There’s no place like school... | Michelle Attard-Tonna

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced education out of schools, and into the home via online learning. But while digital technology has advantages of its own, Faculty of Education lecturer MICHELLE ATTARD-TONNA argues that online learning cannot fully replace the traditional school model

Michelle Attard-Tonna
Michelle Attard-Tonna

Recently you commented that ‘teachers were never trained or prepared to teach online, and yet many of them (including LSEs, SMT and other education officials) adapted to the new modus operandi very quickly.’ Can you outline what ‘adapting to the new modus operandi’ entails in this scenario?

I must first qualify that claim. For a significant amount of years, teachers were exposed to technologies that can enhance their teaching, and they have been trained to endorse pedagogies which integrate technological tools and platforms. These include the use of the interactive whiteboard, tablets, mobile phone, robots, and digital tools for coding, amongst others.

Many teachers were also used to interacting with their students and/or parents remotely after non-contact hours, through their own blogs or through websites and virtual learning environments supported by the school. After all, most students are learning through technology during their time outside schools – most of them have access to a tablet or a mobile phone and they play video games, read e-books and socialise online. I know many students who use chat rooms and platforms like Skype to do their homework with their peers. It’s the reality. So schools and teachers must address the needs and the reality of the current generation.

However, the current situation, which forced the authorities to shut down schools, was not foreseen by anyone; so teachers found themselves in a situation where they had to adapt, overnight, to support the learning of their students remotely. This is not the ideal scenario. As an educator, I have found online learning works best when it is supplemented by face-to-face experiences either through tutorials, lectures, seminars or even regular social events. Moreover, there are some subjects which lend themselves better than others to be taught online – it is more problematic to teach a PE lesson or a VET lesson, which requires hands-on experiences.

The age of the students and what kind of access they have to technology can also play a huge difference, and whether these students require support and supervision to engage in online learning.

For such reasons, we need to measure our expectations against these different scenarios. Online teaching can never replicate what a school can provide – the physical social places where students meet, play and learn as a community of learners. Students are not in the best frame of mind to engage in this new way of learning – many of them feel anxious because of the uncertainty this situation brings about, they miss their friends, they miss going out, they are not expending their energy in extra curricular activities and they are distracted by situations found at home (like siblings and gadgets) which can be controlled better in the confines of a classroom.

Many parents are now being expected to juggle between homeschooling and their job (for those who are working remotely) and not all households contain adequate spaces for children to follow online lessons. These are the scenarios teachers have had to adapt to, besides the fact that many of them have children of their own, and thus have parenting responsibilities to tend to. Their modus operandi had to adapt to these challenges and overcome them.

Teaching is known to be a stressful occupation at best of times. My understanding is that the changes necessitated by the crisis have radically increased the workload/stress involved. Is this true… and how are teachers coping?

From what I can observe, different teachers are doing different things, even at higher education level like university. There was also an initial period where some teachers had to consult with their schools and coordinate their work, and where some others experimented with a couple of learning platforms before settling for that most suitable for their students.

For those who are adapting their material and posting it online, communicating with students and parents, collecting and marking some of the work, and uploading recorded lessons or doing live streaming... yes, the workload has increased significantly. However, I can note a lot of teachers collaborating and sharing resources, posting tips and suggestions for their colleagues, and adapting material and videos found online to their classroom context.

As a teacher educator, I am thrilled because this kind of collaboration and sense of initiative seems to have increased, or have become more visible. Teachers are often physically isolated by their classroom walls and a timetable, with very little time to meet their colleagues and to grow professionally as a team, even though this is one of the most effective forms of learning for teachers. The fact that they are now working remotely has ironically brought them closer together.

There is also a stronger sense of camaraderie and support within the teaching community, perhaps because we are in a time of crisis and this triggered a higher sense of social responsibility and the need to reach out and help each other.

The ability for schools to cater for online teaching depends largely on the resources available to the schools. Are all schools capable of adapting equally to this scenario?

Rather than the schools, the issue lies mostly with what students have, or do not have, at home. All schools have some kind of virtual learning environment, and all teachers have a laptop. Most online teaching can be done using very simple tools which can even be found online as freeware, if the school does not provide them.

