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Distance learning...or social distancing

With students due to go back to university next month, David Eccleston, Head of Modernising Scientific Careers at Liverpool Clinical Laboratories, explores education’s response to the pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic has captured the entire world’s attention, not just socio-economically and politically, but educationally, with an estimated 90% of students affected worldwide.

The requirement to observe social distancing was initiated very quickly by the UK government and forms one of the most effective obstacles to disease transmission. The passing of the Coronavirus Act 2020, gave formal powers to ministers to shut educational institutions in March 2020, leading to the need for distance/remote learning.

With hindsight, there was a lack of digital preparedness with respect to access to digital hardware and support for learners and teachers. The delivery of education both nationally and internationally has also received criticism in terms of the quality of content and delivery.

Impacting issues

The impact on educational systems worldwide has been recognised by the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, which also highlighted the threatening of students’ education rights.

The other issues highlighted due to the pandemic have been increasing student debt, support for digital learning, food insecurity, homelessness, child care, internet access and disability services.

My students, who are undertaking either the Level 2 or Level 4 Healthcare Science Apprenticeships, have been impacted. All hold substantive positions within the clinical laboratories healthcare sector and the pandemic has seen the reconfiguration and extension of working practice to meet the needs and for service provision and demand (extended hours, weekend working for all, annual leave cancellation); this has resulted in an exponential increase in stress, anxiety and depression.

A delay in learning put in place in late March 2020 until the summer term added to the pressure. The return to learning using digital platforms placed a burden on the system with respect to grasping the intricacies and nuances of different digital systems, as did the changes required to deliver remote learning and assessment against the standards. The delay in learning has also pushed back the necessary end-point assessments.

Distance learning

On an almost daily basis the education sector and those involved in it have been bombarded with announcements, policy changes, news and guidance. The four nations, although not perhaps acting in complete harmony, have followed each other generally, with respect to closures, ongoing provisions and re-openings.

With hindsight, the delivery of distance learning is not new to us, the primary objective being to create educational opportunities for those unable to access traditional educational institutions. The history of the development of distance/remote learning (earliest known 1728), inclusive of parcel post, radio, television and now online, is well documented, with nearly seven million students enrolled in online courses in the US alone.

The barriers, opportunities, strengths and weaknesses of online systems have been explored and deliberated. A major issue continues to be the quality of electronic learning, from both a teacher and learner perspective. One study from last year examined the advantages and limitations for online learning during the pandemic and concluded that students became self-directed, learning asynchronously at any time of the day.

Limitations centred around the inability to undertake practical or clinical work. It was also felt that teacher–student feedback was delayed with teachers unable to assess students during remote lectures and that both students and learners needed to become conversant with digital technologies. However, many recognised that online teaching is no longer an option – it is a necessity.

Opening up

The Department of Education has issued further operational guidance for further education during the pandemic, setting out a proposal for the steps to be taken while coming out of lockdown. The guidance also reviews the issue of social distancing and changes to delivery.

Further education providers have been asked to consider in their planning, curriculum design and content planning and how students will be supported to study, both independently and remotely. Other considerations include liaison with schools to help, prioritise and support students transitioning to vocational and technical qualifications, planning taster sessions, supporting those potential students deemed at risk of being “not in employment, education or training”. Further education institutes have also been asked to provide support on study skills, mental health and wellbeing.

The Department of Education has further highlighted the mode of learning delivery moving out of lockdown. Whilst recognising the success in remote education delivery, it recognises that this does not constitute a real replacement option, when considering student–teacher relationships and the need for close supervision and training required for vocational competencies to be achieved.

The department also noted that during interim visits Ofsted identified that some students struggled with remote learning, indicating isolation and mental health issues whilst studying from home.


Further education providers, although being instructed to build upon previous remote learning delivery and the application of digital technologies, were also advised to move back to on-site delivery as the primary mode of learning delivery for 16- to 19-year-old students.

Furthermore, the expectations for the delivery of remote and blended learning were expounded and inclusive of all 16- to 19-year-old learners. The guidance was also inclusive of the need to enhance the quality of online education whilst stipulating the expectations with respect to student participation, live teaching and attendance.

With respect to the quality, it sought to ensure that the principles of face-to-face learning are applied to remote education. The guidance also emphasised the need to support students unable to access remote digital education, the eligibility for this being tested against a number of criteria. Also of major help was the support put in place for teachers, not only in providing national help and guidance, but also help to access remote learning technologies with peer-to-peer training for effective digital practice and a good practice guide.

It has been stated that the rapid move to online learning has only emphasised the divide between those that have and those that haven’t. A scheme suggested by the Association of Colleges and the Education Secretary has now been approved, enabling learners, especially those deemed as disadvantaged, free access to mobile devices to continue studying from home. Issues with internet access still remain, although educational agencies and telecom providers are in discussion and in the Republic of Ireland there are negotiations for zero rates for educational website access.

Moving forward

A lack of understanding for online learning styles, as well as teacher support for the delivery of digital learning were the main causes for failure to deliver online learning, it has been argued. The issue of course design and content is also not new. Back in 2004, researchers stated that mediocre content is a major issue, with students elaborating on a lack of community, technical problems and not being given clear instructional goals as the major barriers to online learning.

The emergence of viral strains having the capacity to disrupt educational systems occurs with almost predictable monotony, globally (approximately every 38 years).

We have also in hindsight recognised the lack of investment, not just financially but also in digital training and infra-structural support, with division between not only those that have and those that don’t, but also in terms of preparedness.

The principles and essentials of online learning for both teachers and students have also been recognised, barriers to remote learning having been voiced by a number of authors.

It would also appear that through its guidance the government and departments have sought the fostering of relationships with the IT sector, for the educational common good.

It would, therefore, appear that moving forward, government, educational institutions, teachers and students are trained with greater emphasis on the use and application of digital technologies and that this should happen in collaboration with digital industries.

The formulation of a robust plan is needed, providing future resilience to the delivery of education for millions of students, negating the charges of short-sighted preparedness.  

Image Credit | Shutterstock

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