You told us what you thought about e-learning. We took that feedback to schools. Our recent Blackboard e-learning poll showed many parents want to see online platforms being more interactive, offering more feedback from teachers and relying less on parents, as well as providing a longer academic year or reduced tuition fees as compensation for missed classroom learning. We asked three leading school operators — CIRA CEO Mohamed El Kalla, American International Schools Director Kapono Ciotti, and GEMS Egypt CEO Ahmed Wahby — for their reaction.
The key takeaways: Since the rapid shift to online learning in mid-March, schools have been assessing its efficacy and planning changes to the platforms. Key changes include upping the use of engaging media like video and interactive group conference calls; increasing the scope of platforms to cover all subjects in detail; scheduling more regular feedback sessions with parents and students; and increasing training and technical support for teachers.
But the sizable refunds some parents have been asking for? Not likely to happen.
School leaders know there’s a substantial burden on the parents of young children to support their learning. 81% of parents said that parental involvement has been a feature of online learning, especially for parents of young children. But this is difficult to overcome entirely. Apps including Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts and Zoom are fine for older students, but are not designed for younger users without parental involvement. “Any good online system for high school students doesn’t need any engagement from parents at all,” says El Kalla. But between Kindergarten 1 and Grade 7, there is a need for parents to ensure basic commitment and behavior from younger children, who can’t be expected to sit down and study alone, he adds.
Part of the challenge is that under normal circumstances, school doubles as cost-effective childcare — and the pandemic is highlighting just how important that role is, says Ciotti. In the US, even private K-12 schools are significantly cheaper than most good nursery schools, which could cost USD 2k a month or more unless they are publicly funded. For small children who are not yet self-reliant, it’s unavoidable that parents will be providing childcare when they are at home, he adds.
But schools are increasing the scope of their online learning tools to engage students and check their understanding. 56% of parents who responded to our survey weren’t totally convinced about the effectiveness of e-learning tools. GEMS plans to expand the lesson length and subject offerings on Microsoft Teams — which initially focused on core subjects like English, math and science — by September, says Wahby. CIRA had introduced some follow-up online lessons towards the end of the last academic year, after completing the curriculum, to offer extra support to children who need it. They intend to include this in a more systematic way in the coming academic year, says El Kalla.
Covid-19 calls for a move to more at-home project-based learning — which shouldn’t need substantial parental involvement, says Ciotti. This involves children undertaking longer-term projects, inquiries or service. The input needed varies according to age group, and younger children will still need help receiving instructions from their teachers. But this shouldn’t be significant. Flipgrid is one program AIS has used successfully to give smaller children instructions for project-based learning, where a parent’s job is just to facilitate the child watching video instructions. “That’s 90% of what we should be asking parents to do,” Ciotti adds.
A lot is being demanded of teachers, so schools are monitoring classes and providing more training. Only 8% of parents felt teachers communicated clearly, 10% found teacher feedback effective, and only 6% said teachers provide extra support. But teachers have been making huge efforts under difficult circumstances, school administrators emphasize. School leadership needs to equip teachers with the technology and the methodology to teach online, says Wahby. CIRA has increased its training hours by 40% this summer, according to El Kalla. And AIS is dedicating its entire week-and-a-half orientation period in August to teacher professional development and preparation for using online platforms, says Ciotti. Regular, unscheduled monitoring of online classes to understand how they could be improved has also been part of their approach from the beginning, say both Wahby and El Kalla.
Schools are diffusing technical know-how to help troubleshoot technical issues: Although 72% of parents essentially found the e-learning platforms user-friendly, technical challenges were frequently cited. To address this, the schools we spoke to have invested substantially in upgrading teachers’ internet packages and providing them with equipment and training. CIRA has also been working with partners, including Microsoft, to look at technical options like switching to lower bandwidth. Students in areas with less developed infrastructure are offered extra time to submit assignments online in case of unreliable internet, says El Kalla.
Virtual classroom software is available but expensive — and once again tech issues could still impede its efficacy. Many parents were in favor of a virtual classroom setup so children could work more independently, and school representatives say the software is quite accessible. Flipgrid, Seesaw, Google classroom and Schoology are all very effective, says Ciotti. But whether a school uses one of these, or a combination of Microsoft 365, Google’s G Suite and its own learning management system, as CIRA does, costs add up. They also rely on a strong internet connection and the availability of good devices, which not all families have. And a full shift to a virtual classroom also makes the global need to establish standards for online assessment and exam systems even more pressing, says El Kalla.
Assessment is a big challenge… Only 6% of parents in our poll ranked assessment at the top of what e-learning platforms do well. Effective feedback and assessment requires more channels of communication between parents and teachers, says Wahby. GEMS is arranging to hold more regular scheduled online or phone conversations between teachers and parents to discuss the well-being and performance of students, he says.
…but also an area that online learning could accelerate, by connecting students to the real world. AIS aims to assess students on their content skill and conceptual understanding in a way that mirrors the real world. Online learning has actually accelerated this process, says Ciotti. “In an online setting, students build their alliance between school and the real world. Students can find something on YouTube. They can publish their own blog. A real audience exists online, beyond the teacher.” But this does put the onus on schools to be especially mindful of online safety, because the internet can be a dangerous place for children, he adds.
Allocating more time for questions and peer-to-peer interaction is crucial to students’ wellbeing. Only 16% of parents put participation and interaction at the top of what e-learning platforms are good at. And schools understand that more needs to be done to facilitate this. That’s exactly why schools are advocating strongly for a blended learning model next year, says El Kalla — because even partial, physically-distanced interaction would solve many full-class participation challenges, and offer the social benefits of peer-to-peer interaction. Until a blended learning model is implemented, ideas like allocating more time for check-in or question sessions with teachers are seen as very positive by all the school leaders.
The bottom line? Schools want to hear and respond to parents’ concerns. But that doesn’t mean tuition refunds. Almost half the parents who participated in our poll wanted to see changes made to e-learning platforms before the next academic year. School leaders we spoke to have heard the message, but maintain that large refunds are just not possible, as school costs have actually increased during the lockdown period. If schools cannot cover their costs, the reality is they will go out of business and their services will no longer be available, says Ciotti.
A longer academic year might be in the cards though, says Wahby. “We are looking at different options, including a longer academic year, a longer academic day, or having more concentrated learning time — with the focus on learning and fewer breaks. There are different possibilities.”
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