Dr Susan Pember

Studying at Home

Over the last 14 weeks our young people and adult learners have been confined to their homes with a hope that they could study online. This has generated a whole spectrum of reactions from heightening existing anxieties to removing worries as staying home feels safe.  

Some students have spent the time fruitfully and enjoyed the freedom to work at their own pace, others have found sitting in front of their computer has made them bored and listless, there are others who have just not engaged in any form of learning but, whichever category they fall into, they have all missed the community atmosphere of learning.  

The students who got bored and didn’t fully engage with online learning (if they ever got started) may have reacted in that way regardless of what was on offer.  But, did delivery styles, the degree of engagement with teachers and friends and their need to feel they still belonged to something have a part to play in this? 

There was much talk in the early weeks of lockdown about schools, colleges and adult education centres providing online tuition.  On TV we saw students sitting down for Zoom/ Teams classes, participating and integrating with their peers and teachers, doing PE and having large assemblies online.  However, it appears that some sectors were able to move their provision online quicker and more effectively than others.  

Universities moved first (some almost overnight), with colleges and some schools embracing new interactive digital delivery methods within weeks but many schools have not been able to make the full use of the available technology.

Low Active Engagement

For many students, the experience has not been interactive at all, it has been about material sent to them such as pre-recorded video and work sheets.  On reflection, this might have been adequate for a lesson or two, but not for every subject and every day of the lockdown. This lack of active engagement has meant that many students have had no exchange of views with anyone outside their immediate household for more than 12 weeks and, for some, no communication about their learning. 

Recent research shows that millions of young people have not been involved in any academic work at all during this time and, when asked why this is the case, they give a variety of reasons ranging from: “I couldn’t do it by myself, I needed the teacher to explain,” and “just doing work sheets is boring,” to “I was sad because I wasn’t in contact with my friends,” and “my friends aren’t working so why should I,” or “there is no space to work at home,” and “I have to share the laptop with 4 other family members.”

Some adult students said “my priority is my children, so they come first with use of the laptop,” and “I found it difficult without a teacher,” or “I was furloughed/ made redundant so I’m not sure if this course is still right for me.”

The common thread running through these responses from both young people and adults is the importance of the role of the teacher and it will be interesting to see in any future research whether engagement (or lack of it) with teachers has made the difference between students staying active online or not. 

Catch-up Study

Come this September we will have a mix of students, some who didn’t do anything during lockdown, some who did a little at the beginning and then gave up, and some who worked continuously for several hours each day.  Schools and colleges will have a near impossible job of setting out their offer to meet the needs of these different categories of student.  Government has recognised this issue and announced catch-up funding for schools.  However, we also need to consider those students who worked hard throughout lockdown and ensure they don’t feel let down if they have to repeat work they have already done.  

Although government has recognised that students may have missed out on content, we should also be concerned about the other skills they may have lost.  Almost all of these students will not have been in formal learning for 9 months and, as well as picking up on subject content they have lost, the new curriculum will have to support their wider recovery. Many students will need to learn to engage with learning again and regain confidence and concentration skills and providers will need to re-establish their normal routines.   

Both teachers and students will have work through a whole range mental health and wellbeing issues, especially dealing with anxieties about returning to formal education.  Some young people will have the added stress of re-establishing friendship groups, made worse by relationships having continued through social media for some individuals whilst others may have been left out and this may reinforce feelings of isolation.  For adults, there will be concerns about staying safe and making time for learning and, those who may have lost their jobs, might feel their energy has to go into finding a job, not improving their skills.

Issues for Post-16 Policy Makers

We need to learn lessons from the past 12 weeks and be prepared for an uncertain future, not forgetting the possibility of a further lockdown.  

We have to work on the physical infrastructure for learning from home, for example, ensuring every student (starting with those facing external examinations) has the appropriate digital devices and internet connection.  

We must develop new interactive content and delivery which supports creativity, fosters collaboration between learners and the construction allows for feedback and reinforcement of learning. 

Finally, we must now train and retrain teachers in interactive online delivery and, most importantly, develop students so they have the mental strength and reliance to make the most of this new online interactive learning experience.

Susan Pember CBE, Holex

'Revolutionary Forces'

In the immediate aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is easy to forget that there were wider revolutionary forces at work on the UK’s economy before the virus outbreak.

With issues such as Brexit, the rise of automation in the workplace, longer working lives, and poor UK productivity brought into even sharper focus, education and skills organisations, NCFE and Campaign for Learning (CfL), jointly commissioned the ‘Revolutionary Forces’ discussion paper.

Published on 6 July 2020, the collection of articles, penned by experts from the FE sector, as well as labour market economics, employment and mental health, urges Government to ensure that the plans outlined in the forthcoming post-16 white paper are sufficiently flexible to meet the immense changes faced by the UK economy throughout the 2020s. 

The authors explore some of the key challenges facing the nation throughout the 2020s which the DfE needs to take into consideration when writing their recommendations:

The authors are:

 

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