Will Virtual Classrooms Replace The Physical Classrooms of Tomorrow’s Schools?

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Today is the first day of the Easter break, and in all my time as a teacher, I have never been more in need of a break. 

Since February 3rd schools here in Hong Kong have been closed due to the outbreak of Covid-19.  As a result, for the last 9 weeks the hands of the 54 International Schools, including mine, have been forced and we have been thrust into what was originally a two week period of online learning. Over 45,000 international students, have found themselves “attending school” from home over the internet. 

I write this from the perspective of a teacher, a working parent and a student. My son’s iGCSEs have all now been cancelled, so he is ‘revising’ over the Easter break for whatever takes their place which is hard. I have suspended my own learning (I am currently completing a Master’s Degree), so I too am experiencing this from all sides.

As the virus took longer than hoped to control, and our local epidemic has morphed into a worldwide pandemic, other countries followed suit and as I write many more schools worldwide have now joined us in, amongst other things, a huge de-facto piece of “research” into what a school is. 

In responding to this unprecedented situation, with the upskilling of teachers and students (and parents!) in the use of online learning platforms and apps, are we finally proving the hypotheses of educational technologists about tomorrow’s schools that physical schools are a thing of the past? 

The results so far suggest not.

If this surprises you, think about the fact that even before our enforced experiment, the giants in technology, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Apple et al, have all continued to take on physical office space worldwide (see Google’s new London ‘Landscraper’ HQ, Apple’s Silicon Valley ‘Spaceship’), even though they have provided their employees with the very best online systems and tools to work remotely almost since their inception.

A deeper dive into our experience and what we have learned follows I do not claim that it is the experience all schools have, and will have, but I hope it will help you not just by learning from our experience, but by sharing your own experiences, ideas and thoughts in the comments section at the end of this article. 

Virtual Classrooms vs Physical Classrooms

We are ahead of the curve here, our students have been learning from home for almost the entire term, a full 9 weeks. This has followed a short period of closure in Term 1 this academic year due to the demonstrations here in Hong Kong, so circumstances outside our control have moved us at an unprecedented rate towards upskilling our teaching staff, our students and our parents in their knowledge of technology and our use of it to support student learning online. So what do we know?

AT FIRST, EVERYTHING IS HARD 

Everyone has been thrown out of their comfort zone through no choice of their own, so of course, it is hard at first. But doesn’t great learning often happen when we are outside of our comfort zones? Of course, it does, but we have to be mindful of what our learning community are currently experiencing:  

Students

Instead of being in their school classrooms, children now find themselves learning independently from home. The ‘Think-Pair-Share’ or ‘Ask 3 Before Me’ strategies they are so used to using don’t help when they are working on their own and this can be really hard for children who are used to learning through talk, questioning and enquiry. They don’t have their friends or talk partners with them. They don’t have immediate access to the myriad of resources they usually have in their bricks and mortar classrooms, and their teacher is not physically in the room with them so can’t look over their shoulder, or just whisper to them that they are doing really well, just stick with it!  

Many children are working in their bedrooms, the only quiet space they have in their typically tiny  Hong Kong homes. And many are spending more hours than anyone could imagine, or agree is healthy, in front of a computer screen every day. We also know that when there is a deadline to be met, more is usually achieved. Most homes do not have a school bell, or a teacher reminding the class they have only 5 minutes left, and therefore most activities are taking the children longer to complete.

Parents 

Since the school closure, over 99% of our parents have quickly upskilled themselves with   Seesaw and Google Classroom, enrolling and actively accessing both platforms to interact with their child’s learning. A big ask for many. Parents also have their own jobs they need to be focussing on from home too, so managing children, school work and paid work is a huge challenge and one which can actually change the nature of family relationships which is hard. As a teacher myself, I know the challenges in teaching my own child, and the difference in the parent/teacher role first hand. (See the clip HERE which I think demonstrates parental frustration rather brilliantly!)  And I won’t even mention the amount of food everyone seems to need when learning and working from home! 

