Remote learning – a brave new world? 

By providing an effective remote learning service, independent schools are seen to be proactive, resilient and responsive, says Hamish Mackenzie

With schools worldwide forced into lockdown and over 1.4 billion children isolated at home, remote learning has rocketed up the agenda with headteachers, policy makers and education ministries looking for solutions.

Big Tech have responded by making accessible tools freely available to teachers and students – platforms such as Zoom, Google Hangouts, Classroom and Microsoft Teams have seen usage grow exponentially in recent weeks.

Whilst the tools exist and are relatively straightforward to use, the real skill in remote learning comes from transferring offline teaching pedagogies and teacher/student relationships into an online format.

The goal is that the technology becomes relatively invisible, so students are able to participate in purposeful learning experiences despite geographical separation from their teachers and peers.

Institutional adjustment

Whilst this sounds achievable in principle, the devil is in the detail and inevitably it requires a lot of training and upskilling to rapidly change the behaviour of institutions whose default position has been offline face-to-face interactions.

Schools can be noisy, chaotic, personality-driven places where creativity occurs as a result of colleagues and students bouncing ideas and experiences off each other. Staff rooms and corridors bustle with conversations, experiences, excitement, frustrations and friendship group interactions.

This dynamic is atomised when schools close their physical doors but there is no reason why much of this cannot transfer to online channels if the correct tech is deployed strategically and effectively.

At the Royal Hospital School, we are fortunate to have invested heavily in technology and staff training over the past five years. We run a one-to-one iPad mobile learning programme in years 7-11 and a BYOD scheme for our sixth form. We are recognised as an Apple Regional Training Centre and one of the EdTech50 schools.

Our focus for the last 18 months has been migrating all systems to the cloud (Microsoft OneDrive and SharePoint) which has enabled us to bolt on Microsoft Teams in a short period of time. Staff are used to tech training and are familiar with the Microsoft 365 suite. The iPad has been used as a teaching tool for five years so filming experiments, providing audio feedback, screen-casting a slideshow or talking over a digital whiteboard are not new to staff.

However, seeing the COVID-19 epidemic sweep through Asia and progress towards Europe in February 2020, we began rapidly training all staff on Microsoft Teams so that we were prepared to continue teaching should the school face disruption.

remote learning
“Tech should drive productivity and make schools more efficient”

The financial imperative

Working in the independent sector, schools are used to forming their own technology strategy and resourcing it accordingly. Many schools that have transitioned to cloud infrastructure are realising productivity gains as more systems integrate, cutting the time required for admin tasks. Tech should drive productivity and make schools more efficient.

The COVID-19 crisis has thrust these systems to the front of schools’ thinking as they are now relying on them to deliver continuity of education for millions of students.

For independent schools in particular, the income from the summer term fees is vital to the financial sustainability of the business over the months ahead. By providing an effective remote learning service, schools are seen to be proactive, resilient and responsive to a situation which is out of our control.

For independent schools in particular, the income from the summer term fees is vital to the financial sustainability of the business over the months ahead

Schools who already utilised mobile learning via one-to-one or BYOD schemes are undoubtedly at an advantage as they are able to leverage the training and technology landscape already in place. Staff who are confident on devices are more likely to innovate and as there are less barriers, they already know the device and its capabilities.

More importantly than the device is the cloud infrastructure it sits on, be it Microsoft Teams, Google Classroom or a third- party virtual learning environment (VLE). For those invested in Google or Microsoft, the possibility exists for deliver full synchronous learning.

Whilst there are a myriad of technical solutions to deliver remote learning, the asynchronous vs synchronous debate is one all school leaders have been considering in recent weeks. With the Easter break upon us, it is worth pausing to consider what remote learning will look like for the summer term.

Synchronous vs asynchronous

Much has been written on this topic, but every school will need to decide which camp to occupy in the coming weeks.

-Synchronous learning allows students to progress through the learning in specific real-time slots, often mirroring a normal school timetable. The students and teacher are present online at a scheduled time and progress through a lesson as if they were meeting in person. Students can interact via audio, video and chat functions and a live group dynamic is established from the get-go. This model requires confident teachers and a stable, reliable technology (devices and cloud). It is relatively high pressure for the teachers but has the capability of delivering a rich learning experience. -Asynchronous learning allows the progression at own pace. Teachers curate a series of resources and stimuli for students to progress through. Assessments and feedback occur at specific points but the live interaction is limited. This method is easier to manage for students, parents and teachers but does not deliver the same level of interactivity or personalisation.

Blended vs flipped

Blended and flipped learning are well-known strategies for leveraging technology to deliver effective learning experiences.

-Flipped learning requires teachers to pre-record lesson stimulus and provide a series of curated resources for students to work through prior to the meeting with them. The learning interaction is then based around unpicking barriers to learning, clarifying issues and discussing the topic.

-This is essentially a university style of teaching where much of the reading is done before the lecture. The advantage of doing it in schools is that much of the curriculum can become accessible 24/7 and as an institution you are building a bank of resources that can be used in future years.

-There are also benefits for SEND students and students who may need closed captioning or be able to access resources in large format or by audio transcript.

-Blended learning is a slightly lower bar but, in many ways, more effective. Blended learning digitises certain components of learning, for example assessment or feedback, and provides digital tools to enhance the process.

-Blended learning may also utilise technologies such as augmented reality or podcasting to hive off elements of lessons from teacher-group instruction towards personalised access via technology.

Both approaches have their relative merits and require staff to be confident and competent at using technology. This confidence can be rapidly boosted by effective training and support.

Training support core teaching pedagogies

The COVID-19 crisis removes the ability to plan for timely adoption of remote learning practices and has forced training to be delivered quickly. Focusing on the core classroom pedagogies that teachers deliver every lesson enables a more nuanced approach to training.

We developed a Teams training package based around delivering six core teaching methods we believe are essential for meaningful online learning. These are:

  • Maintaining human connection
  • Teacher to group video conferencing for leading group discussions
  • Resource delivery. Slide decks, research resources, worksheets, office documents, video or weblinks
  • Resource narration. Talking, annotating or vlogging over the shared resources and whiteboard work
  • Checking learning via quizzing and assessment
  • Marking and feedback

Our approach has been to upskill teachers via whole staff training (100+), small group training (1:6), one-on-ones, infographic support, video snippets, sharing best practice and providing enhanced access IS support.

By focusing on the pedagogies rather than the buttons to press, teachers gained agency as the experts whilst the tech supports what they are trying to achieve. The resource sheets and training method are available on the DRUK website.


It is hard to define what success looks like when traditional parameters of public exams and university destinations have been removed for the 2020 cohort of students. Within our context, we are focusing on meaningful continuity of education. This means maintaining the breadth of curriculum opportunities, access to the arts, continuing to focus on student wellbeing, maintaining our sense of community and team spirit.

We all learn from adversity, both as institutions and individuals. The current COVID-19 disruption gives us an opportunity to model the growth mindset that we try to instil in students and also the potential to drive forward digital strategy.

When schools do reopen their doors, it is likely that an enhanced sense of independence and digital confidence will be present in staff and students. Let’s focus on the positive and consider how we can best build on the new digital baseline.

Hamish Mackenzie is founder of Digital Resilience UK, an agency that supports schools with digital strategy and online safety. He also works part-time as director of digital strategy at the Royal Hospital School.

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