GTC Scotland

The General Teaching Council for Scotland

Back to the future

Teachers have called for digital learning to be better supported in schools as a new hybrid model emerges.

In a matter of months, we have seen schools redefine how they deliver lessons to pupils, with a different emphasis on remote learning and new ways of maintaining effective communication with colleagues, parents and young people.

Using Zoom, Google Classroom and G Suite, Office 365 education tools, Seesaw and Teams, educators moved into the digital age like never before. Education Scotland and local authorities launched webinars on topics relevant to learning at home during lockdown. SCHOLAR, meanwhile, worked in partnership with e-Sgoil and the Northern Alliance regional improvement collaborative to offer interactive courses in English, Maths, Physics and Gaelic to senior phase pupils. Some schools made social media engagement a priority; Portobello High School, for example, creating Twitter communities around pets and cooking during lockdown.
According to Microsoft, there is much to be learned for post-Covid-19 teaching practice.

In its Education Reimagined paper, Microsoft states that what is needed now is a model that “integrates the best of remote-learning and school-situated learning”.

“This hybrid model must embrace digital to amplify, accelerate and connect learners and learning, while intentionally focusing on global competencies as well as academic standards.”

The key focus of this is a more learner-centred model, with engaging digital tools becoming the “connector and amplifier” as opposed to a means of “transmission and consumption”.

Sarah Clark, a biology teacher at Queen Anne High School in Dunfermline and a Microsoft Innovative Educator Fellow, agreed this approach has significant benefits: “With some pupils we have found increased engagement outside of the classroom as they have found the digital environment easier and they can work more at their own pace, rather than ours. Kids have seen that they can be more productive as the shift meant they needed to be more responsible for their own learning.”

Ruth McKay, Headteacher at Portobello High School, Edinburgh, said: “The feedback from some of our teachers is that the pupils most keen to be in contact were not those who have been the first to put their hand up to make a contribution in class. So, there is lots for us to reflect on in the future on how it feels for young people to be in a classroom setting. Some pupils flourished in a way because it has been more personal for them and less intimidating.”

While the lockdown efforts from schools resulted in many parents valuing the social and pedagogical impact of teaching, many teachers also took to social media to call for an increased emphasis on the digital role in schools.

One, a Microsoft Certified Educator and Apple Teacher, called for a push to formalise the digital learning role post-Covid. “Really suss out where it sits in terms of time, leadership, career progression. Every school has that person the other staff go to for tech. Make it formal! At the moment, the major recognition programmes staff can follow are provided by the companies selling the tech, which means they can siphon off the cream and take them out of the classroom. It needs to be a proper PT/Depute post. That’s definitely become clear.”
Sarah Clark feels that the pandemic has highlighted the importance of digital learning in schools. “Schools are at different stages in their digital journeys, which was made very clear from the pandemic.

A lot of schools will have a teacher with digital learning in their remit, but digital learning across a school is a massive role and shouldn’t be tacked on to that of a computing teacher. We are lucky to have a PT in digital learning. This area is not just about whether we have enough laptops but about working across the curriculum, about confidently using the tools, about CPD for staff, and about the infrastructure. There is little progression in this role within schools. Schools and local authorities need to look at the bigger picture for digital learning.”

A steep learning curve

Digital learning has assumed a critical role, but there is still work to be done in many schools. The rapid shift to online learning revealed that content on a new platform is still old content. It’s more crucial than ever that schools create a digital strategy used effectively both in-school and remotely.

Sarah has spent the past few months sharing her use of OneNote and Teams with other teachers and has, along with other members of the school’s digital working group, been running webinars for staff to support their training and development in delivering learning remotely to pupils. “As a Microsoft school, we were well set-up and the majority of the kids were experienced in using our systems and tools so they were ready when the pandemic hit. There was a lot of engagement at the start, but it was very much a case of survival for the teachers – getting the work out to the kids and getting laptops sorted initially. By the end of term, teachers were thinking much more about pedagogies. There was a shift in mindset as they started to think more about the most effective content and ways of delivering lessons. Teachers have probably done about three years’ worth of CPD in three months.”