Teachers

And it has been all change for teachers too. I have been continually amazed at how quickly, creatively and innovatively our teachers have created and delivered learning activities through online platforms. Videos, audio recordings, screencasting – you name it, they have done it. And, without complaint, they have done it brilliantly. My colleague Dominic Hill, @MrHillEdu has tweeted HERE a fantastic resource he has created which is helping, not just teachers in my school, but teachers around the world as their schools start to close. Who would have thought that Zoom, Screencastify and Google Meet would become such commonly used, everyday buzzwords in Education a few weeks ago? With 40% of our cohort attending ‘online’ school from home countries across the world and in different time-zones, our teachers have been working hugely extended hours to ensure that all students, regardless of location, are given timely and useful feedback and feel supported in their learning. 

Everyone has risen to the challenge and pushed through the teething problems, provision has been tweaked and improved week on week and the feedback is indicating that most students were learning better than initially expected, but everyone is missing (normal) school. So why?

WHAT IS MISSING?

Parents who initially did not want their young children sitting in front of a screen every day for 5 or more hours, started crying out for more ‘front of class’ (screen) teaching, even though when in school, teachers these days spend very little time delivering whole class instruction from the front of the classroom.

Teachers who follow a weekly timetable every day in school are feeling bored with the daily routine of introducing talks, uploading teaching and learning materials, giving feedback to students and supporting their reflections on learning. Everything that again, they do in their classrooms every day. And they are struggling to get the children to log out of live calls and online chats when they are finished because they want to go on talking with each other. 

Why? 

Because everyone is missing the physical, personal interaction we all inherently know to be so important.  Parents are struggling, not in supporting their children with the subject content of their learning necessarily, but in keeping them focussed on it to completion. The oh-so-many memes on social media streams suggest that many parents now have a new respect and admiration for teachers, although I suspect this mainly comes from a place of frustration. 

Well, I have been talking a lot about this with colleagues at my school, and with colleagues in other schools across Hong Kong (virtually of course!) and it is clear. We are missing human interaction. We are all missing the physical, face to face relationships that are central to everything schools are built around.

We know that student engagement is higher when children are seeing their teacher introduce the learning activities when they are able to ask each other questions and discuss their learning together. We know that children learn best from each other and that they thrive in the supportive, enabling and still sometimes competitive environments our classrooms provide. They miss the daily interactions they have with their teachers and the other adults who support them at school. The touch on their shoulder, the sticker on their page of writing and the class dojo house point they are awarded for being a good friend. They miss the incidental conversations they have with each other as they are learning, The physical interactions they have every day during playtime and the space they have during those times to run, laugh, fall out and importantly, learn to resolve their differences on their own. 

Teachers, in their daily routines, can predict many misconceptions that can arise in learning, however, they can not predict how each individual child will react. They miss hearing what questions their learning may lead the children to ask, or what avenues they may want to choose for themselves to explore further. They miss the opportunity for deviation, or diversion space for this is limited to that offered when learning is pre-recorded or delivered virtually. And like all adults currently working from home, they miss a morning coffee in the staffroom and an opportunity to talk with colleagues and friends about life outside of school. They miss being able to let the children run off their frustrations and energy and enjoy being outside. 

BUT IT CAN, AND DOES GET BETTER!

So, the silver lining in all of this is my firm belief that bricks and mortar classrooms are here to stay.  I, along with all my teacher colleagues, can’t wait to get our students back into their physical, bricks and mortar classrooms just as soon as it is safe and possible to do so. 

But in the meantime, let me share a snapshot of what we have learned 9 weeks in, in the hope that it helps you and your students. 

