Online Learning in Primary Schools – Priorities, Best Practice and Pathways to the Future

During the extended lockdown in Sydney, the impact on students has largely been focused on Year 12, and the HSC. While this is important, research indicates that the foundations of knowledge and learning in the Early Years of schooling sets the trajectory for success through High School and into adulthood. For this reason, it is critical for educators to focus careful attention on what takes place during this current interruption to normative Primary School education and socialisation, and the associated programs of online learning. 

As Head of Moriah College Primary School, I was faced with the same challenge faced by every Primary School in NSW – how do we provide best practice education for our students from Years K-6 during a time of social isolation and distance education so that the disruption that has occurred in education is productive instead of destructive? 

To answer this, the College completed extensive research into what schools in other states and countries had done to ensure success during their sustained period of online learning. After a collaborative process, which included the voice of leadership, educators, students, parents and research, certain key principles emerged. These were refined after a period of trial and error, which required the school to design a program, pilot it with all stakeholders, garner feedback, adjust and then re-implement. After three iterations of the design-test-review-design cycle, the College has achieved what could be considered as our ‘sweet spot’. 

Sharing best practice models between school leaders is key to achieving success, and I am therefore delighted to share the following ten key ingredients that Primary School students need for successful learning online, as well as the structure of Moriah’s B’Yachad (together) Online platform. 

Ten ingredients Primary School students need in their online learning platform 

  1. Routine is all important. As young children thrive in the security of a set routine, the daily routine needs to be consistent and predictable. This extends to online lessons, which need to have a predictable structure that includes tuning into past learning, setting new learning, modelling what is needed, and providing for application, with a final review of what was learnt. Students need time to complete the learning activity with a teacher online. 
  2. Students should wear their school uniform, or at least most of the uniform, for student presentation on screen. This ensures that students don’t appear online in compromised states of attire and that psychologically their brain has been prepared to move into a designated learning mode. It separates morning and evening routine, the week from the weekend, and prevents the shapeless sameness of lockdown from settling in. 
  3. No matter how limited the space, it is important that students have a personal learning area set up, which includes stationery, a printed timetable of lessons and expectations for online behaviour, and resources for the week. At the end of the school day, devices should be left charging outside of bedrooms. 
  4. Don’t try to cover all aspects of the curriculum in the same way as it is covered in a face-to-face context. Instead, prioritise key aspects of the curriculum that must be covered to ensure students transition from online learning with core competencies. This is particularly relevant in Mathematics (numeracy) and English (literacy). Children also need time to complete learning activities during the online sessions with time to ask questions. 
  5. Online learning should be delivered more explicitly than face-to-face learning with reinforcement of concepts in subsequent lessons. This technique is known as interleaving. The educator can provide stretch and parallel opportunities for high potential learners in virtual break out rooms as soon as competency in a learning experience becomes evident. 
  6. Primary school students thrive on connection with a key classroom educator. It is vital that this teacher meets the children online every morning at the same time and checks-in with them regularly. Students should also complete a check-out at the end of the day, with feedback on how the day felt for them in terms of successes and challenges. 
  7. Try to ensure that additional personal devices are not accessible and distracting students in conflict with their online learning sessions. 
  8. Locate an optimal learning period for students so that each lesson accommodates entry time, exit time and the opportunity for varied, short, sharp engaging experiences during the session. 45 minutes has been identified as optimal. 
  9. Punctuate lessons with movement, exercise, toilet, and refreshment breaks, as well as recess and lunch breaks that resemble the school day. Encourage healthy packed lunches similar to those taken to school, and green time (playing outdoors). 
  10. Provide events that ensure students feel like they are remembered, valued, and a part of a broader community who cares about them and is available to them. Complete rituals and online experiences with outcomes in the real world. Similarly, conduct parent connection events through email and phone contact, panel discussions, and weekly newsletters to involve parents, and ensure they understand the ‘whys’ of what school is doing online. 

The narrative behind the Primary School Moriah B’Yachad (together) Online learning platform and touchpoints with the 10 key ingredients 
Moriah’s B’Yachad (together) Online platform was mobilised for the start of Term 3 2021 in response to the third wave of COVID-19 in NSW. Online learning in 2020 provided Primary School educators with a good baseline and set them up for success. Educators progressed through three phases to get to the ‘sweet spot’ of effective sustained online learning with the deepest moments of change occurring in Phase 2. Navigating these moments of challenge, allowing errors, garnering feedback, brainstorming, and making quick yet considered course corrections, enables schools to find the online learning arrangement that best meets the needs of their community. 

Phase 1 – weeks 1 and 2 
Phase 1 involved the registration and distribution of devices to all students in Years K-6. 
Staff members received professional development to refresh their use of Microsoft TEAMS, Seesaw, and Google Classrooms, as well as to extend their understanding of new developments associated with these three platforms and the adjoining suite of apps. 
The first two weeks of online learning was in the form of a short sprint response with an online platform that was identical to the face-to-face timetable with 10 x 30-minute periods per day and similar break times. Switching so quickly between links for lessons proved difficult and this approach could not be sustained, with fatigue evident in staff and students. 

