Rachel Evans, Director of Digital Learning & Innovation, writes a personal reflection on the past two months as WHS planned and implemented our Guided Home Learning programme, and considers what lies ahead.
It’s 16th March and I’m getting ready to leave school, knowing that I’m unlikely to be back at my desk with its view of the cherry blossom for a good while. My husband has called to say he has a temperature and cough, meaning self-isolation for my household. I gather some freebie cloth bags from BETT and cram them with everything I think I might need, leaving behind a stack of library books – I come to regret this later! Within a week I’m being video-called by a colleague who holds his phone aloft so that I can see and hear the whole school singing our school song as we close the site, and Mrs Lunnon says “Whatever happens, however long this is, be brilliant.” It all seems rather unreal.
As the Covid-19 crisis mounted in late February and early March, along with other schools across the world we began to plan how we could continue teaching and learning as our staff and students scattered to their homes. We have been committed for the past 5 years to integrating technology for teaching and learning – both in terms of hardware, with our BYOD scheme and Junior iPads, and software, as a Microsoft Showcase School. Nevertheless, the challenges of this unprecedented situation are significant, and like all use of technology in education, go far beyond simply having the right tech in place.
Back in January, Suzy Pett (Assistant Head Teaching & Learning) and I had been privileged to speak at the BETT educational technology show and share our WHS digital philosophy with a wider audience. What has struck me as we have rolled out our Guided Home Learning programme is how those values have been tried and tested in this unprecedented situation. Edtech should be an excellent tool, seamless and most importantly authentic. How did these principles guide us in practice?
An excellent tool
We’re always clear that we have a ‘pedagogy first’ approach to using technology and we’re careful to select software and systems that deliver value, rather than being gimmicky or distracting. This was helpful as we considered what ‘home learning’ would look like in practice. Teams allows video-conferencing, something we had only tentatively explored before between colleagues. Now we made the decision to offer at least some ‘live’ lessons remotely, and added in the practical details – the way we’d use Teams announcements to start lessons, our protocols for video conference lessons, and how our existing use of OneNote would fit into this model.
In the Junior years, we began with simple Firefly pages, then worked over Easter to move to a more interactive offering. Choosing Firefly Tasks was straightforward, while Flipgrid would offer some interaction between the girls and chances for personalised video feedback for every pupil from her teachers.
What skills did teachers need to feel confident and secure with these new features of familiar systems, and with some entirely new apps? We created a common approach to ‘lessons’ so that staff and students alike would have clear expectations and a consistent experience with a clear framework of skills to learn. We ran in-person training sessions for all staff, and then, after the site closed, online training in Teams (sometimes about Teams, which can be surreal!). We all became inexpert videographers, finding ad-hoc ways to make, edit and share videos of tips, and training sessions. We were grateful for Microsoft’s extensive support materials, and our GDST sister schools and other professional networks of colleagues, to share ideas and pool materials.
As the weeks have gone by there have of course been peaks and troughs in the experiences of all concerned – both technical and human. On the first Monday as pupils across the world stayed at home, both Teams and Firefly faltered. We are all at the mercy of our home wi-fi connections with most providers having outages at times. No software or system is perfect, and we are often pushing at the edges of the original design and use cases which are mostly based on being together in physical school. Teachers and parents alike feel the pressure of combining childcare, home learning and full-time jobs. But we do believe that alongside a plethora of subject-specific online resources, these systems have enabled us to continue with teaching and learning that has been effective, productive and not too impossible to manage for students, staff or parents.
Feedback and listening to the community in the first week led us to deliver new advice for teachers – we began to move away from trying to replicate an offline experience in an online environment. (There was much discussion of synchronous and asynchronous learning – terms bandied about which were unknown to non-experts the week before!) A video call in Teams can’t feel like a lesson – you can’t see everyone at once and interactions quickly feel stilted and frustrating. But making use of the chat, the thumbs-up emoji, limiting the time on the call and following up with text-based chat or collaborative work in OneNote makes all the difference. We started working differently: taking the pedagogical aim – for instance, the benefit of small group discussions in a lesson – and working out how to deliver that effectively in Teams – by having group channels with the teacher dropping in to listen and give feedback. We encouraged teachers to break away from the screen as well, for everyone’s wellbeing and to bring the variety of types of work they would to a ‘real life’ lesson.
Our wonderful teaching staff have a high confidence level with the technology because we use it every day, and that has allowed them to experiment and explore. This week, the Head of German and I have figured out how to add subtitles or voiceover in a foreign language to an existing film clip with the software we have or free apps. We’ve got some ideas and learnt some new stuff, and we know the girls will come up with even more. Everyone is rising to the challenge of exploring and integrating new tools and new ideas – whether that’s a deeper knowledge of systems we used already, or brand new work.
