A very connected community: How virtual classrooms strengthen real relationships

 |   Microsoft New Zealand News Centre

Students typing on computer keyboard

Auckland based  St Cuthbert’s College is a leader in many ways. Its Junior School was one of the first in the country to adopt a 1:1 device policy in 1999. Otherwise known as Bring Your Own Device (or BYOD), the system means all students at the all  girls’ school, from Year 3 to Year 13, have a device in class. But when COVID-19 threatened to close schools across the country, it accelerated that innovation further, using Microsoft Teams to take its community ties to a new level.

St Cuthbert’s  has a long tradition of digital device use, with students using them for everything from homework assignments to staying in touch with families around the country and overseas. When reports of COVID-19 accelerating reached school leaders in early 2020, that technical capability rose to the top of their minds. Laptops and iPads at school were one thing, but were they enough to support students and teachers if campuses should have to close?

That was the catalyst for even greater transformation at St Cuthbert’s. Instead of being all about the device, technology has been woven throughout the fabric of the school in ways that have brought its community even closer and honoured its reputation for educational excellence.

No matter what the future brings, the St Cuthbert’s family is ready, supported by Microsoft Teams.

Delivering education isn’t just about content

The spectre of border closures back in March meant that the school leaders needed to prepare for the possible closure of the school, and the delivery of both the curriculum, but also the other aspects of school life that are so important to student development.

“One of the  big strengths of our school is that we have a very connected community,” explains Andy Parker, IT Director at St Cuthbert’s.

“All teaching is relationship-based, and we needed a way to maintain those strong face-to-face relationships between students and staff. Delivering education isn’t just about content – it’s about keeping those connections and touchpoints going. We also needed to make sure that we continued to support our students with as many of their co-curricular activities as possible, including their music lessons.  Activities like assemblies and PE and sports training were also important to continue remotely, “ he says.

Success wasn’t a given.

Though he’d introduced videoconferencing and collaboration tool Microsoft Teams to his own department three years ago, Parker says most staff had never used it before. Teachers were very experienced and confident in effectively using technology with students present in the classroom, but new skills and activities would need to be developed for remote learning.  Teaching with Microsoft Teams would require them to add a new digital tool to their teaching resources and there was an element of nervousness about using these platforms for teaching students at home.

It wasn’t only lesson delivery that was at stake. Schools everywhere have a regular routine of events and meetings that can’t be put on hold. St Cuthbert’s has an extensive assembly programme to celebrate student successes, from its sportswomen to its scholars. Without its community engagement, the St Cuthbert’s experience wouldn’t be the same.

Somehow, the school was determined to make the virtual experience just as good.

Scaling up for the inevitable

“We had an on-premise environment for file storage, which enabled staff working from home to access their shared documents  at various times using Remote Desktop. But now we were needing 300 staff to access it all at the same time. We weren’t confident it would be able to scale up without additional hardware or licensing investment,” says Parker.

Luckily, he’d moved the student mail system to the cloud-based Microsoft 365 at the end of 2019. Having such a scalable cloud platform made it much easier to roll out a whole host of new functions. Over four weeks, Parker and his team designed a Microsoft 365 staff portal and moved everyone to the Azure cloud so they could work from anywhere.

The next step was introducing them to Teams. It didn’t require much training.

As Parker says: “The day before lockdown (Tuesday) teachers were planning their first online lessons. On Wednesday they were delivering them.”

The decision was made to keep to a regular timetable, with roll call and scheduled classes conducted on Teams.

“We felt structure for staff and students was incredibly important. Teams enabled staff to conduct regular check-ins and set tasks that students could complete independently or as a class.”

A group was also created in Teams for each faculty so they could communicate easily with each other.

“I’m incredibly impressed with how well all the teachers were able to use Teams, even those who had never used it before,” Parker says. “It’s removed all anxiety for them as they’ve seen how easy it is.”

Creating a digital global community

When the feared lockdown arrived in March, Teams meant face-to-face interactions could continue uninterrupted. Because Teams allows two devices to be used simultaneously, teachers were able to show students their screens on one device, inking and annotating their work or displaying a PowerPoint document while their other device projected their face in the same window. A personal touch that made a huge difference to maintaining that sense of community.

This didn’t stop at lessons. Everything from regular student assemblies to the school’s special Anzac Day service was live-streamed via Teams.

It even enabled St Cuthbert’s to run its planned online careers evening in partnership with Auckland Grammar School, so students could get information on potential careers. A whopping 40 Teams meetings featured external hosts from universities and employers, all conducted and managed seamlessly by the students themselves.

Likewise, curriculum selection evenings went ahead online, so students could choose the right subjects to fit their career ambitions. Despite fears of technical chaos, teachers were reassured by how flawlessly the sessions ran.

“People asked how we planned to support teachers and parents who couldn’t log in. Well, over three nights we had one request for support,” says Parker.

“I can go to sleep at night knowing the Microsoft platform will just keep doing what it does. It means that even offshore parents are now able to participate in school activities like our curriculum information session, something they couldn’t do before.”

Not surprisingly, parent satisfaction with their students’ online learning throughout the lockdown was over 90%.

Connecting people together

Technology is now being integrated into the school in even more creative ways. A teacher asked if there was a way to allow her Year 4 class to see eggs hatch inside an incubator, if it happened outside school hours or during a subsequent lockdown. A camera was set up, with footage hosted in the cloud so students could log in and follow the action in real time.

Even Microsoft has been surprised by the speed at which everyone has taken to the new platforms.

“St Cuthbert’s is a great example of a school that’s gone from embracing devices in classrooms, to exploring how technology can be applied to education delivery in all kinds of ways. We’re hugely excited to see how Microsoft 365 and Teams are inspiring staff to innovate inside and out of the classroom, learning they can do more than they ever thought was possible,” says Anne Taylor, Education Lead at Microsoft New Zealand.

Throughout the school, online chat, video and voice calling have become a way of life. People are naturally sharing files, asking questions in chat windows and using breakout rooms to keep communication flowing in a way that would have seemed completely alien a few months ago.

He says simply: “It’s supplementing all our relationships. What we’ve done with Teams is connect people together.”

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