Remote Learning 2.0: making a full, synchronous timetable work

Back in May, schools in Hong Kong were able to reopen (you can read about my experience here). We enjoyed a few weeks of relative normality before the year ended. But after a summer surge locally, we found ourselves back online for the start of this academic year. Thankfully, the situation has been managed well and we’re already making plans to reopen in a staggered way, starting next week. Still, I thought it would be useful to share how and why we evolved our remote learning practices and routines.

Last year, our approach was mostly asynchronous, with pre-recorded lessons and flexible learning tasks. We felt that this was the best approach at that time due to the circumstances of the school and the community. The closures were first announced during the Chinese New Year holiday, so many teachers and families were overseas. It would have been very challenging to coordinate synchronous learning across so many time zones. Furthermore, the closures were always seen as temporary. Nobody could have known that they’d go on and on! Nevertheless, we tweaked and refined our practices along the way, mostly in response to feedback, and started to introduce some synchronous elements. These were very much appreciated by the parents, in particular.

Going back online, it would have been easy to simply pick up where we left off in May, but these are different times and circumstances. Plus, we have learnt so much about technology and what high-quality learning looks like remotely. Furthermore, the pandemic could cause further disruptions throughout this entire school year. We wanted to be prepared for all scenarios and establish routines that can transition in and out of school whenever necessary.

During these challenging times, it’s understandable that everyone has their own opinions about what will work best. Suggestions from stakeholders can be very mixed because there’s no one correct way to approach these unprecedented events. However, our recent parent survey did highlight two overwhelming common threads. Firstly, they wanted more of the synchronous lessons that we started to offer last year and, secondly, they struggled to organise and manage their kids’ schoolwork. It seems that we were adding a burden to family life and expecting too much of parents.

Remote Learning 2.0 (as dubbed by my principal) was developed to address all of these points, while also taking teacher workload and everybody’s wellbeing into consideration. We decided to move to a full, synchronous timetable and create a schoolday online as close as possible to what we’d normally have face to face. Like I said, every school is different and no one approach should be adopted by everyone, but this seemed to be the obvious way forward for us. With this as our starting point, we started to plan how it would work and address the new challenges that it might bring.

Obviously, screen time and “Zoom fatigue” was the biggest concern. It has been strongly emphasised that 45-minute lessons should include a significant chunk of time off screen, working with pen and paper. We have been sharing our plans with parents on Thursdays for the following week, along with a list of items to prepare and, where necessary, documents to print. With plenty of notice, the students and parents can get organised for the week ahead and have the materials required to turn away from their devices. These materials include school journals, lined paper and workbooks that we sent home to support. Screen breaks and brain breaks are intentionally built into the daily schedule.

The timetables have been designed to include three important daily routines: community times, independent times and student check-in times. Every day starts and ends with some class community time. This provides scheduled opportunities for class meetings, circle time, wellness lessons or anything else that class teachers feel the students need. Next, every day includes periods of independent learning. This allows students the time to catch up on missing assignments and ensure that there are no outstanding tasks after school. We have made it clear that there is no additional homework and that we want all families to “switch off” at 3.25 pm. Finally, the timetabled student check-ins allow us to meet daily with small groups of students to check in on them, have informal conversations, offer support and discuss their learning. Every student has a check-in time at least once per week and these have proven to be incredibly important for relationship-building and to ensure that no students “slip through the net” during this unusual situation.

Here are a few more key points:

  • With two teachers in every class, it’s easy for us to break off into smaller groups using the breakout rooms feature on Zoom
  • Classes use only one Zoom link and specialist teachers are pre-assigned as alternative hosts
  • Students treat the Zoom day like a regular school day, with full attendance, school uniform and prepared materials
  • Additional devices are available for families to borrow from school if required
  • Lessons include regular opportunities for discussions, peer interactions and collaborations
  • Teams are strongly encouraged to share the workload and support each other so that we can give our absolute best

After two weeks of this new routine, I’m happy to share that it is working for everyone. In my opinion, it’s so much simpler to treat Zoom as a regular school day and we have been able to maintain high-quality student learning and, importantly, establish relationships with our new students. It was a big change which obviously brought new obstacles and teething problems, but we have found a good routine that all stakeholders seem to be happier about… just in time to change it again next week! Jokes aside, this routine is now established and we will be able to move into it again whenever necessary. Let’s hope that we don’t need to!

Finally, considering everything that teachers and schools are going through right now, I’ll leave you with this quote that is propped up in my local cafe. It’s one that we should all keep in mind this year!

Keep surfing, teachers! We got this!

If you have any questions about our new remote learning routine, drop a comment below or message me privately on social media. Also, feel free to share any suggestions. What has worked for you? Let me know!

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