Risk Management |
By Cecily Garber
It’s been five weeks since Western Academy Beijing launched its online learning program in the wake of China’s government mandated-school closures. The school has learned a lot in that short period of time, reported Stephen Taylor, IB Middle Years Programme Coordinator and incoming Director of Innovation in Learning & Teaching.
With the continuing spread of COVID-19 (the disease caused by the new coronavirus), schools across China closed on February 6. Timing was not ideal to say the least. As travel restrictions were imposed, the school was still on break following the Lunar New Year holiday, and faculty, staff and students were scattered around the world. Many did not return to Beijing, and some of those abroad had not brought school devices or materials with them on break. The school had to figure out how to rapidly prepare to reopen in “online mode,” and one ongoing issue is that teachers and students remain in different time zones with different levels of internet access. The situation continues to be challenging.
WAB’s first challenge was simply to get systems up and running, said Taylor. Some schools in China took a couple days of professional development before launching their online learning programs to students, in order to test systems and clarify expectations for families. WAB didn’t have that luxury, but the school has made quick progress in establishing simple, centralized systems, ongoing communication and making good use of the supportive, experienced teacher community through shared support and professional learning. It is “a constant cycle of iteration, refinement and deep learning,” says Taylor.
While WAB had been researching “newer, more glamorous” platforms to support future learning efforts before the start of the closure, it’s been the established, more reliable tools that have helped everyone stay on the same page, said Taylor. Microsoft Teams, for example, which operates similarly to Slack, was a communications tool that didn’t get extensive use before the closure but now has “quickly risen as a core system” to communicate, he said. Similarly, the office-based social network Yammer has been dusted off and become a way for school administrators to centralize school communications in one place. WAB has also launched a social channel on Yammer to help the community connect, share information and relieve some stress.
“Email is a killer,” warned Taylor, indicating how messages pile up, can easily get lost and lead to repeat communications and extra work. Communicating on the most centralized platforms saves time and keeps people better connected. In terms of academic work, for high school and middle school, Moodle has been a core system for school assignments, while elementary school teachers and students share assignments on already established blogs. These school-hosted platforms ensure access to learners and their families everywhere, including those in their homes in China.
“Really supporting the teachers was very important... It’s like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Basic needs must be addressed first. Anything the school can do to reduce anxiety will help.”
Stephen TaylorWestern Academy Beijing
As for the business office, staff members there ensured teachers that they would be paid and that benefits were in place. “Really supporting the teachers was very important,” said Taylor. “It’s like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Basic needs must be addressed first. Anything the school can do to reduce anxiety will help.” The tech team has also had to ensure sufficient bandwidth for communications on the core platforms, which are seeing “double duty” with people both uploading and downloading more large video files than ever. Although the initial set-up phase was intense technological work for many people, the tech support teams and integrators have now established sound systems, and the tech support team is able to maintain a mostly-normal work schedule.
Online teaching is more work than the in-classroom variety, explained Taylor. “You’re trying to reach and interact with kids in different time zones, and it’s harder to get students to engage,” he reported. “You can’t just teach in the same way.” Teachers are generally trying to reduce the scale of what they’re doing with smaller ongoing interactions as opposed to long, continuous tasks or discussions. Homeroom teachers host online group discussions, and mentors check in with mentees. Students, teachers and families value the face-to-face interactions of video conferencing, and many teachers have “gone all out” to create entertaining and informative videos and activities for their learners. “As teachers have settled into online mode, the school has seen more adventurous use of interactive, creative tech tools,” explained Taylor, though given WAB’s location, these need to be “China-friendly” and integrate with existing platforms.
One helpful outcome: ed-tech companies and tools have offered free or reduced subscriptions to affected schools, which have in many cases helped smooth learning processes. At a time when WAB would normally be worrying about budgets and purchasing for the following year, having easy access to new tools and content providers has been a boon, said Taylor.
Another challenge WAB is facing now is assessment in the given environment. That will likely need to be carefully rethought, making use of their IB program frameworks and assessment guidelines. With no end of the quarantine in sight, it is important to consider “scale and skills” in assessment, as well as to plan for the assessments to be fully online, said Taylor.
Despite these obstacles, teachers have reported that the “just in time” professional learning that this closure has created is “incredible.” The problem solving is inspiring Taylor and others to rethink their approach to education more broadly, beyond the closure. WAB is in the midst of its “FLOW21” strategic plan to redefine learning, and many of the strategies tested out during the closure that promote student agency could be sustained later. Parents, too, have had “incredibly positive experiences” connecting with each other, said Taylor, which has helped keep morale up. The communications department has been vital in delivering clear and frequent messages to the community, creating media, updates and forums that allow for experiences to be shared, celebrated and supported.
Some of WAB’s challenges may not be faced by schools in other countries should they face school closures. “Our tech team have done an awful lot of network testing,” reported Taylor, who explained the school needed to understand what students could access without a VPN — which it turns out, doesn’t include Google. But other issues may be a concern in the U.S. and elsewhere if mass closures happen. When “you have a billion bored people quarantined at home,” as is the case in China, the internet gets heavy use and isn’t always reliable.
Taylor urges school leaders to establish a continuity plan right away. Questions to ask: “What will families need to log in, receive and post information? Is our bandwidth sufficient? Are our platforms accessible? How can we ensure that learning is clear, simple and ongoing?” He also suggests that school leaders look online and learn from the experience of schools who have been in closure for some time already; the international school community has been active and generous in sharing their learning and experiences.#Pandemic#CrisisManagement#Technology
COVID-19: Independent School Business Operations Considerations (NBOA, March 9, 2020)
WAB’s FLOW21 Strategy
Instructional Continuity Plan (St. Andrew's Episcopal School, Jackson, MS)
Online Learning: A Strategic Approach for K-12 Schools (International Schools Services)
Supporting Continuity of Teaching and Learning During an Emergency (Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools (REMS) Technical Assistance (TA) Center)
COVID -19 School Continuity Resources (OneSchoolhouse)
Remote Learning Tips for COVID-19 Closures (Global Online Academy)
Creating an Online Classroom (Stanford Online High School)
What Happens If Coronavirus Shuts Down U.S. Schools? 5 Lessons in Emergency Distance Learning From China (The 74 Million)
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