Re-imagining Normal – Developing a Remote Learning Model for New Zealand schools

 |   Microsoft New Zealand News Centre

Student working on a Laptop

During the COVID-19 lock-down, educators had to remain connected with students and families and somehow support learning without the structure of classrooms, school timetables and face-to-face interaction. Many had never used collaboration platforms such as Microsoft Teams and One Note before, making the curve even steeper.

The incredible results from schools as diverse as Opaheke and Freemans Bay Schools in Auckland and Napier Boys’ High School in the Hawkes Bay show not only the tremendous innovation going on in New Zealand’s education sector, but the huge value of what was achieved in just a few short weeks. The scale of transformation has seen teachers around New Zealand go from tech novices to digital evangelists, empowering students to explore new learning opportunities in their own backyards and their own time.

Like many schools across the country, Napier Boys’ High School was challenged to devise a completely new strategy to provide students with remote learning while New Zealand’s schools were closed during March and April 2020. With only days to prepare, that meant not only arranging for students to receive devices, but ensuring they were capable of accessing resources and lessons – not to mention ensuring teachers were confident using the technology.

It’s a similar story at Opaheke School in Papakura, South Auckland, and Freemans Bay School in the center of the city. While both had already started introducing technology such as Teams gradually, many teachers were still new to the platform, and COVID-19 compressed the roll-out from months into just a couple of days.

Maintaining relationships remotely

Teams and applications such as note-taking and sharing tool One Note were what made face-to-face lessons and assignments possible during lockdown. Students could see teachers and each other on calls, collaborate with each other through shared documents and get help with assignments by messaging their teachers.

At Freemans Bay, every class had the option to connect face-to-face at least once per day, along with fun opt-in classes such as live fitness lessons from the PE teacher. The aim wasn’t only to keep kids learning, but to support mental well-being during what could have been a scary time. Opaheke School students had themed lessons where they could wear pirate hats or bring their pets to “class” and threw themselves enthusiastically into assigned tasks such as laundry that enabled them to help out around the home while parents worked, or created chalk drawings on paths to brighten their surroundings.

These optional sessions also enabled them to have some fun with their families.

“For those early learners who weren’t able to log on by themselves, parents would sit with them. So teachers made lessons fun and engaging for the whole family, to strengthen that family relationship. There were also small group lessons to make engagement more personal,” explains Shelley Duncan, teacher and e-Learning leader at Freemans Bay School.

Nikkie Laing, associate principal at Opaheke School, adds: “For us, Teams was really about maintaining those relationships, with students, our teams and families.”

However, getting thousands of teachers, students and families from all corners of Aotearoa ready for remote learning almost overnight was like an exam nobody could possibly have prepared for.

As Laing says: “Some teachers were ready from Day One and others could barely set up a Teams call.”

How was it that teachers and students (and parents) were able to use the technology so quickly when many had never encountered it before?

Bringing everyone along on Teams

“There were quite a few phone calls and emails at first, and we jumped on the first lesson with teachers who were feeling a bit nervous. But Teams was very quick to learn,” says Suvarna Shawrikar, ICT administration assistant at Freemans Bay.

She says the intuitiveness of Teams made it straightforward for students, parents and teachers alike to pick up thanks to a tutorial and the step-by-step online manual she and her colleagues created.

Opaheke School used Flipgrid, a Microsoft tool that enabled teachers to record videos using their devices and share links on Teams for parents and students to watch in their own time.

“We made sure parents were part of the journey, setting up asynchronous learning opportunities using Flipgrid to make them familiar with the technologies before we went live.

Parents were often managing their own workloads on top of supporting their children’s learning, so the flexibility of doing things on their own time was really important,” Laing says.

Napier Boys’ teachers videoed lessons prior to class time so students could come prepared, and posted videos of classes afterwards so students could refer back to them.

Functions could be customised to each school, with more being added as time went on.

“Teams for Education was especially developed for teaching and learning, so as education models shifted rapidly around the world, it was crucial we kept pace and evolved to meet the changing needs of teachers and students everywhere,” says Otako Kaufusi, Learning Solution Specialist at Microsoft New Zealand. “So we introduced new functions and capabilities in the platform such as a raise hand function to alert teachers when students wanted to ask a question.”

To protect staff’s time and the well-being of both teachers and students, Napier Boys’ ensured students couldn’t call teachers directly, setting up 1:1 meetings via messaging or Teams calendars. Opaheke School made a strategic decision not to enable students to start calls and chats themselves, so they

could carefully manage contact, but students were easily able to share documents and pictures to maintain a sense of connection.

“We could see the confidence on their faces”

Dave Russell, Senior Master at Napier Boys’, says digital learning helped everyone deal better with stress.

“After swapping stories with colleagues at schools that didn’t have this, we realised how much the routine of online classes and assignments really helped both teachers and students. And some students found the time even more productive than having the distractions of regular classrooms.”

“The video links especially helped students to feel a connection with teachers and each other that they couldn’t do merely with voice or chat.”

Teachers were also able to “pin” particular students to their screen, keeping them in view rather than having the camera focus on whoever was talking. It enabled them to identify the students who hadn’t spoken up yet and make sure all students got equal attention and a chance to participate.

Because it was so easy to personalise learning and enable students to work at their own pace, students felt in control of their learning, giving them a sense of personal achievement.

“When they came back to school, we could see the confidence on their faces. They had learned so much while they were away,” says Shawrikar.

Russell believes Napier Boys’ staff have benefited just as much.

“The fact we’ve done five years of professional development in five weeks is pretty amazing and our teachers are now looking to integrate that technology throughout the rest of the year. One of the biggest barriers to technology use in our school has been having staff not know how to use devices and understand the benefit of it. Now we have staff who are comfortable using technology in their teaching, we don’t have that barrier anymore.”

Integrating remote learning with on-the-ground teaching

At all three schools, teachers are now asking how they can incorporate technology more in the classroom.

Opaheke teachers are already using Teams for morning briefings, virtual professional development goes on twice a week and students are also running virtual assemblies.

Says Laing: “Our student councillors are organising online assemblies themselves. They blew me away with the things they’ve been able to do with videos and songs and so on, and now on rainy days we can use Teams for assemblies instead of having to go into the hall.”

Russell says Teams has become a resource hub at Napier Boys’, enabling students to refer back to lessons, access resources and consolidate their learning. The school is planning to provide online tutorials during exam time.

The experience has been so positive that Napier Boys’ is even considering becoming a BYOD school next year.

Says Microsoft’s Kaufusi: “While no one wants to be faced with a situation like this, I’m extremely proud of how educators across New Zealand have embraced change and are now using Teams and other tools to upskill and make the quality of education even better. Now the digital future isn’t two or three or four years away – it’s already here.”

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