The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic was felt across the education system when it struck in early 2020, with schools quickly pivoting to provide remote learning and virtual lessons.
Technology was at the heart of every school’s reaction, with teachers and pupils having to adapt to this new kind of learning almost overnight. Digital learning platforms formed a key aspect of this approach, with teachers and schools seeking to retain as much of a connection to pupils as was possible when everyone was isolated at home.
In this blog, Mark Ramsay, Deputy Head Teacher of Senior School at George Watson’s College, explains how the school has responded to the crisis and how they have used technology to bridge the gap of the ‘stay at home’ order while keeping the learning going during lockdown periods.
What kind of technology was the school using before 2020?
The College’s eLearning programme was already in an advanced state before last year, having been introduced several sessions ago. This covered the whole College, with the Junior School pupils being provided with an iPad which stayed in school, while the Senior School had a ‘bring your own device’ programme allowing them to bring in their own tech from laptops to iPads.
Learning tech – predominately the Google Workspace for Education suite of applications was also used regularly across the College, enabling us to have a standardised software and approach.
And how was this used in the classroom?
Technology was widely used across the College, and as with any new approach, it was more readily adopted in some areas and subjects than others. The pandemic only accelerated the pace of that change – it was no longer optional and we all needed to use digital platforms like Google Classroom and Google Meet daily.
What new kinds of technology did the school adopt throughout lockdown?
Primarily the newest tech introduced were peripheral devices – every teacher pre-pandemic had a Chromebook or iPad for use at home and in school, and this was added to through the use of headsets to block out background noise, additional webcams, and tablet technology for writing on.
As a physics teacher, I found it much easier to explain equations through drawing technology on a tablet rather than just talking through them on a screen.
We also use Screencastify or Loom video recording technology for lessons. A typical lesson in the home or at school involves some kind of stimulus activity then assessment – this could be with direct teacher interaction or pre-recorded content. This was a huge help as pupils didn’t have the same access to teachers so the recordings could fill the gaps and gave them the freedom to learn at their own pace.
How did pupils adapt to these changes?
Across the age range, it was of course very challenging in the beginning, especially in the Junior School where the amount of home support required was much greater than Senior School.
But pupils adapted generally very well. In Senior School, we ran series of ‘digital days’ when pupils returned to school between the first and second lockdowns, where pupils worked as if they were at home, using the tools as if they were remote learning. This ironed out a lot of logistical issues, as pupils could bring up any problems they were having and address them there and then. This hugely improved home learning when we went back into lockdown.
In the second lockdown, our processes become more refined as we balanced the people, processes and technology. We set a target of a minimum of 1 in every 3 lessons containing live synchronous contact with a teacher, which everyone met and many teachers exceeded. When they weren’t in live contact with a teacher, pupils used other messaging platforms to confirm that their activities and assignments were being completed successfully.
And how did the teachers adapt?
There was a lot of experiential learning for teachers as they adapted to the new processes. All of our teachers already had Chromebook or iPad experience, having been given one for use at work and home several years beforehand.
They had also experienced the Google Classroom format already as learners themselves on courses, and there were always Google help guides and training at hand with which they could gain Google Classroom teacher certifications.
What were the biggest technological challenges you encountered? And how did you overcome them?
Our primary challenge was access to an internet connection. All staff and pupils had access to devices, it was typically the speed of their internet connection which was the largest issue. This was especially true when there were families all working from home who were also on the same bandwidth. This is where the recorded lessons were helpful, as they reduced the strain of live video streaming on Wi-Fi connections.
What benefits of using this new technology did you see?
From a staff perspective, they have developed more capacity and knowledge about using digital technology. Technology should always form one of the many facets of teacher approaches, but now it is becoming a fundamental requirement. We need to exemplify to pupils the digital skills they will be using beyond school and into their working lives.
Compared to a couple of decades ago, pupils need to be totally comfortable and confident with the digital technologies used today in the world of work. They need to know how to work safely online and collaborate with a remote team, skills which they undoubtedly developed through their remote learning.
From a teacher’s perspective, the work/life balance has become easier to maintain in certain aspects, with more time to spend at home with the family.
What kind of creative uses of technology were seen over last year?
Across the College, teachers and pupils have grown to become very creative with their use of technology. For example, the music department edited together videos of individual instruments being played into one combined performance. The P.E department likewise got pupils to ‘kick’ the ball to each other in an edited together video, which helped them develop their motor skills as well as their digital skills.
We also hosted our open morning and parents’ evenings completely virtually, which were very successful.
Many thanks to Mark Ramsay of George Watson’s College for his contribution to this blog.
You can also find a blog from George Watson’s College on ten things they learnt about learning online here.