An e-learning day at school - Inclusion in English language teaching
Most Estonian schools have employed a full time or part-time educational technologist. This case study illustrates the activities of an educational technologist who also gives English lessons at her school. Like most capable educational technologists, she is also part of the school management and helps the school make decisions that consider how technology can help in different processes. An educational technologist helps their school and teachers integrate different aspects of technology and pedagogy. They collect, systematise, and disseminate information about ICT within the school, organise various trainings in the field of information technology, and assist and advise teachers in creating digital learning objects, finding, and implementing learning software. In the case of Puhja School, the educational technologist also leads the organisation of e-learning days.
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The policy context
In Estonia, the concept of 21st-century skill is highly valued and documented in the national curriculum. The educational system emphasises the inclusion of all students, self-directed learning, and the motivation and ability to learn regardless of age and the digital competence of all citizens.
Puhja School in Tartumaa is relatively small and in a rural area where all children from the local municipality of approximately 13 000 people attend. The school therefore must create an environment where students with different expectations, interests and abilities are supported to achieve their potential in knowledge and skills. As a partner school for the Tartu University Centre of Educational Innovation, the school has made it a key mission to create an environment where students can become open-minded and innovative lifelong learners. The school and the university collaborate in developing teaching methods as well as other research and development projects.
The school organises e-learning school days when students work on their assignments from home. Different e-learning environments are used to deliver tasks and monitor student learning. Students fully practice their learning-to-learn skills on this day.
E-schooling day means that students get a list of assignments that they must complete during that day on their own. Almost all students stay at home for that day. The tasks for the e-school day are listed on one website allowing self-paced and asynchronous learning. Students perform tasks in various environments, and hand in their assignments according to teachers’ instructions. Teachers are free to use whatever environment they deem suitable.
The e-school day was held once or twice a year before the pandemic. The school might have preferred more but it is an inconvenience for parents and took planning. During the pandemic, e-schooling days have not been held due to all the times the school has had to move to distance learning.
The e-learning day is for all students regardless of their age and mostly held at the end of the school year. Although elementary school students (especially first graders) are not cognitively developed to handle the same level of responsibility as their older counterparts, the national pre-school curriculum stresses initiative and initial independent working habits, preparing children for school. So, the e-learning day has a different meaning for different level students but develops their skills for self-regulated learning.
Other schools implement an e-learning day as well. All schools are free to choose to organise such an event. Schools can introduce an e-learning day if they justify such a need to students and parents. There are no national restrictions to forbid nor to compel schools to hold such a day in Estonia.
It is important for the school leadership to create an environment where teachers know that their decisions about learning strategies are trusted and innovative approaches to learning are endorsed. The school also has the necessary infrastructure (computers, tablets, touchscreens, robotics etc.).
The school uses Stuudium, a widely used school management system in Estonian schools. It is used for entering grades, delivering instructions and homework, communication with parents, among other things (see also e-Kool that offered free subscription during the Covid-19 period). Overall 99.8% of all students in Estonia are covered by this type of platform.
A medium level of digital competence is needed for teachers to manage activities for an e-school day. The preparation could be time-consuming as all the materials are made from scratch, but it is possible to adapt them also to future students.
All students, regardless of any learning disabilities they might have (e.g. reading-difficulties) or lack of self-motivation, should be actively engaged and should achieve their learning goals through personalisation, adaptation and teacher support. It is however important that this support should focus on creating an environment where the student can apply their skills and knowledge to the maximum. It should not give the student the feeling that they cannot achieve the task without help.
The example illustrates an activity designed for the e-school day. The teacher shared the tasks through a Google site. However, tasks can be delivered through any learning management system or communication platform.
Students were first asked to write what they expect from the activity on a word cloud. They then did a self-assessment quiz to activate prior knowledge. Then they completed quizzes to practice vocabulary and watched interactive videos. Finally, working in pairs, they created an audio recording of a dialogue in English. For instance, the task was to have one speaker asking for directions for a specific location and the other speaker to provide the directions. Students were asked to enrich the audio file with sound effects and mix them together in the audio file. Each audio file was then assessed by peers.
