Author: Maria Nolan, PhD candidate, SOAS
Rumours of nation-wide school closures had been circulating on social media for at least one week prior to the Irish government’s announcement on 12th March that all schools and colleges were to be shut the following day. With the number of reported cases of Covid-19 in the country having risen by then to 70, the prime minister stated that these measures would be in place for at least two weeks as part of the effort to stop the transmission of the virus. Leah, a teacher at a primary school in Dublin, was on leave that day and, like many of her colleagues, was following reactions to the announcement on her phone. “When the news broke, some of the younger teachers were talking of hitting the pub” (Bars and pubs, most still open at this time, were ordered to close three days later). “A lot of us were upset. There was not much information about the virus. There was a fear of the unknown, [of] an upset in the routine”. Many schools had drawn up contingency plans to ensure that teaching and learning could continue should they have to close. These included digital solutions adopted as emergency measures for what many hoped would be a brief interruption to a normal school year. Few schools and teachers were prepared for what would be a prolonged rupture, with schools ordered in May to remain shut until September at the earliest.
The early-career primary and secondary school teachers with whom I spoke all highlighted the importance of collaboration with colleagues, both familiar and unfamiliar, in response to the school closures. In the week before the announcement was made, teachers in staff rooms and chat groups shared tips and resources to facilitate remote learning. Eva, a secondary school teacher, showed colleagues in the staff room how to use the Apple Pencil, which she had been using for some time in her teaching of final-year students. “I taught [an older colleague] how to use it and how to screen-record”. Teachers shared a wealth of ideas and resources on WhatsApp and Facebook groups, as well as on Twitter. Sophie, another secondary school teacher, is a member of a closed Facebook teachers group for each of the subjects she teaches, maths and business. She recommended to other maths teachers the use of materials on Edpuzzle, an online tool that allows teachers to customize and share videos for learning. “There has been a lot of collaboration”, she said. “[But] it’s been a steep learning curve for everyone”. It is evident, too, that the effects of this forced, nation-wide transition have been highly uneven.
‘We can manage with a bit of online’
In the primary school where Leah works, all teachers had prior experience of using digital tools for teaching. Two platforms in particular, ClassDojo and Google Classroom, were known and used by teachers. By the time school closures were announced, there were no agreed-upon arrangements in place for remote teaching, but it was assumed that teachers would be able to get by through utilising their own ideas and skills. “The thinking was: we can manage with a bit of online”, Leah said. The Department of Education had not yet issued guidelines, so the school’s management team came up with a plan. On Monday, teachers would email students work relating to the three ‘core’ subjects (English, Irish and maths), and on Friday, they would send a ‘follow-up’ email. Guidelines from the Department of Education, when they came, were vague. They merely asked that teachers continue to plan lessons, and provide online resources or lessons where possible. With guidelines seemingly left open to interpretation, the principal of Leah’s school suggested teachers use whatever mode of communication they were comfortable with, and allow the students to see each other online around once a week.
On ClassDojo and Google Classroom, teachers can invite students’ parents to set up an account on the platform via email, and it is recommended that parents sit with their child at the computer during the scheduled learning time. Use of such tools, however, is optional at Leah’s school. “Everyone is just doing whatever they can. Some are brilliant with tech, others not. Some are using Google Hangouts. Teachers were using Zoom initially to allow the kids to see each other, but because of security issues with that, they switched to Seesaw or Google Classrooms”. Similarly to other teachers with whom I spoke, Leah mentioned the particular challenge facing teachers with children to look after and home-school. “It is not possible for everyone to [teach] at a set time each week. Some teachers just [continue to] email the students work each week.” Some of the online resources primary school teachers have found useful include Twinkl Ireland (“has some good, easily correctable worksheets”); Canva (“has given me some great ideas for lessons”; “has given me inspiration for creative and fun worksheets”); Kahoot, a game-based learning platform; ChatterPix Kids, a photo-editing app; and Irish language websites including Tuairisc.ie.
