home learning tech: Disparate and disorganised

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A couple of weeks ago, a cheeky scamp posted a funny meme on a WhatsApp group I’m a member of. It was a joke about the diverse array of apps us parents are supposed to be using to oversee and monitor our kids’ remote, home learning. The photo was of a confused Mark Wahlberg looking…very confused indeed.

Man surrounded by wires while helping his children with home learning.
Drowning in a sea of disparate, disjointed and disorganised tech while overseeing my kids’ home learning.

I don’t want this blog post to come across as a whinge, I really don’t. The education sector hasn’t received anything like enough praise for the way teaching staff have rapidly changed the way they teach courtesy of COVID-19. Expectations from parents are higher than they were the first time we all faced mass home learning back in 2020. Sure enough, the educational provision seems to be much better than it was when classrooms were first closed down (everyone’s experience is different, but that’s certainly mine).

Over recent weeks, however, I have noticed an underlying problem with how remote, home learning is taking place. In short, schools are relying on a veritable jumble sale of platforms to host work, provide live lessons, communicate with students and communicate with parents. Some platforms are better than others and very few platforms are compatible with each other. It’s very difficult to keep up with everything and parents, especially working parents, are struggling to keep on top of everything.

Just doing a few rough calculations, I am, in any given school day, having to keep an eye on two official school messaging apps, plus WhatsApp (an unofficial channel set up by parents), plus monitor school work and messages across three different platforms not including email. It’s fine for now, but it is a pain.

Part of the issue my family faces, and it’s a position that many families will be in, is that we have two children at two different schools. One is at primary school, the other secondary school. The approach to teaching is different and the expectations on older pupils is, quite rightly, higher than on younger ones.

Added to this, the home learning this time around is much more regimented. My kids may not be at school, but they are following a school day with lessons and events happening at set times. Also, we’re now well into the second academic year of disruption. The implications for lost learning are now much more serious. All of this means there’s a need to have access to reliable tech that is straightforward to use and works the second you need it.

Google Classroom seems to be the reigning champion relied on by many schools. It definitely has its strong points: You can save documents to the Google Drive, you have access to a range of different documents and apps from text documents and spreadsheets to art and design apps. The live messaging between classmates works very well and it seems very secure, especially when used by younger children.

I don’t claim to be a technologist, but I use tech every single day of my life. I shouldn’t struggle with Google Classroom but I have found some limitations. Simple as this should have been, I was left perplexed and could see no simple way to submit work for marking work that my youngest child, Izzy, had completed, let alone review work when it had been marked. I had to get the teacher to phone me up and explain how to do it.

I would be more than happy to put my hands in the air and admit to having Luddite tendencies, but I am not alone. I know for a fact some parents at my youngest’s school have resorted to taking photos of the work their children have completed and they’re sending photos of their kids’ work to teachers via email or Class Dojo.

Of course, Google Classroom is primarily meant for teaching. It is not designed for messaging parents. A different platform is used for that. For one of my children it is Class Dojo while my other daughter’s school uses a different messaging app in combination with email. On one occasion, get this, I even got a phone call to ask why she’d missed a live lesson (not her fault, her laptop ran a major update just as the lesson got underway, a further challenge of remote learning).

Moving on, there are also complications when meetings or live lessons are set up. My favourite example of this going wrong was when a teacher sent me a Zoom invite on a messaging app (something I would read on my phone) for a session my daughter had to participate in on her laptop. On the surface this doesn’t sound disastrous, but because my child was using Google Classroom, I couldn’t email the Zoom invite to her because it has no facility for receiving emails from anyone outside her school community. I had to contact the teacher and ask her to send it a second time, this time directly to my child.

Credit where it’s due, Google Classroom is just that: Designed for the classroom or the occasional bit of remote learning. It works very well at what it does. I somehow doubt it was designed for dealing with medium-term, mass home learning caused by a global health pandemic.

A further system I hear of schools using is Seesaw. I have no experience of this system whatsoever. All I’ll say is that from what I hear about it, ignorance is bliss!

I was mulling all this over the other day when a mum I know sent me a message on LinkedIn (she’s a blogger too, at the KA Edit. Go read Kerri-Anne’s stuff here). Her child’s school had moved everything over to the Microsoft platform.

This was a Eureka moment for me. If you are having to work from home while also overseeing your child/children’s home learning, you are probably using Microsoft software and apps. If my kids’ schools moved everything over to Microsoft we could, as a family, have everything on the same platform. Overseeing the kids’ schoolwork, messaging the school and doing my own work would, in theory, be much easier. Not only would everything be available on the computers we use, but also our phones.

I’m not saying Microsoft is the answer, but it would be an option (Yes, it has occurred to me that many people use Apple devices at home but at least most Microsoft apps are Apple compatible). I’m sure there are other people out there with greater knowledge of tech who could come up with better solutions.