  • New routines will embed more quickly than you may think – hang on in there!
    • Week 3 was a turning point for us as students started to understand the new routines.  Teachers stopped worrying about what they looked like, or how they sounded in recordings and realised that most parents were too busy to watch and/or judge them anyway! And parents were clearer about where and how to access the daily activities and understood the expectations for learning. 
  • Use different ways to record the teaching element to the learning activities to keep the approach fresh and interesting.
    • You must check out the amazing list of platforms and apps you can use, and the ‘how-to’ videos which we have found invaluable which @MrHillEdu, my colleague Dominic Hill, has created and Tweeted HERE.
    • Use video or audio recordings. Screencastify is brilliant if you want to teach using slides or examples. If these elements are recorded the children can access them whenever is best for them. They can also rewatch them if they need to, and do this in their own time and we have seen this make a real difference for some of our learners. 
    • Post examples to the virtual classroom, and model ‘what looks good’ in the teaching videos. Share expected strategies too, that way students can use them, but so can parents who may be supporting the learning at home. 
    • Provide the scaffold, examples and tools the children need to support their learning from home, and share ideas with parents, and students, about the ‘manipulatives’ they can use at home, like pasta shapes, grapes, marbles – anything useful to support learning for children used to Cuisenaire rods or Numicon for example.
  • Provide regular opportunities for student talk every day
    • I am not advocating ‘live teaching’ for Primary age students, but what has worked well for us is daily live interactions with class teachers. Our children have so enjoyed a 30 minute morning run through of the day’s activities on Google Meet with their class teachers, and the chance to share their learning with each other in a second live session at the end of the school day.
    • Record all your live sessions too, and post them to your platform so that other students who can not join at the live time, can access it later in the day. 
    • Host a weekly live meet so that the children can just ‘hang out’ virtually with each other. Make sure an adult is involved to supervise the meet, but leave the kids to chat with each other. 
    • Ask TAs to run support drop-ins at set times in the day. Students who need that extra support can access it directly then. 
    • We have run live year group assemblies giving out our usual reward certificates each week. Sending the certificates home in the post has proved a big hit with the children too. Specialist teachers have joined these assemblies and led Joe Wicks style PE sessions, live music sessions and Mandarin sessions too which have been fantastic fun. The children love them and it gives the teachers a short break too. 
    • Have different adults the children are familiar with, record themselves reading a story and post this to the student’s learning platform. Our youngest children have loved this. Even upper Primary children have said how much they have loved hearing their teachers read the next chapter in their class novel. 
  • Keep activities meaningful but manageable.
    • Try to cover learning objectives you would have covered if the students were in school, but think about how to facilitate the learning creatively.
    • Remember, learning takes longer when students are doing it on their own, so less is more.
    • Give children the opportunity to share their learning in different ways. Voice recordings, video (our students use Screencastify better than I do!) record their spoken ideas and thoughts and share their learning that way.
    • Ask students to give feedback on the learning of their peers. Our kids have loved giving feedback in Seesaw, writing comments and recording audio messages. 
  • Don’t be afraid to ask parents and students for feedback
    • We sent out a survey after 2 weeks and were overwhelmed with the ideas parents shared with us. It can be easy to hear only the negative voices in the crowd, but the feedback from this survey was actually extremely positive. Parents do understand that we are all doing our best, even in fee-paying schools like mine, and they often have great ideas to share with us. 
    • Try to introduce one or two changes to your online provision each week or two to keep things fresh. Listen to what is working well, and do more of that. If it is not working, stop doing it and try something else. 
    • Don’t overdo the surveys though. The last thing you want is feedback telling you there are too many surveys!
  • Network – find your people and share the load!
    • Networks and support groups have never been so important for teachers. I am part of a group of Primary Principles here in Hong Kong and their advice and support has been invaluable. Join a group like SmarterStrongerTogether on Facebook, or get onto Twitter. There are so many teacher groups out there, and so many colleagues who are always happy to share great ideas and feedback. @TeachThought has a great list of Twitter hash-tags HERE, so give it a go. 

So, after 9 weeks on-screen, it is time to take a break from our screens for a few days, but we are by no means finished. Schools here in Hong Kong are closed indefinitely, and not likely to reopen until we see 21 days with no new Covid-19 cases reported. 

We still have a lot to do and we still have a lot to learn, so please share what you can with me here and with colleagues across your school, your region and internationally, about your current experiences and thoughts on tomorrow’s schools. We are in this together and I know we are all at capacity trying to ensure that we are giving the very best for all our students.

It’s over to you in the Comment and Discussion section below…

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Comment and Discussion

Will Virtual Classrooms Replace The Physical Classrooms of Tomorrow’s Schools?

20 thoughts on “Will Virtual Classrooms Replace The Physical Classrooms of Tomorrow’s Schools?

