The outbreak of the pandemic has precipitated drastic changes in the provision of education since last year. A year on, in March 2021, the Welsh education and training inspectorate, Estyn, has produced its report on how teaching providers have adapted their teaching and training since March 2020 to meet the needs of learners in virtual classrooms. Trish D’Souza and Jack Brett review the findings.
The report covered the further education, adult learning and work-based learning sectors, during, in-between and after lockdown periods. It outlines significant findings on the impact this change has had on learning and raises the issue of whether online provision is the future of education or a convenient but less effective substitute to in-person teaching.
The rapid onset of the pandemic left little time for learning providers to make suitable arrangements to ensure continuity in teaching and for the award of diplomas. This caused disruption especially in the work-based and adult learning sectors and put considerable pressure on teachers to conjure their own methods.
Estyn’s report explains that many professional and occupational programs were stunted by the inability to perform practical tasks under supervision or assessment, leading to uncertainty as to how the certification requirements for qualification would be applied. As a result, many learners could not begin employment and had to postpone their start dates.
Adult learning was also significantly affected. Some of these learners are vulnerable and require specific methods of teaching to be used which cannot be transferred to a virtual setting: “[T]hose with additional learning needs require greater one-to-one time and paper-based resources to help them make progress…”. Others do not live in a quiet home-environment that is conducive to concentration or cannot afford the IT infrastructure needed to connect to the sessions.
By contrast, further education providers were able to adapt quickly to the new circumstances as they already had and used a centralised IT system to provide students with course materials.
Moreover, the pre-existing curricular role of independent study meant students were used to the flexibility of dealing with materials on their own.
Despite the convolutions of the structure of teaching, the report shows that learning providers have significantly developed their approaches since the beginning of the pandemic.
Many have reached out to private companies to find the right online platform to deliver educational content to learners. They have also trained teachers in the technical tools available to deliver their sessions, which are clearly important since the report states that interactive sessions yield more comprehension.
To maximise opportunities to learn practical skills, learning providers have introduced a ‘blended’ approach, consisting of a mixture of online and in-person teaching outside of lockdown periods.
This has been particularly beneficial to work-based learners who could grasp theoretical elements through virtual classes and receive in-person instruction and feedback for practical tasks.
What’s more, learning providers are sharing their methods amongst each other in a spirit of solidarity to enhance the quality of their services overall.
Yet, the report also states that the technical functions of online media still seem to dictate the educational program rather than the reverse.
Some learning providers are limiting themselves to running the same teaching program through virtual means, taking it as far as the technology permits. This ignores the fact that the needs of learners are not the same when they are being taught through a computer and not in a classroom. Indeed, the report suggests that learners with lower achievement at GCSE level find it harder to concentrate on theoretical material online.
It also ignores opportunities to improve the efficiency and quality. There is increased flexibility in attending virtual classes with a click of a button and no travel time, allowing for more people from different locations to enrol in programs. With the ability to record classes, teachers can review their performance and find ways to improve their methods. Moreover, teachers can check the work of their students in real time and make use of interactive features to test their knowledge. Teaching providers can capitalise on significant qualitative and quantitative advantages in this regard.
Depending on the nature of the teaching (theoretical or practical), the application of the knowledge (written work or supervised use of specialist equipment), and the importance of synchronicity in learning, online teaching has been more or less effective.
It has the potential to exacerbate unequal outcomes in education given that wealthier learners and teaching providers are better able to adapt, and students of lower academic performance are less able to concentrate.
But teaching providers have worked around the challenges and blended learning has been used to avert the drawbacks of the virtual setting. There is a concerted push to improve the virtual experience of learners through interactive tools, and for some there are clear advantages.
It remains important, though, to ensure that vulnerable learners with specific needs are not left behind in the process. Their progress and attainment will need to be monitored closely going forward.
Since Estyn’s report has been published, Universities UK, the representative organisation of UK Universities, has publicly come out against the government delaying students’ return to campus despite all the safety precautions that had been taken.
University Alliance (UA), representing professional and technical universities, echoed this warning, stressing the need for additional employability support of graduating students entering an uncertain job market. Interestingly, both organisations invoked an issue that is conspicuously absent from the Estyn report: the impact of the lockdown on the mental health of students.
UA noted that students “experienced significant increases in anxiety and isolation as a result of the absence of in-person teaching and interaction with their peers.” In other words, meetings in virtual classrooms do not spur the interaction that occurs before, during and after in-person classes –going for the proverbial drink at the pub after a lecture; instead, students turn their cameras off and retreat into solitude.
This raises a more fundamental issue of what we understand by ‘education’ – is it merely an intellectual process of transmitting knowledge and training students to think critically, or is it more broadly a socio-pedagogical environment where people develop inter-personal relations and learn how to learn, work together and treat each other?
If it is the latter, it is uncertain whether a virtual setting will ever be able to capture the social dynamics at play when people are face-to-face. While technology may provide needed functionality for teaching, we are not as emotionally engaged to people from whom we are physical disconnected.
The restriction of footfall around college and university facilities is bound to affect future development plans, as town or city centre facilities may no longer be a priority. Learner expectations may have also changed, and it is unclear whether campus design will form such an integral part of a provider’s brand in the current climate.
To try and see more clearly, we’re bringing together a panel of experts to explore how relationships with learners have evolved, and to consider the long-term impact on future campus-based provision. If you’re interested, we hope you can join us – it’s happening on Thursday 29 April, 4-5pm.
All you need to do is register here.