These past few months, the impact of COVID-19 has been felt globally - particularly in the education sector. Schools are now facing sudden and drastic changes to everyday operation and are needing to find ways to overcome new challenges that focus on safety and continuity.
With an ever-evolving case of government updates, media releases and advice - it's becoming increasingly more difficult to cut through the noise and understand what schools can do (and are doing) to overcome these challenges.
So in this month’s blog, we’re bringing you information straight from the people on the frontline. Lyndon Calway (IT Manager at Chairo Christian School), John Hamilton (IT Manager at Mt St Michael’s College), Karli Anderson (SIS Database Administrator at King's Christian College) and Kirsten Schuurs (Process Improvement Specialist at Hillcrest Christian College) share their experiences, successes, challenges and gotchya’s to provide some insight into how schools are tackling this change.
Transitioning to online education
Choosing and implementing an online platform is one of the first challenges most schools face when moving classes online. Many people expressed on the MITIE forum that Microsoft Teams is their new go-to as it is easy to populate with school data, is generally already included in the school's existing Microsoft license, and is SSO enabled, so students don’t need to manage a new account.
John Hamilton, ICT Manager at Mt St Michael's College found Teams very useful and simple.
“Teachers are already very familiar with posts, files and OneNote documents for managing day-to-day classroom materials. There were already Teams setup and in use for classes, year levels, co-curricular groups and subject based curriculum areas. It has been a relatively simple addition to add live meetings to existing spaces when appropriate.”
Karli Anderson from King's Christian College told us they’ve rolled out Microsoft Teams as well.
“Using the Microsoft School Data Sync tool made it really easy to create teams for all of our classes - a somewhat tedious task.”
John also suggests keeping it as simple as possible.
“Resist complexity – keep it simple and don’t go overboard! Keep a consistent approach with known systems vs introducing new items and a variety of platforms.”
As more schools migrate towards online learning in light of school closures, the issue of how attendance is recorded has become an increasingly confusing challenge.
John spoke about how Mt St Michael's came up with a creative solution for class attendance.
“We are using “Likes” in Microsoft Teams and then updating [our School Information System (SIS)] appropriately.”
So, students attending a Teams lesson will leave a ‘like’ to show that they were there, and staff use the list of likes to mark the roll as per normal.
On the forums, one school mentioned that they did not want ‘implied’ attendance, but rather for parents to take on an active role by logging their student attendance as either absent - learning from home or absent - not learning from home online, through their parent portal.
For teachers, this method lets them know which students should be online and learning for the day, when marking rolls every class.
For the school, attendance procedures run as normal with the school sending out morning SMS messages to parents whose student’s absence is unexplained.
Managing online classrooms
Managing a completely online or partially online classroom is no easy task. John took into consideration the type of lessons that you can deliver online. It’s much easier for students to become distracted if they’re not physically in the classroom, so giving them engaging work to do is important.
“We thought about what a typical lesson looks like and considered the balance between live meetings, pre-recorded material, lesson plans and text based instructions.”
Shifting all classes online can also tend to throw timetables completely out of whack. Some schools are unable to seamlessly move every single lesson online for a variety of reasons. John found a way to combat this:
“We are making some adjustments to the timetable for more “Master Classes” delivered to whole year groups.”
Further problems arise when a school is not fully closed and has students engaging both online and in the classroom. Karli said that King's Christian College was also “dealing with a combination of people (students and staff) - some at home already isolated and some at school.’
John also mentioned running into issues with cross-platform education - especially running exams. This is how he handled it:
“In the early stages we had some students at home and some at school. So we were able to use remote monitoring software to run a traditional exam from home using digital ink.”
Supporting the community
Supporting the school community was one of the most valued points. With a massive shift to online – also comes a massive learning curve for not only students, but parents and staff as well.
“We have had to provide additional training to administrative support staff who have a different skill base to teachers and aren’t as familiar with Teams and remote systems,” John told us.
On staff training, Karli also expressed its significant importance.
“Training has been a big one - staff, students then parents. We’re doing good with finance and payroll, but we’ve been progressing to 100% digital in these areas over the last 18-24 months anyway.”
John also takes into account members of the wider community who may struggle to get access online.
“A little under 10% of our community still have older internet access technologies … This means that uploading resources can be slow and time consuming. Sometimes this link is being shared by multiple students and two parents who are all attempting to work/learn from home. This makes live small group/ class/ one-on-one video conferencing difficult for these people.”
Cyber Safety and Filtering
When students are in school, it is much easier to regulate their online activity and block distracting or unsafe websites than when they are at home. Lyndon Calway from Chairo Christian School shares how their school tackled this problem.
“We had signed up with Family Zone in late 2019 and started rolling out the platform to all families and students across our school. We had to rush the software onto laptops that would previously only stay at school but were now quickly being converted into take home laptops... We did have to rethink what access we provided students, whilst ‘In School Hours’ but not at school,” Lyndon continued. “YouTube, Netflix, Spotify. All valid services for students when at home normally, but potentially large tools for distraction. Educating and enabling our parents to manage and monitor the software were and are key to protecting our students.”
Remote IT support
In the case of school closure, students will find themselves confined to their homes using their school-issued laptops to connect to online learning. So how do ICT staff manage the logistics involved in organising repair or replacement of student devices?
Kirsten Schuurs from Hillcrest Christian College shared how providing IT support remotely was their biggest challenge.
“The biggest thing was how we do IT support remotely, both for staff and students. Being able to remotely access devices and ensuring people can access all the data and programs they need remotely.”
Lyndon also explained how he managed this challenge when equipping parents with Family Zone in such a short time frame.
“We are still working through this challenge. Utilising our LMS news platform and App communications are enabling us to get the message and help out. Our ICT Team has also purchased Splashtop SOS which allows us to remotely assist families on all their devices.”
Other ICT Staff on the MITIE forum mentioned they are tackling this problem by having their maintenance team pick up and drop off devices at student’s homes within a reasonable distance or by using an external courier. Others are setting up scheduled appointments for students to bring devices in and have them repaired while maintaining social distancing.
The most talked about point among the schools interviewed, was the importance of not making rash decisions and having to retract them after further consideration. Kirsten outlined this struggle perfectly:
"The greatest challenge has just been time. We haven’t had the time to really think things through and ensure we are coming up with a long term solution rather than a patch that people are putting a huge amount of effort into only to throw it away at the end of the day. Having to say no to people when they are running off on tangents to ensure we are delivering a consistent, sustainable product."
There’s no shortage of challenges for schools when there’s a global pandemic – but take the time to consider all outcomes and make decisions carefully.
TASS would like to thank all the participants who were willing to share their experiences with us in the hopes other schools find it insightful.
We also want to thank all members of the school community for their diligence in these hard times to ensure that students continue to get an education no matter what. Above all - stay safe.