What does the future of school learning look like in the wake of COVID-19? Ask a biology teacher

After the past year’s extraordinary ‘experiment’ in online learning, we now have an opportunity to develop this resource so it becomes an integrated, complementary part of our physical school environments that both enhances and extends our curriculum

Paul Downie

As a teacher, I doubt I will ever forget how I felt on Friday 20 March last year. Sitting on the lab bench, I reassured those pupils who were still present in my class, prior to the first national lockdown, that school would return soon – and that in the meantime, they should look after themselves and be mindful that it would be challenging for other members of their family too. We didn’t fully know what was to come, but we were all going to be in it together.

In the months that followed, we were given a stark reminder of the true value of schools in our communities. Education is rightly recognised as a vital driver of everything from social mobility and diversity to economic growth and gender equality. However, we must never forget that, above all else, its successes are built on the relationships between teachers and other school staff and the pupils and their families.

No digital technology will ever replace the role that education plays in supporting the safety and wellbeing of young people. It will not replace the mutual support and common purpose that is created during a good lesson, or those magical moments of face-to-face teaching when ‘the penny drops’, or the subtle ways in which a teacher can motivate and inspire confidence in their pupils.

Schools are complex, with many pieces coming together to ensure success for our young people. Digital technology is just one part of that puzzle. However, given the modern world that awaits them, I believe the pandemic has shown us once and for all that digital learning must become an integrated, complementary part of our physical school environments.

A steep learning curve

Being based in a Glasgow City Council school – Hyndland Secondary – we were in a strong position compared with most going into that first lockdown. All staff and pupils in our school had received individual devices as part of Europe’s biggest Apple education initiative, with 47,100 student iPads and 4,900 teacher iPads having been distributed across the city to enhance learning and teaching experiences.

Given what we know now about the past year, it seems unbelievable that it was only in August 2019 that the Local Authority had been forced to defend its decision to provide these devices to all staff and learners. But it was still a steep learning curve for everyone involved – and one that has surely accelerated the integration of digital learning in our schools.

As a science faculty, we had already embraced the use of digital technology over a number of years, developing a comprehensive system of tools to enhance all aspects of our work. This allowed us to begin to address some of the varying challenges individual colleagues faced when it came to utilising these digital technologies – whether that was technical ability, or simply confidence.

Having all colleagues using the same devices and software allows for greater consistency in working methods, and was beneficial in assisting those requiring more support. Equally, knowing that every student has access to the same tools makes a big difference when it comes to planning lessons, whether they be remote or in school. Having the same managed devices with access to the same software is more beneficial for me both as a teacher and Faculty Head than the occasional request for a random app or piece of software from an individual.

IPPO’s global scan of evidence about online learning during COVID-19 has shown us that devices, in the form of laptops or tablets, were provided through ad hoc schemes in many countries. Having been fortunate enough to be teaching in a forward-thinking authority that had already invested heavily in developing a digital education strategy, I believe that all young people should have access to a suitable device and internet connection regardless of their circumstances – just as we would continue to expect them to have access to a pencil and a piece of paper.

However, there are still nuances to equity beyond simply providing all young people with devices and connectivity, such as access to a safe and suitable learning environment. COVID-19 has highlighted these issues throughout the past year; they must be considered as part of any education recovery plan.

Asynchronous learning through WestOS

During the initial national lockdown, there had been some concerns from professional associations around the use of ‘live’ lessons online. However, progress has been made in the collective understanding in this space, with live lessons being shown to have a positive impact in engagement during the second national lockdown.

But this brings me back to the vital relationship between pupils and their teachers, and the importance of these crucial interactions.

Not having any form of face-to-face interaction during the initial lockdown was a challenge for me personally, as I like to provide narratives which link to real-world examples in my classroom, and to find ways to make the learning relevant and interesting for my pupils. In an attempt to solve this problem, I created The Higher Biology Podcast: a series of recorded episodes featuring leading experts in specific areas of the course, which can be freely accessed on any device across a range of platforms.

The podcast quickly surpassed my initial hopes of simply engaging my own class. The series has now had thousands of downloads across Scotland and the UK, and been listened to in at least 72 countries.

If we consider the wider world our young people have grown up in, they have instant access to download television, films and computer games in a way that suits their own needs. Therefore, I believe that the young people sitting in my biology class deserve equally easy access to the biology curriculum, to enhance their wider learning experience.

My early work on the podcast led to conversations with colleagues in the West Partnership about how we could develop asynchronous learning for young people across the wider curriculum. We created WestOS, an online resource developed by teachers, providing recorded learning experiences for children and young people.

We believe that all children and young people should be able to access high-quality learning experiences, regardless of their circumstances. We also believe these principles of high-quality learning and teaching should be reflected in our recorded learning experiences.

West OS has been a collaborative, teacher-led response to the feedback we have received from children, young people and their families, and from practitioners. It is now cemented as the recorded element of the National e-Learning Offer in Scotland.

All 32 local authorities have access to WestOS, allowing every pupil and teacher in the country access to a safe and secure learning platform. Content is being added each day, and we currently have approximately 2,000 video lessons.

With 82% of primary and 95% of secondary schools in the West Partnership having used WestOS, recent feedback from teachers indicates that 86% find it a ‘useful’ or ‘very useful’ element of their pupils’ learning. Many practitioners have commented that a key strength of the programme is that it has been created by teachers working in Scotland, specifically for the Scottish curriculum.

These asynchronous, online learning resources allow greater flexibility about the pace and path of learning. They remove time-and-place barriers for learners, allowing them to use these resources at a time that suits them and their family.

Now is the time to reflect on what we have learned

Now we have an opportunity to continue developing this resource so that it becomes as normalised as providing a young person with a summary note as part of their homework or revision. As our understanding and technical skills develop, we can continue to enhance and build on this progress, and explore how we can use such resources to both enhance and extend our curriculum.

In March 2021, driven by the needs of learners and teachers to further support the ‘blended’ model of learning as more pupils began to return to schools, we created Sustainable Scotland in partnership with eSgoil and Keep Scotland Beautiful – an example of how these video lessons can be linked in a thematic piece of work, and also interlinked with live online lessons.

This resource was presented as a simple hyperlinked PDF document, allowing pupils to click on different parts of the sheet and be directed straight to that particular resource. We are now developing this further for different senior-phase subjects, to further support alternative certification models with course overviews.

These video lessons now have additional learning resources alongside to provide a more rounded learning experience online. They complement the learning offered in school, with partners such as Glasgow University continuing to support WestOS by developing podcasts for subjects outside of biology.

Now is the time to reflect on what we have learned during this unprecedented time, and make changes to our learning environment, pedagogy and how we assess learning.

If we are to truly build a networked learning system around the teaching profession – with certification, terms, conditions, support and meaningful professional learning that enhances digital competence and improves learning and teaching – then we must accept that it requires both time and sustained investment in training and ongoing renewal of devices and connectivity infrastructure.

Furthermore, if education drives social mobility, diversity, economic growth and gender equality, then I hope that given what we have learned throughout the past 12 months, our government officials and policymakers will see this as both a priority and natural next step in securing a brighter future for our young people.

Above all else, learners must be at the heart of learning and teaching – whether that’s using a blackboard, or the latest digital technology. It only works if it works for them.

Paul Downie (@Mr_Downie) is a biology teacher and faculty head of science in Glasgow, shortlisted for the 2020/2021 Royal Society of Biology UK Teaching Award. He has been seconded to the West Partnership Regional Improvement Collaborative as one of two West OS coordinators, to develop asynchronous learning materials as part of the National e-Learning Offer in Scotland. For regular updates on West OS: @West_OS