Online learning – a pandemic response?

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

I listened to the announcement this morning by the World Health Organisation’s Director General announcing that his organisation has now recognised the Coronavirus as having the characteristics of a pandemic. This announcement is unsurprising really, given the rate of spread across many countries – but it does increase the level of preparedness we must undertake to cover what may eventuate in our communities. The advantage we have this time is that we have at least a window of opportunity to actually do some forward planning and preparation.

While there has been a lot of excellent advice from the Ministry of Education and other sources supporting schools about what they need to do to ensure their students, staff and communities feel ‘safe’ and well informed through this time, there’s a growing concern about what happens if schools actually have to close, and students are unable to attend class for potentially long periods of time?

Every NZ school is required to have a pandemic plan in place. After the SARs virus outbreak of 2003 ERO evaluated the quality of pandemic planning in 230 schools. They found all schools involved in this study were taking some steps to prepare for a pandemic, and 25 percent were well prepared. Nine percent of schools had yet to take any steps to prepare. That study was in 2007. While we haven’t experienced a health-related crisis in the period since, we have had major earthquakes and a mass shooting to contend with, all of which have caused disruptions to the normal activity of schools. Unlike those events, however, a pandemic requires measures to limit contact, restrict movement, introduce quarantine and ban public gatherings

I did a quick online search of NZ Schools Pandemic planning and found dozens of such plans within seconds. When I read through a number of these to get a feel for what they addressed. Most had followed the MoE guidelines very closely and outlined the practical steps they need to take – something that will now be very useful given the current circumstances. For the most part these plans cover off procedures for keeping people safe and taking measures to avoid the spread of the disease – everything from handwashing etc to procedures for closing the school if necessary.

One thing I struggled to find mentioned in all but a handful of plans was anything about how the school would cater for the continuity of learning in the event that students are unable to attend school for an extended period of time. The MoE guidelines state that:

Employers will need to plan for the scenario of up to 50% staff absences at the height of a severe pandemic… and… Staff may still go to work, work remotely, or carry out ‘alternative duties’ for other agencies with their board’s pre-approval.

But in terms of student learning the guidelines state:

Education delivery is not expected to continue during a pandemic.  In a pandemic early and enforced sustained closure of education facilities to children and students is the most likely scenario. (page 9.)

So while it seems that continuity of learning isn’t a priority in terms of the guidelines set out, if students are required to remain at home or in isolation for a significant period of time, surely we have an obligation to consider ways in which they can continue with their learning?

An obvious response (as it was in CHCH in 2011) is to consider online learning – after all, it doesn’t rely on the physical presence of a teacher or the assembling of a group of learners in a physical space – it transcends time and space to provide the ultimate ‘personalised‘ approach to learning. So surely we simply ‘flick a switch’ and it’s all going to happen?

Indeed, there are already lots of examples of this sort of approach being taken in countries across the world. Check out the collections of links in these Wakelet collections:

A quick skim through the various links and resources in these collections reveals attempts by people at all levels (local schools, districts, commercial providers etc.) to provide resources for learners to be able to continue their learning remotely when schools are closed. In some cases this involves subscriptions to educational sites that are reduced or eliminated altogether, while in others it involves schools and teachers sharing resources with each other to make available to students.

Many of these ideas are great – for the short term. For instance, the students who may be in self-isolation for the recommended two weeks would find a wealth of opportunities here to engage in worthwhile learning activity – either independently, or at the direction of their teacher.

But it’s what happens in the longer term that interests me – how prepared are we if schools have to close for 4 weeks? 6 Weeks? A whole term – or even a year? Can our students’ learning be ‘left to chance’? If online learning is to be the answer, what are the questions we need to be addressing in order to ensure our planning and preparation is adequate?

First up – the people who know best what the learning needs of these students are are their teachers in their local schools. So our first line of support should be at this level. An increasing number of schools have actively incorporated online learning as a part of their regular work with students. This ‘blended’ approach may involve the use of online environments such as Microsoft’s Teams or Google Classroom to share learning resources and forums for exchange of ideas that can be accessed in school and at home. These environments, together with various forms of ‘learning management system’ also provide opportunities for learners to complete tasks online and submit work for assessment – and keep a record of that participation, engagement and achievement that is available to the teacher, student and their family/whānau. In schools where this sort of environment has been established and is being used well, the prospect of school closing or students having to self-isolate for a period of time won’t cause too many problems – learning will simply continue in this ‘flipped‘ manner.