For new teachers, the learning curve has been even steeper. Jessica Hayward will be starting at Gowanbank Primary School. She said: “This will prove to be a very unique probation year and while the pandemic poses challenges for beginning teachers, we have the opportunity to build our skill set and our confidence. I believe we will come out stronger at the other side.”

She has been working hard to be prepared for her start. “I have been given an opportunity to have an in-depth transition conversation with the DHT and previous teacher. This is always crucial, but in this situation even more so. Understanding the family contexts of these children as well as where they were in their learning in March has also allowed me to start thinking about a programme of learning that meets their needs. The school had put considerable thought into their blended learning approach, including the transfer to a new online learning platform. This means that the arrangements in place for blended learning remain a contingency plan.

“I believe the Digital Leader of Learning in Gowanbank is planning to carry out a refresher course on Seesaw for school staff to ensure we are as prepared as possible. I have concentrated on establishing plans that are based on supporting the health and wellbeing of the children in my class and helping them to be ready to learn and to allow me to assess where they are in their learning and where they have gaps. However, I have also recently completed the Apple Teacher qualification and am waiting to hear whether my P6 class will receive the roll-out of class iPads. I look forward to incorporating my new knowledge and skills into my teaching and the children’s learning.

“We face lots of challenges that a new teacher in ‘normal times’ would not, and I think we’ll look back in a year’s time and feel proud of what we achieved.”

Improved confidence

Sarah said the confidence of teachers in delivering digital learning has been dramatically improved. The school has taken advantage of webinars from Education Scotland, Microsoft and the local authority but, as part of the school’s digital working group, Sarah ran webinars to help teachers use Teams for improving workflow, assignments and feedback, Live meetings and online quizzes. “We wanted to help teachers do what they did in class but hadn’t done online before. We decided to record PowerPoint presentations and turn them into videos so that we weren’t doing all-live lessons, but that pupils would still have face-to-face connections.”

Ekjot Mahem, a Primary 1 teacher at Wallacewell Primary School, agreed continued interaction with pupils has been vital: “We decided to record and upload weekly story time sessions. Although these trying circumstances weren’t ideal, I feel that I personally have learned so much in terms of being able to teach and engage my pupils in a different way. Lockdown has allowed me to pick up the knowledge and skills of using various online digital platforms such as Teams and Seesaw and they are tools that I will now be using frequently as part of my teaching strategies and communication sources.”

Sarah believes recent months have made a huge difference to the way schools will use digital tools in the long term, and for the better. “Our teachers’ confidence in using the tools has increased and they now know how to use more digital elements in their classes. They have seen the benefits of this.”

However, she cautioned: “As a profession, we have been made aware that the digital divide does exist. Pupils are using devices shared with siblings or parents and may only have a phone, not a laptop. We have to be more aware of the types of access and devices used and make sure that lessons continue to fit that.”
Ekjot is confident that we have learned a lot for teaching going forward. “Today, pandemic or not, the use of digital technologies and using digital learning platforms as part of your teaching, I think is essential. The majority of our pupils all use some sort of modern digital technology at home as part of their learning (and are more clued up on how to use certain tech than we are), so it would make sense for teaching strategies to also progress and change with the times and use what is currently more relatable and engaging for our pupils.

“Lockdown has introduced my colleagues and I to several different digital platforms that I feel are the next step forward to be able to teach our pupils and engage with our parents and wider community more effectively. Digital learning and the use of digital technologies definitely has a strong place in schools, more so now than ever.”

Sarah concluded: “Though schools are going back 100%, it is likely that not everyone will feel confident about returning to school for a while so there will be a continued blended learning strand to make sure that those pupils will still be able to join in lessons. This makes sense for long-term absences for both staff and pupils and for anyone who needs to isolate in the coming months. Whatever happens, blended learning will be around for a long time.”