Distance Learning Round 3: Applying what we’ve learned

Screenshot from today’s video lesson.

In Western Australia we have been lucky that our periods of COVID-19-related lockdown or distance learning have been counted in weeks, not months. In fact, until the weekend, we had gone almost ten months with no community transmission of coronavirus.

Monday was to be the first day of the academic year for most students in Western Australia, but as 2020 taught us, COVID-19 disruption can strike at any time and change circumstances. One hotel quarantine case of the B117 variant of the novel coronavirus, and Perth was put into a five-day lockdown at 6pm on Sunday night, hours before the first day of school was due to begin. The Premier’s announcement came at lunchtime Sunday, giving school leaders just enough time to meet to plan the response, organise communications, and open schools so that staff could drop in before lockdown commenced to collect anything they might need for remote teaching.

Luckily, this was unlike the announcement in April last year that pressured schools and teachers with significant extra work to begin a hybrid learning environment with students learning from home and from school, simultaneously. Rather, what was announced was a one-week extension of the school holidays. Schools did not need to open for essential workers, nor did they have to provide resources for learning from home. Many independent schools had, however, already started their school years, so student lockers were filled with books and boarders had arrived at boarding houses. Other schools, having not started the school year, had IT devices and books not yet distributed to students.

Government schools are honouring the Monday to Friday extension of the holiday break. Some independent schools launched into remote learning from Tuesday or Wednesday for all students K-12. At my school, we took a balanced approach. The academic year for our K-10 students was postponed for the week, with teachers spending their time at home preparing lessons for Week 2, possibly to be delivered using distance learning if the lockdown is extended due to testing or case numbers. After two days of teacher preparation (of remote lesson plans, instructional videos, Teams functionalities and resources), teaching of courses in Years 11 and 12 began today (Wednesday) via distance learning.

This lockdown and period of remote learning feels different to the scramble in March last year. Even then, we were considered and prepared in our approach. In 2020, in the most isolated city in the world, we had seen the virus coming across the globe like a tidal wave we knew would reach our shores. But it was still a case of building the plane while flying it, and finding ways to listen to our community to figure out what was working well and what could be improved. This time our plan had been refined by deep reflection on lessons learned from our last two rounds of distance learning, and we continued to base our decisions on the following key principles.

  • The wellbeing of all in our community, including students, families and staff. We did not want to rush into providing a home learning scenario for all students as families and teachers were busy preparing their households for the lockdown. Parents and teachers were organising to work from home, while having their children at home.
  • Clear and streamlined communication. Everyone was consuming and coming to terms with fast-changing news, a new suite of rules and restrictions. A bombardment of communication from the school, or from teachers about remote learning, was not what our community needed on top of the firehose of information they were processing. We ensured clear communication through a couple of key channels. Our All Staff Microsoft Team allowed for detailed, dynamic communication for and among staff.
  • Clarity of plan. In 2020, while learning in Western Australian schools returned to face to face, the leadership team continued to iterate and improve the distance learning model for what we thought might be a ‘next time’. That plan—what we called Distance Learning 3.0, as well as previous emergency response planning—made Sunday’s planning much easier. We knew what was likely to work, and we could swiftly tweak the plan for the current scenario and for what is most appropriate for our community, based on a range of previous feedback.
  • Collaboration. It has been heartening to see the collaboration between staff in our virtual spaces this week. Staff are creating how-to videos for one another, sharing resources, and reaching out. There is an incredible and uplifting sense of solidarity and staff community, even when a bushfire emergency was added to this week’s lockdown scenario.

In the last year, we’ve learned a lot in education about how to bring humanity together with precision of instruction and collaborative technologies so that remote learning is effective, reassuring and provides connectedness. Today, on our first day of distance learning with Year 11 and 12 students, there has been tremendous uptake and engagement by students. I have been buoyed by feedback from teachers, parents and students, and energised by interactions with my own class and their openness to beginning our course at a distance.

