When the first COVID-19 lockdowns happened in 2020, no school was fully prepared. Even the ones who had already adopted digital communications tools like Microsoft Teams were challenged to come up with new strategies to manage an entirely online school timetable and help students, parents and teachers alike cope with a stressful and unfamiliar situation.
As Tim Hardie, Director of Digital Strategy and Infrastructure at Westlake Boys High School puts it: “Parents tell us kids are hard to motivate and get going when school is just on the other side of the room from their bed.”
Since the first wave in 2020, Westlake Boys has learned from the experience, not only using Teams during lockdown but embracing the advantages it can bring under any circumstances. The school has also adapted the way Teams is used to make learning from home more rewarding and less stressful, even supporting parents and teachers to come together and have a little fun.
Structure and flexibility
First time round, the school of 2,400 boys on Auckland’s North Shore used Teams to provide a full schedule of lessons at their usual school day length. The intention was to maintain learning and achievement standards and provide some healthy routine, but teachers learned that fully synchronous learning was too draining, both for them and for students, under lockdown conditions.
A full review was conducted, and repeated after the shorter lockdowns that followed to refine the process, so by the start of 2021 the school was ready to go with a new plan.
When New Zealand went back into Level 4 lockdown in August 2021, Westlake Boys opted to use more of Teams’ asynchronous learning tools in combination with real-time check-ins. Every morning begins with a form group meeting to maintain structure and routine and ensure the boys are up and ready to start the school day. Lessons may then be “live”, or asynchronous tasks can be set by the teacher.
For live lessons, students now attend a video call at the start of each class, where they can see the teacher and each other on screen for that sense of connection, then log off and work on their tasks and assignments in groups or individually after only around 10 minutes, viewing instructions and resources (written or videoed) on assignments and posting them back in their own time so teachers can check progress.
The teacher will stay online for up to half an hour to respond to questions and provide support. Hardie likes to ask his students to share screenshots to demonstrate their progress. Then school hours finish at 1.30pm, giving students and teachers the rest of the afternoon to complete asynchronous assignments, mark or prepare lessons for the next day.
This echoes what Auckland University education specialist Dr Nina Hood has found is most effective for learners, combining some structure with flexibility.
“We’re all about engagement more than attendance,” says Hardie. “But we’ve found this method has resulted in around 90 per cent attendance as well.”
Building a team of 2,400 students (and a global community)
Teams hasn’t just enabled Westlake Boys to keep up its lessons, but has been vital to maintaining a true school community.
The Teams live events function has meant school assemblies can happen online, as well as exam preparation sessions. In 2021, between 200 and 300 parents attended a live Teams Q&A with headmaster David Ferguson so they could ask questions about the school’s lockdown plans and procedures and have them answered straight away.
Special events with Old Boys and guest speakers such as Olympic gold medallist Michael Brake have also been held to break up lessons and provide the school community with useful (and interesting) information. A student favourite was Richie Hardcore, Muay Thai expert and motivational speaker, on getting fit and thriving during lockdown.
Parents enjoyed their own session with psychiatrist Dr Tony Fernando on the psychology of lockdown and tips to get them and their families through. Because Teams allows sessions to be recorded, videos were posted online for those who couldn’t attend. Parents can also attend Meet the Teacher evenings via the platform when they’re unable to be at the school in person. In fact, Microsoft digital technologies are a constant part of maintaining strong connections with families. Via Microsoft Sway, another modern workplace tool, Ferguson sends out the school’s Green Striped Blazer newsletter to families each week, complete with videos to bring that extra personal touch.
Teams is also an integral part of supporting Westlake Boys teachers and other team members. Tim posts daily links to quizzes, guess the baby photo or guess the home office, dad jokes and other things to bring some fun to the day. A staff Teams site enables teachers to share tips on what works well during lockdown while Kahoot, a gamified learning app that can be integrated with Teams, enables get-togethers on Friday afternoons for “live” quizzes.
Teams has made a difference to the way the school conducts professional development even beyond COVID-19. Hardie is most excited by the global conference Westlake Boys held on Teams in late 2020, organising experts from across New Zealand, Australia and the US to come together to discuss teaching methods.
“The bottom line is Teams has helped us teach during Level 4 lockdown in a proficient way. Many teachers saw the value even when they were back in class. And in a Level 4 situation, we can just hit the ground running.”
Building a repository of knowledge
The feedback from parents has been equally glowing, with many emailing (or messaging) thank yous to the school for the seamless teaching process.
One message says: “I want to pass onto your team at Westlake how impressed we are with the teaching process through lockdown, the speed at which the school was able to get the students into routine and the format for learning through lockdown which seems to be just the right balance of time online/screen learning. I really appreciate how Westlake are nurturing the students and keeping them engaged. Thank you!”
Lydia Kronawetter, Education Industry Executive at Microsoft New Zealand, says Westlake Boys is the perfect example of a school whose teachers have embraced learning alongside their students.
“For me it’s hugely rewarding to see educators trying new things with technologies, learning and tailoring their use of tools like Teams to their school’s individual needs. The way Westlake Boys has used it not only to deliver effective learning but to support mental health and connection and add value to the wider school community is really outstanding,” she says.
And the school continues to find new ways to enhance outcomes even further. Supervised chat has now been introduced, so teachers can engage with smaller groups of students directly. The Teams messaging function was disabled (another handy feature) to ensure the environment remained safe for all students, but teachers can now message a couple of students working on specific assignments in smaller Teams.
Westlake Boys is also building its own repository of lessons and resources for all its classes, stored in Teams, so it’s much easier to find and share knowledge and exercises and institutional knowledge doesn’t get lost. The nature of the platform means teachers can also collaborate on documents at the same time, a godsend for time-poor educators.
“I believe any new teacher should have these digital systems as part of their training,” Hardie says. “And I believe Teams is the best system out there. It just works.”