Ultimately, I know teachers are doing the best they can. The majority of teachers have been massively stretched and many schools have pulled the proverbial rabbit out of the hat with no additional funding for spending on hardware or software.

If there’s a lesson to take away from this experience, it’s to take a long, hard look at the tech that’s used in the education sector. Should COVID disruption spill over into a third academic year, it would be nice to think technology is one area that would be improved.

More to the point, this won’t be the last time schools shut suddenly. Putting aside the possibility of a COVID-20, 21 or 22, let’s consider snow days for a moment. We all know it only takes about three millimetres of snow to close the majority of the nation’s schools.

Parents and school’s expectations will change massively after COVID-19. If schools close because of snowfall or some other event, the expectation will be that teachers will click a mouse and kids will have a day or so of remote learning (Yes, I am predicting the end of the ‘snow day.’ Playing in the white stuff in future will almost certainly have to be fitted around a few hours of school work).

The experiences of 2020 and 2021 have been just that: A learning experience. Hopefully the powers that be will realise the tech schools rely on for remote learning is an area that could be improved and simplified. As things stand it’s disparate, disjointed and a bit disorganised. It works in a crisis, but only just.

8 thoughts on “home learning tech: Disparate and disorganised”

  1. I hadn’t really thought about the number of programmes. I guess because I use zoom, teams and email at work so am used to switching although school adds in paper so I need to use office lens to photograph it on my phone, email it to N to upload it.

    His school are using teams, with purple mash back up when school had Internet issues and couldn’t teach through the day. Apart from current the remote learning timetable and tasks coming in via normal email route to parents, they’re also in the Teams assignments area so now the kids are used to it, emails will stop. Thankfully that’s it, although receptionclass is using Tapestry as theirs is less structure. The rest of the school are on Teams all say while the teacher teaches them alongside kids in school. Its working well, although if you’re a parent not used to using a variety of technology in a working day, or have Apple or different schools, it must be hard. Our hardest thing is trying to use Word. N’s Office is expired on his laptop but he gets it via his school office 365/teams. But having it in 2 places, makes it hard. Sometimes we resort to Google docs, or he handwrite it and I type it up on my laptop then email it to him. Generally he can do his whole school day himself which makes it a lot easier as a working oarent

    1. This is really interesting. I’ve not heard of a primary using Teams before. That said, it would make a lot of sense. Quite what Reception and Year 1 kids are making of this remote learning, I do not know. That must be tough on them and their parents.

      I get what you are saying though. I hadn’t really thought about this too much until I realise dhow often my phone was pinging and how often I was helping my kids out with all the different forms of tech. Schools are doing their best, but a complete review of the tech they rely upon would be welcomed I feel as this won’t be the last time kids are schooled remotely.

  2. The teachers have quickly adapted this time around and seem to have a great thing going, it seems so with my girls school. We don’t use Google classroom, alot is uploaded by pdf to class dojo, links for lessons live on YouTube and sites such as sum dog and TTRockstars are the main ones.

    How is Helen getting on with the home learning, is she confident to just get on with the schedule herself?

    1. Helen’s doing fine and Izzy is engaging well with home learning as well (terrifingly well as it happens!). Interesting that your school has opted to lead things to Dojo. Presumably you can access that from a tablet or PC or else I can see it getting very complicated?

  3. Couldn’t agree more with the post John.

    Hit the nail on the head. My 2 oldest are both in secondary and both use MS Teams.. it’s brilliant, but when you have an entire academy trying to use it and the kids know how to utilise it better, it’s worrying..

    60% of the teachers arnt equipped to use it to its potential and as such causes issues with the ‘remote’ learners.

    I also use Class Dojo… that’s all I have to say on that app.

    I appreciate teachers have been lumbered with finding a solution and as I’ve said on my own blog, massive credit to the teachers… but a simple straightforward, streamlined system that’s accessible to everyone is needed. Or at least a coherent API between between all systems.

    1. Teachers are doing their best and they are not tech experts and not should we expect them to be. If anything, that’s part of the issue. They’ll be Familiar with Microsoft or Apple because they’re the operating system of choice for business. Instead they’re being expected to rely on a jumble of apps and programmes. It isn’t easy for them or us parents and the kids are stuck in the middle. As you say, the kids probably know their way around these systems better than the adults! This was an unexpected situation and for now we muddle on through. Looking to the future, however, we need better systems as one way or another, this will happen again.

  4. Disparate and disorganised is a term that many of us have used in relation to our marketing efforts, and it’s been around for quite a while. The way our marketing has been organised (and the policies and rules that govern it) is usually disorganised.

  5. The reason for the term “disorganized” is because people often have to be told what to do or who to talk to again & again. It may be time consuming but it also keeps unnecessary bureaucracy out of the picture; keeping things simple and clear makes them easier to understand, help people do what they’re supposed to do, and communicate with as effectively as possible.

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