Digital Learning before and after Covid: key findings from NAPD member survey
Darina Scully, Paula Lehane & Conor Scully
In March 2020, schools across the world began to close as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, with country-wide closures in place in 193 of the world’s 195 countries by the start of April. At the time of writing, it is almost one year to the day that Irish schools were forced suddenly and unexpectedly to engage in remote teaching and learning, and despite re-opening in September, further closures were subsequently enforced and continue to be in place following a sharp rise in case numbers over Christmas. As school leaders are acutely aware, this past year has presented significant challenges for the education sector. Digital technology has also played a more prominent role in everyday teaching and learning than ever before.
In June of last year, we invited NAPD members to participate in an online survey on the topic of digital learning. It focused specifically on three major themes:
- leaders’ own beliefs regarding, and attitudes towards, the use of digital technology in the classroom
- the extent to which schools were equipped for digital learning and were using digital technologies in innovative ways prior to the pandemic, and
- how schools adapted to remote learning during the first major lockdown, including the challenges and opportunities encountered
Anecdotally speaking, there tends to be some variation in terms of access to and use of digital technologies in Irish post-primary schools. We wanted to gain a better understanding of the extent of this variation and to determine, for example, whether school characteristics and/or leaders’ own attitudes towards technology were associated with certain patterns of technology uptake and use. We also sought to understand if any of this impacted on schools’ experiences after the transition to remote learning.
Despite the exceptional circumstances in which schools were operating at the time, 72 school leaders completed the survey, providing data for approximately 10% of post-primary schools in the country. This is a relatively modest but nonetheless acceptable response rate, and the sample was broadly representative of the underlying population of schools, with the exception of voluntary schools being slightly over-represented (58% in the study v. 53% in the population) and vocational schools slightly under-represented (27% v. 34%).
Digital Learning pre-Covid
Our findings suggest that the vast majority of schools had sufficient technological infrastructure and a vision for how technology should be used in their school in place prior to the pandemic. Leaders also, for the most part, professed that their teachers were encouraged to integrate technology in the classroom, and to participate in Continuous Professional Development (CPD) related to technology (Table 1).
School leaders generally reported high levels of personal technological competence and expressed positive beliefs about the potential for digital technology to benefit teaching and learning (Table 2, relative statements shaded in blue and green respectively). The belief that certain changes to curricular content and/or pedagogical practices must happen before technology integration can be achieved was also widely – though not universally – endorsed (Table 2, relative statements shaded orange). This is noteworthy, as the global literature on digital learning continues to reinforce the importance of this message. The trap of “technocentrism”, whereby technology is used without appropriate adjustments to pedagogy, is thought to limit the utility of digital technologies, and may even create sub-optimal conditions for learning.
Table 2 – Leaders’ own practices with and personal beliefs about technology use
The incorporation of pedagogical changes alongside technological advancements has also been recognised at policy level in Ireland. Indeed, a key principle of the government’s 2015 Digital Strategy for Schools and the associated Digital Learning Framework (DLF) is that the use of technology should be underpinned by a constructivist pedagogical orientation, whereby learners are ‘actively involved in a process of determining meaning and knowledge for themselves’, and teachers ‘take a more facilitative role, providing student-centred guidance and feedback’.
In light of this, it is interesting to note the responses regarding teachers’ pedagogical practices with technology before the pandemic. Those surveyed tended to report that the vast majority of their staff regularly used technology to present information in class or to create resources, but that fewer used it to support inquiry based learning, or for assessment and feedback purposes (Table 3). As for the specific tools used, presentation and word-processing software were the most frequently cited, while the likes of concept-mapping tools and simulation/modelling software were reportedly used by very few teachers prior to the onset of the pandemic (Table 4).
Remote Learning during the March-May 2020 Closures
All respondents reported that their school made provisions for the continuity of teaching and learning during the first lockdown period. In the majority (65%) of cases, this was done through predominantly asynchronous methods (i.e. pre-recorded teacher presentations and independent assignments, combined with a small number of live online classes). About one-third of leaders reported that lesson provision during school closures was either fully or predominantly live (Figure 1).