Early in our planning, Fionnuala Kennedy, our Senior Deputy Head, came up with the three words to sum up our approach – clarity, consistency and connection.
Connection – use the technology at our disposal to stay connected with each other in as human a way as possible.
Whenever I speak about our digital strategy, I always put authentic first in the list. Our vision for digital technology embedded in our school life is a holistic and human-centred one. I talk about the need for the use of technology in schools to respect teachers’ professional judgements and their personal approaches. More technology is not necessarily better: teachers must choose their own path and my role is to encourage, guide, facilitate. Now we were all going off to our own homes to interact with one another entirely via screen, and one size did have to fit all in order to allow us a safe, consistent and calm remote learning experience. My peers on Twitter were jubilant that for digital specialists, our time had come! I wasn’t so sure it was that simple.
I shouldn’t have worried. Our Wimbledonian spirit has meant that although we are all working in an unfamiliar and more standardised way, individuality has triumphed. Ms Phillips taught a remote sewing class, by voice and whiteboard from Teams; Dr Neumann encouraged her class to go outside, get a flower, dissect and photograph it; Spanish classes made board games; English classes acted out their text with soft toys; music groups made amusing remote ensemble videos; Junior girls in STEAM club explained their wacky home science experiments on Flipgrid. In among the functional necessity of online learning our authenticity and creativity has shone through.
Back in January at BETT, I quoted Georgia, a Year 13 student, talking about collaborating with her peers online:
“you’re helping others, they are helping you… It adds a new dimension to learning that doesn’t make it seem so stifled.”
This has turned out to be as true as ever. It’s been superb to see even the Year 5 and 6 girls who are new to using Teams and OneNote not only collaborating, but problem-solving and encouraging one another and their teachers in a warm and kind community.
What have we learned? And what comes next?
Although it feels a great deal longer, we have been away from our much-loved school building for 26 school days, as I write this. In a period characterised by fast-paced and ever-changing decision making, it’s salutary to pause and listen before we start thinking about the lessons we may have learned. We still have the challenge ahead of returning to our school site with social distancing in place. It’s clearer than ever that this is a marathon not a sprint, and that we’re all learning as we go. Nevertheless, I’d like to share a few themes that seem to me to have emerged already.
Humility & Openness
Hardly anyone responsible for planning or delivering the remote learning taking place in schools throughout the world is an expert in the pedagogy and science of online or distance learning. It’s not part of our usual skill set. Remote learning is not like learning in a classroom and the two are not interchangeable. What those of us in education have achieved in the past eight weeks is our very best effort to ensure that learning is sustained for our students during a global crisis and unprecedented social lockdown. We’ve used our pedagogical expertise, and our deep knowledge of and care for our students and teachers to create a programme that works in our own context.
What we should do as we plan for the next academic year is make sure that we draw on expertise in the fields of online learning, instructional design and distance learning. We can then design new timetables, develop and modify our schemes of work, and put in place appropriate technology and courses to ensure that we can move to even more pedagogically robust guided home learning should we need to do so again. We can learn lessons from this experience and open up to new ideas for the future. A flexible, creative and exciting way of thinking about ‘school’ may lie ahead.
Wellbeing & Community
We must remember that for all the cheerful social media sharing of birdsong and baking bread, for many people in our society this period may have been incredibly difficult – for reasons of economic disadvantage, personal risk of illness, mental health challenges and bereavement. Supporting the wellbeing of our own community and looking outwards to help others wherever we can – as our staff and girls have done wonderfully – has been paramount.
Within the school, finding ways to keep us connected digitally, both serious and fun, has been a privilege. Seeing staff and students create video assemblies, online quizzes, and share music and art have all been a joy. One of our students wrote:
“when watching the assembly this morning from Mrs Lunnon, I saw the views of the video rising. It was so satisfying and empowering to watch all the WHS seniors watching the same video as me at the same time.”
We may not want to abandon these entirely when we return to our school site, for the sense of connection they can offer.
International & National Collaboration
In this most global of crises, seeing the education community come together across the world has been inspiring. Through the Microsoft network, schools have shared their experiences and ideas. The value of online interaction and our new ease with video call technology has opened our eyes to new possibilities – with friends in our international and local partner schools, and closer to home in our GDST family. This, as Jane Lunnon noted in The Telegraph this week, is a real opportunity to arise from this challenge. Sharing experiences, ideas and resources, working collaboratively, and learning with and from one another may be a positive outcome from this crisis.
International collaborative work to plan for home learning: https://iscdigital.co.uk/coronavirus-continuing-learning/
Academic resources for remote and online learning: https://my.chartered.college/2020/03/online-distance-and-home-learning-selected-reading/
Our stories: @wimbledonhigh on Twitter for examples of our Guided Home Learning programme and volunteering stories from our community