Remote-teaching children with SEN
Leah teaches students with special educational needs (SEN), including students with autism and dyslexia. There was “no guidance” given, she said, for teaching these students remotely, so she devised her own plan. Emails were sent to the parents of these students to ask if they would like remote support in addition to the assigned work they would receive from their class teacher. Those parents who responded were sent an email weekly with tailored suggestions and links to resources. Less than half of the students’ parents responded. Leah suspects that many students are having difficulties in keeping up with classwork. “The students with special needs are at a big loss. The other kids are fine. It is the weaker ones that are going to struggle. You could have brilliant parents, but they won’t always be able to help [their child]”. Leah is concerned that the bar will have to be lowered as children advance to the next academic year. One particular area of learning where children are falling behind is reading. Most teachers use class readers, and some students without a strong foundation in reading are struggling to keep up at home. A switch to progress monitor readers would be an ideal solution to this, Leah said. While these readers are costly, they would be a worthwhile investment, as they would enable students to progress at their own pace.
A ‘high-trust’ model
Among the secondary school teachers with whom I communicated, only some had experience of teaching online prior to school closures. All, however, taught at schools that already worked to some degree through digital platforms such as Google G Suite for Education (including Google Classrooms) and Microsoft Office 365/Teams. Eva, a maths teacher, had been using a blended learning approach (a teaching style which combines the use of online learning tools with in-person lessons) for the past year in her teaching of final year students. “Basically I make videos at home, and they watch them at home and make notes, and when they come into class you can deal with questions. [Making them] is very time-consuming, but they are a great time-saver for class”. She drew on this approach when her school closed, and now makes videos for all of the classes she teaches, a task which takes several hours each day. Her daily teaching routine is as follows:
- Provide homework solutions via Google Classroom (shared screen)
- Provide daily lesson via 5-6 minute video
- Assign homework
- Evening – go through corrections and emails from students and parents
Eva’s school is, as she described it, a ‘Google school’, wherein all students’ email addresses are linked to Google Classroom. Upon closures, the school requested that teachers try to stick to their usual class timetables as much as possible. Google Classroom facilitates this with options to schedule a date and time for a post to ‘go live’ and to set assignment due dates on a class calendar. However it took several weeks, Eva said, to “get everyone on the same page”. There has been little adjustment for the final year students she teaches who were used to receiving recorded lessons, however many of the younger students have been struggling with the transition. “Some kids will have difficulties in doing work on their own”. Younger students, moreover, often need support with issues not strictly related to the coursework, such as IT problems. This links to a broad issue with remote learning that almost all of the teachers highlighted – that of poor connectivity, whether due to the poor Wi-Fi connection in a student’s home, or the heavy traffic on such platforms as Google Classroom between the critical hours of 9 am and 3 pm. Teachers noted widespread issues of students submitting assigned work late, or submitting incomplete work, or not submitting work at all. Eva’s workload is such that there is “an unlimited amount of demands”, and time is sufficient only to ‘spot-check’ students’ work each evening. As a result, “some”, she said, “are slipping through the cracks”.
All of the other secondary school teachers with whom I communicated were providing a mix of pre-recorded and ‘real-time’ lessons. Hannah also teaches maths at the secondary school where Eva works. Her approach is to provide – where students would ordinarily have four classes in a week – three pre-recorded lessons and one ‘real-time’ session via Google Meet. She feels it is important that students have the opportunity to see her each week. During the live sessions, however, most of the students – particularly the younger students – will have their cameras turned off. “The older ones are more willing [to switch them on]. The first or second years are more self-conscious”, she said. She also provides learning support to certain students, some of whom she now connects with through live sessions on Google Meet. Of those with special needs, it is mostly the younger students who seek her support. The older students are pre-occupied with “just trying to keep up” with the work their subject teachers are giving them. Like Eva, she feels that short video lessons work very well, but also finds she has to do a lot of “chasing up” of students. One of the main challenges of the lack of in-person contact, she has found, is that “you can’t gauge students’ reactions” to the content. In this ‘high-trust’ approach to learning, it appears that many students – even those who normally ‘perform’ well in a subject – are struggling with motivational issues. Some students that Hannah considers to be “quite good” at maths under normal circumstances seem to be “totally disengaged”.
