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Lessons learned by schools around the world about setting up for and successfully delivering remote learning during Covid-19 closures.

I’ve worked with GCSEPod now for 10 years, ever since we first started offering school subscriptions.

I’ve seen the very many iterations that we have gone through to reach the world class product we offer today, one that is even recognised by our competitors as the Gold Standard that they aspire to reach.

Gill Key, GCSEPod Director – International and Special Projects.

Our global GCSEPod school community stretches across 46 countries.  For some, Covid-19 closures started in late January, whereas others are just preparing for or starting their journey.  For independent fee-paying schools, it is especially important that they can demonstrate to parents that the school can continue to deliver the high quality teaching and support that they are paying for.  

Here, I share some of their insights about the processes they went through to set up and deliver remote learning, in the hope that it might be helpful to those schools in the UK and elsewhere around the world, who are now in the very early stages of Covid-19 closures.

Last week, despite the announcements that both the GCSE and IGCSE exams were cancelled for this summer, our usage figures hit new heights, suggesting that students are still anxious to learn. Our highest volume of usage ever in any one hour took place between 9am and 10am on Monday morning – the first day of school closure in the UK, and usage has continued to be high. Clearly, students are ready to continue learning. This is just one of some surprising positives about both teacher and student reactions that are starting to emerge.

We are constantly surprised and delighted by the extraordinary usage and had superb feedback from our subscriber schools across the world, but during the closures, this has been even more noticeable.  

Access to technology’ check-up

As the closure announcements in China were made during Chinese New Year holidays, many staff and students were scattered all over the world and were in no rush to return, reluctant to be faced with lockdown in their own homes. One of the first things that Paul Kelly, of The British International School Shanghai, (BIS Puxi), did was do a stocktake of what access to technology everybody had. It quickly became apparent that many had left their iPads and laptops at home, but they nearly all had mobile phones with them, so it was crucial that any technology they used would have to work well on a mobile platform.

Ian Lee, IGCSE Coordinator at the Yew Chung International School Shanghai (YCIS Pudong) said: “a few years ago we invested in iPads for all students to give them access to learning content; a lot of our remote teaching resources were already established; this is certainly paying dividends now!”

For UK schools, concerns have been expressed that offering online learning opportunities will further extend the gap between the haves and have nots. Young people who want to continue to study may, in some households be competing with parents and siblings for access to devices. However, according to a 2020 newspaper article about recent research by a leading research company, “by the age of 11, 90% had their own device, and phone ownership was ‘almost universal’.  So whilst some students may still struggle, offering learning opportunities that can be completed on any platform may end up being the fairest solution … especially if schools are proactive in offering loan schemes during the Covid-19 closures, such as Bewdley School in Worcestershire.

Getting the work to the students: having a suitable ‘wardrobe’ to fill with ‘learning clothes’.

One of the crucial challenges many schools have faced is how to store and deliver learning content to students on an entirely virtual basis. I sometimes refer to this as having a ‘wardrobe’ that can be filled with ‘learning clothes’ in the format of lessons, resources and projects.

Many schools have ramped up their usage of tools such as Google Classrooms to create and send lessons to their students or have pressed underused virtual learning environments (VLEs)back into service.

The British School of Kuwait (BSK) had already structured their learning and assessment around their VLE, so when they were given such short notice of the school’s closure this formed the basis of their remote learning strategy.

Paul Kelly of BIS Puxi realised that their Microsoft Office 365 contract included 1 Terabyte of Cloud storage, so he set up separate Cloud spaces for different departments, into which they could upload all their learning materials.

Autonomous learning: providing ‘the clothes’ in the ‘wardrobe’

The next step was to find online learning resources that would allow the students to learn relatively autonomously, and potentially with limited access to technology. Equally important for many was to find a resource that had not only had proven impact but also a solid history of high usage outside the school classroom (i.e. one that was quick and easy to access and appealing to use, given the limited opportunities for teacher training when working remotely.) This is where GCSEPod came in.

Ian Lee of YCIS Pudong commented on how simple the system was to set up: “From initial contact to going live, we had online support for the school IGCSE programme up and running within a week. Set up, installation and support were clear throughout and I can’t speak highly enough about how helpful the GCSEPod team were throughout the whole process. Most importantly, there is good coverage of our school’s learning programme, and teachers and students have found the resources relevant, excellent, and easy to use.

