An evidence based approach to blended and remote learning in schools

November 10, 2020

Michael O’Kane discusses remote and blended learning and provides a roadmap for success.  

An evidence based approach to blended and remote learning in schools

I think things will go back to pretty much normal when the Covid-19 pandemic subsides. While I welcome this, in terms of seeing our children in our schools being able to collaborate more, develop creativity and be part of a vibrant school life without Covid-19 restrictions, I feel that lessons may not be learnt by policy makers in terms of investment in children’s learning, meeting the needs of all learners and also developing the provision of state of the art technology in schools. A lot of people may blame administrators and education authorities, however, individuals working within these organisations are unfortunate to be constrained by limited budgets. It is high time that governments and policy makers, instead of following a small committee’s misguided judgements, take an evidence based approach to education, similar to the approach that a lot of school leaders have had to do in a very short space of time to meet the needs of their children in the return to school at the end of the summer.

School leaders have had one chance to get the return to school right. The day to day running of a school has become manageable despite a number of guidelines in place for Covid-19. The massive increase in paperwork and also investment in time around track and trace in school as a result of a positive case is taking a substantial toll on leaders, however it is the system we have to work with at the moment unfortunately.

The management of remote learning is something that the majority of schools have had no training or experience of prior to the pandemic. A lot of educators may say that they are experienced in using an online learning platform and have used technology effectively in the classroom. However, trying to plan and deliver effective lessons for children both in the classroom and at home because of shielding or isolation measures is a brand-new experience for the vast majority of all of us. Over the summer, a large number of educators, including myself, with experience of using technology in schools pitched themselves as trainers or advisors on how to manage remote and blended learning. What experience has certainly taught me and hopefully a lot of others is that after 8 or 9 weeks since the return to school and after evaluating how learning and teaching in this hybrid model has been undertaken, we may only now be in a position to put in place an effective approach to remote and blended learning.

I like to start with the end in mind. We at school want to provide the most effective model of remote/blended learning possible. Our measurable success criteria are:

  1. As many children as possible are confident in using technology so that learning continues through remote teaching during periods of lockdown.
  2. The majority of teachers feel confident in the use of technology to raise standards in learning and teaching and to support remote learning.

The following is hopefully a roadmap to achieve this.

Gather as much evidence as possible to inform your decisions.

This is extremely important, find out what works and doesn’t work, with a particular focus on academic research. I found the Remote Learning Rapid Evidence Assessment from the Education Endowment Foundation extremely useful with key findings indicating exactly how to plan and deliver remote learning lessons. You can access it here.

Module 1 of the Blended Learning Teacher Professional Learning programme was full of informative information on how to develop blended learning in school. You can access it here.

Parental surveys

It is very important to gather evidence from surveys on the experiences of the parents of your school from during the lockdown period. If there are further lockdowns or children have to isolate at home for 14 days, parents will most likely be there with their children. Schools have to ensure that parents are supported as much as possible. The overwhelming responses to surveys which I have seen have indicated that parents want their children’s teachers to provide feedback on work completed during lockdown. A positive home school link is crucial to ensuring that remote learning is effective.

Select the correct online learning platform.

This is very important. It is even more important to ensure that you don’t select a learning platform that the school down the road is using and you have heard that it is good. Also, there are a large number of ‘educators’ out there who recommend learning platforms because they have a vested interest in ensuring schools use them. These ‘educators’ most often than not have very little recent classroom experience, or possibly have none at all. School leaders should gather the opinions of their ICT coordinator and staff on their experiences of using different online learning platforms. Identify the pros and cons of each platform and make a decision on what suits the needs of the children in your particular school. A very effective ICT coordinator and a very effective staff are important during this time and I am privileged to have inherited both in our school.

Training and time for teachers.

This is probably the key factor of successful remote or blended learning in your school. It is crucial that you tailor a bespoke training programme for your staff with training that helps them feel confident in using technology. Give them time to practise using the technology and gather their views on the technology. Leaders should take the views of staff on board and tweak things so that teachers feel supported in using technology and that it actually helps them manage their workload.

There should also be a sound pedagogical approach to this training, with the evidence from the Education Endowment Foundation being very pertinent – it states that children can learn through remote learning if explanations are clear and build on previous learning, activities are scaffolded and there is clear feedback to children present. Training for teachers should reflect this.

Teachers need time to simultaneously meet the needs of children in the classroom and children at home. Any unnecessary after school meetings, activities and initiatives should be put on hold until this pandemic subsides. If needs be teachers should be released from class for a few minutes each week to meet (socially distanced of course) with their colleagues to review how things are going both in the classroom and with blended learning. They should discuss what is going well, what needs to be improved and what needs to be discontinued. A teacher may be required to teach from 9am to 3pm then plan and deliver remote learning activities after school. It is imperative that they have as much support in doing this as possible. School leaders should continue to be innovative in providing formal and informal training opportunities which complements the evaluations of how things are going daily and weekly throughout this period of blended learning.

Support for parents and children.

Schools may have decided to run with a particular online learning platform which is new to the school community. They should ensure that children and parents are supported with materials to help them to become comfortable in using the online platform. Probably the best way to do this is by providing short video guides for parents and children, showing them how to use the platform at home. For a few minutes each week in the classroom teachers should recap with children how to log in to the learning platform and how to use its features to be prepared in case a period of remote learning has to take place.

At the heart of everything for school leaders is for them to have a really effective team of staff in the school who have the needs of the children at the heart of everything they do. I am extremely lucky to have inherited such a team in our school. Staff at the moment have had to redesign school life to deal with the guidelines in response to Covid-19 and have to be commended for their hard work and dedication in these most difficult of times.

Michael O’Kane, the author of this blog, is headmaster of St. Colmcille’s Primary School & Nursery Unit in Claudy, Co. Derry in Ireland. He is also an Apple Distinguished Educator and Apple Professional Learning Specialist.


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