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Diary of a Lead Teacher: Episode six - Into the New World...

Author: Nick Trussler

Needless to say, along with everyone else the past month was half normal(ish) and then quite suddenly completely different. Following the announcement by the government of school closures nationwide we have all been relegated to home-working and, most probably, being more-than-a-little glued to the machines we have chosen to base our teaching careers around!

I had a bunch of DSH workshops scheduled, but I must admit that even three weeks ago I was more worried than usual about one of the primary school pupils coughing fairly incessantly in the workshop, and in fact the next week, just before the closure, other schools had contacted me cancelling the workshops because of similar concerns from their end about trying to contain potential cross-infection between schools.

Our own school had seen dwindling student and staff numbers so in a lot of ways it was a huge relief when the Government took the step to close everything.  We had one week left before the Easter holidays, and we decided to use this time to go all-out to completely change our whole mode of operation to online learning.

  I spent several years in my twenties studying distance learning for a Doctorate (which in the end became over-run by having children and juggling a full time job) and later in my career took a lot of responsibility for learning management systems, most notably an early user of the online LMS -  Moodle. At that time the private FE college I worked for invested in creating a better system for authoring and mapping learning outcomes in Moodle and paid one of the original founders of Moodle in Canada to write new code to implement this system (which has now become fully adopted to Moodle in a similar form). I wrote the user specifications for the code and liaised with the programmer to troubleshoot it.  

I suspect that computer science teachers, and programmers in general are probably characterised by a love for the creative use and development of systems.  Breaking down problems like educating children online - suddenly with a few days of preparation - is a classic problem that can be hugely advantaged by the help of professional systems designers. And, in school, this might well be an excellent match for the computer science teaching team.  

In the past 5-6 years I have started to use Google Classroom and the Google-Apps-for-Education suite for structuring my classes in digital media and computer science.  As the only classroom with as many computers as students, I was pretty much alone in the use of this software, but not any more. I volunteered a quick demo to all staff in the staff meeting three weeks ago and as we speak all teachers and all classes are now on the Google Classroom platform - it has changed overnight from a one-off IT geek-fest to a whole-school lifeline.

Initially we decided to just run with the current classroom timetable (but online) and have been running this all last week.  Teachers are adopting different approaches to creating learning experiences. Many have started using Zoom or GoogleMeet (video-conferencing) to implement a bit of chalk-and-talk, perhaps frameworking work and being on-line to answer questions live.  Some are being more adventurous like creating shared Google-Docs with live concurrent authors. Others take a more low-tech approach like sending group emails out to their class and attaching worksheets and then using live-response email to answer specific questions. This is boot-strap stuff with staff learning as they go trying out new techniques. 

Some obvious CPD opportunities arise, with some staff still sending out pdf documents requiring answers on the sheet.  This is quite problematic either requiring a student to have a printer, and then to be able to re-digitise the paper for submission - or to install or use some form of pdf annotator, and to get the hand of saving the annotated version to submit.  Understanding what a GoogleDoc is, how to convert into a GoogleDoc (or create a new one) is quite a big ask of teachers who had never even had to think of alien concepts such as ‘file formats’ before and may not really understand the difference between them in practical terms.

Back to the student experience.  Some obvious flaws became apparent during the week when trying to replicate teaching to the school timetable with teaching online.  One aspect was organisation and the other was expectation. In terms of expectations of the student, it turns out that trying to run a whole school all day timetable where the student logs in to be a live participant in every class between 9am and 4pm - is probably basically ‘just not going to happen’.  Especially not at a time when a family at home may be desperately trying to keep a job going, understand what is happening in the world or maybe just wanting to spend some quality time with their kids in this time of crisis.

Also we notice a completely different set of expectations of the students between working normally in the classroom or working at home.  At school the responsibility rests lightly on a student’s shoulders, they walk into a class, and it’s the teacher’s job to focus them and achieve learning and notice if they need help and prompting in order to achieve this. What a stark contrast, especially in the earlier years, to a student needing to know what class they should ‘log-into’, whether it is a worksheet based class or a live Video teach, how to log into the live video if it is, and how to troubleshoot any problems in between them and the technology working.  We are often finding students having to use the second or third ‘best’ computer (i.e. slower and outdated) in the house, because the parent is busy actually making a living with the faster computer - now in high demand.

It’s a huge amount of organisational pressure suddenly placed on the student’s head - a very easy solution is just to disengage and we definitely saw this happening last week with feedback from parents supporting the ‘it’s too complicated!’ message.

However despite teething problems we have run a whole lot of excellent classes, managed many student’s workflow and begun the journey of improvement which is the fledgeling model of what, next term, will be a whole-school online engagement.

So, to the second aspect - Organisation. This is where the ‘system’s analyst’ in us all should cut in.  Rather than having a fragmented timetable where some lessons are basically just supported worksheets and some are full interactive video, I proposed a few days ago to senior management that we should cut down frameworked sessions for all subjects into managed slots in the afternoon.  Hourly classes three a day between 1pm and 4pm. Each subject will really be expected to take as much notional class-time as before, but each week a subject will use one of these hourly afternoon ‘focus’ slots. During this time they may well Video conference the class and/or use some form of interactive social based teaching to framework the subject content.  They can also go over whatever else they want doing outside of these times. Students will then be asked to carry out self-study to support the afternoon slots, but could achieve this maybe in the morning, or (in the case of teenagers…?) in the evening.

Generally though, in the morning we have a much more open structure to allow families to ‘bed-in’ to the day more gently, but to include a 45min activities slot (whole school) and also scheduled ‘wellbeing’ slots (sort of like tutor time but on specific themes). We are also going to try out a whole school Video conference session once a week to see if we can do a sort of ‘assembly’ with notices from staff etc.

Well, that’s organised the bejeebers out of it, but will it work?  Senior management are going for it - so let’s see what happens… I will let you know how it all goes next time.



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