Schools in Europe are closing, here is what we can learn from teachers in Asia.

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In 2003

Table of contents:

I was 16, and a secondary school student in Hong Kong. The school had to close for three weeks in the month before my final exam due to the SARS outbreak. As it was 2003, the school did not give us any online support. Even though the students were in constant contact with each other through MSN, there was no infrastructure in place for the teachers to contact us through let alone a digital learning platform to download lesson materials from. Consequently, we were left to our own devices to study for our final exams.

Jump to 17 years later and Asian schools are much better prepared. With a saturation of laptops and mobile devices in the schools, not having an online learning response would most likely be deemed as neglect that schools would not be getting away with in Hong Kong. In Europe, however, schools have been less proactive in making plans for distance learning, and many of them were blindsided by the actions taken by the various governments. On March 4th, according to UNESCO, 290 million students were currently out of school during COVID-19. With a new wave of European governments announcing school closures yesterday, this number will only grow bigger.

As many schools in Europe are closing next week here are 5 tips on what we can learn from the educators in Asia. 

1. Synchronous vs. asynchronous learning


With synchronous learning, your students follow a timetable and have direct instruction from the teacher much in the same way of a regular school day, except the interactions are done virtually through teleconferencing.
You could make a new time-table specifically for this or stick to your regular school schedule, breaks and all. David Lovelin, the Hong Kong International school principal, shares that they first experienced a school shut down in the fall of 2019 during the Hong Kong protests, ”At first, we gave teachers the freedom to do what they wanted to do. Within a couple of days, we realized we needed to keep everybody on our bell schedule and move toward a synchronous learning system.” Now in January 2020, they decided again to go with a synchronous learning system using Zoom lectures, so their systems still look very similar to as if students were still on campus.
It’s important to remember that this will be time-consuming and exhausting for teachers, especially as we transfer this idea to Europe, where teachers in some countries have many more contact hours. However, be mindful that you don’t need to teach or lecture the full hour. Give short instructions and leave your video conference on for students who need guidance and have questions.
The advantage of synchronous learning is that students will hopefully experience a sense of structure as they can stick to their regular class schedule and know who is available for them when they have questions.

Boramy Sun from Shanghai Community International School shared this gem on how to make virtual learning agreements clear to students in synchronous learning.


Taking a register during synchronous learning is also more straightforward. Teachers can easily keep a record of which student was online or not. But how long does a student need to stay online for? Does every student need to log on every lesson?


Asynchronous learning is perhaps easier to set up. The teacher uploads instructions and lesson materials to the online platform and students can complete the work at their own time.
Furthermore, teachers can convert existing presentations to narrated videos by recording a screencast. Ideally, your instruction videos will not be longer than 10 minutes. During a regular class, you can check for understanding during your instructions. Teachers will need to create a substitute for this. They can do this by making these video’s interactive with tools such as EdPuzzle and LessonUp. These two tools also have a big library of instruction videos to choose from so that teachers won’t always need to make your own.
Even when you are choosing for asynchronous learning, it might be a good idea to hold a weekly check-in conference calls with your class to communicate clearly on what needs to happen, to see how everybody is doing and to keep a sense of community.

So which to choose?

I held a poll this morning on twitter and early results point towards a preference of a mixture of both.

Warren Apel of the American School in Japan says, “It’s the perfect opportunity to think outside the bell schedule, and have synchronous or asynchronous experiences when they best support learning.”

Craig McNeill of the British School in Hong Kong says, “It does depend on the age of the students. We do a mixture of both but it varies in style and content depending on the age.” and “I really think the context of your school decides. What do your students, staff and parents need? What’s realistic? What can be accomplished? What will be most successful?”

Boramy Sun reiterates this and shares, “One of our biggest deciding factor was thinking about what our teachers, students and parents are already comfortable using. We have had successes with starting small and building up so no one is overwhelmed. If you can, get them familiar early!”

The International Baccalaureate has just released a guidance on online and blended learning which included this useful table for synchronous and asynchronous activities.