To keep the learning process on track, the teacher must first clearly define the steps (why, what, how questions) of the activity. Only then can the teacher provides students with sufficient (but not too limiting) support.
Students with special needs may need help in understanding the task. In that case, reading the task aloud and/or discussing the aim of the activity could be useful. Also letting students describe how they understand the task and the outcome before they start could be useful and provide useful information about the level of difficulty and the areas in the task which they need clarification.
It is important to allow for adequate time to give feedback. Feedback should focus not only on the specific outcome (learning new words), but also on learning strategies chosen by students (for example time management, dividing tasks within groups).
As the tasks require self-direction through the process and setting objectives to reach the final goal, students need to have some self-directed learning skills and their self-motivation must be quite high. However, it is also important to bear in mind that mistakes are welcome throughout the learning process. Analysing mistakes is in fact a valuable skill to learn for self-directed learning. The need to improve the ability to motivate oneself is also an important aspect to be learned from the activity.
Research – Normalising errors
Research emphasises the importance of inclusion and normalising errors made in the classroom. Steuer, Rosentritt-Brunn and Dresel (2013), conducted a study of 1,116 students in 56 mathematics classrooms in German secondary schools. They found that in classrooms that were perceived as ‘mistakes friendly’ (versus ‘mistakes unfriendly’ classrooms) students had higher levels of effort and self-regulation. That is, students were more likely to regulate their own learning better if they reported that it is ok to make mistakes in the class, their teacher does not respond negatively to mistakes and discusses the mistakes in the class to help students learn better.
Similarly, Soncini, Metteucci and Butera (2020), conducted an experiment (pre-post research design) on teachers’ error handling strategies (supportive versus neutral) with a fictitious lesson with 108 fifth-grade primary school pupils. The researchers found that teachers in the ‘supportive’ classroom were able to create an error-friendly environment. They also found that in the neutral classroom, students expressed greater anxiety.
E-learning school day activities lead to a change in teacher-student relationships: the teacher transfers a large part of the responsibility for the outcome to the student. The teacher is not in charge alone, rather it is a collaborative work, where both teacher and student are equally involved. This calls for trust from the teacher and a willingness to ‘let go’, giving up micro-managing the process.
Students are more motivated because the activity gives them the opportunity to self-evaluate their learning and to work constantly to improve their skills and knowledge.
As the learning process is not related to a specific place or time, it is possible for students to develop their time management skills. Students also work in groups which improves their ability to work together.
Support is needed for teachers to apply and improve their digital competence and to encourage them to design and implement activities like this. Someone responsible for ICT at school, or an ICT teacher can provide this support. Over 50 percent of Estonian schools have hired a part-time or full-time educational technologist to help bridge technology and pedagogy.
Teachers need support to meet new expectations, but also need more opportunities to share ideas, thoughts, materials, best practices, possibly using digital platforms for sharing them. It is important to create an open environment for teachers to share materials and ideas. Openness and sharing should be the overall attitude among teachers.
The opportunity to operate a different school day (for example, an e-learning day as in this activity) should be written into the school-based curriculum, so that all involved parties (parents, students, local municipality) are informed and know what to expect.
It is important to involve parents for them to see less conventional learning practices that are different from the teacher-speaks-students-listen type of lessons. In this case, explanations about the learning activities and the expected outcome at the end of the trimester are shared with parents through a digital evaluation system Stuudium, which also enables them to view the feedback given to students.
Finally, teachers need to be willing to see the learning process as a co-operation between teacher and student, where the student, not the teacher, is responsible for the outcome. The digital resources used are tools for developing this attitude, not an end in themselves.
Schools can implement an e-learning day as a pilot by reserving a few days per semester for students to stay home. These days can count as normal school attendance days. If schools keep this at a few days, at least at the beginning, teachers can easily continue to advance in the curriculum. Students would get the opportunity to practice autonomous learning, while teachers can try new practices.