  1. STEPHEN BOYLE

    This is like a breath of fresh air. From the incredibly insightful article, brilliantly written by my good friend (full disclosure), to the quality and thoughtfulness of the responses, it is great to see this level of positivity in the face of the current pandemic. Education and people development in all its forms is not for everyone. My hat is tipped to Susan and everyone else who has responded, or just read this blog and thought about how it might impact them and their families. The future paths for the next generations are shaped by the work our teachers do, not just in school, in life as a whole. The next few months will be challenging, lessons have been learned and I hope will stay with us as we all decide, in our own way, how to rebuild and be better. Best Wishes to our global educators, our future is in your hands, so no pressure there 🙂
    Stay safe and healthy,
    Stephen

    Reply
  2. Christopher Hill

    Thank you Sue for presenting a well balanced and well informed paper for discussion. I am of the view that there is rarely just one way of doing things. As learners we need to learn previous knowledge along with what is new. For a leaner to develop they need to use past and present knowledge in order that they can make informed decisions to enable them to progress. Educators have sometimes be more resistant to use new approaches to learning putting their belief in traditional approaches. The truth is that both have a role if Educators are to maximise the learning opportunities for their students. I perceive an effective educator to be someone who use a ranges of tools to achieve maximum opportunities for students to learn. In the UK a current Education Minister Nick Gibb introduced Phonics testing for all primary pupils believing phonics to be the best and p;possibly the only way to teach children to read. I am a great believer in phonics myself but it is one of many tools in a teachers tool box to help children to learn to read.

    Virtual Classrooms versus physical classrooms? They are both tools in the educators tool box. The effective educator will want to use both approaches apropriately if they are to maximise the learning opportunities for students. Students should also be gathering their knowledge from a range of resources and approaches. A physical classroom will remain an important part in a students life as will the virtual classroom, they can compliment each other in order to enhance the learning experience.

    Virtual Classrooms will not in my view replace the physical classroom, they are another tool for the teacher as educator to use. Virtual Classrooms can also enhance the physical classroom experience and vice versa. It should be remembered that whilst learning a certain number of facts may be of use, surely more importantly it is to enable students to evaluate, interpret and apply the knowledge they have gained and apply it to the world that they are currently living in. As educators we should remember that we are not just imparting knowledge to our students we are helping them to develop their own ideas and views in order that they become effective, productive and sociable world citizens.

    For an educator to achieve the goal of enabling students to genuinely interpret information and for them to think for themselves to make informed decisions is not going to be achieved by a slavish adherence to one approach. The effective educator will use the appropriate tool that is best suited to achieve the learning objectives. Education is continulally developing and progressing and those educators who do not explore and adopt new approaches in learning will ultimately fail their pupils.

    In Sue’s excellent paper she provides much sound advise as to how to use a range of approaches to maximum effect. These approaches replace the outdated view that the educator simply provides the learner with the information to absorb. They enable a greater partnership between educator and learner and also allows the educator to guide the learner to enable the learner to enhance their learning by taking greater responsibility in the process and gaining increased independence in their learning.

    Reply
    1. Susan Walter Post author

      Chris, I couldn’t agree more about there being a vast range of strategies, tools and approaches that are constantly needed to support the best possible learning opportunities for all our children in school. I also agree that perhaps this experience is giving us all an opportunity to reflect and reivew what teaching really is now, after all, we are already 20 years into 21st Century Learning and I am still not sure this has been clearly defined as yet! I am quite sure that the new skills and approaches we are all now exploring and developing will change schools of tomorrow in many positive and impactful ways once we all return, and that is exciting. A Deputy Principal here in Hong Kong, Joshua Blue, was recently interviewed on American TV about Home Learning and I think his overview of what we all need to be doing is a great summary of what we have found is working best for us here in Hong Kong. His interview can be seen via Linked In HERE, it is only a few minutes long and well worth a watch. The commonality we keep coming back to is the importance of relationships; the partnerships in learning you refer to, and the importance of checking in with colleagues and students to ask how we are all doing that Josua mentions in his interview. Le’s hope that that remains our biggest learning for a long time to come.

      Reply
  3. Giles Ridger

    It’s great to see a head teacher taking such a proactive and creative approach to today’s challenges. It also puts many UK educational establishments to shame: although some schools are doing their best to provide remote learning and activities many more are doing nothing beyond providing day care for the children of key workers. Now that so few schools remain under the control of Local Education Authorities they are largely free to do what they want which sadly, in many cases, is not much. It does not take much effort to learn to use Zoom, Microsoft Teams etc. and it is a pity that we are not doing more.

