Digital teaching practices developed by the University of Sunderland long before Covid changed classroom learning are now being disseminated at a national level.

Six years ago, the University began work to ensure trainee teachers received skills which took them beyond being merely ‘digitally literate’, to capable of using those skills developed through training to enhance their classroom practice.

This model has now been adopted across the education sector.

Professor Lynne McKenna, Dean of the Faculty of Education and Society, said: “The changes that we are seeing in teacher training are not merely a response to the impact of Covid-19, this has been a long-term strategy at the University of Sunderland which the teacher training team introduced six years ago.

“When we went into the first lockdown in March 2020, I was confident we could adapt to the impact of the pandemic.

“I believed that we could switch comfortably to providing remote learning for our teacher training students as we were able to draw upon existing practice established in our UK and International Independent Distance Learning Teacher Training provision from 2015.”

The University’s UK initial teacher training programme is the largest in the North East, with 1,033 students, while the international independent teacher training provision has 1,172 trainee teachers in 60 countries worldwide.

Professor McKenna added: “It meant that we were able to embed digital skills into all aspects of teacher training for life in the 21st Century classroom.

“This approach has ensured that, when the pandemic hit, our Initial Teacher Training students were not disadvantaged and have been able to complete the academic and, importantly, the placement requirements for their professional programme.”

When Covid-19 arrived in the UK – and recognizing that student teachers needed placement opportunities to gain experience of teaching – the University immediately organised ‘remote’ and ‘virtual’ placements.

Professor McKenna said: “I first raised this idea with the Department for Education in March/April 2020 who subsequently supported the plan and sent supporting guidance to schools across the UK.”

This model has been adopted across the sector. Importantly, teacher training placements themselves have become more flexible, reflecting the needs of schools and trainees during the pandemic.

Student teachers at the University were given access to live streamed lessons from schools in the area.

Trainees were also engaged in lesson planning and marking children’s work digitally, as well as the Twin Tutoring programme which saw them working in pairs to support individual or small groups of children with their learning.

Professor McKenna is keen to dispel any ‘negative narrative’ circulating around teacher training during the pandemic.

She said: “It certainly does not reflect what we have found in our teacher training at the University of Sunderland.

“Of course, this is about more than technology though, it is about a shift in pedagogy.”

So what does the University do differently to embed digital skills into initial teacher training?

“Firstly, the University has a Student First Strategy which aims to incorporate digital skills in its curricular,” said Professor McKenna.

“Acknowledging that as a widening participation University, some of our students joining us have experience of digital poverty, we have become skilled at identifying students in technology poverty and we are then able to provide them with hardware, software and data to enable them to engage with these studies.

“All students are provided with access to Office 365 and Microsoft Teams to facilitate online learning.”

The Faculty of Education and Society also has eight Digital Learning and Teaching leads – staff who have a track record of effective digital teaching skills and are able to support their students with remote and virtual learning.

Professor McKenna added: “We develop student skills in protecting personal information and privacy, in protecting data, in being responsible online. We also develop students’ skills in digital wellbeing.

“Of course, without the support of our schools partnership who have continued to support our trainees with a variety of placement opportunities, none of this would be possible.

“Since entering teaching myself as a NQT 30 years ago, I have consistently heard about how new technologies would change teaching and learning and I have not seen that yet.

“I would say that newly developed pedagogies around embedding digital education however, has the power to transform education in the future.

“We recognise that it is necessary to equip our trainee teachers with the necessary competences to fully exploit the potential of digital technologies in order to prepare students for their life and work in a digital society.”