Can online learning save lives?

Well, here we are, four weeks of online learning are done and we enter the fifth. I know some colleagues around the world have endured a lot longer than we have. My son, teaching in Hong Kong has been teaching from home since mid-January. In Peru, the clampdown came quite suddenly. On one Wednesday, we were told the students wouldn’t be coming in the next day. On the following Sunday afternoon, the whole country was put in lockdown. We are only allowed out between 5am and 6pm to buy food or pharmaceuticals, go to the bank or the hospital. Nobody outside these professions can work from anywhere but home. The police were quite draconian. The number of arrests and jailings far exceeds the confirmed Covid cases at the moment!

At Markham College we have been learning as we go along, and continually surveying students, parents and staff to see how we are doing. So, I thought it was time to reflect on the value of what we have been doing. The reflection is based on my current experiences as a teacher and a leader, the copious survey data as well as contact with colleagues around the world in outstanding schools who have been doing this since mid-January.

We were a bit ahead of the game and had been preparing for a shutdown since mid-February. This involved planning which platforms to use, setting up the data and training teachers in their use. When the announcement of school closure eventually came, it was still sudden and a bit of a shock, but at least we had some preparation under our belt. Once we started online learning, it probably took about a week for all the teachers to be confident and for routines to be settled at school (virtual school that is) and at home.

By then I was completely confident that the academic aspect of learning was going really well. Students are learning as much as they would at school and their skills are progressing as quickly. They are hitting the assessment targets across the board, and completing assessed work on time. We have been clear to ensure that we are replicating the full curriculum at Markham. This means that alongside the core subjects we are also teaching everything else from Arts to Sport, from project-based trans-disciplinary learning to personal and social education. Teachers are working incredibly hard to make this work. In most cases, we are putting in more hours than we would at school!

Of course, school is more than this. When we are in session, important parts of the educational process are social and outside the timetable. This includes the extracurricular activities, the outdoor education programme and the basic social interaction that happens on a school campus. We are steadily introducing more extracurricular education, with sports coaches giving video classes, instrumental music lessons starting up, and online sessions in yoga, chess and other activities now in place. The outdoor education is tricky of course, but we are introducing different challenges through our connections with schools across the world. The Round Square Schools Leadership Challenge and Service Challenge are examples.

The social issue is a bit more complex to understand. Of course, in normal times students meet and interact with other students and adults in school on a continuing basis. This is part of what makes them want to come to school and a great deal of what they get out of it. Is this just lost in a time of quarantine and isolation? We don’t think so. The demands are different, but what the school offers is just as important, perhaps even more so.

When children are isolated with their family, that social interaction is the most important missing element. These days, of course, they can communicate with friends over social media but we know that can also be negative and limiting. They need to be with people who are not just close friends and not just their age group. Without that problems of depression and anxiety will set in. The relationships between members of a family can easily become strained, and they are strained enough in this situation as it is. So the online communal sessions with classes, interest groups and teachers, that the school prepares, provides and manages are absolutely vital to help young people and their families keep their equanimity. Is it the same as normal school? No, but these are not normal times and we believe strongly that what we are doing is as important for isolated children and families as normal school is in normal times. Studies around the world show that isolation endangers mental health, and there is a rise in suicide rates and domestic violence. Are we saving lives? I don’t know. But we are certainly providing a service that helps include young people in a community and stave off some of the risk of depression.

As I mentioned at the start, we have done several surveys, which our community have been keen to respond to. For the first parent survey after the first week, 81% of families responded and the vast majority felt the experience of online learning is a positive one, even then. The second survey this week shows that there is a recognition, from parents and students, of significant improvement across the board since then.

All this having been said, we are all keen to get back to school and back to normal as soon as we can. I wish you all the best during this challenging time.


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