    Reply
    1. Susan Walter Post author

      Giles, thank you for taking the time to comment. It surely is a frustrating time for everyone involved in the current closure of schools across the world. I am conscious that I write from a different position and perspective from many Head Teachers in the UK, and we are already 9 weeks into our situation and continue with learning how to manage this situation effectively. I am lucky that I don’t have to be organising and distributing free school meal vouchers, or arranging staffing for child care during school holidays like many state schools in the UK are doing at the moment, and that does create capacity for us to focus on wellbeing and learning for our students I hope that all schools will soon find their footing and be able to provide increased learning provision in the UK too.

      Reply
  4. Sarah Blake

    Thank you for sharing your experiences and the resources you and your staff have found helpful, Sue. One of the things I admire so much about educators is their willingness to help one another! I am fortunate that my own children are older and can handle their online learning and interactions with teachers themselves. (senior in high school and junior in college) However, we are all facing the challenges you described – I’m working at the kitchen table, they in their bedrooms and none of us is truly comfortable. And yes, no matter how efficiently we accomplish our work under these new circumstances it does not allow for the social interaction and wealth of resources and experiences available in a brick and mortar school. I see my own kids making the most of the situation, but wilting a little each day that they don’t have both formal and relaxed in-person interactions with humans other than their parents. And my children are fortunate – they are not food insecure and they do not live in a home with domestic violence or fear of the heat or water being shut off. School is so much more than academics for some children and teachers are so much more than talking heads at the front of classrooms. As an added note – I hope that a new-found respect for educators as a result of this crisis will translate into higher pay going forward.

    Reply
    1. Susan Walter Post author

      Sarah, thank you so much for your comments. I agree wholeheartedly that school is about so much more than educating our children in literacy and numeracy. Perhaps this is the push we all need to truly value and bolster the holistic approach so many schools are advocating in regards to the wider wellbeing curriculums we are promoting.

      Reply
  5. Liz Rhodes

    An excellent article, plenty of practical advice for such challenging times. I think the lack of face to face social interaction will make all people appreciate their communities more once this is all over. Recording and having online material, presentations for children to access outside of school hours has proved useful (and the norm) for university students, however once we are back to classroom teaching, need to be careful of overloading teachers with ‘live lessons’ and then creating additional on-line material. Perhaps all lessons will be recorded and made available in the future?

    Reply
    1. Susan Walter Post author

      Liz, thank you for taking time to comment. I think you are right in that ‘teaching’ will be changed by this experience. Perhaps the worksheet really will become homework of the past!

      Reply
  6. Rae Hederstedt

    This is an amazing blog, Sue. It came to me through Facebook. Could you send it to me again via email? I don’t know how to share
    it from FB to my teacher/administrator friends. Email would make it sharable for me. Many of your observations and suggestions
    would be helpful since Hutch schools have only had total online learning for a week or so following our spring break. This is so challenging,
    no matter how hard everyone is trying. Some day we will all love having our students ,teachers and administrators back together in their buildings.

    Reply
  7. Tiffany Edwards

    Thanks for a great article which is so insightful in describing this surreal situation that our school communities find themselves in. Some of the hardest things are planning for this ‘new’ way of learning when there is such uncertainty about how long it will continue for and to ensure well being is a priority, for everyone, as we strive to create meaningful learning experiences for our students. The positive flip side of this situation is that it is bringing out the best: students have been amazingly resilient and adaptable and colleagues have been creative, supportive and innovative. We can tell from stories being shared across social media, that this is a global phenomenon.

    We are a few weeks into this, although it feels much longer, and the ‘snapshot’ of your school’s journey sounds incredible and is invaluable and extremely helpful to others, thankyou. ‘Silver-linings’ and reflecting on the positives are essential. It is an unprecedented situation; it has evolved so quickly that we had no time to prepare. However, it is strengthening pedagogy and I think for everyone, having an opportunity to develop and learn new skills with technology has been excellent. However, it has highlighted that what we are fundamentally aiming to create is what we are doing in the physical classroom. One of the hardest things to achieve digitally is real personalised learning – more than just differentiating – the real personalised learning that is achieved by responsive teaching. Being with the students ‘in the moment’ and seeing immediately how they are doing; something that I agree would be difficult to achieve through online ‘live’ teaching for primary students. As you stress, the core of teaching is relationships. As we move forwards, using whatever digital platforms that schools are using for continuous learning, we must all work hard to ensure that we maintain these positive relationships to keep the positivity going throughout.

