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Blog post Part of series: Educational leadership on the threshold of a post-pandemic world

The strategic leadership of online learning during Covid and beyond: Key themes from an emerging study

Jacqueline Baxter, Associate Professor, The Open University Katharine Jewitt Alan Floyd

Covid-19 has had an enormous impact on education. The changes to working practices, leaders’ vision for the future of education and the relationship between senior leaders, staff, parents and learners have meant that there will be no going back to a pre-Covid era. This blog post examines some of the key themes emerging from a funded research project into the strategic management of online learning before and during the pandemic.

Changing practices: changing leaders

Secondary schools in England have been shut down for the duration of three extensive lockdown periods, for all but vulnerable children and the children of essential workers. During this period many lessons and large chunks of curriculum have been adapted for online teaching, but in state secondary schools the extent to which this has happened varies according to a number of factors. Our study adopts a taxonomy of online teaching originally proposed by Puentedura (Puentedura, 2006), comprising four stages of online and digital teaching.

Figure 1 sets out the stages of online and digital teaching. At the most basic level (level 1), technology is used passively by teachers in some subjects to support learning; at level 2, traditional pedagogy is adapted for online teaching; at level 3, strategic thought is given to the design of online learning; and level 4 indicates strategic planning for online learning, linking to a whole school or departmental approach. Our project is interested in where headteachers’ schools were, are and will be situated, before Covid, during Covid and in a post-Covid era.


Figure 1: Stages of online and digital teaching

Source: Adapted from Puentedura (2006)

The project is working with three project partners based throughout England, through whom we have sent out questionnaires to 4,000 schools, interviewed more than 70 school leaders and analysed 200 school websites.

Challenges and opportunities

The project, although in its early stages, has so far revealed a number of insights and key themes which have contributed to the construction of a theoretical framework (figure 2). The framework was created from themes that arose during both the coding of the transcripts and analysis of 200 school websites. The centre of the wheel represents issues at the core of any digital strategy: wellbeing and access to digital learning (hardware, software and connectivity). The next circle illustrates that trust, communication, data and privacy are all core to ensuring that students and teachers are protected and supported in online teaching and learning. The four coloured segments illustrate the priorities when planning and implementing a school-wide digital strategy, while the themes outside the circle illustrate areas that have been affected during the pandemic. Insights from two of these areas are described below.


Figure 2: Theoretical framework

Source: Jewitt, Baxter, & Floyd (2021), p. 34

From crisis management to creativity and innovation

A number of school leaders have referred to the substantial changes in terms of a digital approach, that emerged between the first and second lockdowns. During the first lockdown, leaders were ‘firefighting’, dealing with multiple issues relating to the chronic lack of hardware and connectivity, that impeded learning during the first lockdown. From the first to the second lockdown the transformation of approach markedly changed according to all participants in the study: headteachers reported becoming far more organised and strategic in approach, in many cases they manifested a focused approach to the curriculum, deciding to teach only what could be taught well online. During the second lockdown, teacher innovations appeared to be more widely shared; in over 50 per cent of our sample, teacher networks emerged, sharing good practice and supporting online innovations.

Staff development

Some innovations in the area of staff development have been considerable in terms of changing practices and mindsets; for example, a ‘designated learning lead in each school’, and ‘a digital learning group that meets to share ideas’, as described by the CEO of one multi-academy trust. Another stated that ‘the entire curriculum’ would be shifted online. Provided this approach takes account of inclusion and provision of hardware and software for all pupils, digital provision could become a reality for ‘business as usual’.

Ten per cent of our sample relates to schools in areas of high socio-economic deprivation, and the data so far illustrates that heads in this group were starting from level 1 in figure 1; this was largely due to lack of resources particularly in relation to hardware, along with high numbers of SEN learners. Research so far indicates that these schools were either pushing forward to level 2, or, in some cases, reverting to level 1. The reasons for this were largely stated to be the result of a lack of teacher expertise in digital learning and no funding to provide it.

We welcome comments, comparisons and contestation from those working in other countries in response to this research. Our aim is to develop and sustain an international conversation. For further information about the project or to take part, please see the project website or follow us on twitter @Covid_Eduleader.

References

Jewitt, K., Baxter, J., & Floyd, A. (2021). Literature review on the use of online and blended learning during Covid 19 and beyond. The Open University UK.

Puentedura, R. (2006, August 18). Transformation, technology, and education [Presentation]. Strengthening Your District Through Technology workshop, Maine, United States. http://hippasus.com/resources/tte/