Supporting teachers to deliver a full timetable of high quality lessons, in a disruptive environment, will be a theme that runs throughout the next school year. But is free blended learning technology up to the job or do teachers need access to built-for-education software to manage their workload?

Since March most schools have used a mix of adapated-from-business technology, social media, corporate video conferencing and re-purposed homework technology to keep learning going. Most teachers have worked around the constraints of these systems to deliver lessons, but when the stakes are raised to 'high quality' and 'full timetable' are we setting an impossible goal?

Below we look at the difference between 'quick-fix' free blended learning solutions and the classroom management, safeguarding and support features that built-for-education software provides.

The big question: ‘Free’ vs ‘Paid for’

Teachers account for 70-80% of a school’s budget. They’re a school's most valuable and high cost resource. Providing quality online tools to support teachers in their work and help them manage their workload, stress and wellbeing will be top of the agenda for school leaders.

It probably goes without saying that teachers who find that technology helps them to do their job more effectively – reducing their workload and not overcomplicating everyday tasks – will be more likely to remain healthy and happy over the course of each term.

The cost of recruiting supply teachers to cover long-term staff sickness is high. Arguably, the choice isn’t about committing school budget or not, it’s about the balance of teacher wellbeing and whether the budget is allocated to progressive technology or securing cover teachers.

In considering investment in technology for schools it is  important to bear in mind that the old adage ‘you get what you pay for’ invariably holds. While school budgets are obviously under pressure from numerous angles and the temptation to cut costs is ever present, the negative consequences of compromising on technology are hard to over-estimate, whereas the positives of making the right choice are equally profound and longlasting.

Investing in 1:1 technology for every student and teacher, to implement a high-quality toolkit for classroom and remote teaching may seem like an unaffordable extravagance at first glance. But schools that have embarked on this journey have seen the rewards both before and during this current crisis. They have been able to deliver a high quality, full timetable and support teacher wellbeing.

Easy for teachers and students to use

Effective teacher technology needs to support a teachers actual stream of work-related tasks ('workflow'), the tasks teachers will repeatedly undertake on a piece of software.

For instance, setting and marking assignments, collecting grades on marked work, finding and sharing resources with students, communicating with classes and individuals, and running video lessons for students who are learning remotely.

Choosing an intuitive system that speeds up teacher workflows such as these is key to a successful implementation. Look for key time-saving features like MIS integration and tools that speed up repetitive marking tasks. Look for communication tools like whole class and 1:1 chat; personalised feedback opportunities that are streamlined to reduce teacher workload and simple ways for staff to find and share resources both with each other and with their classes.

Teachers need to be confident that the system will remain accessible to students if, for example, the WiFi network goes down temporarily or if students do not have consistent WiFi access at home. Therefore it’s wise to look for software that functions effectively even when offline.

For students, it makes sense to provide software that is simple and straightforward to use, so that they can get started using it with minimal training required.

For school leaders, it’s worth considering how new software and technology will fit into existing school processes and policies (such as homework, lesson observations and learning walks). Ideally, to limit stress and increased workload for staff, any new online environment for teaching and learning needs to be capable of being incorporated seamlessly with existing practices, or even potentially be capable of helping to streamline them.

Feedback & differentiation

A key challenge with remote teaching and learning is the lack of instant verbal and non-verbal checks that teachers use to tell if students are progressing or struggling.

Technology doesn’t replace a classroom; however, there are features that can facilitate a good classroom environment even whilst in an online teaching scenario. Teacher-moderated class chats are liked by many teachers and students and can help to extend learning beyond the lesson, keeping lines of communication open even when students are isolated from one another.

Where separate groupings of students can be created within classes, specific tasks, activities and resources can be targeted at students according to learning needs or ability.

Verbal or text feedback that is simple and fast to provide on student work can help teachers to create personal responses to student work without being overwhelmed by marking load.

Live video lessons

Alongside chat, video lessons are considered essential for effective and interactive learning when teaching remotely. However, they can be fraught with safeguarding and security issues. Video conferencing solutions for schools are often simply business software that has been repurposed for use in education. They can therefore be complicated to set up and use and the software may struggle to cope with whole classes of students being connected at once. Such systems prove challenging for staff to administer whilst they are focused on teaching. It’s therefore worth carefully checking how well any chosen software manages each of these aspects, in addition to the safeguarding controls it provides.

Resource library

The inclusion of an online resource library, including an effective schoolwide filing system, saves teacher time and allows the sharing of resources among staff. Switching to online resources reduces paper usage and photocopying.

It also promotes the use of powerful interactive resources, aligned with students' experience of online content.

Leadership visibility and support

Technology not only provides a connection to school for students, but also for teachers.

A challenge of online learning, and of moving to digital devices for daily use in school, is how difficult it can be for teachers and leaders to view the online classrooms of others. Remote learning technology that makes it simple for leaders to view the classrooms of staff in their departments, so that they can support and celebrate great practice, is essential for keeping staff morale high when school closures are in place.

It also comes into its own when sharing with inspection teams, school governors and so on.

Using a school-wide system, school leaders can set clear policies for online learning, ideally with access to usage reports to make monitoring of the use of digital platforms easy to administer.

Safeguarding and security

If you’re choosing free, adapted-from-business software, be aware of the levels of security it can offer. For example, some video conferencing providers have been called out for being susceptible to unsolicited access by strangers, or may be overly complicated for staff, impacting their ability to run video lessons effectively. School-focussed video systems allow for students to raise their hands, speak to the class without interrupting the teacher or each other and enable schools to limit or allow student video feeds, in line with the acceptable use policy agreed by parents.

Likewise, social media or business chat forums often don’t provide the level of safeguarding, recording, reporting or monitoring that schools require. Chat systems that provide teachers with sole moderator status, that allow inappropriate posts to be removed, store copies of deleted posts securely for schools to address as needed and that protect teachers are more appropriate.

Speed and reliability

Choosing software that is resilient to WiFi issues prevents disruption in lessons. School WiFi networks will fail and using software that can continue to operate when that happens means lesson flows will not be disrupted.

Software that is optimised for speed and reliability is a must. Schools will have many hundreds of children accessing the system at the same time and pressure on school WiFi can be a concern. Using a system that is built to maximise connectivity and speed, whilst using as little bandwidth as possible is preferable, as this will keep the software fast and responsive, even with many users accessing it at once.

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