2. Choose your platform and stick to what you know.

The best advice that keeps coming back again and again on this is to keep it simple and to stick to what you already know. Your platform is where your students will find your lesson materials, instruction, and links to video conferences.

The platform is the foundation of your online learning. Any tool that teachers use must be linked to on the platform. Any materials that are shared must be found there. If you let teachers pick and choose where they share what it will become chaotic and unclear for students what is expected of them.

One platform

Where are your teachers going to upload their lesson materials? Most schools are bought into either the Google ecosystem with Google for Education or Microsoft ecosystem with Office365. Then there are the iPad/Macbook schools who might have a hybrid of Managed Apple ID’s in which case they can use Schoolwork or they also have either Google for Education or Office365. You need a place to share this links to the videoconferences or lesson materials that you will share. The big 3 above Apple, Google and Microsoft all have an educational platform that can be used. Either iTunes U/Schoolwork, Google Classroom or Microsoft Teams.
But there are more possibilities to choose from, and again it’s important here to stick to what you already know. So if you are already using a platform don’t switch but keep using that one and get everyone who was not already on-board on the train. Other platforms could include Showbie, It’s learning, Managebac (for international schools), Canvas, Blackboard, Edmodo, etc.
If you are just getting started with this and don’t have a platform in place then either choose one from the ecosystem that you are give Showbie a try as it’s the easiest and quickest to set up.
Remember you can pick only 1 platform for the entire staff in your school. So, communicate this well and provide last-minute training where necessary.

Microsoft Teams, Google Meet or Zoom

When it comes to video conferences, there are really only three flavors to choose from, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams or Zoom. Keep it simple by staying within your school’s ecosystem. This will be the biggest influencer of what videoconferencing will look like at your school and will decide whether you will go with Google Meet, Microsoft Teams or Zoom. In essence, they all do the same thing and work in the same way. A teacher can start a meeting, share the link with the students in the platform, turn on the camera and/or share their screen.
Staying within your ecosystem will greatly reduce friction. 

One of your tech-savvy teachers might come in and suggest using Youtube-live, Instagram stories or Twitch as streaming services. Don’t let yourself be distracted by this, not only are these GDPR nightmares, they’re not scalable solutions for your staff.

3. Create a plan, practice, reiterate, communicate.

The Southeast Asia Computer Science Teacher’s Association has kindly collected the school-wide plans of 30 different schools for you to read, learn, and borrow from.

Online Learning – For teachers who share

Practice and iterate

In many parts of Europe schools are not closed (yet). Choices for schools to be closed are taken without little warning. Your school could be open today and closed tomorrow. This means you need to have your plan ready and tested before this happens. Get together with a group of teachers and try out your workflows. Don’t just do this with the ICT-leaders in your school but include the less tech-savvy as well. Try seeing it from your students’ perspective. What instructions will they need for each digital learning tool you are using? Do a dry-run with your form group while they are still in school so they can see how it works as well. Be willing to learn alongside the students.

Communicate expectations

When schools are closing it’s important to manage expectations of students, teachers, and parents about what online learning will look like. Set expectations and communicate them clearly.

School closures happened so abruptly in Europe that many students think they suddenly have an extra vacation. Teachers can be quite happy to go along with this and skeptical of how students would behave via online learning. This all comes down to setting expectations. One of the teachers shared his/her experiences “…If you teach Secondary explain to them that an effective online session is as much as what they give back. Nothing worse than trying to engage with unresponsive kids on the other side. It’s much more awkward when you’re online.”

UWC Singapore made this graphic to set expectation for students.

The American School in Japan boldly shared their vision of learning alongside their explanation of what Distance Learning at ASIJ will look like in their plan.

What I love here is that there is an explicit acceptance there that learning online will not be the same as offline, but their North Star, their vision of learning remains unchanged and informs what their online learning will look like.

Take stock of what communication channels you currently have going to all of your stakeholders. What channels will you use to reach what audience for which purpose?
Again I will refer to the ASIJ plan, which made a very clear table in which they specify the channel, audience, description and how to access it.

Who can teachers, parents, students go to with when they have a certain question? What channel should they use? 

