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The ‘joy of learning’ online – a journey of discovery at Oakhill: Part 1

| November 15, 2020 | 0 Comments

BY JAMES CROSS AND WAYNE PURCHASE

In March 2020, when the South African government imposed a nationwide lockdown to slow the spread of COVID19 and closed schools across the country, Oakhill School in Knysna, in the Western Cape, was able to adapt to online instruction for our 460 pupils because of a culture of innovation and technology that had already been set in place.

The advent of the COVID-19 virus and the consequent need to move to online or distance learning was a significant challenge for Oakhill, but also proved to be a great opportunity to think differently about teaching and learning. Our journey was not unique. The race to online learning during this emergency period catapulted us and many other schools right out of our comfort zones, even with our key investment in technology. Our journey into the online arena was seamless for the most part, but not without its challenges.

Fortunately for us, we were coming to the end of a term when the reality of COVID-19 hit. We were able to implement an intense three-day crash course and brush up on the basics of technology integration with all our teachers – technology which had been explored by many but not yet adopted by all.

We are also acutely aware that Oakhill School was well positioned to meet the challenges of online teaching and learning because we came from a position of privilege, with deeply committed staff, which helped us to embrace and transition to this new strategy. We are mindful that our bursary children experienced the change differently, with their own unique challenges, and we are grateful that we were able to address these by ensuring that each child was given one-on-one focus, attention and care.

It was a challenging journey and an invaluable learning experience for all stakeholders, but there was clarity of purpose: to create an environment in which the ‘joy of learning’ could continue, while keeping it simple enough for both teachers and pupils to make it work.

Being a relatively small but agile organisation, our stakeholders – both teachers and parents – had a vested interest in continuing and optimising our learning, and they fully embraced the challenge. Our teachers’ adaptability and willingness to learn and unlearn was testament to their growth mindset. Regarded as an innovative and forward-thinking school, Oakhill was well poised with our established technological infrastructure to make the change, but we knew that the success of the transition would depend on the resilience and support of our community. Having recently faced severe adversity as a community during the 2017 Knysna fires,1 we were confident that we could work together to achieve our goal.

We were determined that in our new online learning environment, we could continue to ensure that our pupils benefited from our ethos of one-on-one tutoring. This requires that children are taught in the manner in which they are best able to learn; where no child gets left behind, and where young minds are able to explore and discover, question and create.

How our online journey began

Three years ago, we found ourselves revisiting and exploring the role of technology as a tool to enrich teaching and learning. Key to the success of the initiative was finding an experienced and innovative edtech director, who understood the science of education. We wanted to focus our efforts on establishing what our needs and ambitions were before securing the best available resources and tools for the purpose. Following comprehensive research, we chose to adapt our workflow to the integrated Google Suite for Education platform.

The school also invested in Chromebook devices for all Grade 4 to Grade 7 pupils, which proved to be another critical part of the process. The use of one type of device in this early stage of adoption allowed us to focus on methodology rather than a whole range of technical and logistical challenges. We found that we had some early adopters among the teachers, who were quick to integrate Google Suite and various tools into their teaching methodology. They were able to offer support to their colleagues who were still learning.

A culture of sharing the new integrated technology was soon established within our school, encouraging healthy debate and discussion around implementation and practice. Weekly staff development sessions, led by our academic directors and the edtech director, helped us to upskill ourselves in the new technology.

The timing of our technology integration journey proved to be fortuitous, as we were unknowingly preparing ourselves for an online teaching scenario that would be necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Our edtech director, having completed his Google Level 1 and Level 2 certification, was selected in late 2019 to join 30 other educators from around the world at the Google for Education Certified Innovator 2019 Programme in Sweden.2 This opportunity to connect with a global community of edtech integrators meant we could learn from their failures and successes and, together with our committed teaching staff, develop strategies for the COVID-19 crisis.

Distance learning plan

As the pandemic reached South Africa, we were forced to prepare for the possibility of a long-term online teaching scenario. The early closure of school at the end of the first term gave us a brief window in which we could formulate a complete distance learning plan, which included upskilling staff – ranging from a crash course, in some cases, to a simple refresher in others – and preparing our infrastructure. It was important, despite the temptation, not to introduce too much that was new, but rather to ensure that we utilised the tools that we had already adopted in the best possible way.

Our approach was informed by the concepts of synchronous and asynchronous learning when delivering an online learning initiative. Synchronous learning is the kind that happens in real time, for example with Google Meet (video conferencing). Asynchronous learning happens according to the student’s own schedule.

Our staff spent much of their April holiday preparing to transition materials and workflows to an online approach, and ensuring that their skills and technical knowledge were sufficient to enable them to become full-time online teachers for the foreseeable future. During this time, the edtech director was available for consultation and guidance, utilising an Oakhill Online Google Classroom with key resources and videos to support teaching staff in the use of synchronous and asynchronous tools for learning management.

Google Classrooms were set up as a ‘home base’ for all pupils, so that there was both predictability and continuity in managing expectations and aligning schedules. Each Google Classroom had its own Meet links to a centralised video conference. Teachers also attended training in Screencastify3 to create YouTube-style video tutorials, utilising the Chromebook touchscreens.

An Oakhill online hub accessed through our school website was developed, providing a platform for all role-players to access content. The hub operates as a guide to parents and pupils, as well as being a source of assistance with technical issues. Contained within the hub is a feedback form, along with a calendar with 30-minute appointment slots where pupils, teachers or parents can secure one-on-one support via video conferencing.

The one-to-one support and guidance have been essential both now and during the development of our edtech journey, and the human interaction, facilitated by technology, helped to lessen anxiety and grow confidence in our online programme.

The key to success lay in balancing these concepts appropriately within the context of each grade or phase of our school. It is here that the well-established engagement and cooperation across our academic leadership, along with the expert guidance of our academic directors, combined to produce the balance required.

Our distance learning plan’s objective is for the school to continue to provide an effective education for pupils within 24 hours of any emergency, in both the short and long term. It is based on our description of the channels we will use for communication, the technology systems we will employ within each academic phase, guidelines for how parents and guardians can support their children’s learning, and considerations tailored to make the best of challenging circumstances. This plan is the product of collaboration with colleagues within Oakhill and the examples of other international schools around the world.

References:

  1. See: http://saforestryonline.co.za/articles/knysnas-great-fire-of-2017/
  2. See: https://www.heysuccess.com/opportunity/Google-for-Education-CertifiedInnovator-Program-26331
  3. See: https://www.screencastify.com/

Category: Spring 2020

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