If the past year has taught us anything, it’s that enabling learning for primary children through digital technology is hard without preparation.
Schools that had invested in pedagogy, technology and partnerships have ridden the storms of lockdowns better and with less disruption.
That being said, all primary teachers have been amazingly adaptable and creative in their solutions. So much is normally built into the physical spaces and human interactions on top of the formal curriculum, that moving to online resources to deliver the curriculum while maintaining relationships with the children was a big ask.
As we find a way out of lockdown and the 21/22 academic year comes into view, this is a good time to explore how to make digital provision a more natural part of school life by integrating the best aspects of our lockdown experiences.
So, what does good quality provision look like? Above all, the impact of barriers to digital inclusion cannot be overstated. At a basic level, if students cannot access digital learning, then digital provision cannot be successful.
Lack of devices and internet access are barriers, but teachers, learners, parents, and guardians also need support and guidance in the effective use of technology and platforms (EEF 2020).
At Pearson we have continued to review and build upon the research that exists around effective digital learning and have heard from teachers that collaboration, motivation and engagement, and supporting independent learning continue to be challenging when it comes to digital delivery.
So, what are markers of good-quality digital provision?
Collaboration and communication are pivotal when setting up primary classrooms and lessons, but it’s more than just classroom management.
Research has shown that students working together collaboratively develop higher level thinking skills and retain information longer than individual students working alone.
Collaborative learning is also linked to improved critical thinking (Totten, 1991; Gokhale, 1995). There are many tools that can be used to deliver collaboration remotely, from the use of shared documents or discussion boards, through to breakout rooms and chat.
Whichever tools you use, it’s important that activities are designed to encourage interaction and active engagement. Giving children clear roles in a group task, such as chair/reporter/researcher. This will help provide structure so pupils know how they should work together.
The quality and quantity of feedback is especially important for remote learning when teachers are not present. When pupils receive limited feedback, they can easily disconnect from learning – and primary-aged children need this consistency and regularity all the way to Year 6.
So, what does effective feedback look like? Feedback is more effective when:
- It is timely and thorough
- It focuses on the task and specific features of a student’s work, not the individual
- It includes areas of strength and information on how to improve
There are many benefits to automated feedback, including timeliness, as well as removing some of the burden of feedback from teachers but this will depend on the quality of automated feedback provided, for example, whether it is tailored to the question and student response.
Remember, automated feedback will need to be supplemented with feedback from teachers, especially when it doesn’t address the specific issues of pupils.
Primary-aged children can move towards independence, but for much of the time they are dependent on teachers and interdependent on their peers.
A primary teacher’s professional judgement helps determine when a child is ready for independent learning – but all children should experience independence in some way, and digital settings encourage and support this. So, how can independent learning be facilitated? Here are a few strategies:
- Showing – ‘What good looks like’ – tell children what and where they are aiming at/for
- Scaffolding – where pupils are initially guided in their learning, but guidance is gradually removed
- Modelling – where students observe teacher’s (or others) behaviours - for example when solving a problem. This could include the use of worked examples or talking through questions
- Giving opportunities for pupils to reflect on their own work
While metacognitive skills can be taught fully at secondary, at primary, aspects such as reflection can be taught and used from a young age.
In addition to writing, involve verbalisation and drawing. For example, journals, written reflections, group discussions and drawings can be used by pupils to reflect on how they feel about their learning, their level of confidence, what they have found difficult and easy, and why.
This could involve the use of polls to collect feedback from pupils, or the use of audio or video journals.
Engaging and motivating
Primary schools are often places of laughter and play. However, it’s important that lessons are engaging and motivate pupils to learn.
For example, colouring in a map can be motivating, especially when you get a sticker for completing the task, but it’s possible that the pupil learns nothing about maps, location or place.
There are several things to consider around the design of tasks to ensure they are both motivating and engaging for pupils. For example:
- Including a real audience for their work (parents, school community members, local business, siblings, local charities)
- Acknowledging when tasks are difficult
- Ensuring there are clear instructions for tasks (particularly important for online learning where students are working without the teacher present)
- Including opportunities for both collaboration and autonomous work
Parents and guardians
Parental engagement has a significant impact on the success of online learning. For primary-aged pupils, parental engagement has its biggest impact on developing language skills and being able to organise and communicate thoughts and feelings – for example, by parents listening to their child reading, or talking to children about their day at school (Harris and Goodall, 2007; OECD, 2012).
Parental engagement can take many forms including encouraging and nurturing each child, demonstrating that they like to learn new things, showing their children that they don’t give up when tasks are difficult, praising good behaviour and helping children to organise their space and time.
Of course, parents and guardians face obvious barriers, including balancing support for learning with their own work, having multiple children often of different ages, knowing how and when to differentiate activities, and knowledge of the education system (Garbe et al, 2020).
Supporting parents and guardians with these challenges can be made simpler using digital resources – for example, providing online support around differentiation to be accessed when needed and ensuring parents, guardians and pupils have the information needed to organise work.
These simple steps will have a significant impact on delivering effective online learning. So, with the vaccine roll-out worldwide offering hope for a normal academic year for 2021/22, let’s build on the successes of the innovation driven by lockdown and its extended periods of learning outside of the classroom and address these newly created challenges.
Digital learning is here to stay, and it has much to offer if harnessed appropriately with pedagogy, technology and partnerships at its heart.
5 top tips for digital learning
- Collaborative learning
Review the different tools that are available to you such as shared documents, discussion boards, breakout rooms and chat and use these to create and encourage interaction. By providing children with clear roles, it will help them work together from afar.
- Providing feedback
Whether automated feedback or feedback directly from teachers it is important that it is timely and focussed, providing praise as well as addressing any specific issues of pupils.
- Encourage independent learning
Show children what they are aiming for and gradually remove guidance while giving them time to observe either your behaviour or that of others. Talk through questions, giving them time to reflect on their own work.
- Motivating tasks
When designing tasks ask yourself, ‘are they both motivating and engaging for pupils?’ Consider including a real audience, provide clear instructions and learning opportunities that encourage both collaborative and autonomous work.
- Supporting parents and guardians
This may sound obvious but ensure parents have the information they need to organise work, provide them with online support that they can access when they need it.
Jess Pentelow is a Product Manager at Pearson, specialising in remote learning pedagogy and part of the team creating Pearson’s brand-new digital service, ActiveHub. To learn more about digital learning and innovation at Pearson, visit: go.pearson.com/digitallearning.