Some schools have been slower than others to take this approach, but there were many personal initiatives in this regard and I do not feel that those teachers who wanted to teach online were held back by the school in any way; on the contrary, some took this initiative as a result of being encouraged by others. The real limitations start when there are students who do not have access to a laptop or tablet, or to wifi.

I am aware that the Ministry for Education are trying to address this, and I have seen a number of teachers asking for second-hand PCs or laptops which people may not be needing so they can donate them to their students.

Another limiting factor we should all keep in mind is the kind of support students receive at home; the amount of time parents can dedicate to supervise them, and whether they are able to explain certain concepts to them or help them when they get stuck.

The students’ socio-economic background has always been a crucial (though not determining) factor that impacts on their learning; and with homeschooling it is no different.

In many work scenarios, ‘teleworking’ may prove to actually be more convenient/efficient. But in the case of education, can digital technology effectively replace the benefits of direct teacher/student contact?

I don’t think so, despite the fact that I am not a big fan of schooling, and tend to be critical of the traditional way we regard learning and institutionalise it.

However, replacing the school experience with one of homeschooling, or learning remotely, will give rise to other issues. Many problems of a socio-psychological nature come to the fore in a school setting, and a number of professionals can flag these issues and engage support services to help the child.

The same goes for problems of neglect or child abuse. I dread to think of what is happening to those children who are locked inside an unhappy home environment, and whose only safe space or respite is the school.

Moreover, the school provides opportunities of socialising whose lack no technology can ever compensate for. Students learn a lot in situations which are not purely curricular or academic, even those within school, and teachers can use these opportunities to contextualise their subject and make content more relevant. Some may argue that students can still get these benefits from extra curricular activities, which is true; but in a limited way, and not all students either.

The school environment ensures that children are provided with a ‘mini society’ wherein they can nurture relationships and learn how to respect others; become sensitised to different backgrounds their peers bring with them; learn how to function in diverse settings; learn about the importance of authority… and also on the importance of challenging that same authority. They learn about the responsibility their behaviour bears on the learning which takes place in class; and how the friendships they form can enhance their school experiences, make them more fun and interesting.

Having said that, the online environment provides a myriad of other benefits and we should use it to supplement and enrich what schools already provide. Many of those who were sceptical of teaching online, but who have tried it out because of schools’ shutdown, report of its advantages: like the fact that many students are even more interactive and focused; that it is convenient and practical; that it provides flexibility and for some lessons given how students can choose to follow them in their own time.

The crisis has also shone a spotlight on the importance of the medical profession. Do you feel that it has also underscored just how important the role of teachers and educators is?

One does not exclude the other, and there is no denying that all those working in the health care sector – from the researchers in the labs, to the pharmacists, the nurses and the doctors tending patients in the ITU – are now perceived, perhaps more than ever before, as modern day heroes, and rightly so.

Teachers and educators are also playing a very crucial role during this crisis. A lot of their work is behind the scenes and people often see the end result. I can assure you that to organise a system which can address the entitlement of the students, without overwhelming the parents, and ensuring that at least some of the learning can resume, is no mean feat.

Educators in a leadership role are spending long hours every day in online meetings with stakeholders; they are sending regular emails to parents informing them of the developing situation and offering them ideas on how to entertain their children and also offering support of a psychological nature; they are replying to the scores of students’ requests which come in, most of them showing concern and even tension.

All this takes time and personal sacrifice, besides sophisticated logistics which have to be in place in preparation for the re-opening of schools. The Faculty of Education is currently working on a project which can offer added support to educators, because we have also been receiving a lot of requests from teachers and parents and we can put our expertise to good use.

Similarly, all other stakeholders have mechanisms in place to cater for such needs. It is like a huge cogwheel, which I am proud to be part of. This has been a situation which showed that teachers still hold a very important position in society.

Ask this question to any parent currently homeschooling – while many of them are appreciating the quality time they are spending with their children, this experience made them become more grateful towards teachers and the education system at large.

This is also why it is so important that as a society we value such contributions – an effective teacher can have a lasting impact in a student’s life and this will have a ripple effect and lead to more benefits in the community.

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