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Quality online learning

Having worked in a Further Education College for many years, I’m all too aware how the gears of the quality department will already be ramping up or perhaps have already sped in to evaluate the implementation of online and blended learning.

The quality department’s brand is complex but, fairly or unfairly, has a long history of carrying the accountability stick. In addressing noble aims of the consistency and adequacy of a student’s experience, this stick, whether brandished in a school or college should be waved with caution.

A recent set of excellent presentation slides shared by Professor Matt O’Leary inspired me to consider this subject in more detail.

You can view his slides here – Capturing what ‘quality’ teaching and learning looks like in a virtual environment and how best to support it

Let’s begin to take a look at what an approach to quality online learning might look like.

First of all, do you and your colleagues have a shared and evidence-informed understanding of what ‘good’ online or blended learning looks like?

No? Well getting clear feels important, if a little challenging at the moment given the unique context and the lack of accompanying research evidence to draw upon. The accountability stick can’t be carried into any department, if it ever should be but we’ll come to that, until you are clear what ‘good’ is, until your team is, until your students and stakeholders are.

Furthermore, have you set thresholds for what ‘good’ emergency online or blended learning looks like? Your school or college and all its staff have been operating in a crisis. This was true when lockdown first started earlier on this year but it continues to be true now as we operate against a backdrop of uncertainty and change. We can’t just take the principles of effective online learning and paste them on to the current climate.

We’ve never had to educate in this way before. We can’t be certain what’s effective. We can use evidence and experience to guide us but none of this was undertaken in the context in which we’re working.

‘What we know from research is that effective online learning results from careful instructional design and planning… and it is this careful design process that will be absent in most cases in these emergency shifts.’

Emergency remote teaching, and to a great extent, the blended or online learning currently being facilitated, involves all the delivery with very little of the planning and collaboration time. This planning time enables us to test out ideas and importantly learn what works and what doesn’t.

Want a handy research summary on the differences? Emergency remote teaching vs online learning – a research summary by Gemma Goldenberg for The Education Exchange from the Chartered College of Teaching.

When we’ve missed out on this all-important learning form planning stages then we can seek to compensate in a number of ways, but it’s important to be aware that this is a compensation, and a poor one, rather than an adequate replacement for that rich planning and trial implementation process. Bearing that in mind, where might learning help?

We can learn from what evidence might point towards, primarily that we should consider what we know about learning in face-to-face contexts and apply this wherever possible – Best evidence on supporting students to learn remotely from the Education Endowment Foundation.

‘Pupils can learn through remote teaching.
Ensuring the elements of effective teaching are present – for example clear explanations, scaffolding and feedback – is more important than how or when they are provided. There was no clear difference between teaching in real time (“synchronous teaching”) and alternatives (“asynchronous teaching”).’

We can learn from free online courses that combine evidence and practice around online and blended learning – How to Teach Online – Future Learn and Using technology in evidence-based teaching and learning – Chartered College of Teaching.

We can learn from organisations who have taken a lead on embedding education technologies and are now sharing their experiences through the Demonstrator Schools Initiative.

Doing all of this learning, alongside following regulations on blended learning from the DfE, should lead you to a point where you can begin to set some loose principles for practice that might work in your context, for your pupils, and could be tested out by all staff in the months ahead.

  • Perhaps you’ll choose to make use of video to enable further opportunities for deliberate practice for students who are self-isolating , that will also be of benefit to the rest of your class? These videos will have the primary purpose of modelling a process and scaffolding students’ learning.
  • Perhaps you’re working in a College, exploring an even more blended approach where a number of lessons are delivered purely online. These lessons may have a similar approach to online classes but you set some accessibility principles around ensuring there are live captions when presenting. Additionally, online tools are used to support responsive teaching approaches so teaching can be directed in the most effective way such as polls and quizzing tools – Mentimeter is my current go-to recommendation on this.

These are just two small examples. The aim here is, informed by what we know from research evidence and online learning practice, what is the best set of principles we can create, communicate, build upon and refine together?

But what of quality? It’s all very well being aware of the context and its limitations but we’ll still want to know whether students’ experiences are supporting their learning in the best possible way. Set against this backdrop of uncertainty and real barriers to setting out what ‘good’ looks like, it seems more inappropriate than ever to be speaking of ‘accountability’ and not to be working within a culture of trust.

Reading Professor Matt O’Leary’s slides, it occurred to me that quality processes right now might best be carried out from a place of coaching, noticing and curiosity. This can then be a time of learning for the profession rather than more stress at a time when there’s quite enough of that.

Once you have your set of principles in place, Matt suggests testing them out through your quality processes – ‘are they working, are they having an impact?’ Not with the purpose of catching teachers out or determining their practice as ineffective but to enable the refinement of your principles over time.

Asking these questions may lead you to notice that the principles seem to be resulting in greater impact in one subject or classroom above another. This could mean that the principles are more applicable to one subject area than another. It could mean that the practice in one subject area is worth sharing with another. Notice, get curious, enable learning to take place.

There are all kinds of developmental practices that can sit around this approach to quality assessment that encourage, as Professor Matt O’Leary suggests, ‘experimentation and risk-taking in these new spaces.’

Perhaps you could explore conducting small-scale teacher research projects to determine what works? This free online course from the Chartered College of Teaching and the University of Birmingham might support you to structure this research ethically and effectively.

Perhaps you could use your online platforms for teachers to share practice around your principles with one another – a shared drive to circulate resources, a Padlet wall to post images or video content, a professional networking space such as Slack or Microsoft Teams to engage in ongoing dialogue, or a staff blog to encourage deeper reflections?

Perhaps you could create a teacher journal club to maintain an ongoing learning journey. This article from Dr Sam Sims et al. can support your implementation of this teacher development opportunity. Use research papers, blogs or even videos you locate online or use articles from this special Impact issue on education technology from the Chartered College of Teaching for inspiration.

  1. Learn from research evidence
  2. Set some shared principles to test
  3. Find ways of testing them in a low risk, high trust culture where learning can happen
  4. Refine your principles further
  5. Consider sharing your learning with the profession

Whatever your approach to quality online learning, let noticing and curiosity be your anchors.

My writing commitment: I’m learning to honour my thoughts. I’m learning that my words can be shared before I’ve connected all the dots or learned everything there is to know. My writing can be a snapshot of a single moment in continually-evolving time.

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