Teaching in the 'new normal'

Across the world, schools are having to adjust to an unprecedented change to their operations. Unlike workplaces, which have been able to impose rigorous social distancing measures through the ability to work from home, schools were expected to return to full capacity in September. Of course, it is right that pupils return to school, as numerous studies have highlighted the long-term damage of a stunted education. However, returning to school in the midst of a pandemic does mean schools must adjust to this ‘new normal’ in record time, whilst also minimising disruption.

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When Schools closed across the world in March, a peak of 1.2 billion children were out of the classroom. In order to continue providing some form of education, the only option was to rapidly adopt e-learning platforms and continue lessons online. This is challenging to accomplish successfully and, as is so often the case, disadvantaged pupils are disproportionately left behind. Studies indicate that 72 percent of independent secondary schools provided ‘live’ online lessons to their students compared with 6 percent of state secondary.

In late 2020, the situation is slightly different. With seven months of the pandemic under our belt, great strides have been made in adapting our strategy to maintaining normal life amidst the virus. Nevertheless, great challenges remain that will test the ability of every school to care for their pupils’ educational and pastoral needs.

Firstly, social distancing in school is a quandary. Independent Schools often inhabit old, listed buildings with cramped corridors and tight classrooms. In normal times, these surroundings could be considered a unique selling point, but with Covid they are a headache. Some schools have bolstered their teaching areas with temporary classroom blocks that help space children further apart, and almost all have adopted the ‘bubble’ model championed by HM Government. In this model, children are assigned into bubbles based on classes or year groups and they stick together. A positive test within the bubble results in the entire bubble isolating, but should not impact the rest of the school. Even so, this is a balancing act. Smaller bubbles mean fewer pupils isolating at any one time, but larger bubbles means greater diversity of thought and opinion, which enriches the education experience.

Furthermore, self-isolation disrupts lessons. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many schools are struggling to get to grips with the impact of self-isolating pupils. Many bubbles have had to isolate since the return for the Autumn term. One school we spoke to had to close for one week after their first day back due to a handful of positive tests among the teaching staff. In high-transmission areas, some pupils may be reluctant to return to school, particularly if they live with vulnerable individuals. Evidence suggests that this category is expanding, with only 86 percent of pupils in school this week, compared with 89 percent last week.

For those pupils that are in school, some will have immeasurably different circumstances since they left in March. Some will have lost close family members to the virus, others will be suffering mentally as a result of a summer of relative isolation, and a proportion may feel fear at the thought of catching the virus. For those pupils, extra pastoral care will be required – and this is taxing to do successfully without regular face-to-face interaction.

The cumulative impact of the aforementioned challenges are schools full of tired teachers, beleaguered bursars, and hassled headmasters. The solution is one that has kept offices afloat through the pandemic, and has already been gathering pace prior to Covid. Technology has matured to a level where it is now possible to conduct high-quality lessons without ever having to set foot in a school.

To exceed expectations in the ‘new normal’, many schools are turning to one of two cloud-based educational tools. Those are Google Classroom and Microsoft 365 Education. The way these two services are delivered differs, but both offer similar end results for pupils and teachers.

Put simply, both platforms allow teachers to teach their pupils, both live and retrospectively, using video calls and recordings. It also allows them to set assignments online using cloud storage and productivity apps such as Microsoft Word and Google Docs. Finally, teachers can mark assignments and provide feedback, even using electronic pens to provide written feedback in a way that is most comfortable for the bulk of teaching staff.

The two platforms also allow pupils and teachers to communicate via video and text chat with their classmates in real-time. Pupils can post questions on a bulletin board and teachers or classmates can respond. What’s more, the messages come straight through to their laptop or smartphone, so you’re never out of touch.

Throughout the pandemic, reports have focused on the great disruptive effects of Covid-19, to our workplaces, our schools, our lives. Scarcely do reports emphasise the great opportunities that the transformative effect of Covid-19 will have on our lives long into the future.

The truth is that many of the pillars of the ‘new normal’ that we are adjusting to now have been slowly growing in influence over the last decade. Working from home has swelled in popularity, pupils are more reliant on technology than ever, and video chat was a part of our daily lives long before the virus. Indeed, the virus has accelerated this remote-working trend, but it is undeniable that the trend was the direction of travel.

The key, then, is how each school, each teacher, and each bursar can leverage the opportunities that exist for enriching the education experience throughout this academic year and into the future.

Ponder the fact that the global business world has been immeasurably transformed by technology. One would struggle to find a white-collar job that is not reliant on technology in some form. These days, young people are more technologically literate than any generation before them, and their lives will be dominated by technology.

Covid-19 has seen a surge in demand for e-commerce platforms. A survey by McKinsey found that 42 percent of millennials prefer the online retail experience and will avoid physical stores altogether. In April 2020, the ONS reports that 46.6 percent of work was conducted at home. In the future, the biggest opportunities for newcomers to the labour market will be reliant on technology or in the technology sector itself. Increasingly, workforces are mobile, performing tasks in many locations and at differing times. It is right that schools prepare their pupils for this reality by expanding their use of technology in education now.

Additionally, some early research suggests that e-learning, if conducted well, can actually be more effective than traditional class-based learning. Research by the World Economic Forum found that on average, students retain 25-60 percent more material when learning online compared to only 8-10 percent in a classroom. This is mostly due to the students being able to learn faster online; e-learning requires 40-60 percent less time to learn than in a traditional classroom setting because students can learn at their own pace, going back and re-reading, skipping, or accelerating through concepts as they choose. Not to mention the fact that classroom environment’s can also be distracting.

For teachers, the benefits are clear too. With more assignments being stored online, in the cloud, it is easier and less time consuming to mark and grade assignments. No more must a teacher suffer crippling back pain from carrying piles of exercise books around the school. Rather, they can mark work and provide pupils with their grades instantaneously using a tablet or laptop. Moreover, with the collaborative features of e-learning platforms, teachers are more involved in pupil work throughout its creation, as they can view documents and provide pointers at various stages of its life – all without the pupil ever having to hand it in.

Clearly in order for schools to be successful in the new normal and provide a high standard of education despite the challenging circumstances we all find ourselves in, they must embrace technology into the learning experience.

To help comply with social distancing measures whilst also ensuring pupils can still benefit from school assets, a hybrid-learning model could be an effective choice. Alternating students between school classrooms and home/dormitories would ensure that there are never too many pupils milling around school grounds, and guarantee classrooms are never too full. Lessons can be conducted with pupils physically present, but with extra pupils tuning in remotely. Using cameras connected to video conferencing software, pupils can engage with lessons wherever they are.

In addition, should a positive test come, which based on experience in the first half of term is nearly guaranteed, pupils and teachers alike can swiftly pivot to a fully-remote learning experience for the duration of the isolation period, and then back to the hybrid classroom when isolation ends.

How can you ensure your school is ready for the new normal? Where do you start? These are both important questions and ones that are best answered by professionals. Enlist the help of IT Managed Service Providers to help you get the most of your new learning experience.

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