Learning during COVID-19

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There are sure to be researchers quick off the mark investigating and documenting the international experiences of schooling during the phase of universal remote learning brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. There’s much to learn about what’s worked, and what hasn’t, from all perspectives.

In lieu of robust research, I’ve adopted the entirely valid form of social media methodology in which I’ve asked mates on Facebook how their families are faring. Truly authentic peer-reviewed research.

A number of friends have generous shared their reflections and key themes about remote learning have emerged.

In general, the experiment in online learning demonstrates that, just like in classrooms, a range of student-based factors impact students’ learning including age of child, learning needs and preferences, mental health, school engagement, parental availability and access to technology.

Significantly, students needing additional cognitive or psychological learning support are possibly heavily impacted by remote school learning. Anxiety about long-term impacts on these children is very real for some families.

Additionally, not all families are equipped with digital resources, including internet, or a device per child, or a printer, to cope with learning at home. Schools are also not always well equipped to manage communications with their multilingual communities (the subject of my PhD and more on this another time).

Without any comment on whether schools should resume (a public-health decision), I conclude that to meet the challenge of achieving inclusive remote learning, in the same way classroom learning strives to be inclusive, teachers and schools need resources and guidance to support students’ individual learning needs.

Here are some comments from my sample of 20 parents living mostly in Victoria, Australia, with one from Germany, and one from Perth.

Older students are coping better with independent online learning

Starting positively, nearly all parents with secondary school children reported that their students were independently engaged in online lessons, motivated to complete set tasks and coping well with the temporary change in schooling experiences.

  • “Things are working brilliantly for our self-sufficient and self-motivated year 7.”
  • “13-year-old daughter is loving it because she doesn’t get distracted by ‘annoying kids’ in her class and is able to complete work in class time with some bonus of free time here and there.”
  • “Working fairly well for year 8 kid who has a normal school timetable, guitar lessons, PE, all running through Zoom.”
  • “Grade 5 – fully independent. Seems to be getting the work done in the morning to allow for full afternoons of YouTube watching. No concerns on progress in literacy and numeracy. Specialists ok but probably missing stuff.”

This doesn’t apply to all students: the disconnected style of teaching and learning is heightening specific learning needs for some.

  • “One of my kids has attention control problems and is struggling without the structural discipline provided by a classroom. One child has a strong perfectionist streak and needs lots of feedback (presumably normally supplied by classroom interactions).”

Those with younger primary school age children report there are issues with engagement, understanding tasks, and missing the social aspect of learning.

  • “Grade 2 – nothing happens unless I’m sitting next to her. Whether anything gets done then depends on her mood, from racing through it to pulling teeth. Needs external motivation.”
  • “The younger two have difficulty with staying on-task during remote learning.”
  • “Sometimes my Grade 5 needs clarification of the instructions.”
  • “My primary age child is very motivated but struggles with the technological side of things.”
  • “11-year-old son is struggling. He is very social and is constantly sneaking onto Roblox, Minecraft or YouTube or chatting online with friends. I’m constantly having to check in on him and what he is up to.”
  • “Grade 5 kid spends all day procrastinating. Gets really anxious about the work they have to hand in. This is usually driving them to about an hour of very productive work at 8pm each night and then a battle for bedtime. Anxious about going out of house for exercise. Finds managing video calls with friends tricky.”
  • “Prep child has no interest in live classes – it’s too slow. But will happily watch as many videos as they send home, and then do the activities if they are well explained. Grade 2 needs more interaction: the kids learn and get ideas from each other.”

Working parents with young primary school children are struggling

The learning needs of younger students are impacted by, and impact on, the capacity of parents trying to juggle working from home. This seems to be a central issue for parents – and also driving the choices schools are making for the delivery of teaching and learning.

  • “I’m only working a couple of hours a day otherwise Grade 2 wouldn’t be doing school at all.”
  • “A client said that due to work being so busy, they’ve had to employ [help] to look after the kids.”
  • “As a teacher home schooling my prep child whilst working full time is a nightmare.”
  • “We are only just able to struggle through because I am not really working and can pretty much devote myself to the kids … during school hours. That said, we are all basically wearing the same clothes every day, the house is very messy and we’re letting a whole lot of admin things slide too.”
  • “I’m in a privileged position of being able to be there full time for my primary school aged children.”

Again, parents of older children are faring better:

  • “We are working full-time ourselves but can help when needed. Having said that, we’ve hardly done a thing to help beyond saying ‘how was your day?’ each evening!”

To cope with the reality of working parents juggling younger children learning from home, some primary schools are limiting, or not offering, in-time video learning as working parents are unable to provide the necessary facilitation and assistance.

Video-conference classrooms

The availability of devices and concerns about security are also impacting the capacity of primary schools to offer video-based engagement and teaching for their students.

Secondary schools are generally using video conferencing as part of the range of learning interactions and this seems important for student engagement.

  • “A good amount of video conferencing … Every subject, subject to how many periods they have a week, has a minimum requirement of video sessions from the teacher each week. They also have a video rollcall. Then they have periods without video where they do the work/research/self-learn.”
  • “Teachers are present for entire sessions even non-core subjects (including band). Breakout rooms are working well too and well supervised. His school was, however, already using digital platforms to collaborate and so the kids are very familiar with the tools.”
  • “Both schools – government primary and private secondary – have been great, with lots of live lessons and meetings.”

