Blended learning: towards a ‘better normal’

As schools adapt to the biggest enforced changes in living memory, Charley Rogers asks whether blended learning is the future

Uncertain times call for… uncertain measures? As coronavirus restrictions change seemingly by the day, schools have to try and prepare for consistently fluctuating circumstances.

This, needless to say, potentially has a negative – and lasting – effect on the continuity of learning. Despite schools having reopened, there is still a chance that they will have to close again, or that some students may have to go into isolation due to coronavirus. So is blended learning the answer?

Together into the fray

Blended learning is not new, but it has been thrust into the limelight of a new context. Being able to swap seamlessly between in-person and online learning, or even run the two simultaneously for a student body that is geographically split, means that blended learning is now a top priority for many schools.

Oak National Academy is a hub set up by teachers to help their fellow educators continue world-class education delivery through lockdown and beyond. Teachers can view and download pre-recorded lessons, as well as resources such as quizzes, worksheets and activities. But traditional bricks-and-mortar schools have also adopted blending learning models, adapting their existing curriculums to weather the storm.

Teething problems and tech lessons

ACS International Schools teach pupils from all over the world and have campuses in the UK and Qatar. The schools have adopted blended learning as a reaction to varying global Covid-19 restrictions, delivering their IB curriculum with a mixture of online and in-person instruction.

“Like most schools all over the globe, when the Covid-19 pandemic first hit and lockdown began, our teachers immediately stepped up to deliver new models for emergency remote learning,” says ACS International Schools’ education strategy services director, Dr Robert Harrison. Despite the staff’s commitment to ensuring lessons were continued and that pupils and parents felt comfortable with the new system, there were, naturally, “teething problems” in transitioning to this new model, says Dr Harrison, especially “as everyone got up to speed with tech”.

However, the technology itself was not the only challenge of implementing remote learning. “This was our community’s first real experience of what large-scale distance learning looks like in practice,” says Harrison. Students and staff not only had to adapt to new tools and timetables, but to the “loss of face-to-face interaction that has previously been so critical to learning and teaching”.

Headmaster at Parsons Green Prep Matthew Faulkner notes similar hurdles when adopting blended learning in the face of lockdown and that “The greatest challenge was getting everyone online as painlessly as possible.”

But the swift change also provided learning opportunities for staff, students, and even parents. Faulkner says: “We provided laptops to those who needed them and gave all parents a crash course in using Teams and Zoom. The greatest benefit has been that the children have learned more about technology than they may have done in their weekly computing lessons. If asked to isolate again, they will be able to do it without missing a beat.”

The greatest benefit has been that the children have learned more about technology than they may have done in their weekly computing lessons

Realistic and manageable

Some schools have been able to implement a blended learning programme with little problem, but even when this is the case, being able to share best practice with peers and receive some official guidance is of benefit.

The National Education Union (NEU) has released blended learning guidance for schools and colleges, to help them develop a blended learning offer that works for their particular institution. The guidance says: “Teaching remotely is not the job teachers trained for or are used to: training in this new approach is needed alongside training on new technologies.”

Developing a blended learning solution should mean working “closely with staff and [should be] shaped by what is realistic and manageable given the context of your setting”, says the NEU. The guidance covers advice for pre-recorded lessons, live-streamed lessons, and workload as well as considerations for leaders and special schools.

In order to ensure teachers are well equipped to deliver a blended learning model, ACS International Schools staff recently underwent professional development focused on the concept of the Modern Classrooms Project. Harrison says: “Training included a session outlining guidance and tricks for making inspiring and instructional videos, as well as sessions focused on motivating students and helping them to better collaborate online.

“Tips were also shared on how best teachers can monitor student progression as each student learns at their own pace. Teachers have been sharing what they’ve learned, and using technology creatively so that students can stay on track to meet their learning objectives.”

Faulkner also says that ensuring staff are “masters of the technology” is essential before rolling out a blended learning model to children or parents.

