At the end of 2019, I started to explore online learning options for my older students. Little did I know that in March 2020, Covid would strike and we would find ourselves in lockdown. So can online learning work, especially for our students with SEN? Is there a future in it?

At the star of my journey, I thoroughly investigated the various platforms available to offer online learning, initially for my secondary school and adult learners. Primarily, I found that secondary school and college students no longer wanted to be reliant on parents to get them to my office and no longer wanted their parents in the room when they were learning.  At the time, I’d worked with all my learners for quite some time and we’d built an excellent rapport. I knew the families well and could also see how at times they struggled with child care and time to travel to sessions, I felt the online option allowed parents more time with other siblings and they didn’t have to ask family to collect siblings from school etc whilst they travelled to sessions. On top of this, it was winter, travel was sometimes difficult and there was also the dreaded colds and viruses circulating and spreading. It worked well. There were less sessions missed due to illness and travel disruptions.  Furthermore, this enabled schools to also access a specialist dyslexia teacher, direct to the classroom to support students.

There have been lots of  discussions around online safety and IT problems. Once we’ve set up an account there is no chaos with Zoom passwords, we simply copy and paste a link and join at the given time. Choosing the right platform really does make a difference to how accessible online learning sessions can be.

After extensive research on the various online learning platforms I settled on something called Bitpaper. It allows learners to have total simultaneous interaction with their usual worksheets, just as they would in lessons. They can annotate worksheets in real time and gain the same instant feedback.  Bitpaper also comes with ‘facetime’ type facility just as you would with any social media platform or Zoom meeting.  The beauty is, the unique URL (link to the web page for the lesson) can’t be logged into by any 3rd party (unless shared) and is totally safe.  The webcam appears just to the side of the webpage and you can each see each other and communicate by microphone.  For some students they don’t like the intensity of a camera in 1:1 settings, so they can choose to switch it off if they wish. They can even mute themselves when the dog barks as the postman arrives!!!

A year in, what are the pros and cons of teaching online?

Working with teenagers, they discover some amazing hacks and they can of course teach the not so tech savvy  grown ups! But in all truth, Bitpaper is so easy to use. I’ve now engaged all my learners from age 6/7 upwards and they all use Bitpaper for our lessons.  The tool bar is so easy and simple to use that usually, they end up showing the parents what to do. A 15 minute demo and they are usually romping away, they can draw and write with a pen or choose to type. We’ve even found out that you can use speech to text software with Bitpaper too.

Bitpaper pen/highlighter

From a technical perspective, the students are really happy.  Many don’t like writing with a pen and paper and use IT daily. In conjunction with CodeBreakers workbooks, indirectly they’re learning to type.  I have one student who struggled significantly to recall what letter shapes looked like to make a written response for sounds.  She can now see them instantly on a keyboard and this has made her writing speed increase.  There’s less stress on her working memory.  For those who have poor handwriting, thy can play around with layout and type work and improve presentation.  The ‘back button’ means those who are anxious about poor spelling can re-try as many times as they like to spell a word.  We can edit text in just the same way as a word document to improve SPAG.  I can simultaneously highlight words and parts of words to draw attention to spelling mistakes and they can read and highlight  key words.

                            Proof Reading

With regard to communication, when a student is sat in front of a camera you can see exactly how they are responding, you can watch their body language and listen clearly to their pronunciations. Likewise the learner can see you clearly, with no distractions, they can focus on your mouth movement and see clearly how you pronounce words.  I’ve found you do need to ‘project yourself’ a little more when on camera, perhaps to get your personality across.  I sometimes have to find new ways around showing people how to do things, such as the computer operations, because I can’t physically show them. But to be fair that’s usually the grown ups!!  At times, if there is background noise at home, it can be distracting for me and the learner, although headphones can often reduce this.  We have to keep in mind that usually it’s a busy household. The parents might be helping a sibling in a another room and someone else is washing up in the kitchen.

We have to remember that a microphone tends to pick up any new competing noise.  So a little tech savvy session can sometimes be useful to get the best from sessions, reminding parents and students to place themselves in a quieter part of the house.

Overall, I feel I keep the attention of learners.  The trick is, to keep it fun and interactive.

We also have the opportunity to explore the interest of the learners.  I can chat and get to know my learner’s interests and easily pop onto a website and grab some images for us chat about. I recall one day, one of my little learners had experienced an emotional day and we felt no learning might take place at all. The child wouldn’t engage in the planned learning. So we chatted about the weekend and what they had watched on TV and YouTube.  It was clear they’d really been engaged with something such as volcanoes.  I was easily able to grab some images from the internet, paste them onto our platform and start to talk about them, soon the learner was drawing more images and we started to label them. We could then chat about the sounds in the words and spelling rules they knew.  It wasn’t the planned learning but we had a full learning session which included developing the skills we aimed for. Online learning can be very resourceful, it allows you to change direction rapidly and no printing costs!!

