Simon Cox, EEF maths specialist and secondary school teacher, looks at the evidence on different approaches to delivering remote learning in the light of this week’s return to school closures for most pupils…
We know that children learn best in classrooms, taught by expert teaching staff, along with all the important relationships, connections and support that comes along with it.
Pedagogy trumps the medium. That’s the case whether teaching is live or pre-recorded or a mix of both
In the temporary absence of these crucial supports, it instinctively feels like the best thing we can do is replicate as closely as possible the classroom experience in the home. And so, live (or ‘synchronous’) teaching online, via platforms such as Zoom or Teams, can appear to be the automatic choice over ‘asynchronous’ alternatives, such as using pre-recorded video.
However, it is always important for us to check our instincts against the broader evidence base. And last year, the EEF published a report examining the best evidence on supporting students to learn remotely, drawing on 60 systematic reviews and meta-analyses, albeit these are heavily skewed towards older students and higher education
This review distils the research into five key findings – summarised here – to help guide us through the current unprecedented situation.
The first and most crucial is that teaching quality is more important than how online lessons are delivered. What matters is ensuring the elements of effective teaching are present – such as clear explanations, scaffolding, and feedback – and whether those explanations build clearly on pupils’ prior learning or how pupils’ understanding is subsequently assessed.
In short, pedagogy trumps the medium. That’s the case whether teaching is live or pre-recorded or a mix of both.
The studies that did examine differences between live teaching and pre-recorded lessons on student outcomes found mixed and inconclusive results, with no evidence that one was better than the other in terms of student outcomes. There was evidence that quality of implementation did impact learning outcomes; and the importance, therefore, of providing professional support for practitioners to delivering remote teaching is noted in the review.
Now, clearly, schools have moved on since last year. New remote approaches have been planned, teachers have received training, and new routines have been established. For many schools, there is an increased confidence and familiarity with the technology and teaching remotely.
As a direct result, lots of live lessons will be of very high quality and go on to have a positive impact on pupils’ learning. A well-planned diet of daily live lessons can provide structure to the day, build on relationships forged in the classroom, support peer interaction as a way to motivate pupils and improve outcomes, and offer the reassurance of a trusted voice ‘in the room’.
What are the practical limits of ‘live’ remote teaching?
Given that most schools are now better prepared for live lessons, therefore, does this mean we should populate a home-learning timetable with them, aiming to replicate the regular school day?
To answer this question, we need to recognise a hard reality: the ‘digital divide’ means that over-reliance on live remote learning could negatively impact the most disadvantaged in our society
Such an approach can assume that households are in a position to run the school day according to the usual timetable; that families have enough suitable devices for all children to log in to different lessons at the same time; that pupils can view lessons on something larger than a mobile phone; and that their home internet data package is sufficient to successfully stream multiple lessons simultaneously
For all these reasons, there is a danger that a reliance on live online teaching could once again magnify the impact of income gaps we try so hard in schools to minimise.
We should then consider the benefits of the various alternatives to live lessons too. Recorded video lessons can reduce teacher workload and free up valuable time to offer individual conversations with pupils about work, to support learning via email or platforms’ chat functions, and to focus conversations on pastoral support. As the Department for Education states, it is the ‘frequent contact between pupils and teachers [that] is crucial’, and this can occur through a range of effective approaches outside of the live lesson.
Additionally, recorded lessons can develop pupils’ independence, encouraging them to pause, to rewind, to manage their time, and to reduce the anxiety attached to inviting your class into your home. High-quality content is now available on platforms like Oak National Academy, offering teachers excellent resources they can deploy flexibly.
It is, of course, important to acknowledge the limitations of recorded lessons too. They can reduce the feeling of continued connection of pupils to school and their teachers. Also, it may be difficult to encourage valuable peer interaction without the ‘in the room’ impact of a live lesson.
How should schools approach remote teaching?
The best available evidence on remote teaching indicates that we should not necessarily assume that live lessons are intrinsically better than pre-recorded alternatives, and that adopting either one of these approaches requires careful thought and planning.
It might be that schools decide to implement a mix of both, aiming to yield the potential benefits of each approach – and communicating this clearly to parents so they understand your reasoning.
Ultimately, learning through lockdown is about doing what is best for your pupils, your community, your teachers, and your school. At the EEF, we hope our summary of the existing evidence enables you to plan with greater confidence the best possible approach for your setting at this difficult time.