  In a report issued by the Children’s Commissioner[4], it was estimated that 9% of families in the UK do not even have a laptop, desktop computer or tablet at home, let alone internet access.

Secondly, it also depends on the availability of the parent to help, whilst the parents’ education level, physical abilities, technical abilities, commitment, language proficiency are also key factors.

Thirdly, it also depends on the student’s age, maturity, grade level, self-discipline, language proficiencies, physical abilities, technical abilities, access to the internet, the subject area, their ability to step into the role of being an independent learner and taking ownership of their own education.

So, what are the other problems facing students/parents with an online education and how can they be solved:

A problem that crops up a lot is technical issues.  Here students need to be patient and have time to work through the problem.  Again, here communication is key.  They should inform their parents and teachers if, for some reason, they are having technical issues accessing school lessons, videos etc.  These technical issues are even greater when students are sharing wi-fi with members of the family.  Any sharing of wi-fi causes lagging – this causes the machine to run much more slowly and for it to become less reliable.  To maximise the learning experience, students should be on a cabled network (not affected by weather conditions), with the fastest broadband connection that is possible.  If you can afford this, it is worth investing in this technology.

Another key problem, according to most parents, is their children getting too easily distracted.  While studying from home there can be more distractions than usual, especially with family and possibly younger siblings around.  If at all possible, parents should discuss with their children the skills of time-management.  Together with their children, parents should create a daily schedule for their children and get them to stick to it. Remember to include some down-time. Students should also try to identify a quiet time and place in their house to complete their work, if possible – even if that time is during the evening (for teenagers).

Staying motivated and keeping on top of your work are also key issues that students have to solve.  The decision to cancel all GCSEs and A Level exams last Summer did not help, as droves of students’ enthusiasm for the subject evaporated into thin air.  As I write this, Wales has also cancelled all GCSEs and A Level exams for summer 2021, and I am sure England will follow. Whilst previously, on October 7, John Swinney, Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills in the Scottish Parliament, had announced that the Scottish National 5 exams (equivalent to GCSEs) will be cancelled for 2021.  Students need an end goal.  They need to focus on the ultimate goal. At the end of the day, students should look back on each day and mark off all of those items that they have completed. Knowing they have achieved this will help to motivate them as well, especially when the key exams seem likely to be teacher assessed.

Understanding Success Criteria and Course Expectations are key factors if the students are to progress.  It is important here that students are proactive.  They need to ask their teachers what are the key requirements for any piece of work that is handed in.  They need to understand the success criteria.  In other words, how the work is marked and assessed.

The lack of in-person interaction with both teachers and classmates can be particularly challenging, both on an educational front, and for their mental well-being. That is why it is important to stay in touch with classmates, in addition to reaching out to their teachers as needed; this can also help motivate students.  Indeed, as John Donne expressed: “No man is an island.”  Most of these interactions will bedoneby video conferencing programs like Zoom, Skype, FaceTime etc. Talking on the phone with classmates or a professor may also be an option.  However, there are safeguarding concerns to think about when students communicate with teachers, especially outside of school hours. 

The lack of evidence of progress being made is becoming increasingly clear.  In a recent article (November 6th 2020) in the i newspaper, Katherine Denkinson, a freelance journalist with a professional background in mental health and education and an SEN teaching assistant (working during lockdown) noticed the number of parental complaints rising on a daily basis; from children freezing in the classroom because the governments insist on doors and windows being open as an anti-COVID measure, to teaching staff being discouraged from touching children’s books, with official guidelines recommending they are only marked once per term, making it hard for teachers to measure student’s progress. From pens and other equipment not being provided to those who forget things, to canteens being closed as many are too small to properly distance. 

From the wearing of masks creating communication problems for students with processing issues, to the lack of physical exercise as team sports are discouraged. Short-staffing is also becoming increasingly common as teachers and assistants take time off to await test results or to quarantine. On October 20th, 2020 the BBC[6] claimed that pupils in half of the secondary schools in England have been sent home. This will get worse as staff are getting increasingly exhausted, stressed and ill.  The added confusion of vague guidelines given to schools by the government has not helped either.  As you can imagine, this is making the tracking of student progress almost impossible.  It is also something that online schools need to consider.  Whilst some of them may offer online lessons, how many of them are properly assessing their students and tracking their progress?

Why is assessment and the tracking of students so important?  Why do they matter?  How do we interpret the results in order to support children?   Assessments are a common measure of learning outcomes with regards to attainment and progress in schools, however, parents are often left in the dark by the educational institutions which deliver them. Yet parents are a crucial part of the learning process, in particular with a triangulation of power approach to supporting student learning and ensuring high quality learning outcomes.

With the rise of home schooling, online education and blended learning programmes sparked by COVID-19, parents are now firmly placed within this triangle of power as a crucial factor in ensuring that children have the support that they need to make progress in line with their potential.  Physical and online schools can no longer keep parents in the dark, and they must now focus on open and transparent assessment and on reporting conversations with parents.

Traditional approaches to assessment and learning measurement of student outcomes are becoming increasingly obsolete as online learning in education makes way for more formative performance-based assessment through personalised learning approaches, opportunities for immediate feedback and student-focused guidance that is individualised to the learning needs of each student.

EdTech is paving the way for educators to be able to monitor student learning in real time.  It can take focused and corrective actions to improve understanding, inform planning and support student learning outcomes.

Melissa McBride, CEO of Sophia High School, claims that: “educators are able to analyse learner data from online learning content in order to optimise the learning experience.  This not only improves insights on learning, but improves the overall content and quality of the learning.  Individualised interventions are possible in the form of extra support and guidance. This ensures that trusted, learner- centred relationships are formed.  It also encourages students to take control of their learning, even from a young age.”[7]

What is sure to define the lead players of tomorrow in the educational sector, is a shift from purely content focused curriculum platforms to those which imagines a new way to view education. This will be driven by data, evidence and high-quality learning outcomes for students.  Whether these will be online education will be delivered by traditional schools such as Harrow, or newer online schools, only the future can tell.

To sum up, I do believe that E-learning is the future, despite its disadvantages (obesity caused by lack of exercise, possible mental disorders because of disassociation, access to hate speech, fake news, pornography) It is certainly a booming industry, both in universities and as more and more parents take out their children to be home educated. With E-Learning you are not confined to one physical building or a set of teachers. You are simply a click away from a whole wealth of knowledge.  I also believe that this type of education is more democratic. No longer will you be judged by the type of school you attended. 

Education is in need of a change in the UK.  We have been stuck in a rut since Victorian days and education has changed little since then. This was so well depicted by the late Sir Chris Woodhead (one of my mentors when I was taking my Masters in Educational Leadership) in his seminal book: A Desolation of Learning. After all, the statistics show that very little has been done in educational policies and in Educational Acts of Parliament to move the poorer and most vulnerable onto a more level playing field. I am optimistic that E-Education will help to solve the injustice that has plagued our students, and create a sense of greater equality, whilst tackling the ever-rising numbers of students who suffer from mental problems, which have been greatly exacerbated by the schools they attend. 

I am hopeful for the future -it is a bright one – and I feel excited by the potential that online schools/education have to offer students in the future. When people have to cope with difficult situations in their lives, they sometimes reassure themselves by saying that everything happens for a reason.  In the past they may have said it was “God’s will”.  So, despite the chaos and destruction caused by COVID-19 – maybe something good could come out of it, and students could get the education they deserve, and also acquire the skills which will help them navigate through the minefield of personal and business relationships which will dominate their lives.

David McCarthy

Director of Education