‘You’re not tied to a topic or a timetable’: how online teaching is revolutionising the way students are learning

Online cookery lessons, cool maths games, and YouTube history of art tutorials. Online teaching has revolutionized the way students are learning today and the current crisis has accelerated the transition to online learning even more.

Seven in 10 teachers (68%) said the lockdown has led them to adapt to new technology at a faster rate and 75% are now using interactive content, such as quizzes and educational games, a survey by Springpad, an early careers platform, and One Poll showed.

School and university closures have had an impact on nearly 80% of the world’s student population, across 138 countries, according to Unesco.

Approximately 1.37 billion students are now learning from home as a result of the lockdown, including more than 2.38 million students studying at UK higher education institutions, and almost 60.2 million teachers are no longer teaching from the classroom.

Yet when Times Higher Education surveyed leaders of prominent global universities in 2018, with 200 respondents from 45 countries, only 63% expected established, prestigious universities to be offering full degree courses online by 2030.

Oliver Fisher, a co-founder of Springpad, says that most students have adapted to the rapid change of moving everything online well. “Teachers have always provided other activities alongside the core curriculum but the crisis has forced them to explore the huge amount of resources available online,” he says.

Quote: 'Learning online can offer immense flexibility: you're not tied to location, topics or a timetable'

Matt Jenner, head of learning at the FutureLearn online platform says that the lockdown has turned remote learning from optional to mandatory. “More schools, colleges, and universities are now realizing that learning online can offer immense flexibility; you’re not tied to location, topics, or a timetable,” he notes.

Charlie Kilner, a sixth-form student at Millfield School in Somerset, says he has actually found the transition to moving everything online very smoothly. “We’re lucky to use devices regularly already so the real transition was just getting used to seeing my teacher over Microsoft Teams.”

Kilner, who recently set up a podcast with his media studies teacher, Aimee Coelho, for people to record their stories of life in lockdown, believes the current crisis has fuelled creativity. “Our podcast was made possible through Teams and other online chat forums. We’ve been overwhelmed with the number of submissions from across the globe, from Geneva, Chile, and Palau,” he says. “I think lots of great educational content can be made at times like this.”

Technology has certainly come a long way in the past decade and can be adapted to suit most subjects, including art. School devices, such as Microsoft Surface, can be used with a Surface Pen to write and sketch. Maia Dalpra, a GCSE student at University Technical College (UTC) Reading in Berkshire, says the online lessons for her GCSE classes are typically held in real-time with one teacher answering questions as they come up on the online chat function. This makes her feel just as involved and more like an Open University student than a GCSE one. “I like the fact that I have more independence and that they’re trusting us to organize our time.” The lessons are also recorded so if any student misses one, they can watch it later.

Dalpra has gone from having a full school day to three 45-minute lessons each morning online but feels that this has actually given her an opportunity to develop stronger organization skills. “I think having more free time is helping me prepare for university. I have the afternoon to study, write essays and reports, and research stuff. If anything, I’m more productive than I was before,” she says.

And it’s not just schools that are live streaming lessons. Prof Wyn Morgan, vice-president for education at the University of Sheffield, says: “We introduced lecture capture about two years ago and we have captured nearly 89% of all our lectures online since then. Students use these to revise from, fill in gaps in understanding, or to catch up if they were ill.”

Chloe Godsell, a partnership manager and university admissions expert at Crimson Education, says trust has become more important than ever in the changing relationship between the teacher and student. “Trust between teachers and students plays a much bigger role in online learning than with traditional methods,” she notes. “Teachers are more reliant on students to complete assignments, but similarly, students are reliant on the teachers to deliver the lessons to a different standard.”

Dame Kathy August, a former headteacher, director of education and Department for Education senior adviser, says that a teacher’s personality is also hugely important. “Personalities play a big part in the transmission of ideas and values, and I think it can sometimes be harder to transmit that through an online model.”

August also believes boys might struggle slightly more than girls with online learning. “As a sweeping generalization, based on my own teaching experience, I’d say boys might find time management and organization more difficult. They might be better at getting to grips with the technology but be a little more chaotic.”

Quote: 'Ask a friend if they will be your study buddy'

Dr. Lynne Livesey, deputy vice-chancellor at the University of Central Lancashire, says interactive games can help engage disinterested learners. “Using games in education is just another way to learn, but it can be just as effective. The skill rests with teachers knowing when to use the right tools and then ensuring they’re accessible to everyone.”

Daisy Brown, a year-eight student at a high school that gives all students the chance to buy or rent a laptop from year 7 onwards, says one of the things she’s enjoying most about online learning is the educational games. “The teachers use online quizzes and other interactive tech games for design and technology,” she says. “Our touchscreen devices make it easy to answer questions right away and mean the teachers can reply to us straight away too.”

There are some things, however, that simply cannot be done during a lockdown. Rosie Jacobs, a sixth-form student at Stoke Newington School in London, says: “For my geography A-level I’m supposed to be looking at the area around King’s Cross but that’s not really something I can do at the moment.”

That said, being confined to the house doesn’t necessarily stop you from learning about the rest of the world, with virtual reality allowing students to journey from the ruins of Greece to the Sahara desert.

Jacobs points out that there are some other useful features in online learning, which probably work better for teachers. “One of our teachers mutes us all while she’s carrying out the lesson,” she says. “And that probably makes it more productive for her!”

Godsell adds that, ultimately, what began as anxiety-inducing and unfamiliar has become the new normal. “There have been steep learning curves for everyone involved, and many lessons learned along the way. The most important one is that students need to be able to interact and engage with the teacher and each other for real learning to happen,” she says.

Five top tips for students:

1. Use the online chat function to ask questions as you go. There’s a Raise Hands feature in Teams to signal that you want to speak.

2. Try and create a timetable to work from so you have a structure to the day.

3. Ask a friend if they will be your study buddy for some collaborative work.

4. Remember to take regular breaks throughout the day, and the Do Not Disturb feature in Teams can help with this.

5. Use quizzes and interactive games to make things more fun.

Interested in finding out more about how to get the most out of online learning, now and in the future? Register here to attend a webinar designed for students on this topic, taking place on 9 June 2020 at 4 pm.