‘Nearly overnight we have entered a radically new age of learning’ said Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO Director-General at the launch of COVID-19 Global Education Coalition.
In virtually no time, planet earth has refused to cooperate with humans, her most dominant inhabitants, turning the entire world order topsy-turvy. Among the worst affected are students forced to stay home. Fear and anxiety have gripped many of the present generations of learners, earning them the nickname ‘Generation Lockdown’. Under these circumstances, young children need support as well as emotional and physical safety. Schools must continue to treat children’s wellbeing as their number one priority.
The support and leadership that school leaders provide now will count forever. Now is the time for them to display their values and skills, and influence collaboration among students, teachers, and the community. School leaders often excel naturally while on campus, demonstrating these characteristics and more. The challenge is now for them to quickly put systems in place that allow access to the school community from a distance. Here are some suggestions for school leaders as they respond to the new order.
Healthy relationships: Having ongoing conversations with teachers will encourage them to connect with their students. Therefore, the priority should be to realistically assess online communication networks, analyse the need, and take action within the overall design of the online learning framework. The idea is to opt for a feasible, inclusive, and empowering protocol for engagement with students.
Adaptation: A traditional school system is different from online schooling. We cannot convert a real classroom into an online one. This transition will require leaving behind old practices, beliefs, and policies, and adopting new ones that address the current reality. Children attending classes from home are not the same as those sitting in a classroom. A lot of patience, compassion, emotional support, and recognition of the varied needs of the students will make the programme inclusive. In a forced lockdown situation, the dynamics of the classroom have been overwhelmingly changed to a new reality where students, teachers, classrooms, and schools are ‘physically missing’.
Smart strides: Successful school leaders take great strides in challenging situations. With kindness and empathy, they can marshal the entire school community to achieve an objective. The purpose of education is to build intelligence and character. Times like these are more conducive to developing the latter. We can foster kindness, self-control, resilience, and forgiveness to achieve the wellbeing of our communities.
Online learning readiness: There are several myths about online teaching and learning.
The first myth is that online instruction is less effective than in person. The success of Khan Academy and the many Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) available on various websites does not support this argument.
The second myth is that even in online classes, teachers have to stand before a class. Not always! Experience suggests that children learn from and enjoy watching videos and recorded presentations more. They are under no pressure to learn everything in the presence of peers. Learning at one’s pace and the freedom to go through a lesson as many times as one requires, personalises learning.
The third myth is about the linearity of the content. On the contrary, high-quality online content comprises videos, audio, live-streaming, and text/PDF.
The fourth myth hinges around the lack of group dynamics in a virtual classroom. Not true! The creation of forums for students to share questions and knowledge is a rewarding experience for anyone participating in a virtual learning environment.
Lessons online are learnt and consumed at a differential pace, and that is an additional advantage. Sharing feedback and constructive criticism is as essential on a virtual platform as it is in a traditional setup. A well-designed online learning programme must include a constructive feedback feature.
Toolkit for online classes: The school leader now has to don the hat of a digital leader and support equipping the digital teacher. None of the brick and mortar classroom provisions may work now. Notepads stacked with content production tools, mostly free, must find their way into smartphones or tablets. Google Docs, Adobe, Microsoft, etc., with their vast array of offerings, are making life easy for those transitioning to the world of virtual classes. Zoom is another blockbuster, catching attention worldwide. Many technology players are offering Learning Support Platforms (LSP) with or without content. For example, LabXchange, a Harvard University-sponsored remote learning platform, provides free teaching and learning resources to institutions. There is an opportunity now for digital school leaders to tweak their shopping list and include what enriches their efforts to digitalise learning. Luckily price tags seem to have been removed for now!
All these days, we have been advocating flipped classrooms and hybrid learning experiences, but many of us lacked the conviction. COVID-19 has left us with no choice but to embrace new technologies as soon as we can. Lest we make the same mistake again, let us now invest in creating a virtual school and not a once-in-a-while online classroom joyride. Investment in technology infrastructure, capacity building, content designing, and empowerment are the new priorities. A school leader’s guidebook to managing change informs the following steps − teacher training, handholding, encouraging continued professional development, and keeping the enthusiasm going.
School leaders have an unmissable opportunity to unleash the collective talent of teachers, students, parents, and freelance experts to find a magic formula for helping each child. As schools face closure across India and the world, homes are the new schools. Parents have the dual role of being teachers at home and supporting virtual classrooms. Collaborating with schools, they can ensure that their children’s learning is not compromised.
This article first published in the Teacher Magazine, Australian Council for Educational Research(ACER)in April 2020.