This brings digital challenges:

  • “Sheer number of people in the house means that sometimes there are 4 people on video conferences at the same time. NBN Reception is patchy in some rooms, so there’s competition for space, even though we’re very lucky to live in a big house.”

And concerns about access to devices at home. I’m making another delivery of second-hand iPads and computers to families tomorrow and understand that while promises have been made by DET, not all schools and families have been able to coordinate access in the short time they’ve had.

  • “Our school spent the last week of term 1 and most of the holidays communicating with parents about whether or not they had enough appropriate devices at home. I think they have somehow arranged to lend devices to families who don’t have them. The school has a 1:1 laptop program for Years 3-6, so I assume they have old laptops to lend out. Doesn’t solve the problem of internet access though, so I’m not sure what they’re doing about that.” 

Specific learning needs: cognitive, emotional, psychological

Many schools are brilliant at supporting students with specific or additional learning needs. A key responsibility of teachers is to identify students’ individual learning needs including language and cultural backgrounds, individual cognitive needs, learning preferences, emotional engagement, mental health concerns and any other individual circumstance or factor that might impact a student’s learning.

Remote learning is presenting great challenges for students for whom this support is pivotal.

  • “The Dyslexia parent support forum I’m part of … are all completely tearing their hair out, as are all the parents of my students. I do literacy therapy for students with dyslexia from prep to year 8 and not one of them has been able to access the curriculum through remote learning. I am providing them with individualised reading, spelling and writing work so they actually have something that is achievable. Remote learning is certainly not suitable for students with learning difficulties in the majority of our schools.”

Another friend wrote about the challenges facing her foster children who she fears are on the cusp of disengaging from school learning. She identifies that students who are already experiencing low motivation and confidence are at further risk of longer-term academic setbacks and school disengagement.

Other parents note that families with high levels of stress, illness, poor home relationships and anxiety would be struggling under the pressure of remote learning and social isolation it entails.

The impact of social interactions is noted by several parents who are concerned about their children’s emotional and mental health.

  • “Very concerned about social isolation. Don’t talk to their friends unless this is organised by me or school. Because the public school is trying to make learning accessible to those who can’t work during the day opportunities to interact with teachers and students face to face is very limited.”
  • “The main cause of his angst is lack of social interaction with his peers.”

Although, some students, particularly those for whom the active socialisation required in classrooms is challenging, are enjoying the quieter solitude of independent learning necessitated by COVID-19.

  • “A family of introverts – this is a natural fit for our personalities.”

Extra-curricular activities are impacted and sorely missed

Most students are really missing the sport, drama, music and other extra-curricular activities about which they are most passionate. One friend said: “he would kill someone to be able to play sport.”

Teaching and learning – pedagogy

The translation of teaching and learning to remote and online formats has challenged teachers to reconsider their pedagogy. There seems wide variation across schools as to modes of delivery.

Many secondary schools, and some primary schools are operating according to normal timetables. Although most primary schools are not, and are adjusting their teaching and expectations as they go.

  • “Primary school started with huge amounts of work, but have revised down, I think following feedback from parents and staff. From next week, Mon-Thurs will have allocated tasks and class meetings and ‘Finishing Off Friday’, where kids can just do outstanding tasks (or nothing, if they’re up to date) and teachers can do planning for next week. I think that’s ideal.”
  • “This week starting small group activities, so will be interesting to see how that goes.”

A teacher friend reflects on this from the teacher’s perspective:

  • “I’m about to pull my hair out as work tries to get us to learn and implement Microsoft Teams Classrooms in little more than a week, while giving each student two half hour check ins daily, supporting some kids on campus, trying to assist some very stressed and stretched families and preparing paper packs of work for next week.”

Some parents are adjusting their own expectations:

  • “I’ve stopped worrying about it and focusing on positive relationships, kindness and understanding, empathy and learning through everyday experiences.”
  • “The ability to cope under adversity and an attitude of we can work this out is a life skill that he’s learning right now that makes up for some of the ‘traditional’ stuff he would be learning in a normal classroom.”

Those for whom remote learning is working are perhaps also demonstrating that flexible and remote learning can meet some students’ needs:

  • “All the bad things about onsite learning (time-fillers, rigid bell-times, disruptive classmates, rushing about everyday) are gone and just the good stuff (quality education, interaction with teachers) remains. I’ll be really sorry when they have to go back. This is a better model for my kids’ learning. The concept of ‘mainstream school from home’ is perfect for us.”

However, as with classroom learning, it’s not perfect for everyone, with some families, teachers and schools finding the experience extremely challenging, particularly those for whom school provides additional and structured learning support.

It’s certainly demanding flexibility from my own Year 12 and Year 10 children who are coping brilliantly but missing the aspects of school-life from which life-learning, and school-based memories, are generated.

Thanks to all the parents who contributed their experience to this rigourous research project – and who are helping their children through this exceptional phase of schooling and life.

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