Schools across the UK have been instructed to close for the foreseeable future, in a bid to limit the spread of the ongoing covid-19 pandemic.
In what has been a completely unprecedented turn of events, teachers, parents and students are now being forced to shift quickly to a remote learning set-up from the comfort of their own homes and with the help of valuable edtech tools.
This new development in the UK’s education system comes shortly after several other countries, including China, Italy, France, Spain and the USA, closed their schools to keep students and their families safe.
This new learning environment is very new to UK schools, but thankfully, we are not alone.
Home Learning Around the World
There are plenty of online resources available for schools to use during this time, with many services offering free subscriptions or access to premium features until at least the end of April.
Zhejiang University have been using their own online platform after closing in February to control the spread of the virus. As part of the quality assurance process, ZJU organised a series of training sessions for 3,670 faculty members. The instructor demonstrated how he adapted pedagogy to online tuition.
In China the Ministry of Education has launched a national online learning platform to provide learning materials for 200 million students in junior and senior high schools. The platform is hosted across 7,000 servers, offering 169 lessons and 12 subjects for students to continue their studies during the closed period.
The Chinese Headmaster of Yi Fu Primary School in Harbin, China, told her sister school in Sunderland: “Teachers and students started their first day of online study and it really works well.
“Our teachers and students will continue to keep an optimistic attitude towards study and life.”
Meanwhile, the Principal of Hefei No.17 Middle School reassured his sister school in Bristol that: “At present, all of our teachers and students are safe. We are carrying out normal online teaching work.”
Many of the UK’s sister schools in China have written to their sister schools offering similar advice, which has been to stay indoors, listen to expert advice, stay healthy, exercise at home, and stay in communication with others to keep up good spirits.
But what about schools in the rest of the world?
St Louis School in Milan prepared well for their school closure, but despite this, Principal Jennie Devine says that there were some things that still took her by surprise.
“Here in Italy, we are in our third week of school closures and we have gone through a very steep learning curve,” she said.
We decided to round up several lessons learned by international schools around the world, which could make this period of UK school closures easier for everyone.
”We are in our third week of school closures and we have gone through a very steep learning curve.Jennie DevinePrincipal of St Louis School
1. The adoption of new tech
Whilst many schools already use a number of tools to engage in remote learning, others have had to up-skill quickly. As well as the learning the functionality of software and various online tools, there are also logistic and practical considerations to be made when having students log in from home.
Principal Devine commended her staff and students for being so willing to learn in such a short space of time.
“We had expected much more resistance to the adoption of new teaching methods, but with support communities, training, and mentoring, all of the staff are on board, albeit after a few challenging days,” she said.
Platforms such as Google Classroom, Bluejeans and Zoom have been extremely popular in managing lessons, taking registers and administering homework. Learning communities around these platforms have been incredibly useful in helping teachers find solutions and share best practices.
2. Maintain the school day routine
Many teachers and headteachers have stressed the importance of trying to replicate the existing school day as much as possible.
Many schools are conducting lessons remotely using a range of software, with online support where needed. Students are expected to show up like normal and be respectful of the learning process, behaving exactly as if they are in school.
One Principal from Italy who wished to remain anonymous said: “Students are expected to complete tasks in ‘class time’. We have almost 100 percent attendance to these sessions and anyone who is not logged on is counted as absent, with middle-school parents being contacted for any unexcused absences.”
Once students have become introduced to the technology, schools need to be clear on how they expect students to use it.
“In retrospect, we should have shared certain expectations with students beforehand,” she explains. “A few students were ‘attending classes’ lying down in bed. We put a stop to that immediately but it is worth reminding students that they are in school.”
Even though schools are maintaining a clear daily structure however, staff are still allowed flexibility for their working schedule outside of classroom hours (see below).
3. Emotional support for parents
Principal Devine explained that whilst her school thoroughly considered the logistics for students when creating their online provision, they had not built in emotional support for parents.
With many parents also adapting measures to work from home, many of them have now become guardians of their children’s home learning and will be responsible for overseeing their progress.
Not only this – this will also involve them being familiar with the technology and learning platforms being used, and being able to liaise directly with teachers if needed.
Principal Devine said: “Our parents have been incredibly grateful for the online school and the sense of normality it provides. But in retrospect, explicitly acknowledging parental stresses and offering more support to them would have made the school/home link even stronger.”
Matt Seddon, deputy head at Kellett School in Hong Kong also spoke about the emotional support for parents and families at this time. Pandemics can quickly cause hysteria and getting the right information across in the right way is key.
“We have made a conscious effort to produce video messages to our community, which can often convey a more personal, empathetic connection than letters,” says Seddon.
“Our senior school pastoral leaders have been reaching out to every family and phoning them to see how we can better support them. This proactive approach to connect has been really valued.”
4. ‘More than just adapting lesson plans’
Many schools believed at first that they would simply need to tweak lesson plans in order to translate their curriculum into a home learning setup.
However, for many students this wasn’t working – particularly for early years and primary students, whom Principal Devine said were taking twice as long to complete tasks.
“This has meant totally new approaches to planning and content to ensure that we deliver objectives in a timely manner, while also seeking to reduce screen time,” she explained.
“We also have had to bear in mind that students may not have certain tools or supplies with them.”
Though this approach to planning may feel time-consuming, Devine reports it has led to dynamic lessons and creative problem-solving by the staff, meaning better learning outcomes.
5. Realistic contact hours for staff
In many schools, staff have been trying their best to be ‘on’ for all hours of the day – answering questions from students, assisting with homework and helping parents and students adjust to the new working structure.
However, this led staff to feeling exhausted after being chained to the computer for several hours a day, before they had even begun content creation and lesson planning.
Once this became clear, schools have put expectations for responding to work and supporting students firmly in place – when teachers would be online, in what time frame should they respond to comments, when should marking and feedback be returned.
Setting these expectations for teachers have helped to make clear to parents and students that school days and times need to be respected.
6. Face-to-face contact is important
Face-to-face communication has been found to be a huge help in maintaining a sense of normality for teachers and students.
It is also said to be hugely beneficial in preventing mental health issues such as isolation, loneliness and depression.
It can be challenging for teachers to manage students in a video call, but it helps reduce the isolation and reminds students that they are still part of the same community. Meanwhile, for teachers, it is also invaluable because it prevents them from losing contact with what makes their job enjoyable in the first place – their students.
Staff members can also engage in video conference calls during virtual coffee breaks and staff meetings, in order to stay connected and keep spirits high.
7. Safeguarding and Data
Having students working remotely, many of whom will be using their own computers, could potentially cause problems when it comes to data protection.
Largely, leaders have been using tools that require secure login using a school email, e.g. Google Suite school addresses.
Hong Kong Principal Matt Seddon said: “We take the same approach to one-to-one video conferencing as we would to any necessary one-to-one conversation with a student; door open, another colleague nearby and aware.”