4. Shifting pedagogy

One of the things that stood out for me the most is how practices that, when it comes to teaching materials and lesson design, the schools who have had 1:1 initiatives for years are much better equipped than those who have not. One of the added benefits of schools that have been using digital pedagogy is that they have slowly, but surely been building a time and place independent curriculum. As a result, teachers are already familiar with the teacher tools that can be used, how to create engaging digital lessons and use formative assessment to keep checking if students understand; fewer adaptations to their pedagogy is necessary.
These teachers are already used to creating lectures in Nearpod, are recording videos in Clips or Screencastify, formative assessment using Bookwidgets are giving digital feedback in Showbie,
For teachers who have never got on the digital pedagogy train, there will be a steep learning curve.

I want to refer again to the plans of the American School in Japan who have phrased this change in pedagogy beautifully in their distance learning plan.

In shifting to distance learning, it is especially crucial for teachers to think of themselves as designers of experiences and facilitators of learning (as opposed to distributors of knowledge). Distance learning places a premium on a teacher’s ability to think more deeply about how to introduce content, design experiences, and coach students with thoughtful, specific feedback. Teachers need to establish conditions where students have a clear sense of purpose, opportunities to express themselves, and experiences that allow them to work toward mastery. This will help students stay motivated and engaged in learning, even when they are not physically at school.

In my keynotes about creating change in schools, I often refer to the Knoster Framework for complex changes in an organization. Covid-19 and the world-wide school closures is a big an incentive as they will come. As necessity is the mother of invention, Covid-19 will accelerate a change in digital pedagogy world-wide.

The incentive might be clear, but to what extent can teachers’ skills be upgraded in a matter of days? Be honest about the capabilities of your staff, the examples you see on twitter coming out of Asia are mostly from schools who have had technology at their expos for a while. Set realistic expectations for yourself and your staff. If you have no systems in place, perhaps it will mean that teachers will just email pdf worksheets every week to their students, and that’s it, and that’s ok.
Dr. Jennifer Wathall of the University of Hong Kong shared an interesting graphic about this. Check if you are surviving, striving, arriving, or thriving and progress from there.

Most, if not all of these tools you could use are currently offering free versions of their services. While this is great, the plethora of tools on offer can overwhelm you, and many tools teachers are using are already free. If you are overwhelmed and not sure where to begin, let your EdTech integrator guide you to what would be suitable for your school. If you don’t have one in your school, don’t be afraid to give me a shout in the chatbox below.
If you are already using some digital tools, again, stick to what you know and keep it simple. Don’t overwhelm your students with a different tool every day and talk to your colleagues to create a standard of what tools to use and include this in your plan.

5. Community well-being

Student well-being

Whether you are doing synchronous or asynchronous learning, check-in with how the students are feeling and doing on a regular basis. Students are at home and bored. For many of them, you are the facilitator of contact with their classmates. Give them time to chat and blow off steam with each other during lessons as well. Share posters that promote wellbeing for students like UWC Singapore did. What do equity and equality mean for your community? Do all of your students have access to a device at home? Do you have extra laptops/tablets to give to students who don’t? Do all students have access to a quiet learning space at home? Closing of the school will inevitably expose the inequalities amongst students, those who will have devices, those who will have quiet learning spaces, those who will have support from parents. While this might be inevitable, have a conversation with your staff on how you can make your education more equitable for all of your students.

Teacher wellbeing

Take care of yourself. Communicate your out of office hours and set a time for yourself (or better yet as a whole school policy) after what time you will no longer respond to questions. Follow Craig Mcneill’s advice and delete the education apps of your phone.

I’ll leave you with this reassuring thought. In 2003 when SARS hit Hong Kong the (i)GCSE’s exam board reassured us if grades turned out to be really bad across the board, our predicted grades would count rather than our exam grades. 

In the end, there was no need for this. Both the IB and the GCSE results that year were the best the school had ever had. 

The explanations for this are unclear, and I love philosophizing on this, but during a time when students taking ownership of their own learning is such a hot top in education, perhaps this will be their opportunity to show that they can. 

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