Could the lockdown change the way we teach forever?

From using video games in English lessons to working collaboratively with colleagues, teachers are thinking creatively about their use of technology

The coronavirus pandemic may prove to be a watershed moment for teachers. Thrown almost overnight into a virtual classroom, they are using video games and creating group chats or escape rooms for pupils. The internet gives teachers access to subject experts from around the world who can deliver masterclasses via video link to an entire year group.

The health emergency is creating new opportunities, which they say will transform the way they teach forever.

Blended learning, with teachers using a mix of traditional face-to-face teaching alongside digital technology, is definitely the model for the future, says Diana Laurillard, professor of learning with digital technologies at University College London’s Institute of Education. “Covid-19 has created an opportunity for teachers. It would make sense for more blended learning – my hope is that teachers will make [future] learning active and engaging.”

Lee Small is head of computer science at Ribblesdale high school, in Clitheroe, Lancashire. He says: “We have had to think differently and dynamically. I think we will go on to put some of these different technologies to use in the classroom to support students’ learning alongside traditional teaching methods.”

Ribblesdale has Microsoft Training Academy status, which means it is at the forefront of using cutting-edge technology in its teaching. It is also a Demonstrator school, one of 20 schools and colleges identified by the DfE and delivery partners that have demonstrated excellence in their use of technology to support teaching and learning and have the capacity to help others.

Teachers realized immediately that if remote learning was to work they would have to design shorter lessons that were quick to engage pupils, with speedy outcomes, otherwise students risked becoming passive observers.

The key was to use platforms that pupils were familiar with. At Ribblesdale that meant tapping into the video game Minecraft. “It’s an amazingly popular game and is an incredibly powerful teaching tool,” says Small. It has been invaluable in English lessons to support children who struggle to express themselves in the written word: “They’ve been able to design their story in the Minecraft world and then write about it when they see their idea on the screen.”

In Warrington, Cheshire, teachers at the King’s leadership academy learned how to use the principles and theory of video games, with graded challenges and teamwork, to design more engaging remote lessons: “We’ve had to make the lessons more exciting and had to make sure that the children find a purpose in what they are doing,” says principal Shane Version.

In Berkshire, maths teacher Lewis Hart, of University Technical College (UTC) Reading, says lockdown has made him think more creatively about how he teaches and collaborates: “I can’t rely on a combination of verbal and written. I’ve had to come out of my comfort zone.”

Hart turned to YouTube for inspiration: “One of my favorites is the 3Blue1Brown channel, devoted to high school maths but it looks at it in a different way, at the deeper underlying fundamentals, which has been a really good way of getting students to look at familiar topics in an unfamiliar way.”

UTC Reading is part of the national network that is using technology to enhance teaching in traditional and virtual classrooms. The Surface laptop, for example, has dual far-field studio mics and an HD camera which ensures that teachers can be heard and seen clearly when in contact with students or colleagues.

Man wearing headphones
Technology also enables teachers to keep on top of their teacher training

The school has used Microsoft Teams so teachers can continue their teacher training during a lockdown. It has also created a video bank of lessons so students who may have missed classes can catch up in their own time, and there is potential to work remotely with school refusers in the future. Siobhan Tyson, UTC’s director of science with additional responsibility for professional development, says the technology is transformative: “It is giving us flexibility and it’s definitely going to have an impact on future teaching.”

Teachers admit it can be a constant battle to keep their tech skills ahead of their pupils’, or what their pupils expect. Ribblesdale has 10 Microsoft Innovative Educator Experts (MIEE) – staff skilled in delivering the Microsoft schools program who share their expertise with colleagues. But Small points out: “Teachers don’t have to be experts in a piece of software in order to use it, they just need to be able to use it to give a platform to students to be creative and foster their independence.”

Collaboration with peers has been crucial during the lockdown as teachers share remote teaching ideas, so the Surface can be useful as it is designed to encourage closer working and allows teachers to easily share resources. English teacher and vice-principal at King’s, Katie Sharp, says working collaboratively has, for her, been essential during a lockdown. “I’m a person who likes working with people, so this has been quite a culture shock for me. But we’ve been able to share links to each other’s lessons, which means we can give feedback; if I see something I like, such as a quiz, I can ask how they do that.”

This new way of working has also prompted teachers to think about how digital technology has a role in marking and assessment, says Small: “We’ve been looking at how we can use AI to support students in their grades, for example, we have an app on Teams where we can tell how long students have engaged with the content.”

But remote learning only works if pupils have access to a device and reliable broadband. Schools have sometimes used the pupil premium to cover device costs and given pupils dongles to tap into phone technology if broadband is poor.

Teresa Skeggs is headteacher of Peartree Spring primary, in Stevenage, Hertfordshire, where each year group has access to devices of various kinds. It uses Microsoft 365 to deliver its whole-school email, while its server and some of its laptops “consistently” rely on Windows 10. She says: “What we are delivering now is a more in-depth version of what we have always done – we’ve always had blended learning.”

Five tips for online teaching:

1. Think differently about how you teach. Teaching remotely is more than just going online. The technology used creatively can be transformative.

2. Keep your talking to a minimum – bite-size chunks of around five minutes. The voice is important but students do not need to see you hear from you. Captioning all videos mean they are accessible to everyone.

3. Consider dropping your headshot into the corner of the screen if you feel students still need to see you when talking. Use pictures with captions as well as slides to illustrate as you talk. Keep things simple.

4. Lessons must be engaging and inclusive, gain student interest quickly, and have quick outcomes. Use programs and platforms that are familiar to pupils to create a fun learning experience of quizzes and games.

5. Create small groups on tools such as Teams to encourage group discussion. Encourage students to ask questions through a chat panel.