Lessons learned from the forced experiment in online education

Dean Van Doleweerd, assistant head of learning, and a student during orientation week at Lakefield College School.

Simon Spivey/Lakefield College/Handout

After Lakefield College School had to close, like everyone else, because of the pandemic, they came up with the idea of offering virtual French cooking classes and other topics for the larger community.

Surprisingly, they found that their own students signed up in droves, which made them realize something: Students were interested in learning; they were not tired of Zoom, they just needed some variety, says Dean Van Doleweerd, assistant head of learning.

With about 40 international students unable to start the year in person, the school, near Peterborough, Ont., is still functioning partly in remote mode.

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“The private schools pivoted fantastically” to move students online, says educational consultant Elaine Danson, who works with families with children in the public and the private school systems.

Nicola Camirand, assistant head of Academics at the Calgary French and International School, says because the school is part of international networks, it allowed them to get insights from schools in countries that were further into the pandemic.

Here are some key ideas schools learned about remote learning.

Less is more

Students cannot spend the same amount of time on screens as they can in face-to-face classes.

Although it varies by age, “40 minutes of instruction,” is about what students can handle, Mr. Van Doleweerd says. Then, they need a break. This can be group work, individual work or one-on-one meetings with teachers.

One change the Calgary French school made was to have more teachers and projects overlap, so that students are learning about different subject areas on one project. Lakefield moved from eight courses at a time to three.

Individualization

“The technology has permitted … the opportunity to greater individualize the experience for each student,” Mr. Van Doleweerd says.

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At Calgary French school, slots were built into the timetable for teachers to have advisory calls with students one on one, where they discussed issues such as time management and social-emotional management.

Grade 11 Lakefield College School student Harper McGowan in class. Students are required to wear masks when indoors and on their feet or in motion.

Simon Spivey/Handout

Consistency

Schools need to be consistent with how they post work and they need to be clear with students about their responsibilities, Mr. Van Doleweerd says. These are details that get relayed verbally in a face-to-face class but need to be explicit in an online environment.

Connection

One of the challenges with remote learning is how to foster connection with others. “We insisted community and co-curricular events continue online,” Mr. Van Doleweerd says.

This included activities such as soccer skills clinics through Zoom and cooking challenges.

It also meant students continued meeting with their advisors online and the school also continued assemblies through webinar software.

Sometimes the solution is as simple as giving students some free time before a Zoom class starts for “being goofy, having fun, time to giggle with each other,” Ms. Camirand says.

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Live classes versus recorded lessons

Balancing live classes over video with recorded lessons that students review on their own, Mr. Van Doleweerd says, means “making sure kids had enough personal interactions with teachers but were also required to be off-screen each day.”

Parents may hear debates about how much synchronous teaching, or live classes, is appropriate compared with asynchronous, or recorded, lessons.

At Calgary French school, teachers are recording short demonstration videos of about 10 to 15 minutes, whether for students staying home because of illness, or for review purposes.

Assessment

Assessing student progress is a skill the staff are still working on, Mr. Van Doleweerd says. The school is experimenting with different software and consulting with other schools.

For tests, students are on Zoom, but “it doesn’t take a genius to figure out there are ways around that.” The school has found that more teacher interaction with students online gives them a better sense of how students are progressing.

Invest in everyone

What many educators echo is the fact that for online learning to work, it is not just the students who need support.

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“Teachers need support, parents need support,” Ms. Danson says.

In fact, a recent study in Alberta indicates that is the case, regardless of the system, either public or private.

Sharon Friesen, a professor in the learning sciences department at the Werklund School of Education at the University of Calgary, conducted research in May and June in two public-school jurisdictions as part of a four-year study involving public, Catholic and private schools. These two jurisdictions took only a couple of weeks to start providing engaging online education when schools were closed, compared with others.

The key, she says, is that the school districts provided teachers and students with the technology they required, offered teachers extra professional development, and while principals supported the teachers, the school district supported the principals.

Lessons to take into the future

Schools need to prepare for another pandemic-related shutdown or even students having to stay home because of illness or quarantine. “We have a parallel remote schedule that current teachers can default to” if needed, Mr. Van Doleweerd says.

Longer term, though, “we are all a little Zoomed out … people don’t want to just lose some of the good ideas.”

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For instance, virtual meetings can allow staff, as well as teachers and students, to meet when there is less time or space to do it in person, he says.

And the school will continue recording instructions for students to review on their own.

As time has passed, students have become more sophisticated in their ability to conduct themselves in a remote-learning environment. “Now, there is so much more possible,” Mr. Van Doleweerd adds.

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