For the schools in China it was particularly difficult as the country’s firewall meant that some platforms, such as YouTube and BBC bitesize were blocked. BIS Shanghai already used some EdTech systems which between them provided online textbooks and curriculum aligned lessons and assessments, but they didn’t cover the full range of subjects taught, nor did they have the depth and consistency of quality content.

Paul said:  “ Our usual use of EdTech would normally be as a supplementary learning tool, using it for  revision purposes so students could undertake an audit of their own understanding of a topic and return to the teacher with areas they would like to go over.hem self-teach.”

“GCSEPod was recommended to us by a colleague at another Nord Anglia school. We had to react quickly and set up the GCSEPod accounts for all our secondary aged students, giving them remote access to quality content through over 6,000 video Pods covering all areas of the curriculum. Thankfully it was easy to set up and there was no learning curve.

Quality teaching relies heavily on fast formative assessment, teaching is dynamic and the teacher will react to the subtle cues students give off when new concepts are being explained. The current situation has deprived teachers of this and led to much more summative assessment, normally in the form of marking. Platforms like GCSEPod, which offer summative assessments, such as end of unit tests, marked by the computer go some way to closing the gap between normal practice and the present situation.”

BSK staff found that the short three to five-minute video Pods have provided the learning, and the question banks a means to assess the students’ level of understanding. “We can’t see their exercise books but we can see which Pods they’ve watched, how they have performed on the assessments and whether I need to step in to give them additional support,” explains David. “It’s proving to provide a real development hump for the students, while cutting down on teacher work-load.”

Ian Lee added, “Our students are watching the videos, and then going through the test banks. Depending on the results of the tests they then know whether they need to watch further video Pods.

The pros and cons of live contact

During a recent virtual assembly, Ian Lee at YCIS Puxi asked his students about their frustrations. The issue they have all felt is isolation; being away from their friends. Suddenly losing casual contact with their peers has hit many of them harder than might have been thought.

More surprising was the loss of their ‘private life and work’ outside the school environment. School gave them the freedom to be someone other than someone’s child, a real person in a real environment, and it has been a wrench, even for some of the most determinedly non-academic pupils.

Schools are using Microsoft Team, Zoom, Google Hangouts and various other webinar platforms and even personal phone calls to maintain personal contact, whilst putting strict protocols in place to allay concerns about safeguarding, as Mark Steed, of Kellett School, Hong Kong, details in this useful article.

Paul Kelly of  BISS says: “Our approach has evolved each week. Initially we were sending out work to students at 8:00am Shanghai time each day in the form of a bespoke e-mail and students were working independently on tasks. However, parental surveys revealed that it wasn’t just the academic issues students were having but they were struggling socially. This has been an extremely tough experience for everyone involved in one way or another: students are concerned about the impact on their futures; parents are struggling to teach their children concepts many of them do not understand; and teachers are working even longer days than normal in order to accommodate children across multiple time zones.

We implemented live sessions with teachers through Microsoft Teams. This has enabled students to ask questions about their studies but also to check in with staff on a pastoral level.”

Carol Camargo of Nord Anglia International School Shanghai Pudong told us: “We have been worried about the stress levels of the students from early on. For the first couple of weeks we all had high hopes of returning to normal quickly. But as it became apparent that it would be longer, we have used Zoom or other webinar services to provide both live lessons and one to one calls with a mentor or form tutor, focusing on having at least some interaction with the student. We have also created audio clips of the teacher explaining concepts. At Primary level, parents are accessing the documents. rather than their children so that they are able to support them.”

BSK took a half-way house approach, combining pre-created questions with an opportunity to link with teachers via Google Hangouts. Their science teacher, David Williams, explains: “We wanted to maintain as much of a school timetable as possible, so since the school’s closure, all staff have been using  they use the VLE every day to give the students instructions on their learning objectives. Each lesson is an hour long, with set learning objectives, study material and follow up activities. While the VLE gives the learning a level of structure we also allow the students to be flexible; some work into the night while others start before the school day at eight o’clock. They seem to be flourishing with the level of flexibility and trust they are being given.”