    Feedback is so important; changing and developing our practice in this situation is essential. The affirmations for all educators are that the students value their teachers and they thrive on personal interactions – from our very basic videos to the live check-ins. We will all continue to grow and evolve as we journey through this; let’s hope that our journeys will not be too long so we can all get back to our amazing students and working with fantastic colleagues and families. Thank you Susan – you are doing an amazing job and inspiring all of us to be positive and to keep supporting each other and sharing ideas. Let’s make the great ideas contagious rather than this awful virus!

    Reply
    1. Susan Walter Post author

      Tiffany, I could not agree with you more. Thank you for your thoughtful comments, and for highlighting the importance of our strengthening pedagogy (something I am keen to continue to investigate) and the value in always taking the most positive approach. Valuable learning for us all.

      Reply
  8. June

    Well written and very informative. Change is hard for everyone. The change happens quick the transition process is a lot slower. That just takes time and I think our children are probably a lot more adaptable than perhaps we are. Thanks for your insights.

    Reply
  9. Joy

    Every teacher in the UK would benefit from reading this article written in Hong Kong by an experienced head teacher who started her career in London state schools.

    In the UK we are in our third week and I found the article as a secondary school teacher reassuring, informative and inspiring.

    Reply
    1. Susan Walter Post author

      Thank you Joy! The resource my colleague put together that I have linked in the article, if full of great ideas for Secondary colleagues. Good luck with it all.

      Reply
  10. shellee

    This is an extremely informative and practical article which not only discussed the academic impact of working online, but importantly, also focused on the wider scope of student learning. The learning that takes place on a social level (such as learning to resolve differences-as Sue pointed out) are all extremely important and I see the children and young people that I support saying that they simply miss these physical connections and opportunities whilst being unable to leave their homes.

    I really like the fact that the different needs of each age group were clearly specified and that the importance of teachers and the connections with their students are relevant to every age group, albeit in an age appropriate format. Also, the cultural aspect of Hong Kong homes generally having less privacy as a result of space, is an important point to take into account when privacy is needed.

    Having had the pleasure of working with Sue in the past, I know how committed she is to all of her students (both academically and emotionally) and that the wellbeing of her students during this challenging time is of paramount importance. The benefits of this current way of working has some ‘silver linings’ and that some interesting opportunities for change may very well result and this article explored the breadth of this current situation in a clear, thoughtful and realistic way. Thank you Sue-your extensive experience is clearly evident and it was a great article!

    Reply
    1. Susan Walter Post author

      Shellee, I agree that there are benefits of this current way of working, and I am excited to consider how we look carefully at the ‘silver linings’ that have come out of this experience already. There certainly are some interesting opportunities for change and pedagogical development for sure, and I look forward to exploring these further in the near future. Thank you for taking the time to share such reflective feedback.

      Reply
  11. Justine

    This is very interesting information about the process of learning teachers and students are adapting. Our children in New Zealand have been well supported by staff who had little time to prepare. The tiring nature of sitting in front of a screen is real. We are doing it because we have no option. The ideas for keeping learning fresh are inspiring, I’ve heard of the science teachers here conducting experiments from their garages, a similarly novel way to make the experience memorable and entertaining. I feel encouraged by the creative ways communities are thinking how to make this work. Also we will all be relieved to get back to school. Every child I have asked unanimously says – school is better. Thanks for your insights and I hope we get out of this soon!

    Reply
    1. Susan Walter Post author

      Justine, it is so pleasing to hear that the young people you have spoken to are looking forward to getting back to school. I know every student and teacher I have spoken to is in complete agreement. Perhaps this experience has highlighted for us all how privileged we are to work in schools with our amazing students every day, and how much fun it actually is. Hard work of course, but the resulting rewards are so worth it!

      Reply

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