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Blog post Part of special issue: Covid-19, education and educational research

Distance learning & initial teacher education: Making connections in a virtual world

Nerys Defis, Curriculum Tutor at The Open University in Wales

The peaks and troughs of the Covid-19 pandemic continue to impact on almost every aspect of our daily lives, and initial teacher education (ITE) is by no means an exception. Reflecting on changes to our delivery of education gives us an opportunity to consider possibilities and limitations, while also focusing on what is important.

Since the initial UK lockdown that began on 23 March 2020, all forms of teaching, from early years to higher education, have fluctuated between face-to-face and online learning. The impact on ITE is particularly interesting, as ITE students can view educational changes in two ways: firstly, from the viewpoint of the learner, as they study the academic aspects of their chosen course; and secondly, from a teacher’s viewpoint, during their practice experiences. This dual view afforded to ITE students gives then greater exposure to, and insights into, the various effects of the pandemic.

Research into the impact of school closures on learners has found that access to learning and feelings of isolation are two of the most concerning factors, highlighted in various children’s commissioner surveys and reports across the UK’s four nations (Children’s Commissioner for England et al., 2020; Children’s Commissioner for England, 2020; Children’s Commissioner for Wales, 2021; Wood & Hamilton, 2021). Meanwhile, iterations of the Student Covid-19 Insights Survey in England have found that the coronavirus pandemic has impacted on both students’ wellbeing and their academic performance.

Comparatively little research has been conducted on the experiences of teachers, and the pandemic’s impact is often understood through teaching union surveys such as NASUWT’s (2021). Recurring themes include a focus on wellbeing, workload concerns and barriers to learning (NASUWT, 2021; Educational Institute of Scotland, 2020), echoing concerns voiced by learners. However, the positives of job security and job satisfaction remain high for teachers, possibly contributing to the surge in applications for ITE courses across England and Wales (see Worth & McLean, 2020).

As the first 2020 lockdown required a shift from face-to-face to learning towards online platforms, Unesco published an independent report (Doucet et al., 2020) on pedagogical considerations during the pandemic. The first step of its suggested three-phase approach was ensuring the safety of all learners, embodied in the move to distance learning. The second step was finding long-term solutions to online, remote learning, while the third phase should provide long-term stability and continued safety for learners with the aim of ensuring equity and inclusion for all (Doucet et al., 2020). As we near the end of the second academic year impacted by Covid-19, it could be argued that we have entered this third phase described by Unesco.

Considering pedagogical choices and developing teaching practices mid-pandemic were recurring themes at the Teacher Education Advancement Network (TEAN) 2021 conference. While the challenges of ensuring access, combating isolation and maintaining wellbeing did feature, greater use of online platforms has also opened up new possibilities for educators.

‘At its best, online learning at all levels will utilise technology not only to aid learning but to make connections with and between learners.’

ITE providers at the TEAN Conference spoke about virtual means of reaching out to their students: building connections and communities of learning, bridging geographical distances and broadening horizons. A presentation by the Open University in Wales’ PGCE course discussed strategies for ensuring that distance learning is not a distancing experience for students, while also exploring how their ITE model aims to widen access and promote diversity in the teaching profession. This awareness that virtual platforms can help build connections was a recurring theme across other conference presentations.

Examples of these connections included making connections within a cohort of students through the use of photo elicitation and visual diaries; reaching out to schools in rural or remote urban coastal areas, providing much-welcomed opportunities to share practice and collaborate; and offering students from remote communities, including island communities, opportunities to study and qualify as teachers without the costly and often difficult travelling arrangements between practice learning schools and university campus.

The Unesco report (Doucet et al., 2020) emphasises the point that education should look at the learner holistically, reflecting Maslow’s (1993) view that wellbeing and a sense of community are key to the learning process. At its best, online learning at all levels will utilise technology not only to aid learning but to make connections with and between learners.


Children’s Commissioner for England (2020). Childhood in the time of Covid.

Children’s Commissioner for England, Children’s Commissioner for Wales, Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland, Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People (2020). “Are we there yet?” Our rights our say: A report for the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.

Children’s Commissioner for Wales (2021). Coronavirus and me: A second nationwide survey of the views and experiences of children and young people in Wales.

Doucet, A., Netolicky, D., Timmers, K., & Tuscano, F. J. (2020). Thinking about pedagogy in an unfolding pandemic: An independent report on approaches to distance learning during COVID19 school closures. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

Educational Institute of Scotland (2020). Teaching during the Covid-19 Shutdown: Member Survey Results.

Maslow, A. H. (1993). The farther reaches of human nature. Penguin/Arkana.

NASUWT (2021). Covid impacts on teacher mental health exposed.

Wood, J., & Hamilton, J. (2021). #ScotYouthandCOVID2: Children’s participation through crisis. A Place in Childhood & the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland.

Worth, J., & McLean, D. (2020). The impact of Covid-19 on initial teacher training. Implications for teacher supply in England. National Foundation for Educational Research.