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Making a move to remote learning

March 27, 2020

“What do you think is the percentage between the lower score and Q1?” teacher Phuong Do is asking her Year 9 maths class. 

Twenty-five per cent,” one student responds, correctly. She writes down the equation. 

It sounds like a usual classroom – there’s a whiteboard, a teacher explaining a concept, and students taking notes. But there’s one difference: it’s all happening online.  

Ms Do is at school, speaking to her students in their homes all around Sydney, and is using the school’s learning management system to video conference her students, while sharing her iPad screen – it’s connected to her class’s OneNote folder, which all students can watch being annotated live.

This story is being repeated across all year groups and departments at St Andrew’s since learning moved fully online on Tuesday 24 March. But the trialling and testing of remote learning has been happening for many weeks. 

“It feels like we’ve been preparing for it for forever,” says Deputy Head of School Brad Swibel, who has been working with a staff team to spearhead the move to online learning as a result of measures to slow-down the spread of COVID-19.  

The school’s plans to respond to Covid-19 began when the school executive was forced to reevaluate its 2020 April tour to mainland China following the outbreak in the city of Wuhan. Soon after, the school decided to cancel other tours to Japan and Italy, scheduled for later in 2020. 

A risk mitigation strategy was quickly developed, with various levels. The school immediately employed enhanced cleaning and hygiene procedures and requested that people who were feeling unwell, or who had contact with someone who had recently returned from overseas, stay home. It also cancelled assemblies, school excursions and inter-school sporting events. But academic learning continued, and online learning trials began. 

The Australian newspaper described St Andrew’s as the ‘gold standard for preparing for remote learning,’ with its multiple trials of its learning management systems and communication with staff, students and parents. 

Testing future learning modes 

On Friday 13 March, Year 9 students stayed at home, receiving their hourly lessons completely online. Using the school’s online learning system, Schoology, students received instructions on their devices for their school day and began the first of five regular one-hour classes. Some remote classes involved independent tasks which students could work through at their own pace, and others featured a video conference with their teachers and peers. 

There are some challenges for ensuring student attendance in an online context, Mr Swibel admits. “The teacher can manage it in different ways – maybe a link to a survey, an online poll, or work submission. The teacher may not know that the student had attended the class until the end of the day when they submit their work.” 

On Wednesday 25 March, every student from Kindergarten to Year 12 stayed at home in order to trial the capacity of the school’s online learning management systems. And – with a few hiccups along the way – it worked. 

For students in the early years of Junior School, remote learning was a balanced mix of using the iPad app SeeSaw and physical play. For older students, class video conferencing was a common sight.  

In feedback from parents and students, the most common request was for more time to be spent doing exercises (yoga or dance classes) away from their screen. Overall, 75 per cent of students said they had a positive experience of their remote learning. 

Teaching differently

It’s impossible to perfectly recreate a classroom online – but students are being engaged in different ways, thanks to the highly impressive innovation and creativity of their teachers. 

In Year 9 Drama, teacher Ryan Desaulnier put students into ‘breakout rooms’ (group video chats), which stemmed from the main class video conference, to work on their group project: writing a play. 

Students are also learning to be adaptable in using a variety of technology platforms to communicate and do assigned work. And, teachers have been trained and equipped with the skills needed to teach in a markedly different online environment. After the trial days, they share stories, successes and mistakes and then spend a full day in professional development to answer any questions and shift teaching content online.

Building community in an online world

For a school which prides itself on strong community-building, remote learning presents an interesting challenge: how do you maintain and build strong personal connections and support the pastoral care needs of students who aren’t physically with you? 

Brad Swibel has learnt a lot from similar experiences overseas. “The learning from other countries is that we must provide a facility for pastoral teachers to check in with students and see how they are going,” he says. 

“Live conferencing is important for [maintaining community] because it’s an opportunity for kids to interact with one another and the teacher, even if it’s for a short period of time. There are also suggestions from international schools overseas to have specific ‘check in’ times, share personal thoughts and stories with one another, and play games with students,” he says. 

“The point is to make students feel like they are interacting with each other rather than just being processed through a program. 

Things are changing for co-curricular groups outside the virtual classroom, too. Activities like the environmental club, the coding club, the book club and the Christian lunchtime group (CRU) are vital in building a sense of community and connection. And they have also headed online. 

For CRU, the key to continuing life in a different format is to forge interaction, not force content, says the school’s youth worker Brian Tran. The group will read the Bible, chat and participate in different activities over video conference, which Mr Tran hopes will help break the monotony of the school day for students. 

Momentary, historic change

It’s hard to overstate the significance of the move to fully online learning: never before in history have schools continued to teach students from their own homes.  

And hopefully, they won’t have to again.  

Mr Swibel knows remote learning will never replace physical, community-based learning. But when it needs to, for a short period of time such as now, St Andrew’s is ready. 

“I am totally impressed [by] how you have managed this,” one parent wrote in response to the announcement about online learning.  

“You’re all doing a fantastic job under such incredibly difficult circumstances,” said another. We’re all in this together.” 

Anthony Segaert