Andy Perryer, Digital Learning Adviser for Cognita, reflects on how teachers and pupils have embraced online learning during the pandemic.

Last week, a teacher at Breaside Prep, one of our schools just outside London, showed me how her class had taken to using collaborative documents. It sounds ordinary but is anything but. It started with a blank screen. Then a sprout of an idea appeared, followed by one branch and another; images were added, giving life and colour to the initial thinking, and a stream of comment boxes popped over the screen. All within the space of a minute: an explosion of creativity.

Online teaching under Covid-19 restrictions has been a hothouse for EdTech in the independent sector. Sometimes painful necessity has seen schools’ digital wizardry advance two+ years in mere weeks, as online tools once viewed as ‘nice to have’ additions become everyday necessities. So the future has arrived early, with lasting implications for what it means to be a teacher.

But the story of the last few months is not a chronicle of the wonders of technology – rather the value of good teachers who are flexible, adaptable and committed. Evidence has shown that just giving children digital devices and software leads nowhere. The technology is an engine of education, but it’s the quality of the teacher’s guidance, motivation, feedback and interaction that are the all-important wheels.

Our schools in the UK were able to learn key lockdown lessons early on due to experiences shared by our sister schools in Asia, where the pandemic hit first. Chief among these was that wellbeing and a sense of security had to be the initial foundation. Pupils had to see their teachers and classmates, albeit virtually, and have time to re-establish feelings of being part of a community – before the impetus for learning was unlocked.

There’s no doubt it’s been a trial by fire. Before Covid-19, teachers tended to fall into two camps: those who were comfortable with IT anyway, and those who couldn’t wait to turn off their laptop and get back into the classroom. Either way, the transition to online has prompted an incredible groundswell of teacher collaboration as peers share the challenges they’re feeling in this brave new world – along with ideas, support and handy hacks for overcoming them. Out went normal routines and mindsets as the realisation soon set in that an element of freewheeling agility is what’s needed. For example, as soon as we learned how to set up outward-facing webinars on Microsoft Teams in April, we had live online events up and running for parents from the following week on how to support children through lockdown. Before, this would have likely involved months of planning.

We’ve been fortunate at Cognita in that the UK pandemic restrictions came towards the end of our national initiative to refresh how EdTech was being used, introducing mobile technology and wireless screen sharing as standard in the classroom. We were already encouraging teachers to be more mobile around classrooms, making their teaching practice more flexible and intuitive. They could take a snap of a student’s piece of work for instantaneous sharing and peer feedback, and teach from where they were needed rather than be tethered to the corner of the room where the tech used to sit. We showed them how digital tools could transform learning, not just substitute what is done without them. That’s what lockdown brought into sharp focus.

As per the opening example of children using collaborative documents, we’ve seen how difficult times have opened eyes to how learning can be enhanced: the limits to collaboration and participation while working on paper in a classroom; the benefits of personalisation and student agency, when students get to choose how and when they study and who they learn with. Feedback has been transformed. Teachers have more options, from the simple text box, to a short piece of audio or a fully interactive video that encourages more depth and variety in responses; if a group of students are experiencing the same issue, they can provide group face-to-face feedback; and most importantly the feedback is on record, something that can be returned to rather than advice in a classroom that can’t always be remembered.

The 2020 pandemic won’t be remembered as a blip for education but a step change, the opening up of the box to genuinely blended learning – the best of both online and face-to-face. And that will mean more flexibility and freedom for teaching professionals, no longer rooted in the classroom but able to move between the physical and virtual worlds, marshalling stores of resources and collaboration in ways that provide a more engaging, innovative education experience for our children. Snow days, though, are on their way out.

Published by the Independent Schools Council, here