                                         Planning a story

Which leads me to, can it be multi-sensory, even online?  The answer is yes. It might need some support from the parent and a little planning.  It’s hard for adults to sit at a computer all day and expecting children to do so is unrealistic. It’s important to build in an activity where you still get bums off seats. It is without doubt extremely important to ensure the lesson is interactive in some way or another, usually this is easy to do on  screen if you learn the hacks.  I made moveable resources that students can drag and drop to make interactive games. trust me, I’m no computer whizz kid, mostly the teenagers showed me the hacks and I took it from there.  You can still have the tray of glitter or sand to write the sounds in. I love asking the parent and child to make Post It notes with a sound/pattern on and playing treasure hunts, or asking them to throw a ball and sound out the words, making sure they throw the ball to letter.

Not all of the learning has to take place online.  I have used Bitpaper as purely the demonstrate element.  I can email the student the workbooks and they can print them out and lie on the floor, sit in the dog’s bed or wherever they are comfortable to complete the worksheets. It gives amazing potential to be as responsive and individualised as we like. Talking of dogs and pets! They can be a great asset! The dog sitting by the students feet can be very relaxing and reassuring. 

The beauty of online learning with an interactive whiteboard, is you can teach in just the same way as you would face to face, in fact sometimes I find it a better way to communicate.  I can immediately respond to any misconceptions and use the online tools to demonstrate. I can flip open a website and grab a picture and paste it onto our screen to help with vocabulary.  I can highlight a pattern in a word to show them where they’ve misunderstood a sound. I can prepare all my work in advance and store it on my whiteboard. I can even invite parents to go back and revisit a page in their own time to recap a pattern or play another game.

I’ve always asked parents to stay during face to face sessions. However, parents who were new to me during lockdown were surprised that they could sit in.  For some this was a revelation, they’d never seen their child in a formal learning environment before.  They could observe their strengths and I could instantly review sessions with parents and describe where they could continue supporting at home, before the next session. Parents also have instant access to a specialist teacher, to be able to clarify any concerns and ask any questions about areas of difficulty.  It’s also lovely to be able to give praise to the student in front of their parents. We could also carry on experiencing interactive games with parents, they could still attend the sessions in the same way they had done so previously in f2f sessions.  This enabled parents who are new to my sessions to be able to learn how to recap and review the work later on.  For some parents it also allowed them to step back a little, sit in the background and allow their child to develop a little more confidence on their own.

For students who have now been ‘forced’ into online learning due to school closures, they’ve found they had already developed some of the IT skills needed. They were also more happy and less anxious regarding attending online lessons for school. For others, the resistance to use IT has also been overcome.  They’ve worked in the comfort of their own home and this has reduced anxiety, allowing them to be able to explore things in a place they feel safe.

Some students are very concerned about the stigma of having intervention sessions for literacy support, the beauty of receiving lessons remotely means they can receive lessons in their own home, or in a quite place in school where nobody knows really who the person is on the computer. Furthermore, the fact that the sessions are all IT based also brings an element of maturity to sessions.  They also enjoy showing me the new hacks they’ve learned! Sessions can be more discreet and it’s much easier to find a time in a persons timetable when we don’t have to account for travel time.

Of course for some students, not attending school has been a welcome break. Many children have anxiety in the classroom, anxiety related to learning, anxiety related to the learning environment due to differences such as ASD, ADHD or sensory processing.  Others have experienced bullying due to their differences. Some parents have enjoyed the opportunity to become more involved in their child’s education.

So what do the parents think?

I know the parents of some learners have wanted IT to be part of their child’s education. This has enabled us to ease them into using various IT platforms at their own pace.

One student was extremely reluctant to use Bitpaper, so printed off the sheets and I just demonstrated via Bitpaper.  Now they are fully interactive, using the platform to write, type, draw and someday use speech to text software.  However, where they were reluctant to engage in writing sentences, they’re now engaging in this, in the knowledge they can chose to write, type or use speech to text when demands are too high.

Other parents have wanted their child to be more independent and less reliant on the parent, by having sessions at home means the parents could pop in and out to check in on development and give reassurance.

The parent of an adult learner with complex needs had never seen her child in an education setting, being taught and was told they may never really learn to read. She can now see how learning and the progress can be made, she now has to the tools to help at home and an opportunity to recap learning when they have an opportunity.

We can also involve the family with learning. Often grandparents have time to help with education and have a wonderful gentle way of not making it feel like learning.  There’s no timetable, agenda or learning goals.  I can allow family members to see the content of the work I have planned and suggest they take some key words and patterns to include in their topics.

At the time of writing, it seems the Covid pandemic will be with us for some time.  It has some benefits and others experience disadvantages to lockdowns, school closures and online learning.  What is event, knowing your student’s needs is key. Having the capacity to be flexible and reactive to a student’s needs, at times, resources need to be customised and adapted.  Finding different ways of communicating what it is you want to teach and allowing the teenagers to give both parents and teachers a few lessons in IT!