The English connection: Overcoming technical issues for 16–18 learners at Oaklands College

Bob Read is the Education and Training Foundation’s (ETF’s) Regional Specialist Lead (RSL) for Maths and English in the eastern region. He works with a range of practitioners who are adapting to the daily challenges of teaching maths and English programmes in the context of the current Coronavirus pandemic. For this fifth in a series of experience-sharing interviews with practitioners he talks to Chris Holsborough, ‘Coordinator in GCSE English at Oaklands College, Hertfordshire.

Bob: What kind of delivery model have you been using this term?

Chris: For our 16–18 English learners we have created our own pre-recorded lessons that learners can access through our Canvas learning platform. They are normally a mixture of a screencast with quizzes and other activity formats and these asynchronous sessions are followed by what we call ‘Masterclasses’. These are live lessons when the teacher will go back over the course material with learners, checking their understanding and getting feedback via the chat pane or microphones. We also signpost learners to materials on the Century platform that cover the particular topics they need to revise.

Bob: How’s it all working out?

Chris: It’s been a real challenge to learn to create online materials and lessons but for me it’s been an enjoyable professional development opportunity, learning how to use Office 365 more fully, record screencasts and create quizzes using MS Forms. What’s been encouraging has been the slow but steady increase in learner attendance. We had low engagement at the beginning, about 12% but now that’s risen to about 65%.

Bob: What’s helped to improve attendance?

Chris: I think you just need to accept that whilst teaching online is very different, you still need to take time to build relationships with learners, even if it’s just picking up on a comment in the chat pane, for example, about a student’s interest in BMX bikes. That kind of conversation happens naturally in face to face teaching but online in our Masterclasses I have learned to look out for and make the most of whatever opportunities occur.

Bob: What else seems to make a difference?

Chris: Students like the immediate interaction in the Masterclassess and we try to personalise feedback as much as we can. I always have an administrator who helps me to keep an eye on chat messages which really helps. We try to use visualisers when we can to model skills and we try to make them interactive by using Q & A in different ways. I also wonder if some learners who would have been anxious in a classroom setting are actually happier working with us online. We won’t know that until the end of the course when we can take a wider view of the feedback we have received from learners.

Bob: Are there particular teaching strategies that you find work well?

Chris: We are trying to adapt some strategies that we know work well in the classroom for use online. For example, when using pictures as a stimulus for creative writing we often use the ‘before, before, after, after’ strategy that we picked up from one of the ETF GCSE workshop sessions that we attended earlier this year. And in one of the regional English practitioners network sessions I found out about the self-assessment resources on Litdrive that we have adapted for use in helping learners to have a go at marking their own work.

Bob: What have been some of the challenges for you as a teacher in moving to online teaching?

Chris: For us as a team there is still the sense that we haven’t actually ‘met’ the learners. For example, when we welcomed learners to the college for their November re-sit exams, there wasn’t the usual chat and the banter with the students because we hadn’t met them face to face before. Having said that, I feel really proud that we’ve got students this far in what are very unusual and difficult circumstances. Marking and responding to written work online also continues to be an ongoing challenge but we are being creative and are piloting a new way of giving feedback to learners over a 4 week cycle by sampling 25% of their work and then creating a resource that addresses the most common errors in a particular topic area.

Bob: What have been some of the challenges for your learners in moving to online provision?

Chris: Connectivity is often an issue for learners accessing lessons at home. Some don’t have the hardware whilst others worry about data usage. And many just lack the IT skills that they need for online study. Given the low motivation levels amongst our GCSE re-sit learners these are additional barriers that we are just having accept and try to overcome as best we can.

Bob: And finally, if you could go back to just before the start of term, what would you do differently?

Chris: I think that I would try to extend the induction programme that we used to introduce students to the Canvas platform. It’s become clear that they needed much more support with the IT skills for online study. We did record some video tutorials about Canvas which our students could access and we do have in place support tutors in our Learning Resource Centre who are ready to help with IT skills, but perhaps we should have provided more face to face support in the first two or three weeks of term.

To find out more about the ETF Regional Specialist Leads and network opportunities for practitioners please visit the RSLs page on the website. Details of the ETF’s comprehensive range of support for maths and English delivery are available on the programme page.

If you would like to contact Chris to find out more about his approach to online English teaching at Oaklands College, please email him at:

The first four interviews in the series remain available on the ETF website. They featured:

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