Computer Science teachers have been at the forefront of helping their schools switch back to remote learning in this latest lockdown. We asked members of the Computing at School peer-to-peer teachers support network, backed by BCS, to share their top tips. Claire Penketh reports.

Primary and secondary schools had little time to plan when the government announced that lockdown was to resume, schools were to close and remote learning once again, was to become the main way of delivering lessons.

Chris Hillidge, director of STEM at The Challenge Academy Trust, which runs schools and colleges in Warrington, said it was challenging: ‘The short notice of the school closure led to real problems in the distribution of hundreds of devices that we are loaning out. It also meant teachers had to quickly switch to online, which they have done admirably.

‘Luckily, we were ahead of the game because I’d already introduced Google classroom in 2019 across the school. The first lockdown accelerated our use of online resources and remote capabilities. Since September we have seen some amazing innovative practice from teachers of all subjects. Necessity is the mother of invention!’

Adrienne Tough, Head of Computing, E-Safety and Digital Learning, at the Bolder Academy, Isleworth, London said their teachers were prepared for the switch: ‘I don't think the reintroduction was a particular surprise to us. We have a strong set-up from previous experiences and lots of support from the Senior Learning Team, such as a day of department time to prepare resources and upskill; to hold meetings and set up laptop distribution etc. I think we were in a good position and the school community is trying to remain positive.’

Martyn Soulsby from the Leadership team at North Lakes Primary School, Penrith also echoed those sentiments: ‘We were well-placed to deliver remote learning with our Frog Learn platform which was highly successful during the first lockdown with 90% engagement from pupils. Parents were clear about our school offer during isolation and confident in how to use it.’ 

Keep it simple

For Adrienne, the key is simplicity, with few websites and therefore passwords: 'All of our content is delivered through Microsoft Teams and EdPuzzle, with just one login and one website they need to be familiar with.

‘If support is needed - there's one generic email ‘work@...’ for all pupils and parents to email if they need support. The home-learning page of our website is updated daily. This means key messages aren't lost among waves of previous content or instructions.’

As much care, if not more, goes into designing online content said Adrienne: ‘There's a need for a rigorous online academic curriculum. The delivery of live or pre-recorded video lessons has been supported through a carefully planned timetable, allowing staff the time to prepare and resource lessons, and time after the lesson to answer questions or queries.'

Challenges and the digital divide

The huge challenges faced by staff are mainly around the provision of the kit, connectivity, and the level of the digital skills of all concerned. Chris put it succinctly: ‘Lack of technology has, by far, been the biggest challenge. Our school is an area of considerable socio-economic deprivation and many students simply do not have a laptop or suitable device at home. Many students don’t have access to the internet outside school, and the libraries are all closed where many of them could previously access free wifi.

‘The staff and children were on a steep learning curve from March and very quickly gained the necessary skills to access basic provision for periods when they are not in school.

‘However, as teachers have become more proficient and provided better quality content, we have seen an increasing divide, especially with younger students, whose parents don’t have the necessary skills to support their children to access learning online.’

The matter of the digital divide is a source of considerable frustration for Martyn in Penrith too: ‘Tech at home is a real issue and it has been difficult to source due to government procurement which has caused huge delays to our existing orders, which were placed in the summer holidays.

‘We are having to ask charities for funding, put in bids which we know will come back refused - how are we meant to maintain infrastructure in school? We do, but one day it will grind to a halt without adequate central funding which isn’t ringfenced to specific providers.’

Broadband in rural areas is also an issue, Martyn said: ‘We are in Cumbria and broadband is variable - it is not possible to provide equality for all when all pupils don’t have the same connectivity or when there are three pupils sharing one device with mum and dad working from home too.’

The government announced its updated strategy to address these issues, including partnering with several mobile network operators to help schools support disadvantaged pupils. It also said those without laptops or space to study are now eligible to attend school. But this has had an inevitable knock-on effect, said Chris: ‘The less stringent definition of key workers has led to a huge increase in the number of students who are still attending school. This has put a massive strain on schools because it’s very challenging for teachers to provide effective remote learning and teach children who are also physically in the building.’

‘During this lockdown, we have rapidly distributed Chromebooks but are finding more families are without wifi access. We had a few DfE provided dongles, but these had a 30GB limit which doesn’t last long on interactive, video led or live lessons - probably around three or four days.’

All three schools we spoke to for this article said they carried out regular surveys to keep track of the situation. BCS meanwhile has asked for all educational websites to be exempt from mobile data charges to help the poorest families during the lockdown. It’s hoped other providers will follow the lead of BT Mobile, EE, and Plusnet Mobile, which have announced this week their users will soon be able to access BBC Bitesize, without using up their data allowance.

Support for teachers 

Adrienne said she has a new role and is now responsible for online learning and e-safety, including delivering training to staff: ‘My timetable includes a set weekly period, where staff can drop in and ask or email questions on specific issues that they encounter relating to online learning.

‘Staff were also given choice about lesson delivery - e.g. live or pre-recorded - which helps staff remain comfortable and confident whilst still providing a high-quality curriculum.’

For Chris, sometimes it’s trying to find a way to keep on teaching, despite the pandemic: ‘If a teacher is isolating without symptoms then they will teach live from home as if they were in school - it helps to keep an air of normality for the students in a year when it has been anything but!’

The aim of all of this is to keep children learning - and this has needed close attention when it comes to the digital skills of some students said Adrienne: ‘Year 7 and 8 have a timetabled lesson called Study Skills and I have had some input into this delivery. 

‘This has included a focus on upskilling students to prepare for lockdown events. This, in my opinion, has been invaluable as it helps develop student's digital literacy without heavily impacting the computing lessons.’

Attendance

Adrienne said the pastoral team closely monitors the attendance of students too: ‘Despite best efforts to encourage personal responsibility for logging on and engagement, some students still require a nudge to get started. 

‘To overcome this, staff are deployed to contact home to help resolve any practical issues and encourage students to engage. Parental contact, combined with praise through virtual postcards and house points has appeared instrumental in achieving a positive impact for online attendance and helped us achieve a strong online presence.’

Praise for the teachers 

A little bit of appreciation for the teachers goes a long way said Adrienne: ‘There is a need for staff to feel appreciated as they grapple with this new way of delivering content and praised with how they have sometimes had to juggle regular teaching in conjunction with online planning and delivery. This cannot be lost in the quest for improvement.’

Computing at School

The advice, resources and support shared by the peer-to-peer teachers network, Computing at School, has been invaluable said Martyn, who is a volunteer CAS community lead. He was also appointed as the Cumbria National Education Union IT officer - and nominated for Officer of the Year. ‘I must admit I've been busy managing remote learning through school, advising colleagues across my locality and teaching full time since September,’ said Martyn. ‘Every day is a challenge and it is difficult to keep up.’