“This was our community’s first real experience of what large-scale distance learning looks like in practice,” says ACS International Schools’ Harrison

The next, better normal

It’s an understatement to say that the last eight months have been tough for schools, but it has also been an opportunity to showcase what schools are capable of. The Independent Schools Council (ISC) recently conducted a Coronavirus Parent Survey, in which, says Faulkner, “Eighty-two per cent of [Parsons Green Prep] parents who took the survey and left a comment said something positive about their experience of lockdown.”

A review by the University of Dundee, released in September this year, investigated the blended learning measures implemented by UK schools. The review searched eight different research databases and found that “the majority of studies carried out in this area found blended and online learning better than traditional instruction”. Other findings included that girls outperform boys in blended learning overall, and that blended learning was found to be more impactful at both primary and secondary level.

The pandemic and resulting lockdown has also expedited existing plans for digital transformation, and as Harrison comments, has acted as “a catalyst for change”. Employing “the key principles of blended learning will help as we advance into the next, better ‘normal’”, he adds.

But this ‘better normal’ will not be the same for all schools. As government and NEU guidelines suggest, each organisation will have its own wants and needs, and some may decide to continue with a blended model post-lockdown, while some are keen to return to the way things were.

Faulkner says that Parsons Green Prep would be unlikely to implement a full-time blended model post-lockdown. He says: “Children clearly love being in school and the benefits for them and their parents are huge. However, it is very likely that we will set more homework and holiday tasks online.

“Everyone is much more aware of how the tech can work for them, bringing efficiencies in setting and marking, differentiation and extension.”

For ACS International Schools, blended learning has been on the agenda since before lockdown and is continually being used to help students direct their own learning, which means, says Harrison, that when students are in the classroom, “teachers are freed up and empowered to provide support on a more individual level”.

Flexibility for an uncertain future

Although it’s hard to predict what education across the world will definitively look like over the next five years, what is certain is that schools will need to be prepared for more fast changes and be able to adapt quickly.

A blended approach is likely to be the way forward, with online and in-person teaching playing their own important roles in continuity of learning.

Faulkner says: “[Blended learning] probably is the future – to an extent – at secondary level, but at primary level the social benefits of the traditional model are compelling. Learning to live within a community, to follow rules, to make friends, to share things, to help and respect each other, to interact and to play, to fall over and get up again – these can only take place when together in school. None of this can happen online.”

Harrison highlights the need for schools to be ready to move online at any moment, and that the lessons learned from a blended model will help make this transition as smooth as possible. He says: “If there’s one thing we know at the moment, it is that we’re living through a period of uncertainty. We need the flexibility to transition to online learning seamlessly at a moment’s notice and blended learning allows our students and educators to be able to do that.”

Parsons Green Prep head Matthew Faulkner says everyone at the school is “much more aware” of how technology can work for them now

Remote teaching, learning and support

NASUWT, the Teachers’ Union, has published guidelines for the arrangement of remote teaching, learning and support. Key messages are as follows:

● Teachers should not be required to attempt to reproduce in written form the verbal feedback that pupils would be given during typical classroom teaching.
● There should be no requirement for teachers to record their plans for evaluation by others.
● The use of summative assessment tracking systems, ‘data drops’ of assessment outcomes and the setting of assessment targets should be discontinued.
● Teachers’ professional judgments should guide the approaches to assessment adopted in respect of remote learning.
● No internal school assessment activities related to qualifications or, where applicable, statutory assessments are necessary except when teachers judge that it would be helpful for activities that pupils have already commenced to be completed.
● Under no circumstances is it appropriate for schools to insist that teachers or school leaders make telephone calls or hold one-to-one video conferences with children.
● No safeguarding or child protection arrangements in place anywhere in the UK require teachers to make direct contact with pupils.
● There are no valid educational or personnel management justifications for recording online learning activities.
● Arrangements must recognise the distinctive and considerable pressures experienced by teachers who are working from home.

Related article: Four heads discuss whether blended learning could become the norm

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