School leaders respond to our blended learning poll: Before the Education Ministry’s early-January covid-driven directive that all schools move online again, most private schools had in-person or hybrid models in place. In early December, we ran a survey to see how effective students and parents found hybrid learning. 67% of respondents prefer blended learning to fully-online because of its in-person component. But many say interaction among students and with teachers needs to be upped even further — either online or physically, with safety measures. We took this feedback to several school leaders.
School leaders know that more interactivity is better: Schools are prioritizing interaction in their hybrid models by introducing more group and non-academic elements online, and enforcing good safety measures in person, leaders say. They understand how important interpersonal contact is for students.
Holding live online classes is the key to keeping interaction high, say many school operators. Live online classes offer students the chance to interact with one another and ask questions of their teachers, says GEMS Egypt CEO Ahmed Wahby. This is a more effective model than sending children off to complete tasks in their own time, without live sessions, several leaders say.
Live lessons with compulsory attendance enhance student engagement: Overall student attendance rates were even higher online than in person when Schutz ran live online classes, with compulsory student check ins, as part of its hybrid model, says Assistant Head of School Massimo Laterza. And there was no hit to student performance: the school’s Advanced Placement exam results were even better than those of the previous two years, Laterza says.
Live lessons aim to provide consistency: Implementing a consistent online schedule is a good way of providing continuity for students and parents, says El Alsson Executive Director Karim Rogers. Live classes start at 8am, with children wearing uniforms. “Yes, it’s more screen time, but the kids know what to expect. Parents feel it’s really improved our efficiency,” he adds.
And include non-academic and group activities, tackling loneliness and boredom: Only 3% of parents surveyed felt blended learning models effectively facilitate group work. Many reported their children feeling isolated or unsupported. Schools are setting more group assignments and competitions, including sports and creative activities, to address these issues. “Students like the competitive element and it pushes them to talk to each other,” says Wahby. El Alsson added music, drama, art and PE to give variety to the academic program, says Rogers.
But blended learning models don’t work equally well for all age groups: Our survey saw parents split 50-50 over the question of whether their child’s blended learning model works well for their grade. This makes sense to the teachers we spoke to. “I imagine there’s a giant disparity in what people are reporting depending on how old their kids are,” says AIS Director Kapono Ciotti.
For older students, it’s a good vehicle for content delivery: “We’ve become really good at delivering content online to high school kids, so their in-person time at school can be dedicated to other things,” says Ciotti.
But parents of young children still carry a heavy burden: There are three key issues, says Ciotti: any blended learning model still deprives parents of childcare; parents don’t necessarily know how to teach; and for young children, learning is more skill-based than content-based. “The science of teaching a kid to read — things like phonemic awareness and blended sound — isn’t best delivered virtually.”
So in-person contact for younger children is absolutely vital, as long as it’s safe: “If we’re given the green light to resume a hybrid model, and bring children in — say at 50% capacity — we’d prioritize bringing in primary school students,” says Rogers. “What we’ve been hearing loud and clear from the parents of younger kids is that they need as much in-person time as possible,” says Ciotti.
In-person health and safety remains paramount: 64% of parents in our survey were generally happy with safety measures taken for classroom learning. 27% wanted more student spacing, and others wanted break times eliminated and covid messaging more strongly enforced. Schools take these concerns very seriously, say leaders. Teachers are trained on how to maintain social distancing in school, says Wahby. Several El Alsson parents who work with the NHS and WHO have given lectures on their experiences with covid to raise awareness and promote best practice, says Rogers.
OPEX investment in safety and sanitization remains high: Schutz undertook a lot of construction work to amplify its use of outdoor space, and set up an on-site clinic with covid tests available, says Laterza. El Alsson has hired extra full-time nurses and doctors. Spending on protective equipment like masks and shields remains high, all leaders say.
Still, it’s impossible to completely eliminate in-person risks: With hybrid or fully in-person models in place, older students socialize a lot outside school, says Laterza. Schutz shortened its breaks to try to limit exposure, but couldn’t control what students did outside of school.
Even limiting on-site mixing is hard: Schools are doing everything they can given the limits of their physical infrastructure, but even with a 50% attendance rate you still have crowded areas at peak times of the day, says Ciotti. “We can’t ask teachers to monitor the hallways on top of everything else they’re doing, and we don’t want to bring more people on-site for that.”
For teachers, blended learning essentially requires them to do two jobs in one: School leaders understand parents want more interactive online classes, but say teachers need time to prepare them. “If you’re actually teaching the kids three days in person and two days online, when do you have time for extensive preparation?” Ciotti asks.
Training and pooling knowledge is one way to leverage resources: AIS purchased software to crowdsource teacher training, with teachers sharing skills and resources to build collective knowledge, says Ciotti.
And strong communication systems enable adjustments of the model: “We regularly ask parents and students which modes of teaching are most effective, which platforms work best, what problems they’re having, how they find the schedule —and then adjust accordingly,” says Laterza.
There’s room for improvement, but schools are committed to learning on the job: “From a parent’s perspective, I see there’s room to get better,” says Rogers. “As a manager, I think teachers are generally doing a good job and schools have learned a lot from past experience.” For as long as online or blended learning continues, schools will refine their models to deliver the education students need, he believes.
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