Other schools may not have ventured into the more ‘structured’ or ‘organised’ use of such environments, but are using things such as blogs, Facebook and commercial products such as Seesaw to maintain regular online connections between home and school. These environments have some potential to be used in more intentional ways to maintain the ongoing connection to learning by students, with teachers able to send resources and communicate what should be done with them.

But what of the schools that haven’t started down this road? What could be done at a local (i.e. Kāhui Āko or cluster), regional (i.e. regional MoE) or national level to provide the sort of enablers that would allow local schools and teachers to maintain a ‘continuity of learning’ in the case of sustained periods of school closures?

It is a complex issue, with some of the key things that need to be considered including:

  • What length of time are we talking about? e.g. is the solution required simply for those individuals who are self-isolated for the two weeks suggested, while the rest of the school continues to function as normal? Or is it required for a longer period of time when the whole school is closed and teachers and students are required to remain at home?)
  • Can we guarantee connectivity? If an online option is considered, how do we ensure that all learners will have access to an appropriate device at home, and that there is adequate connectivity for them to participate in the online environments?
  • Once connected, how can we ensure the safety of students online? What protections are required to ensure learners aren’t simply ‘surfing the web’ and risk exposure to things they shouldn’t be exposed to? This requires consideration of and planning for issues of security, firewalls etc. that many schools provide within their physical environments – but can we guarantee this in students’ homes?
  • How do we ensure the online learning experiences are of sufficient quality or that they meet the requirements of the curriculum? Indeed, do they need to? Could this hail a different approach to a more ‘personalised’ and ‘localised’ learning and curriculum?
  • How will we know that students are engaged, and what it is they are learning? How might we build in the sorts of feedback and reporting loops that ensure the learner’s record of learning is maintained? And having done that, who will be responsible for monitoring that and using this information to inform the ‘next steps’ in the learning journey?
  • What is the role of teachers? What happens if teachers are unable to continue teaching – either face to face or virtually – due to illness? If adopting a role online, what support and training will be provided to ensure they are able to make the transition from face to face teaching to online mentoring and support?

These are just some of the ‘bigger picture’ questions that I’m sure are being addressed at a national level – but the same applies at a local level as schools prepare for the possibility of being closed for a period of time.

Regardless of whether school closures eventuate, school leaders and their communities should use this opportunity to consider what their ‘long game’ might be here – how a future education system might operate where there learners can experience a more seamless continuity of learning both in the present as they move between home and school, and into the future as they transition between learning institutions and into the world of work.

Let’s use this opportunity to have some of these conversations – to ensure our short term and urgent planning and preparation is linked to a long term

3 thoughts on “Online learning – a pandemic response?

  1. Certainly some very valid points raised here. How prepared are we to face schools being shut. Teachers becoming ill.
    Let’s make sure NZ is ahead of the game with careful thoughtful planning for our learners.

  2. I visited an exclusive international school in Dhaka, Bangladesh, today. The principal and vice principal were hesitant to meet me as “the teacher from New Zealand might give us coronavirus”, so we met with a curriculum manager. He looked visibly stressed and said that rising pressure from parents means that “we may have to close from tomorrow and teach online – but we don’t know how to do that and exams are coming up in May”. The expectation that a school of 2700 (or any size) can just start teaching online tomorrow is phenomenal. Or maybe an enforced deadline such as impending school closures will be the impetus some schools need to quickly come up with effective learning solutions that go beyond simply streaming video of classes online?

  3. Having spent a lot of time in online conversations in expat forums where in some cases parents have been dealing quarantine, working from home and online learning for 8 weeks plus now – part of preparedness also includes supporting caregivers to manage that – there has been some great resources developed and shared including how to “schedule” the day to normalise it, and also links to quality online resources for filling up the gaps. And some interesting rotation within condos where the kids organise study groups on a rotating basis

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