Remote learning and online learning – they’re not the same thing

By Natasha Gibbs - 22 Oct, 2021
5 Minutes Read

It’s incredible how quickly staff and pupils have adapted to the challenges presented by remote learning over the past 18 months and have continued to achieve amazing things. Whilst schools are predominantly now back to in-class learning, there may still be times when individual pupils or even groups of pupils will need to isolate at home due to Covid-19. During these times children will need to learn remotely and there are some key things to bear in mind when planning for what might become a relatively long-term way of working.


What’s the difference between remote learning and online learning?

The first thing which comes to mind is that there has been a language shift. Oftentimes ‘remote learning’ is referred to as ‘online learning’ and it is worth reminding ourselves that these are not the same thing!

Online learning refers to learning which takes place solely online, using digital technologies. This includes Zoom & Teams sessions, online activities, watching instructional videos online, and online educational games. During the first lockdown, some schools were applauded for keeping pupils occupied for the full school day using Zoom, Teams and other online methods to teach in real-time. However, there is no real evidence to suggest that this is a more effective approach than many other successful remote learning approaches that teachers employed across the country. Furthermore, not all children have access to devices which allow for full-time online learning, so if this is the only type of learning offered, then some children are going to be greatly disadvantaged.

Remote learning refers to any learning which takes place remotely (away from the classroom). This of course can include online learning activities, but also includes activities which can be completed offline in exercise books or learning journals. Ofsted gives a clear definition of remote learning as being “a broad term encompassing any learning that happens outside of the classroom, with the teacher not present in the same location as the pupils”. In other words, it doesn’t have to be face-to-face with the teacher on Zoom or Teams! Remote education is simply a way of delivering the curriculum.

Keep it simple!

This is possibly the most sensible guidance that Ofsted has ever given. Teachers do not need to overcomplicate resources with too many graphics and illustrations which do not add to the content. When using digital remote education, the platform should be simple to use (for both the pupils and their parents!) Just as we don’t need ‘all-singing, all-dancing’ lessons in the classroom, remote education often benefits from a straightforward and easy-to-use format.

Live lessons aren’t always best

Many think that live lessons are the ‘gold standard’ of remote education and this is not necessarily the case. Whilst live lessons do offer some advantages (teachers can engage with their pupils, answer questions, address misconceptions and keep more control over the learning environment), live lessons are not always more effective than asynchronous approaches.

Using recorded lesson segments followed by a task or activity allows pupils to watch the video at a suitable time for them (ideal if they only have access to a device at certain times) and allows children to re-watch the video several times over if necessary (something they wouldn’t be able to do if the lesson was live and they missed something). It also allows the teacher more time for marking and providing feedback on completed work…something which would be nearly impossible if they were on Zoom all day!

The medium matters (a bit)

Quality of teaching is far more important than how lessons are actually delivered. However, there is some evidence that the medium does matter, especially when it comes to online learning. Pupils tend to spend longer accessing a remote lesson when they are using a laptop or PC than when they are using a mobile phone (with tablets falling somewhere in between). This means teachers will need to carefully consider whether pupils have access to the right kind of device when using digital remote education. If they don’t and the school can’t provide enough devices, then it may be better to consider non-digital approaches to remote learning.

It is certainly more challenging to engage and motivate pupils remotely than when they are in the classroom. There are more distractions and as a teacher you are not physically present to manage the environment.

There has been a lot of attention paid to ways in which online learning can be made more engaging. Setting a variety of task types and activities is key to helping children stay excited about their learning. Building in rewards and incentives is also a great way to make learning more ‘game-like’.

Communication with parents also plays a key factor as they can help support their children with their home learning. Engagement increases when pupils (and their parents) feel part of the school community. Whole-school digital assemblies, sharing and celebrating remote learning achievements, newsletters (to both pupils and parents), videos of the teachers addressing their pupils, having a safe online community space are all ways to help children and their parents feel part of the community even when learning remotely.

Author: Natasha Gibbs

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