The pandemic and lockdowns have forced all of us to place digital solutions centre-stage of everything we do. We have witnessed more change in the last 10 months than we would normally see in 10 years. A key challenge will, however, be to ensure that these changes bring benefit over the longer term to help reshape the way we provide quality teaching and learning opportunities to all our students.
At Ark, we have been relatively fortunate as we were in the middle of delivering a new digital strategy when the pandemic struck. We had already overseen the migration of most of our 38 schools onto cloud-based software and almost all our teachers had access to a personal digital device.
This investment meant that we had the tools and approaches in place quickly to move online when the first lockdown was announced. School staff moved to MS Teams for meetings, and we had the basic infrastructure in place to develop defined online tools to support learning.
Of course, this digital strategy needed to adapt to the extraordinary circumstances we found ourselves in, and it was clear very quickly that many of our students lacked access to suitable devices. A survey of 10,000 of our students and parents revealed that half were without the basic kit to learn remotely.
It took the crisis for us to properly understand the extent of the problem and what this means more generally for the wider learning experience and opportunities of our students. Tackling this digital exclusion is not just a task for the pandemic but a key part of our wider mission to provide opportunities for all regardless of background and to reduce gaps in attainment.
That’s why we set ourselves the target last summer for all our students from Key Stage 2 up to have access to a suitable digital device by the end of this academic year. This has made a positive difference in this latest lockdown too and, so far, we have distributed more than 12,000 Chromebooks (that’s about half the overall number of children in our target year groups) to our schools, a combination of DfE-funded devices and those funded by Ark itself.
Like everyone, though, we have been learning on the job, and are drawing heavily on the experiences of schools both inside and outside the Ark network with technology partners and educationalists around the world. One of the real positives from the crisis has been the renewed sense of collaboration in education and we are keen both to learn and share as much as we can too to ensure the dramatic digital changes we have seen have long-lasting impact. In doing so, we are seeking to hold some key principles in place to guide us.
First, technology is only a tool. While it has supported remote delivery, digital technology can’t tell us what or how to teach. Nothing beats a good teacher, and curriculum and pedagogy come first – and it is vital we have a vision for both, with codified and shared approaches for effective learning across our schools. Alongside this, the relationship between the teacher and their pupils is crucial. So, while we are all operating a little in the unknown as we work to understand what is working well digitally across our schools, the building blocks for effective practice are sound.
Second, online learning cannot and should not simply replicate face-to-face learning. Even with quality content, spending hours in front of a screen sees rapidly diminishing returns. Offering a combination of live and asynchronous learning activities to ensure that the diet of learning is balanced and as equitable as possible and makes best use of the technology to support our students’ needs.
Third, expect future changes and challenges we can’t predict. This is the first event to cause widespread disruption to education in the UK for many generations, but it may not be the last - and the pace of technological change will itself quicken even more. So, we need to ensure that our digital infrastructure is sufficiently flexible to keep up and ensure our pupils can thrive in a digitally enabled environment, both in school and in their future lives.
Fourth, digital inequality is a major impediment to learning even without lockdowns. The crisis has opened our eyes to the scale and impact of life without access to the world online, particularly in already disadvantaged communities. Here at Ark, where we serve a significantly higher than average level of disadvantage within our communities, we see an opportunity to extend learning for the longer term beyond our bricks and mortar classrooms. Supporting digital access opens the potential for more independent learning at home to amplify rather than replace the face-to-face time with teachers in school.
Fifth, engagement with parents and the wider school community is not a luxury but an essential part of what makes a good school. We have seen relationships strengthen during this crisis – schools can provide more opportunities to communicate with parents online, as well as providing parents with a window into their child’s learning experience through a device at home. We must learn from the positive experiences our schools are encountering here and sustain them.
Finally, we must never be afraid to iterate but must always keep on evaluating. Schools are in the middle of a large-scale rapid change cycle and so much of Ark’s own learning of what works best is coming from the innovation and enterprise of individual teachers and schools. The absence of a clear rule book, especially early in the crisis, has meant that teachers have been iterating with what works, learning as they go, and sharing with colleagues those things that do work. We need to capture this experience, the improvements, the successes and, yes, the failures too, to enable us all to learn and plan for the future.
None of us would have chosen to have entered this crisis. We have seen close up the impact this pandemic has had on our young people and their families. But we must ensure that we seize the opportunities the crisis has presented us with to reshape the way we teach and the way our students learn. We cannot afford not to.