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

Emergency remote learning in the UK: A comparison of March 2020 and January 2021

Tharindu Rekha Liyanagunawardena, University College of Estate Management Shirley Ann Williams, University of Reading

The Covid-19 pandemic has severely impacted everyday life around the world. In the UK, lockdowns have resulted in the closure of schools to most children for two prolonged periods: March to summer 2020 and January to March 2021. During these lockdowns, schools were required to offer places to some children (including the children of key workers and vulnerable children), while providing remote education to the other children. Parents suddenly found themselves taking on responsibility for homeschooling, while coping with anxieties about their own work, their family’s health, their income, and losing much of their formal and informal childcare.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) provides data on household experiences of lockdown homeschooling in the UK (ONS, 2020) and its conducted an Opinions and lifestyle survey weekly during the pandemic. Surveys are based on a random selection of several thousand adults in the UK; with a response rate of some 70 per cent, data is weighted to match the national demographics. Questions are largely closed, sometimes allowing an ‘other’ choice in a selection. Questions predominantly relate to the current week, and there was no picture of the overall experience within households during the lockdown period.

In the first lockdown, Tharindu Rekha Liyanagunawardena  – a parent to primary school-aged twins – struggled with the balancing act of full-time work, furlough, homeschooling and parenting; while Shirley Ann Williams – a grandparent to five (and later six) children under the age of seven – found herself only able to offer support via the internet. These circumstances sparked our interest in exploring experiences of homeschooling, to complement the ONS surveys which provided snapshots of household life. The eLearning in Challenging Times project received ethical approval from the University College of Estate Management and a mix of open and closed questions were used to gather an in-depth picture of schooling experiences through the whole period of lockdown starting in March 2020 and incorporating the lockdown in place from January 2021.

The anonymous online survey asked parents (and or carers) of schoolchildren for their family’s experience of schooling during the lockdowns, with a particular emphasis on the experiences of remote learning (commonly referred to as homeschooling). The first survey (N=232) was launched during the first lockdown and a repeat survey (N=145) was used for the January 2021 lockdown to compare homeschooling experiences.

‘There was a marked improvement in homeschooling satisfaction from March 2020 lockdown to January 2021 lockdown.’

In the first survey, many parents voiced their concerns about lack of interactivity and lack of learning materials, and, overall, the level of satisfaction was low. In the second survey we asked our respondents to compare their experience with previous lockdown homeschooling. There was a marked improvement in homeschooling satisfaction between the March 2020 and January 2021 lockdowns.

Comparing the homeschooling experience of the March 2020 and January 2021 lockdowns:

  • 80.3 per cent were more satisfied with the amount of material provided by the school.
  • 75.4 per cent were more satisfied with the opportunities for interaction provided by the school.
  • 73.8 per cent were more satisfied with the overall homeschooling experience.

Overall, January 2021 was much better for the majority, as schools were in general able to provide a better remote leaning experience. However, some found the increased interaction to be relentless.

‘There were different challenges – during the March one there weren’t any taught sessions – this was harder from the interaction point of view, but easier from supporting the children as work could be done whenever was suitable. In Jan, the live lessons are great, but as I am working from home, it is more difficult as additional support is needed. I can’t always be available to provide it. It also feels relentless for the children – screen fatigue is very real.’

It is worth noting that emergency remote learning is not the same as distance learning (Hodges et al., 2020). Distance learning is planned for and designed to be delivered at a distance. Emergency remote learning is required to deal with the unexpected, and is expected to be temporary until a return to face-to-face education as soon as is possible.

Though the study attracted a good number of responses, considering the population affected it is a very small sample. Furthermore, online data collection methods may not reach everyone. We are in the process of analysing the data and looking forward to publishing the lived experiences of UK households during the lockdown.


References

Hodges, C., Moore, S., Lockee, B., Trust, T., & Bond, A. (2020, March 27). The difference between emergency remote teaching and online learning. EDUCAUSE Review. https://er.educause.edu/articles/2020/3/the-difference-between-emergency-remote-teaching-and-online-learning 

Office for National Statistics [ONS]. (2020). Coronavirus and homeschooling in Great Britain: April to June 2020. https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/educationandchildcare/articles/coronavirusandhomeschoolingingreatbritain/apriltojune2020