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What we are learning about distance learning


The coronavirus has caused a major disruption to education around the globe. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) reported that nine out of 10 of the world’s children were out of school at the start of April. This is huge, and we remember that the purpose of school closures is to try to prevent further transmission of Covid-19 through isolation and physical distancing. The challenge around the world is how to ensure that the effect on children’s learning is minimised. 

The disruption of schooling by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005 provides some clues to what the effect of Covid-19 might be. Researchers at Tulane University tracked children when they returned to New Orleans and found that it took two years for them to catch up with their school work. They also argued that it is likely the negative effect was worse for low income and African American children. Interrupted learning wasn’t the only problem; the researchers said the economic effect and emotional trauma were probably just as important. 

As soon as it became clear that the Covid-19 pandemic would affect schooling, we at Sacred Heart College in Johannesburg discussed how we would continue classes. In the high school and in grade 6 the teachers were familiar with Google Classroom and that’s the technology they went with. In the preschool they had used a platform called Seesaw, but in the end mainly used WhatsApp. In the primary school, study packs and workbooks were sent home and teachers made use of email, the school’s app, phone calls and WhatsApp. We decided from the outset that we would make it personal and include weekly phone calls to the parents, as well make the services of the school counsellor available. 

Communicating with parents on WhatsApp was effective. In reviewing our programme one teacher said: “I really got to know our parents and our families … we have become so close.” A parent said: “Thank you for handling the class’s transition to online study so effectively. What could have easily been ‘remote’ schooling was a very connected and vibrant experience for Tim.” Feedback from the children, parents and guardians during these three weeks was that many of the learners missed the structure of school, as well as the sport and other activities they were used to. 

While distance education, particularly online learning, was appropriate for older children, it wasn’t always the best way for younger children to learn. Not all children have their parents at home throughout the day, which meant they didn’t have regular adult supervision. Some people may argue that children might have better spent the day cooking, doing household chores, exploring nature and participating in meaningful play. But our grade 1 teachers were creative and even assessed the children’s reading over the phone.

In a newly published Unesco report the authors argue that learning away from school can be effective. They contend that there is no one size fits all distance learning. Some subjects are more easily translated into online environments than others. Subjects such as science and  biology require special equipment and are not easily replicated outside the school. Distance learning can involve a combination of synchronous learning where children work with the teacher at the same time, and asynchronous learning where they work at different times. Asynchronous approaches are more appropriate with older children than with younger children. The authors believe that a quick mini lesson or assembly at the start of the day adequately serves to connect children with their peers.

The Unesco study notes that distance learning doesn’t have to mirror learning in school. The authors argue that in trying to replicate the pace and type of work that would be done at school is unrealistic. Schools must decide on a daily structure, a timetable and a to-do list. The authors say that less is more when it comes to the scope of work teachers set in distance learning, especially in times of uncertainty and instability. 

The three weeks of teaching from a distance has shown us what works and what doesn’t for both the children and parents. It has also allowed us to better understand the pace at which work gets done. 

The Unesco study provided an example of managing time in the primary school where children have the same teacher for most of the day. The authors suggest that a good structure might include a check-in online, a checklist for the day and five 30-minute periods. Teachers can stay in touch with parents and children using texting, apps, emails and phone calls.

To summarise, over these three weeks we have learned that:

  • Personal contact is important to ensure that children feel connected to their teachers and classmates.
  • Most teachers are flexible and can learn new technologies and approaches quickly.
  • Teachers are able to do the best with the platforms they know. The familiarity and ease of WhatsApp groups worked well for quick, short communication between teachers and parents.
  • Teachers must be empathetic and assign reasonable amounts of work and realise that children have other classes and other things to do at home. 
  • Children of different ages and abilities participate differently. Children who struggle in class, have difficulty concentrating and don’t submit work tend to do the same when learning online.
  • Different approaches are needed with different age groups. Younger children appear to thrive more with more immediate contact (synchronous learning). 
  • Getting feedback from learners, staff and parents is important to understand what works and what needs to be changed.

These are unprecedented times and we must respond as best we can. It is crucial that in addition to worrying about the effect on teaching and learning, we think about the psychosocial needs of children too.

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Mark Potterton
Dr Mark Potterton is primary school principal at Sacred Heart College in Johannesburg

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