Except for some prescient people like Bill Gates, the coronavirus pandemic caught most of the world by surprise. It has been different from other crises in two ways – 1. Unlike wars, even world wars, recessions and natural calamities, it has affected everyone without exception and 2. it has completely upended daily routines at homes.
It is the latter that has thrown a lot of schedules off. Yes, children stay at home during school holidays – but then planned outings and visits are possible and school is off. Now, parents and schools are acutely aware than children’s learning has to somehow continue through all this uncertainty. As somebody said you cannot build a full-fledged emergency response system during the emergency but that is what the education sector is quietly trying to do today!
This reflects in the sharply increased use of the internet by children. Primary and secondary school children represent the two categories whose internet use has increased the most in this crisis. Along with managing the shift in their own work-from-home routines, parents now have to in some cases manage video-conferencing schedules for their children while also overseeing their forced homeschooling.
Shifts in the categories of Internet Users (as of March 2020) Source: https://www.cloudflare.com/builtforthis/ (accessed April 1 2020)
What schools have done: We spoke to a few schools to understand how they are planning and managing this shift. These are the key issues they highlighted:
- Set and follow a clear timetable: Every school leader we spoke to emphasised the need of a clear and well-communicated schedule. While most important for children, this is needed for teachers and parents to plan as well. For example, Mrs. Ganguly, HM of The Cathedral and John Connon School, Mumbai said that the junior school teachers share hyperlinked calendars every day at 8:30 am and students are given time to complete their work any time during the day.
- Have a mix of planned activities: While the schools we spoke to were all using video conferencing tools like Zoom, the extent of usage varied depending mostly on the quality of access available to students. However, all schools used a variety of tools to try and ensure student learning – these included online worksheets, teacher recorded videos sent on Whatsapp, assigning videos available on YouTube, getting the children to work in groups and one to one in turn and of course, using EdTech learning programs like Mindspark. Ms. Kiran Sethi, Director of Riverside School in Ahmedabad said that they were using a thumb-rule of 6 students for sessions requiring deep engagement versus up to 30 for lectures. Sessions are broken up into whole group interactions at the beginning and the end, with small group as well as individual work which children would do offline and then share with the group.
- Teacher skills and technologies: Most schools shared that their teachers were unprepared for a crisis like this. They have not typically been tech-savvy and many were using a video-conferencing tool in this way for the first time. Gulshan Kaur, principal of Bhavan Vidyalaya Panchkula said that more professional gadgets and even low-tech materials like boards at home or devices for recording for teachers would have helped. At the same time, the school leaders were all praise for all the teachers who learned these new skills enthusiastically so that students’ learning would not suffer.
- Connect with parents: Parents are playing a dual role in these changed circumstances. On the one hand, they are coordinating the schedules of their children and communicating with the school. But even more importantly, they are overseeing the learning since the teachers are not able to do that. Mrs. Kumar felt that parents were playing a critical role saying that they are now doing what principal was doing earlier, in terms of sharing feedback for the lessons taken by teachers! In general, schools seem to be connecting to parents once or twice a week but this may reduce if the learning routines settle in place.
- Provide psychological support to the community: Sethi emphasised that everybody was learning and figuring out what works by hit and trial. The sudden changes, uncertainty about the coming weeks and months and the general anxiety due to the larger issue means that everybody needs psychological support. Talking regularly, being supportive and gentle and even just planning well and providing dry runs allows everyone to come on board.
All the schools we spoke to had just about put these new plans in place and emphasized that they would be reviewing them after a week or two and making tweaks as needed. We will keep you updated!
What Tools are Schools Using? Schools seem to be using Zoom the most for videoconferencing though we heard Microsoft Teams mentioned too. Google Classroom was the most popular ‘learning management system’. Some schools are using Edmodo which has a few advantages and disadvantages compared to Google Classroom. YouTube both for its existing content and live streaming were mentioned by some schools. All schools are using Whatsapp for communications and in some cases, recorded lectures.
These are in addition to learning software like Mindspark, of course, which many schools were already using. We at EI have seen a doubling of school users and an increase of almost ten times in the number of ‘retail’ users.
Challenges faced: Learning the new technologies and the etiquettes associated with using the medium, from home, has been a challenge faced by many teachers. Secondly, it was pointed out that the learning management systems are geared more to a system where reading material or worksheets are assigned and need to be completed by students on time. Most schools are still using teacher videos with notes being taken by students from them. There is a message in this that we need to move to learning systems that are more understanding-focussed and driven by student-led learning, rather than lecture and note taking. Thirdly, the current system has increased the load on and expectations from parents – some of whom are already trying to manage changed working requirement. And finally, how to do student assessments seems to be an unsolved issue. As Mrs. Ganguly put it, “No assessments are happening.”
Conclusion: One thing is clear when we read various articles about how schools and parents are coping – though everybody is trying to put up a brave face, the situation is confusing and unclear. We are at version 0.1 of ‘distance learning for school children during forced home schooling’ – things will improve, new products and solutions will emerge and new skills will be acquired. Rarely, if ever, have so many people across the world been caught so unaware. I do not believe we’ll have quick breakthrough solutions (though we will discover existing solutions – like Zoom and YouTube Live Streaming that we had not familiarised ourselves with). If we are lucky, breakthrough solutions will emerge in the coming months and years. It does seem that what is currently being tried is not sustainable long term – whether for teachers, parents or schools.
And while we have looked in this article at some of our leading schools, EI also works closely with government schools as well as schools at lower fee points. We shall look into the impact on those schools too in a coming article.
We do see two positive fallouts from this terrible experience – 1. that parents – and society in general – will understand and value how difficult a teacher’s role truly is and both salaries and resources in education rise and 2. that teachers themselves become much more tech-savvy and use the various tools available to them to ensure students are learning and developing well. That way we would have ensured that even a horrible thing like this helped us become better!