When COVID-19 shook the globe at the beginning of 2020, forcing teachers and students to abruptly enter an online setting, the education sector had to find a way to adapt – and fast. In a year that will go down in history, 2020 forced and exacerbated the adoption of technology in the education sector. Despite the uptake being a bit rocky, the National Education Union (NEU) took on the challenge and found solutions to help teachers and subsequently the British nation’s students through the crisis.
“The biggest success has been engaging with our members on a massive scale to help them through the COVID crisis,” said Mike Joslin, Lead Marketing Officer of the NEU.
The NEU is the backbone of the UK’s teachers and lecturers. Providing support to 450,000 members, it holds the title of the largest teaching and staff support union in all of Europe. Providing education professionals with practical solutions to the rapid switch to online learning, as well as emotional support became the top priorities of the unsettling year that was 2020.
Challenges to the education sector in 2020
Over 1.6 billion learners have been impacted by COVID-19 and to make matters worse, less than 50% of teachers and lecturers had taught online prior to 2020. Some of the biggest challenges particularly for the NEU included bridging the ‘digital divide’ and addressing online accessibility issues. There was also the challenge of helping staff mentally through the crisis and aiding them in keeping their students engaged during online sessions.
“The amount of people who use captioning software who don’t actually have accessibility needs [is surprising]. There’s a significant amount of people who request a transcript and subtitles for all of our calls…People do expect those things now and when we don’t have them, people complain,” Joslin said.
With a little help from clever campaigns, the right support and technology, the NEU faced these challenges head-on.
How the NEU tackled its challenges
The first issue the NEU had to tackle was the swap to video lessons. After Telephone Town Hall failed to meet the NEU’s staff’s needs, calls largely migrated to Zoom. Despite Zoom being a reliable video conferencing platform, teachers weren’t used to using it. The NEU’s team responded with a national campaign, providing help and support to all of its members with Zoom issues, how to deal with exams and more.
The other elephant in the room was that of accessibility together with dwindling engagement levels. The union received numerous complaints associated with the disability law in the UK. With students that are hard-of-hearing or those with disabilities such as dyslexia, the team had to find a way of making content accessible to everyone.
The NEU’s team decided to utilize three main solutions:
1. Introduce British Sign Language (BLS)
2. Add live captions to video conferencing classes/lectures
3. Add transcripts to online content
“I think that it’s important to find a provider you can trust because providing accessibility is extremely important,” said Joslin.
Today, both BSL and Verbit’s transcription software ensure that teachers can present courses that are more attractive to students and more importantly, inclusive.
Software to the rescue
Verbit’s captioning software allows for Zoom calls to include live captions; something that is coming to be expected even by those who don’t have accessibility needs. Captions allow for sessions to be watched on mute, they help students better take in what’s being said, and can even help those who perhaps are watching a lesson in a different language to their native mother tongue. The captions further help decipher difficult accents, those who speak fast or even those who speak under their breath (we all had that one teacher).
Transcription software allows students to take better notes both during and after lessons. Sections can be highlighted, keywords can be searched and students can receive transcripts of missed lessons. The transcript isn’t just there for those with accessibility issues, it’s a great tool for all students and subsequently helps teachers and lectures deliver lessons in a more engaging way.
“Making sure that people have access is so important, and as such, you need people that you can rely on… We had a call with Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, and over 3,500 teachers, lecturers and support staff that had the Verbit software on it,” said Joslin.
Blended learning looks like it’s here to stay for the near future. Both teachers and students have had a very challenging year, not just with learning how to teach and study online, but also mentally. Despite a tough year, the NEU has proved to be solid support and kept education wheels turning.
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