During the scheduled Hangout time the BSK students can join the conversation to follow the teacher’s guidance and ask questions as they would in a normal classroom setting.

Solving the problems

Of-course none of this has happened without several challenges.

From forgotten passwords written in diaries left in lockers in locked schools, to bandwidth issues and losing connections, it hasn’t been easy.

Fortunately, GCSEPod had the foresight to ramp up our IT infrastructure to cope with the unprecedent  spikes in usage. Sadly,   other online learning resources, ;looking for a land grab of schools by offering free now/pay later plans did not see this coming and have crashed repeatedly under the pressure. We’ve also temporarily reassigned some staff into support roles, helping students quickly find forgotten passwords and answering the simpler technical queries, leaving our experienced Pod Up team free to help our schools get to grips with entirely remote learning.  Ian Lee of YCIS Pudong says:

“From initial contact to going live, we had online support for the school IGCSE programme up and running within a week. Set up, installation and support were clear throughout and I can’t speak highly enough about how helpful the GCSEPod team were throughout the whole process. Most importantly, there is good coverage of our school’s learning programme, and teachers and students have found the resources relevant, excellent, and easy to use”.

Paul Kelly warned schools of another problem they experienced. “Students would normally receive merits, verbal or written, for their work, but this is harder when they are working remotely. The solution we’ve found is that GCSEPod provides a list of the top student users, so I’ve been able to write letters to the parents and students in recognition of their high study scores; right now it’s all about motivating them to continue to learn and  recognise that it’s no fun working from home.

In the rare incidence where set homework is not completed by a student, the policy at BIS Puxi is to leave it for a couple of days. If by the third day nothing has been received, the teacher will send the student a nice email to remind them of the set tasks. If still nothing is received the year leader will get involved and telephone the parents.”

The positives:

We are constantly surprised and delighted by the extraordinary usage and had superb feedback from our subscriber schools across the world, but during the closures, this has been even more noticeable.  As our name suggests, our main content focuses on supporting GCSE and IGCSEs and when the exams this summer were cancelled, we wondered whether usage would slump. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Monday 23rd March (the first official day of UK school closure) marked the highest day of usage of GCSEPod ever… even higher than at our normal usage peak in the middle of the exam period.

Usage in March in international schools has doubled over the equivalent period last year. Our brilliant Pod Up Team members, who support each of our subscribing schools, report that many Year 11 (Grade 10 or 9) students, due to sit their exams this summer, have been devastated by the announcement that they will not be sitting them now.

Our team reports huge levels of student engagement in many of our schools. Some students are demonstrating a level of maturity and commitment that has surprised even their teachers, who are working hard to create relevant work for them to complete. It is likely that this year’s crop of GCSE/IGCSE students will have to provide evidence in the form of a portfolio of work to prove that they would have received the grade that has been predicted. Some schools are using GCSEPod assignments that have been set for them by their teachers, along with usage graphs to demonstrate the work that they have put in.

Teachers of Year 10 students also recognise the uphill struggle they will face next year to complete the required work if learning does not continue now, so are determined to do as much as they can to continue learning. Year 11s recognise that continuing to study will be invaluable to them in preparation for their next move, whether that be continuing their academic life, or moving into training within the post school sector.

Paul at BIS Puxi agrees: “If there has been one benefit from all of this it has been for my staff to learn how to better embrace technology in their teaching. Many of my staff have said this has been the best CPD they have received in years. I suspect the next cohort of students coming through at BISS will benefit greatly from the learning the staff have undertaken over the past two months.”

 

Finally, Ian at YCIS shares a feeling we have heard many times from our schools, when he concludes, “while quickly becoming adept at using new technologies, the need for adaptability and ingenuity has never been greater. YCIS staff and students have proven to be determined, innovative and resilient. This situation has brought out the best in our school community. It has certainly been challenging but it’s actually been a very positive learning experience for us all.”

Colleagues, there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Take care, 

Gill Key, GCSEPod Director

International and Special Projects

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“I can’t speak highly enough about how helpful the GCSEPod team were throughout the whole process. Most importantly, teachers and students have found the resources relevant, excellent, and easy to use.” 
Ian Lee, Yew Chung International School of Shanghai, China

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