Going slowly, carefully, and with clarity in our response to the latest lockdown has allayed overwhelm and anxiety. It has given time, space and resources for teachers to design remote education for their students that is excellent, equitable and realistic for the context in which we find ourselves. Our approach balances best practice in remote teaching and learning with safeguarding the wellbeing of students, families and staff. We have been able to respond realistically, responsibly and with agility to changes in circumstance, and will continue to do so. With any luck, our five-day lockdown will end after five days.

Distance Learning 3.0: Ready to launch

source: pixabay WikiImages

Today I shared with teaching staff our school Distance Learning Plan 3.0. While Western Australia continues—for now—in a bubble of semi-normality, we are aware, as other places in the country and the world show, that COVID-19 is an illness that can explode in a community at any time, despite the best precautions.

At my school, we enacted distance learning during Term 1 for a period of about three weeks, and then were ‘locked down’ during the two week school holiday break before students began returning to school for Term 2. We generated feedback from our community at that time, which suggested the following for our next round of distance learning.

  • We need to ensure we are differentiating our approach. Distance learning needs to look different for different ages and stages, and for different subjects. As a kindergarten to Year 12 school, students (and their parents!) require varied approaches to distance learning, relevant to developmental age and capacity for autonomy in learning. Older children are more likely to cope with increased opportunities for flexibility and independence; younger children need scaffolds, structures, technologies and resources appropriate to them. Subjects that are more content heavy and theoretical require different approaches to those that are more practical. We need to fit the pedagogical and technological tools to the learning purpose.
  • We need to support student organisation, structure and routine. For example, by setting out for students a clear structure to the day, and a clear plan for the day and week in advance so they can plan accordingly and be flexible and autonomous in their work.
  • We need to provide live video lessons and pastoral video check-ins, for learning and connectedness.
  • We need to provide a range of teaching and learning content, blending modes and approaches.
  • Predictable and streamlined communication works best. The Goldilocks approach is what we are aiming for here: not too little and not too much.
  • Workload needs to be manageable for students and teachers. My understanding from colleagues in Victoria and overseas is that long term lock down–including working, teaching and learning from home–is exhausting for all. Especially in the early years, set work for children needs to be manageable for parents.
  • Wellbeing is essential. Ill-being, trauma, anxiety and inequities have increased in our world during this global pandemic (which was preceded in Australia by a terrifying bushfire season). We need to build in time and encouragement for nutrition, hydration and physical activity, and regular breaks from screens and from the relentlessness of a life in constant lock down.

The main elements of our Distance Learning 3.0 model are the following.

  • Teacher instruction: in short bursts of 15-30 minutes, delivered synchronously (live) and asynchronously (for students to access in their own time).
  • Student collaboration: through virtual and online platforms.
  • Student independent work: in which students manage their own time and work autonomously.
  • Student reflection: in which they are encouraged to use metacognitive strategies, reflect on own learning and set clear targets for improvement.

All of these elements are underpinned by trust in the professional capacity and professional judgement of teachers as experts in curriculum (what they are teaching), pedagogy (how to teach so students learn), and their students.

key elements of our Distance Learning Plan 3.0 – wellbeing is central

Wellbeing is at the centre of our distance learning model. We have deliberately built in a focus on the wellbeing of our students, parents, and teachers by integrating the following.

  • Shortening lesson times and increasing break times during periods of distance learning.
  • Including one Student-Directed Learning Day per week for Years K-10. This day is a ‘non-contact’ day of learning in which students organise their time to complete set work, and teachers prepare, mark and respond to student queries. The day will be cycled through the days of the week, depending on when distance learning begins (e.g. Monday one week, Tuesday the next, and so on).
  • Paring back content to the essentials and rethinking the way students can engage with content.
  • Reconsidering the ways in which students can show their learning, and redesigning or rescheduling assessments where appropriate.
  • Continuing to act with kindness, compassion and empathy.

Our Distance Learning Plan 3.0 is the plan we hope to never have to use, but as I explained in my last post, it’s the plan we would be irresponsible to be without.