Even in a ‘digital school’ – that which works through online platforms – both teachers and students have faced challenges in the shift to remote teaching and learning. The secondary school in which Aisling works was one such school until last year when a change of principal prompted a shift in the type of learning tools used from those provided by digital platforms to ‘traditional’ textbooks. Now, teachers and students are back to using the Microsoft tools they had used previously. “It’s not as big a difference to us”, Aisling said, referring to the teachers’ transition to working remotely. “Everyone has been trained”. This has contributed to a more homogeneous approach to remote teaching within the school. Classwork and homework are transmitted daily via OneNote, and there is one live session weekly via Teams. Aisling, who teaches history and accounting, finds that the live sessions work well with older students. She does not hold them with first-year students, who “find [them] hard and don’t have enough confidence”. The volume of work has not only increased for teachers, she said, but also for students, who complain that they are being assigned too much work. One reason for this, Aisling suggested, is that the pace of teaching is simply faster online. “In [an in-person] class, you might not get through all the work you planned. Whereas online…”. Like other teachers with whom I spoke, Aisling reported a significant drop in the levels of student engagement in the transition to remote teaching. “One-third of the students we haven’t heard from”, she told me. There is little teachers can do beyond checking in with these students or their parents via email. “And we have to be supportive”, she said. “We don’t know what’s going on at home”.
Back to school – remotely?
As teachers and students break for the summer holidays, teachers are hoping things will go back to ‘normal’ in the next academic term. As of June, however, there is little certainty around the reopening of schools. Ireland’s Minister for Education announced at the end of May that not all students will be able to return to school in September, due to concerns about social distancing requirements. Consequently, teachers are preparing for the possibility that much of their teaching will continue remotely in the autumn. Schools without a uniform approach to remote teaching are making plans to streamline processes through a single learning management system. The school where Sophie teaches, for example, plans to work primarily through Microsoft Teams, “if the situation continues” in September. As a teacher who has experimented with other platforms including Zoom over the past few months, Sophie is happy with this move, having found Teams a more secure platform with useful features such as the option to record ‘live’ lessons which allow students to revisit taught content by themselves, or, if they missed class, to catch up. Streamlining can work towards helping to reduce the significant amount of often invisible labour currently being undertaken to sustain an online classroom. There are other measures teachers can implement to reduce their ‘remote’ workloads. Teachers complain that their private time has been “totally invaded”, as one put it, as they may receive emails from students and parents at any time of day or night, including on weekends. “If [remote teaching] continues”, Hannah said, “we will have to be stricter with work hours”.
There have been positive aspects of the shift to remote learning for teachers. Many have been forced to upskill, to evaluate the effectiveness of their teaching style, and to experiment with new tools, ideas, and materials. The digitalisation of learning, which was already underway in schools, has been accelerated and more teachers are discovering the benefits of using technology for learning. Eva has been inspired to create a resource bank of videos for senior students; Sophie will continue using Microsoft Whiteboard which, she has found, provides a more efficient way to mark students’ work and communicate feedback. Moreover, teachers will be much better equipped in future to help students who are ill and cannot attend class, as Hannah pointed out. As long as teaching is fully remote, however, younger students, and students who are disadvantaged in particular ways such as those with SENs, those without adequate parental support, and those without sufficient organisational skills, will continue to struggle. Younger students, part of a generation often referred to as ‘digital natives’, may lack strong online written communication skills as well as other digital skills required to successfully learn online. “They may be social media savvy, but they are not [necessarily] IT savvy”, as Sophie put it. There is much concern with regard to the challenges which will be faced by new students to schools in September if teaching is to continue remotely. It is not simply a case of making adjustments and providing support to those who need it. Many teachers feel that there is no replacement for the face-to-face interaction that characterises the ‘normal’ way of teaching. One of the biggest challenges for teachers has been in trying to overcome the difficulties in assessing students’ understanding of concepts, for which in-person engagement is seen as vital. And teachers miss seeing students in person. “I can’t wait to get back to the old way of teaching,” said Eva. “Using your skills…spotting the confused student at the back of the class. I’m really missing it…the whole personal side”.