Phase 2 – week 3 
By week 3, there was a clear understanding that schools were facing a sustained period of online learning over Term 3, and the sprint approach would not be sustainable. A modified timetable was constructed, which included: 

  • 4 x 45-minute periods in the morning with high cognitive demand sessions in key learning areas; 45 minutes had emerged as the optimal period for progressing a learning experience. 
  • 1 x 45-minute period in the afternoon with a lesser cognitive demand in the arts and physical education 
  • 15-minute breaks between periods; movement, food, and drink 
  • 30-minute recess break 
  • 60-minute lunch break (aligned with High School – so families could eat together, go for a walk etc) 
  • An early start for morning, faith-based prayer, and ritual connection 
  • An asynchronous afternoon program with recorded sessions that would reach whole or multiple Year levels and free up teachers for planning, communication with students and families, and personal wellbeing. 
  • Students were directed to physical activity in breaks and at the end of the day. 

Our experiential education teams provided experiences to ensure that students continued to build their sense of belonging to their community. This was part of a ‘Mind, Body, and Spirit @ Home’ program that offered opportunities to connect in Covid-safe ways, during lockdown. Students were encouraged to Hunt for Good by placing uplifting symbols such as balloon artworks outside their homes, so that families could see a connection with others during their walks. Olympic exercise challenges were shared weekly and uploaded to Google Classroom or Seesaw, with at home bake-offs and discos keeping families and communities together and active. 

Whilst so many aspects of the Phase 2 program were highly effective in the morning, the afternoon program did not function well, nor did it meet the needs of the students. Students functioned poorly in asynchronous learning and became rapidly demotivated whilst parent stress levels increased quickly, and disengagement occurred. It was immediately apparent that Primary School students cannot pick up curriculum content and teach themselves whilst remaining highly engaged and motivated. Online learning in a Primary School requires the guidance and provocation of talented and skilled educators. If you feel well, you can learn well and with wellbeing dropping, the associated impact was not a desirable outcome. 

Having an open and highly active feedback loop between parents and school leadership meant that feedback was immediate. Simultaneously, feedback from educators indicated resistance to another change and anxiety about the workload that teacher-directed, synchronous online learning brings with it. Intense staff consultation and collaboration meetings were held, and a compromise was reached with adequate staff release time and mandated synchronous learning sessions in the afternoon. 

At this stage it was also agreed that Parent/Teacher meetings would proceed online for each Year level so that parents and educators could communicate on how students had adjusted to this learning mode and what actions were needed to take place on each side of the screen. 

Phase 3 – week 4 and onwards – the ‘sweet spot’ 
The key adjustments that have contributed to the success of the program are: 

  • Students provided with an educator every session (synchronous learning). This ensures they receive personalised and differentiated instruction as well as explicit teaching at the start of each lesson. Students are then able to move into collaborative, independent or supported learning. 
  • Students engage with their class teacher in a morning check-in (after faith-based connection and prayer) and at the end of the day. Students feel calm and can maintain a personal relationship with their educator. 
  • Afternoon sessions continue with a reduced cognitive demand and occur synchronously, with a teacher facilitating personalised learning. 
  • Social and emotional lessons and one-on-one sessions are timetabled for each class by the wellbeing team. This is also extended to parents. 
  • The positive feedback has been immediate and overwhelming, and the students have settled into a secure routine, with a predictable trajectory. 

Moriah College’s response to COVID-19 is validated in a research study of best practice by 98 online learning communities completed by the OECD in conjunction with the Harvard Graduate School of Educationi

The key takeaways are clear and simple, ensuring that we provide an emotionally and educationally valid pathway for our children through this challenging time: 

  • Primary School children have universal basic needs to be connected to significant adults who provide them with care, support and belonging, and facilitate their learning. 
  • Children learn best during experiences that are structured and that provoke deeper learning in addition to ensuring the acquisition of prioritised core skills. 
  • Communication that is consistent, predictable, and open between stakeholders ensures a successful outcome. 
  • Educators need to be appreciated, supported, and nurtured during this time of rapid change. Without them our students cannot progress and flourish during a time of sustained lockdown. Educators need to be present in the learning moments with students to provide the feedback, as John Hattie highlights, feedback is so instrumental in successful learning. Programs that offer only asynchronous minimal touchpoints, are insufficient and need to be reviewed. 
  • Wellbeing needs to be grown proactively with offerings that ensure students feel grounded, cared for, and empowered to look after their own health. 
  • Parents need ongoing coaching and empowerment to understand how to navigate the anxiety and challenges of digital platforms as well as their own personal journey and struggle supporting their children and family through lockdown. Moriah provides fortnightly parent panel discussions, online talks, and parent training workshops. 
  • Schools need permission to take this journey into a new normal with safety so that they can collaborate with key stakeholders and discover best practice that meets the needs of our students and keeps the educators healthy and robust. 

The current need in education is to ensure that during online learning we remain focussed on the core business of growing students through the Primary School years so that they can flourish when they resume face-to-face schooling. While the HSC deserves the attention and care it receives, giving priority to achieving best practice in online learning in the early years will ensure that the Primary School students of this COVID generation will emerge without a dark period in their learning foundation. Hopefully, the lessons and insights shared in this article will assist others to review their practice and meet the needs of students. 

References

i A framework to guide an education response to the COVID-19 Pandemic of 2020 Fernando M. Reimers, Global Education Innovation Initiative, Harvard Graduate School of Education Andreas Schleicher, Directorate of Education and Skills, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development 


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lynda Fisher is the Head of Primary School at Moriah College in Queens Park, NSW.

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