Urban schools were more likely than rural schools to report using predominantly synchronous methods (46% v. 10%), as were voluntary schools compared to vocational or comprehensive schools (44% v. 18%). Leaders’ own technological orientations did not have a significant impact on whether synchronous teaching methods were favoured. According to 70% of leaders, traditional summer examinations were replaced with alternative assessments, although rural schools were more likely to continue with a traditional examination format (48% v. 17%).
Overall, 85% of school leaders reported that teaching and learning was ‘somewhat’ or ‘severely’ compromised (Figure 2).
The most notable challenges faced during the first lockdown period were poor student engagement, lack of internet or device access in students’ homes, and teachers’ lack of proficiency in appropriate pedagogic approaches to support technology-based learning. Indeed, more than half of school leaders described these as “moderate” or “significant” barriers to the continuity of teaching and learning (Table 5, relevant statements shaded in orange).
The ‘Digital Divide’ rears its head
Leaders of DEIS schools were more likely to describe the quality of provision as ‘severely’ compromised (50% v. 19%). This was reportedly due to a combination of factors, including the loss of supports such as the Home School Liaison Service, as well as problems with student access to appropriate devices at home. Leaders of schools in rural areas spoke of particular difficulties stemming from poor internet connectivity in student’s homes. Both of these issues provide clear evidence of the much talked-about ‘digital divide’ that exists across different sectors of Irish society, a key source of educational disadvantage that presents a significant challenge to the advancement of digital learning more generally. Indeed, although students’ home learning environments have undoubtedly assumed added importance during the pandemic, it is important to note that they are not insignificant at other times. Digital technology theoretically allows for ‘anytime-anywhere’ learning to occur, but if schools are to adopt a more digital approach in the wake of Covid-19, it is important to factor in device provision and internet connectivity in students’ homes. The DLF does not explicitly foreground the role of students’ home learning environments, which may explain why teaching and learning was so impacted by Covid-19 in spite of school leaders reporting adherence to many elements of the Framework.
Pedagogical changes still lag behind
Interestingly, those whose schools relied predominantly on asynchronous methods were more likely to rate the quality of provision during the pandemic as being ‘severely compromised’. This is at odds with the consensus from the online education literature that neither method is superior, and that each can and should be used to complement the other. Of course it may be the case that these leaders simply perceived things to be this way. However, it is also worth noting that much of the pre-2020 literature pertains to planned online programmes in higher education contexts in which the pedagogical approaches that best support technology-based learning are well established. In that sense, it is perhaps unsurprising that a cohort of teachers whose use of technology was, for the most part, embedded in more traditional pedagogical approaches, reportedly struggled more in asynchronous environments. Anecdotal reports from the current period of school closures suggest that some of these struggles are gradually being overcome as teachers continue to upskill in remote pedagogy through necessity, although to the best of our knowledge, concrete data to support this are not yet available.
Looking to the future, over 80% of leaders reported that their school’s digital learning policy would undergo ‘moderate’ or ‘significant’ changes as a result of their experiences during the first lockdown; whilst every leader reported that CPD for teachers in relation to digital technology would receive some attention (Table 6). Overall, leaders were optimistic that the lessons learnt from the remote learning period would improve practice in the future, with one respondent describing digital learning as being “no longer scary” for teachers and students, and another commenting that “returning to the old way would be a missed opportunity”.
School leaders should be commended for the effort they have made – and continue to make – to maintain learning provision. It is evident from this study that there is a clear need for an ongoing impetus to improve equity of access for all students, and for greater provision and uptake of high quality CPD in relation to the effective use of digital technologies in the classroom.
This research was conducted by Darina Scully (Assistant Professor in Child & Adolescent Learning Development), Paula Lehane and Conor Scully (both doctoral students) at Dublin City University’s Institute of Education. We are extremely grateful to the NAPD members who shared their experiences with us last summer. A more detailed account of the study was recently published online in a special issue of the peer-reviewed academic journal Technology, Pedagogy and Education. Readers with questions or comments are welcome to contact the research team for further information (firstname.lastname@example.org).