Remote learning: tools and principles

As you have probably heard, schools are closed across Hong Kong and mainland China until Monday 2nd March (and even that date is still very much in question). This is due to the outbreak of the coronavirus and is part of the attempt to contain it. As a school, we have been busy making contingency plans to ensure that our curriculum and the students’ learning can keep moving forward.

Perhaps the biggest silver lining has been the way in which our whole faculty has pulled together to support each other and our students. It has been exciting to watch my colleagues embrace technology and discover the power of the tools. These will, of course, continue to be useful long after schools have reopened. But before we jump into the tools, let’s start with the ‘why’.

A challenge as big as this has prompted very fruitful conversations with my colleagues in school and also the wider community as we discuss, debate and communicate what best practice looks like. This will depend largely on the context of different schools and what works best for the communities within them. For us, we landed on these principles to guide our planning and decision-making:

  • New remote learning tasks should be posted on both the student and parent Google Classrooms daily at 4pm for the following day
  • Activities should be designed to allow for active engagement rather than passive consumption
  • Teachers can work from any location, including overseas, but they should be online and available during Hong Kong school hours to support, encourage and offer feedback
  • Tasks should be designed so that students can complete them relatively independently with support available from teachers (minimise the pressure on parents)
  • As opposed to content that is already available online, lessons should be recorded by staff, as much as possible, so that students can hear/see their own teachers
  • Video messages should be posted by the teachers daily to check in with the students, set the stage for the day and show that we care
  • Teachers should assign a balance of online and offline activities to manage screen time
  • Students’ attendance and engagement should be noted
  • Alternative plans should be made for any students who are still in China and don’t have access to G Suite apps
  • Specialist teachers should also share remote learning tasks on the days that they would normally see the students
  • Language and Learning Support teachers should help the class teachers in providing scaffolding and support for high-needs students
  • A member of SLT will be assigned to each yearband to offer support and guidance.
  • Students can sign up to one of the three daily time slots for synchronous online discussions with their classmates and teachers
  • For safeguarding reasons, video calls will be made to groups, an adult should be in the room with the students and the background should be plain
  • Teachers should reach out to the parents of any students that are not engaging to offer additional support and guidance

Whew! That’s a long list but some very important points that will make all the difference to student learning.

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Daily video messages for the students

I was holidaying in Europe when the school closures were announced. Finally, after wrestling with many factors, I made the decision to go back to the UK instead of back to Hong Kong. It helped that I was able to push my flight back for free! I will return to Hong Kong on February 17th (still two weeks before the students are due back). This means that I’m working at night to be with my students during their school hours and sleeping during the day to catch up. Any grammar or spelling mistakes in this blog post can be blamed on my sleep deprivation! Jokes aside, it’s actually manageable.

So, with those principles in mind to guide best practice, we need to choose the best tools for the job. These will vary from day to day, but I believe there are a few core tools that will play a big role in my online practice. I have written about most of these before, so you can follow the links if you want more information.

Flipgrid

Especially when we don’t get to see each other in person, it’s especially nice that students – and teachers – can express themselves in video messages on a secure platform. Since it’s the start of our migration unit, we asked the students to interview friends or family members about their migration experiences. The interviewee was under no pressure to appear in the videos as well, but many of them did! Also, we have a new student who has joined at a very challenging and confusing time. We used Flipgrid to post welcoming messages for him and to introduce ourselves.

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For more information: Getting  started with Flipgrid (now completely free!)


Screencastify

It doesn’t have to be Screencastify (that’s just the one that I use), but any screencasting tool. In fact, with recent iOS updates, you can record your iPhone or iPad screen with an easy swipe and tap. But Screencastify offers a few additional features. The paid version is even better but not essential. With Screencastify, I have been recording my lessons and video instructions. Again, it’s important for the students to hear my voice during this time. I can also embed a small webcam in the bottom corner of the screencast so that students can see me as well as hear me.

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For more information: Ten essential Chrome extensions for teachers


Edpuzzle

Video content can play an important role in remote learning tasks, but we need to ensure that students are actively watching and engaging rather than watching passively. With Edpuzzle, video content can be used from multiple sites (including YouTube) and teachers can modify them to create video lessons. For example, teachers can crop the video, record voiceover and add pauses to the video for additional information and/or questions. Teachers can check the student engagement and their answers to the questions by going to the Gradebook.

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For more information: Edpuzzle for flipped learning


Google Forms

When we ask students to answer questions online, we can save ourselves a lot of time by getting the technology to mark for us. This is also beneficial for students because the feedback is instant. When we don’t have to worry about marking, we can spend our time focusing on in-depth feedback, support and further input. Simply toggle “make this a quiz” in the Form settings and pre-select the correct answers.

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Google Slides

Google Slides is one of the most versatile tools and one that I use regularly in the classroom. For remote learning, it’s great to give students a slide each on a shared deck. This allows students to learn from each other and engage in discussions using the comments section while keeping their specific slide(s) to demonstrate their own learning. Furthermore, I like the creativity tools that are available in Slides and the ease at which students can insert and manipulate multimedia. Slides will play a big role in my virtual teaching space over the next few weeks, I’m sure!

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HyperDocs

HyperDocs are a great way to structure an independent inquiry because they offer the instructions and tools within one convenient document. Students can work through it at their own pace. These are also useful in the classroom because they allow some students to work independently while the teacher can focus on a smaller group. For our migration unit, we curated a lot of great content that we will no longer use in class, but students can explore it via the HyperDoc. Check out this example HyperDoc on The Lost Boys of Sudan.

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For more information: Whare are HyperDocs?


Zoom

Finally, a video calling and conferencing tool that I don’t have much experience with. However, as per the guidelines above, synchronous chats will be available to students every day (starting Wednesday). After some research and experimentation, we decided that Zoom was the best option for us. I don’t have much to share at this stage because I haven’t used it much yet. But I’ll be an expert after a few weeks! Perhaps it will get its own blog post in the near future (especially if the closures continue).


If you’re in the same situation as us, or if you have ever needed to create contingency plans for learning, we very much welcome your experience. If you have any thoughts, concerns, questions or suggestions, please leave a comment below. What other essential tools have I missed? Let’s keep these important discussions going to best support our students during this uncertain time.

Additional resources regarding the coronavirus and school closures:

Jennifer Chang Wathall’s YouTube channel for  multiple videos for parents and teachers

Keri-Lee Beasley’s site with ideas contributed by many teachers

Graphic by Tim Evans

15 Strategies for Online Learning When School is Closed


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