The coronavirus crisis has clearly dominated all of our lives since at least early March, including all of us involved in education. With the announcement that schools and colleges were to be closed physically, teachers and students had to adapt quickly to other methods of learning if lessons were going to continue in a meaningful way. For most CIFE colleges, the move to online teaching has been largely successful, with many making good use of digital communication platforms.

If the platform is used in an interactive way and engages the students in much the same way as a good face-to-face lesson should, then the experience can be very positive for students and can extend the range of teachers’ skills. Handled well, the move to online teaching can be seamless and can provide continuity and routine for students who would otherwise be struggling under quarantine measures. Perhaps because the students have fewer external distractions, in some cases attendance and punctuality have actually improved.

In many ways, the success has been remarkable, especially considering the narrow timeframe in which appropriate platforms had to be researched, set up and implemented, not to forget the rapid training of teachers. Schools and colleges were officially closed from the afternoon of 20th March, with very little notice. Many schools and colleges had been preparing for this, however, for at least the previous fortnight. What would normally take a year or two of planning was accomplished within a matter of days. There is plenty of evidence that teachers adopted a collaborative approach in the training, learning from each other. In some cases, of course, teachers had to learn on the job through necessity. What has also been remarkable is the flexibility and adaptability of the many students in responding to online teaching.

Although there may have been technical glitches, the delivery of online teaching has become smoother for the most part in the month or so in which it was adopted in such a large-scale way. We must not forget, however, that many students are underprivileged and do not have access to the technology needed for total reliance on online learning. There is some evidence that this issue is beginning to be addressed and certain schools have really risen to the challenge by supporting their communities through initiatives such as loaning laptops to deprived families.

The cancellation of A Level and GCSE examinations has been hugely disappointing for students who had spent the previous two years preparing for these, with many feeling that they have been deprived of the opportunity to really prove what they have learned and can do under examination conditions. Those whose education basically came to an end on 20th March feel particularly bereft. Many feel that they will be judged on how they were performing at that time, despite the overarching approach being for teachers to assess students. Some are not convinced that the holistic approach will be adopted and that their teachers will just use a narrow set of indicators such as mock results. This seems particularly to be the case for students in schools which have not engaged much with their Year 11 and 13 students since the school closures.

Another important consideration at this time is the mental wellbeing of students. Most school and colleges will have briefed their students on how to stay fit and healthy while learning online right at the beginning of the lockdown. This support should, however, be ongoing and it is important for pastoral staff to check in on their students regularly and for online teachers to be alert to any issues. Many CIFE colleges, for example, have actually increased their pastoral support during the crisis, albeit online and by telephone.

Students have of course come up with their own ways of coping with lockdown and keeping up with activities or taking on new activities to keep occupied, which are in turn great ways of maintaining good mental health. From students I have been speaking to, these can range from learning Japanese, playing music, taking regular exercise, looking after younger siblings, taking up photography, volunteering or donating PPE to places such as The Royal Free Hospital and even online Irish dancing!

While many CIFE colleges have been in the happy position of supporting their students fully during the enforced closure, from speaking to a number of Year 13 students from local state schools, I have learned that these students would have appreciated more support and have been frustrated or disappointed. It must be remembered that some of these schools may have been struggling with their resources and with staff illnesses. They have had to prioritise direct teaching of other year groups and, of course, by and large they would have had to cope with far higher volumes of students. There were more cases here of students being upset about not being able to prove what they could do in examinations especially if no actual teaching had been going on and only a few essays had been set in certain subjects in late March, with nothing apart from general communications since. Others were worried about their teacher assessed grades if their performance during the year up until March had been inconsistent, especially if these students had planned to consolidate during Easter and revise thoroughly during the summer term, as many students do in a normal year. Others reported that they were well supported by their teachers, including in subjects such as Graphics, which one might have suspected would be more difficult given the technical nature of the subjects. What is evident is that teachers and students in all sectors have done really well in very challenging circumstances.

It seems likely that students will be able to return to their regular, face-to-face lessons in September. Although health and safety measures such as social distancing and deep-cleaning will be in place, we hope that students and teachers will be able experience some semblance of normality. Most importantly, students will be able to benefit again from the social aspects of being in an educational setting. However, the advantages of online learning forced upon schools and colleges during the summer term of 2020 should not be forgotten; we should continue to make a virtue of necessity and embrace the technology associated with online learning, adapting it as appropriate for whatever awaits us next academic year.

 

This article was written by Dr Seán P. Buckley, Principal, LSI Independent Sixth-form College

 

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