What role will digital learning play as schools reopen?

Sian Shaw shares how Westminster Abbey is developing a blended learning model
Sian Shaw
A school visit to Westminster Abbey before lockdown
A school visit to Westminster Abbey before lockdown Millie Pilkington

Westminster Abbey has offered video conferences for schools and self-led virtual tours for several years, but this offer significantly increased when I joined the organisation as digital learning manager last year.

Our focus has been free, downloadable resources – ranging from image banks to -ready-to-teach lessons – to support religious education and history teaching across the key stages of the English curriculum.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, we made a strategic decision to continue to deliver our existing programme, with a collection on pilgrimage launched in May. We also looked to support two specific audiences:

  • Families with primary-school aged children, looking for fun and engaging activities outside of any work set by schools.
  • Young adults who were looking for spiritual support.

Westminster Abbey has now reopened for visitors, but our learning offer will be run remotely until at least October half term.

Going forward, digital learning will continue to be at the heart of our learning offer; we will continue to offer virtual experiences for families and are aiming for a blended learning approach once we are able to reintroduce onsite visits.

Digital allows us to share our offer across the UK as well as internationally with users in the US, India and Australia.

This new academic year we will accommodate schools using our new virtual classroom offer. We’ve expanded our existing suite of video conferences so teachers can now choose from:

  • Interactive sessions with a learning officer
  • Costumed video conferences with a historical figure
  • Guided virtual tour

We will also continue to develop our formal learning digital resources for schools, as planned.

The biggest challenge has been balancing our enthusiasm to support our audience with the reminder that this is a marathon, not a sprint. And, it’s a marathon with an unknown finish line. That’s a point worth noting on both sides of this relationship.

As part of my role as a committee member of the Digital Learning Network, I have put together eight top tips on creating a digital learning offer:

  1. You don’t have to have a digital audience
    You have many different audiences who use digital in different ways. Use the audience knowledge you have onsite and apply it online.
  2. Content is king
    This is even more important in the current climate. What do you want to say? Why do you want to say it? Why would your audiences want to hear it? How could your audiences get involved? Ask yourself these key questions.
  3. Pick your tool
    “Doing digital” is not a thing, as every digital colleague will tell you. Time to work out which tools work for your organisation – is my website infrastructure good enough for what I need? Is social media best for us? And if so, which platform?
  4. Be practical
    Don’t make your digital colleagues cry by bringing ideas that require huge budgets and whole restructures of websites. Be creative but also work with what you have.
  5. Strategy
    You've got an idea and it can work practically – but does it fit into the bigger picture? In this time of panic, come back to your organisation’s mission and values, and sense check new ideas. After all, time is as big a resource as any.
  6. Test and learn
    My friends, this is your new "get out of jail free" card. If it fits in your strategy to start new things and experiment, make sure you understand if they are working. If they do, great. If they don't, test and learn is all you need to say.
  7. Copyright
    Remember there are legal restrictions to what you can do. Am image on Google isn’t yours to use. Check everything you didn't create yourself.
  8. Sector help
    Believe it or not, there are lots of us out there. Try to shut me up about digital literacy! Ask us and embrace up-skilling

Sian Shaw is the digital learning manager at Westminster Abbey.