COVID-19 and distance learning: Preparing, not just reacting

I’ve lived through Melbourne winters. They’re cold, wet, and dark, but the great thing about them is all the warm, cosy places to socialise, connect, enjoy the arts, attend festival events, watch and play sports, eat delicious food, and drink a beverage of choice with friends, family, and strangers. Life in lockdown, in the middle of a Melbourne winter, must be incredibly hard for everyone. While the mist still rises off the Yarra in the early morning, and stormy colours swirl in Port Phillip Bay, most of what makes Melbourne winters great is currently cancelled. Adults are working from home. Students are learning from home. Everyone is staying home. Face masks have become part of daily life. I can only imagine what it feels to live a Melburnian’s current reality.

Over in Perth, Western Australia, life is different. We had about four weeks of lockdown, but are now in what our state government calls ‘Phase 4’ of restrictions easing. That means that the only restrictions are the two square metre rule indoors, 50% capacity at major venues, and a ‘hard border’ between the rest of the world and our WA bubble. Businesses are open as long as they have a COVID-19 plan for contact tracing, extra cleaning, and appropriate physical distancing for adults. Many are working back in their corporate offices. Community sport is being played. People are travelling around the state (at four times the size of Texas and twelve times bigger than the UK, that’s plenty of landscape to cover). Schools have full attendance of students and staff, with classes being taught face to face and assemblies and other school events being held in ways that are compliant with government regulations. Students—including those who are 17 and 18 years old like the Year 12s I teach—are considered exempt from the physical distancing rules.

Things feel strangely normal (apart from hand sanitiser at every turn, contactless greetings, half empty stadiums, holding meetings and events in rooms big enough to  allow for physical distancing,  and watching what is happening elsewhere in the world unfold). We know we are incredibly fortunate. We also know that COVID-19 is around for the mid to long term, and the government keeps telling us ‘we can’t be complacent’. The time lag between the virus being transmitted, symptoms, and test results, means that we won’t know the virus is circulating in the community until it may be too late to easily isolate it. After 102 days of no community transmission, New Zealand now has 56 active cases, including 37 from community transmission. A quarantine breach, followed by socialising in our current ‘Phase 4’ conditions, would be enough to send Western Australia back into lockdown and into a reality of anxiety, loneliness, ill-being, and the traumatic human, economic, and social costs of this virus.

As a school leader charged with leading teaching and learning, I know that we need to have a distance learning plan ready in case we need to move to it at short notice. Not being prepared for another bout of distance learning is irresponsible, like living in a tsunami-prone area and not having a tsunami evacuation map. We might not need it. But we might.

Rather than wheeling out our previous plan/s, we have been thinking about how we can do distance learning better, if and when there is a next time. So we have been working on our ‘Distance Learning 3.0’.

We had our original plan, pivoted to when students, apart from children of essential workers, were encouraged to learn from home at a day’s notice. We had Distance Learning 2.0, finalised in the first week of the Term 1 school holidays, only to be put in the file drawer when the government announced that schools would be welcoming back all, most, or some children sooner than originally planned. It was unclear; all students were encouraged but no-one was required to attend school, and parents were told by government officials that no child would be disadvantaged either way. That set of messages necessitated all schools to rewrite their plans at pace, and resulted in our 2.0 Hybrid Learning version, the plan that no school leader wants to unveil and implement because it means—no matter how carefully we try to set manageable parameters—that teachers are likely to have to straddle two modes of teaching for those students at home and those in the classroom.

Now, while we continue with business-as-usual-as-2020-will-allow, we are refining our distance learning model–and the ways in which it serves the learning, care, and wellbeing of our community–as best we can. We are honing our context-specific model for its implementation, which may come sooner, later, or never. Our 3.0 model is based on what we now know about the way distance learning is experienced by our community and by others in the world, as well as from emerging research. More about that in my next post.

I would love to hear from my Victorian colleagues about the realities of how distance teaching and home learning are going, and what your learnings are this time around. We in the west are thinking of you.