#19 A new shape of schooling - where next?
The ingenuity of teachers, easy to use online platforms, the tech savvy nature of students and the dedicated support of parents have combined to create a new shape of schooling. We now know that anytime, anywhere schooling is a reality. The catalyst has not been an education guru’s conference speech, 10 days of INSET or an expensive training program, but the worst public health crisis in more than 100 years: COVID 19.
During this educational transformation teachers, parents and politicians have expressed views, sometimes strongly, regarding the role of live conferencing in this new shape of schooling. As schools in various parts of the world, such as the UK, some of Europe, Hong Kong and China start to re-open either fully or in part, the way in which live conferencing can be a beneficial component of the overall pedagogy of online learning on offer needs to be determined and then implemented.
Our overarching philosophy at British School Muscat (BSM), similar to many successful schools, is that the quality of teaching is the most important part of what we do: it is a bigger driver than the learning platforms that we use or how the specific components of each lesson are delivered. The lesson could be offered by seaplane courier, carrier pigeon or Hogwarts owl, but the proof of the pudding will always be in the level of student engagement and the learning outcomes.
Daniel Stanford’s online learning framework is a helpful tool when considering how we might approach any particular online lesson and the balance of different modes of delivery. Stanford appreciates that the speed and consistency of internet provision to each student - ‘bandwidth’ - is variable and for those without a fast service, or for those lacking hardware, learning will be compromised.
Those students who can combine up-to-date equipment with a premier online service can do well, but for others, courses that require frequent use of high-bandwidth technologies, for example live conferencing, can limit their ability to fully participate. This is likely to jeopardise their success, create a sense of shame and anxiety, and leave them feeling like second-class citizens.
He also singles out ‘immediacy’ as his other important variable - in other words how quickly we expect our students to respond when interacting with us as teachers and also with each other. Typically, we think of immediacy as a good thing. It’s taken for granted in traditional, face-to-face learning, so it doesn’t feel like a limited resource but rather one we are used to and accept. In fact, one of the biggest advantages of online learning is that it can provide both student and teacher with more flexibility and thinking time. Not everything needs to be done straight away, some tasks take time and benefit from reflection.
So following on from the identification of these two variables, Stanford picks out 4 zones for further consideration and action. He paints them in easy to understand colours in the table below.
1 - High bandwidth, high immediacy (Red): this is where Zoom, Skype, Google Meet and Microsoft Teams sit, allowing teachers and students to engage in a ‘live time’ situation with both visual and audio connection. This is, however, an intense way to both teach and learn. If this were to be done full-time this would place a heavy cognitive load on both the student and the teacher and is therefore unsustainable. Common estimates for a productive attention span to a freely chosen task range from about 5 minutes for a two-year-old child, to a maximum of around 20 minutes in older children and adults. Up until recently we have only used this mode for teacher to teacher meetings, meetings with head teachers from local, regional and international networks and governors meetings. I’ll explain our next steps in this red zone towards the end of this article.
2 - High bandwidth, low immediacy (Yellow): in this zone, the teacher uses video and audio on demand, creating lessons, screencasts and demonstrations. The voice element creates a sense of presence that text on its own cannot. With higher bandwidth it is also possible in this zone to incorporate video or audio responses by students giving a sense of ‘live time’. At BSM, over the first two months of online learning, we have had considerable success with developing our pedagogy in this zone. In both senior and primary school we are producing recorded lessons across a wide range of subjects using Loom, Screencastify, and Ice Cream Recorder. We can cover everything from maths to the arts and the students can send us voice notes for languages such as Arabic to hear how they are progressing. We’re also doing assemblies and online events that bring our school community together such as the Leavers Celebration and Sports Awards Evening. Consequently levels of student engagement have risen to over 95% over the last three months. There are powerful examples of deep learning using this approach, most powerfully demonstrated by the recorded videos the students have made and published on social media channels. Two immediately come to mind.
Firstly, FS2 combined to tell a story called “Whatever Next?” Several youngsters spoke and acted the tale of bears and an owl travelling together to the moon for a picnic. The individual contributions were neatly edited together, shared with friends, and posted online.
Secondly, a Year 10 student undertook a complex density experiment in her kitchen, using plastic boxes, bottle stoppers, dishes and water. With assistance from her dog Monty, she showed her calculations and results, and the kitchen survived.
Both these examples show how the teachers used a specific challenge to inspire their students to find their own clever and intuitive ways to learn from home.
3 - Low bandwidth, high immediacy (Blue): this is where Google GSuite or Microsoft Office 365 come in as especially useful - facilitating multiple people to edit or comment on the same document. Google Classroom allows group chat and messaging within ‘the stream’ without the sharing of phone numbers and enables teachers and students to have ongoing live conversations regarding the learning activities being set. In the Senior School, for example the Head of Drama is co-constructing the play script for next year’s school production with a group of year 11 students.
4 - Low bandwidth, low immediacy (Green): This is where it all started with shared readings, file sharing, email and discussion boards. Many of the learning activities are shared in this zone initially. We’re using Google Classroom as our main platform for content, discussion and class management, and in primary school Showbie for discussions, and websites such as MyMaths and Readtheory are popular.
When designing online learning activities for our students, Stanford’s framework can be a useful reference point to reflect on the balance of pedagogical styles we are deploying in any one learning sequence. For example, after 12 weeks of online learning we are now venturing into the high immediacy high bandwidth red zone. We need to discover if this is the danger zone of online learning as its red colour might suggest or will the immediacy of live video sessions add considerable value to our online learning offer? Towards the end of our trials this term we will survey our students, staff and parents, reflect on their feedback regarding live video sessions and then make an informed decision as to what is best for the students at our school.
In many schools there has clearly been some reticence to move into the high bandwidth high immediacy red zone of Sandord’s framework. A recent survey in the UK of more than 6,700 respondents by pollsters Teacher Tapp showed that two per cent of state schools were using live video conferencing, compared to 28 per cent of private schools. In a survey of 101 UAE primary schools 44% of schools were using live conferencing up to a maximum of 25% of the time. Furthermore it should be noted, due to safeguarding and security concerns, that live conferencing has been banned in schools in Singapore.
Where schools are using live conferencing it would appear at present that this is more prevalent with older, secondary level students than at primary level. Schools using live video conferencing may also limit its use to every third lesson, possibly for a maximum of 20 minutes. Other schools also report that live conferencing, so far, is most effective in supporting the pastoral needs of small groups of 3-6 upper primary or secondary age students.
We cannot escape from the fact that most children need to be at school to benefit from the whole experience of learning with friends, interacting with their peer group and being part of a vibrant learning community. Our best hope is that by September our school will reopen and face to face education will resume for the benefit of our entire school community. In the meantime, we will continue to learn from those in our region and further afield as we develop our approach to online learning. We are trialing live conferencing from now until the end of summer term. We will discover what works and what doesn’t. We will have time to fix any initial issues and consider how we further strengthen our approach to online learning when we are next required to close our school.
Kai Vacher 10 June 2020