The evolution of remote learning or ‘What the heck is it?’

As a student who went to school in country Victoria, remote learning isn’t a new concept although for me it was called ‘distance education’. It involved a pile of material being sent through the post, work done and faxed or posted back and dial in lessons (in an era before the internet) which allowed us to interact with others in our subject. I did 3 out of my 5 Year 12 subjects by distance education and learnt a lot, mostly about my inability to manage my time when unsupervised and how I could complete requirements as quickly and efficiently as possible without actually permanently retaining information or developing skills.

Over the last week, many teaching staff have been spending time thinking about, researching, talking about and planning ‘remote learning’ in case we don’t head back to school after school holidays thanks to coronavirus. A lot of time has been spent discussing and debating what we mean by ‘remote learning’ and what we envisage it looking like.

I’ve really valued the experiences fellow educators have shared on Twitter and documents and suggestions I’ve seen. In the rich information landscape we live in, it’s a potential problem of too much and is a challenge to filter through and work out the best tools when it feels like my inbox is full of educational providers trying to ‘help’ me. Instead of tools and worksheets and schedules, I’ve tried to focus instead on what students need at this time, what myself and my colleagues are capable of providing and what range of needs, backgrounds, support networks and circumstances the students bring.

So here’s what I think is important to consider and think about with remote learning:

  • It’s not school. It’s not even close to school. It won’t look like or sound like school. And that’s ok.
  • It needs to consist of smaller chunks of meaningful, motivating learning that is fun to do. This might mean one or two open ended activities a day rather than 5 strictly timetabled and scripted subjects.
  • Students need a routine but it has to be one that fits and that’s definitely not ‘one size fits all’. We can’t assume all families and all households work like our own so accept and provide flexibility to allow every family to create the routine that works for them. Timetabling specific lesson times could be putting pressure on parents already close to the edge and don’t guarantee any better quality learning than a more open ended approach.
  • It needs to be learning that can be done independently by all learners as we can’t assume that there are adults or older peers at home with unlimited time or patience available to assist. We also can’t assume that adults or carers are all literate, numerate or fluent in ‘eduspeak’ that many of our children are. So keep it simple and make sure it’s something the child won’t need any or much help with.
  • The biggest reason to engage our students in remote learning at this time is to continue some structure and routine for them and keep their active brains ticking over in different ways. Our students’ mental health is being sorely tested and a daily check in with their teacher and some learning activities to engage in could make all the difference, allowing them to focus on something else.
  • It is not the end of the world that we’re not going to meet every curriculum outcome and I think it very unlikely that any child is going to be severely disadvantaged educationally from this disrupted time. Firstly – everyone else is in the same situation and secondly – it’s naive to think learning only happens at school. Learning happens anywhere and everywhere and the learning that happens while sitting on a plastic chair in my classroom is not inherently more valuable than learning that happens anywhere else.
  • Giving kids more screen time isn’t automatically the answer. There are going to be so many times in this that kids turn to a screen – for entertainment, for socialising, to maintain family ties – and yes, there is space there for learning. However it also makes sense to provide as many rich learning opportunities as we can that don’t involve screen time – it’s all about balance.
  • Consider your goals – at the end of this, I hope to have helped my students through it while feeling safe, supported and cared for while also helping them develop some skills in resilience, flexibility, independent learning and time management. I’m not particularly concerned if they haven’t met a particular outcome in the Victorian Curriculum – this is a mere blip in their 13 years of compulsory schooling so there’s plenty of time for that.
  • It’s not school. It’s not even close to school. It won’t look like or sound like school. And that’s ok.IMG_0399

‘For the greater good’

I had strong intentions this year of being more active on my teacher blog. Having just ticked over into my 15th year of teaching, I have as much enthusiasm and passion for this career as I did when I first stepped into the classroom and so many new ideas, big and small that I had on my list for this year. I love having this forum to share them beyond my classrom and, while I haven’t used it much, this year I was coming into it with renewed fervour.

Then the bushfires came. They didn’t directly affect my school….this time. But indirectly they affected all of us and they definitely affected my students, even if none were there at the time. I pushed on with all the things I set out to achieve with my beautiful and energetic grade but found myself working, if at all possible, just a bit harder to ensure their mental health was catered for in challenging times. Children can’t learn if they don’t feel safe and loved and, for many, the bushfires shaved some of their sense of safety with the ‘what if’ questions floating into their heads at random times. In small ways that I didn’t notice at the time, my job was a little harder. It’s always been about more than curriculum planning and assessment but the balance towards wellbeing tipped a little further and put new pressures on me. I was ok with that.

And now the world has got the coughs and sneezes. If I thought my students were troubled before, this has shown me that I didn’t even understand what troubled meant. Sometimes it’s showing itself in obvious ways – students who can’t stop talking about coronavirus or washing their hands compulsively or constantly asking questions. For most others, it’s the less obvious but just as powerful signs that I notice because I see these humans every day – anger that flares when it never used to, inability to remain focused on things that used to bring them joy, friendship bubbles where they’ve never had them before. The effort it’s currently taking to make my classroom that safe space where our shared purpose in growing minds happens is getting harder and the balance has tipped so much further to the wellbeing side.

I don’t want this to be a debate about whether or not to keep schools open – I don’t feel either qualified or experienced in that area to be able to comment. As a Government employee, I’ll do what I’m told – if schools stay open, I’ll keep working as I am and helping my students be their best selves. If schools close, I’ll do what I can to help support learning beyond our classroom walls. I just wanted to let those outside of teaching in to see what our days look like right now.

This week is one of the longest I’ve experienced in my education career with each day of uncertainty and change feeling like a week. We are trying to keep things normal and our routines stable in an education system where everything is changing – excursions and camps going ahead one day then cancelled the next, sports days and assemblies cancelled, all the things our students were looking forward to taken away. Our students run around at playtime looking like life ticks on normally but teachers and ES staff are working hard behind the scenes to smooth over the cracks, support and encourage students who are feeling anxious, reassure those who have absorbed incorrect messages from the media and try to inject some fun, even when we’re not feeling much like it ourselves. I have colleagues who worry about their own health and that of their loved ones, unable to go into lockdown ourselves as we’re needed to care for our students who may, as time goes on, unknowingly pass the virus on to their teachers and school staff. Social distancing in a primary school may as well be something in one of the fantasy stories they write – it can’t happen. And as for hand washing? We try, we really do but children of all ages have a complete inability to keep their hands out of…well, anywhere and anything.

None of us want a big deal made and most are willing to do whatever is deemed necessary to get through this as painlessly as we can. ‘For the greater good’ and all that. No one would argue that health care workers aren’t putting in long hours in demanding conditions and at great risk to their own health as part of their contribution to containment efforts. While not in the front line in a medical sense, school staff are under pressure in different ways, trying to provide learning for those at school as well as those who’ve opted to stay home, managing the mental health of our students (and helping our colleagues) while also dealing with our own stress and anxiety like that which every other adult is feeling. A little acknowledgement, particularly from leaders who are talking about whether or not to close schools, that children aren’t alone in those buildings and aren’t those most at risk in this scenario would go a long way towards making us feel like the significant contribution and risk we’re taking is being seen and appreciated.