The digital divide and other big questions - education and COVID-19

19 Nov 2020 / Pete Atherton

Trying to run a school during a pandemic raises so many questions. What is the correct answer today may not be tomorrow, as pretty much everything is in a state of flux.

As it’s me writing this, it’s fair to say that one overarching question will be about the role and limitations of technology in education.

This week, I’ll tell you about my recent interview with Deborah Strain, who is the Trust Leader of Education across the Eko Trust. The Eko Multi Academy Trust have schools in Newham, Barking & Dagenham and Hackney.

Deborah’s role may be the same as it has been since September 2019 but the way she now does the job has presented some opportunities and has required a great deal of flexibility. Deborah needs to monitor the quality of 6 schools and this would normally require a great deal of driving through London traffic.

Since the first lockdown, there have been fewer physical visits, so less driving and fewer traffic jams — yay! Every cloud… However, Deborah does not have the same opportunities to talk to the children in the schools that she manages and she misses them. When she conducts a visit, she cannot have the same freedom of movement that she would have had pre-Covid. Instead, some meetings are conducted at the door, others in one designated area.

Despite all this disruption, the children still need to be monitored closely and supported equitably.

Virtual insanity?

How can you plan across multiple schools during lockdown, when these are just some of your potential issues?

  • The day to day management of Covid: hand sanitiser, social distancing and monitoring the wearing of masks
  • Pupils needing to self-isolate, on more than one occasion, in some cases
  • The digital divide: pupils not having access to the technology that will help them learn.
  • Ensuring that pupils are engaged in the learning, when they may be away from school for several weeks during a term.
  • Making sure that the right data asks the right questions and helps to answer them in the right way.

One of Deborah’s responsibilities has been to help restore confidence, when staff and pupils may be in danger of losing sight of their goals. For that to happen, she needs to have a handle on whatever pupil data there is.

You may imagine that data might be the last thing on people’s minds at the moment. In many ways, teachers, senior leaders and pupils are just trying to get by the best they can. Deborah talked about how the way that Eko have been using data and how this has helped pose important questions and answer them efficiently.

When the first lockdown happened, Eko set up a data dashboard on Google Sheets, which meant that they could collaborate with ease. They found a way to ensure that the data that they stored did not pose any threats in terms of GDPR. They did this by setting tight security through password-protected permissions.

At the time Eko weren’t using the full functionality of their MIS and were having to sift through incompatible systems to drill down into their data. Not only this but not all schools were 100% on board. They were switching systems but some members of staff required training on the new systems. Part of this training would need to be weaning staff off the old system; some staff felt wedded to SIMS because it worked and was familiar to them.

They are moving towards a management information system in which all the data can be found in the same place, which means that they can use Bromcom to ask the right questions about how to support each school within the Trust.

Though the pandemic has posed innumerable questions, here are a selection that have been relevant to Eko:

  • How many children are in school at any given time?
  • For those who are not in school, how can the school see who is engaged and who is disengaged?
  • If they are disengaged, what kind of support can they give, for example Covid-safe doorstep visits if they are local or potentially problematic Zoom calls if they have gone back to their home country?
  • What various problems might families have in terms of connectivity and access to hardware?

Bridging the digital divide?

One way that Deborah and her team have monitored pupil engagement in remote learning is by looking closely at the data on which pupils have logged on to Google Classroom. This data helped identify the clear digital divide; it became clear that some pupils did not have internet access. The Trust had to find creative ways to address this. The DfE initially provided a tiny number of laptops for Eko — a small fraction of the number they requested. Though a few more laptops have started to trickle through, they managed to use their own budget to purchase reconditioned Chromebooks and dongles.

If they are among the small proportion of children who are seen to be disengaged from online learning, they are classed as ‘emerging vulnerable’. Pupils in this category would receive a phone call home. If they continue to be disengaged, the Trust would consider asking teachers or support staff to conduct a home visit.

Then there is the existing data on pupils who are already classed as vulnerable, by the DfE’s definitions. The data on, for example, looked after children or pupils with special educational needs is there to ensure that no child falls through the many potential cracks that have emerged since the pandemic hit the U.K.

Could it be that this awful pandemic may help us support and monitor our pupils’ interaction with online materials? Could this also help us use data to ask important questions that may have previously been overlooked?

According to Deborah, life among Covid is more about making time count. Staff and pupils are attached to bubbles and they need to be precise and targeted in the decisions that they make.

I ask you, what else is here to stay in the new normal?