Coronavirus: A Remote Technology Shopping List for Schools

School children wearing masks

I’m reading numerous articles about schools shutting down and going remote to prevent the further spread of COVID-19, more commonly known as Novel Coronavirus. 

I prefer not to speculate on the risk and degree of panic. The reality is that, dangerous or not, it is infectious, and the scientists do not yet have a handle on how to cure it.  We can rightly expect a high degree of caution from the authorities.

To the public high-risk locations include venues where people come together in proximity for periods of time from a wide range of geographic regions.  Schools will be cautious as students spend hours closeted in large groups in tight classrooms. 

The leadership of these institutions might well make decisions to close their doors to protect the health of their students and staff in the event of a significant infectious outbreak.  This is already happening in China, Italy, and the USA (see article).

Online technology to the rescue

Fortunately, we no longer live in a world where the lack of access to a chalkboard and horrible tables covered in rude ink pictures restricts us from learning.

The very thing which parents worry is distracting our children, could be that which could well make this bump in the road just a bump.  It might possibly even become a catalyst to change the education systems we have for so long been critical of.  Our egos as teachers might have to take a knock, when we realise our students are better at using with the technology, we plan to teach them with.  Yet we should leverage this, because group and self-directed learning is a very powerful method for knowledge retention (see our earlier article on Games).

Getting ready to go remote

In conversation with schools and parents we have picked up increasing concern about the lack of skills and experience to manage a fully remote school situation in the event of a quarantine.  The funding for schools and the students is even more limited in Africa and the requisite technologies are not always in place.  There is a disproportionate concentration of capital in wealthier institutions than in the public schools.  This is not the time to get up in arms about this matter though.  Crises always offer opportunities if you are on the lookout for them.  The change being thrown at us by nature should be enough to encourage private sector and government to work together to raise the field for all students.  We could come out of this better than we are going in!

I will continue this article with focus on a “generic school” assuming that funding and support was there, if not in actuality, then in will.  This sets us a target to aim for, and hopefully some guidelines to help educators and parents.  I’ve said this in earlier articles, and I will repeat it here, “Our children’s education is a partnership between the school, teachers, and parents.”  The parent has an increased responsibility when we are online as the teacher is not standing in front of the student.

This article is not a definitive how-to guide as that would take more pages than I’ve got.  The intention is to start us thinking.  If you have more questions, please feel free to contact us with questions or leave comments on the blog or reach out to us in the contact form if you’d like help or advice. 

Create awareness

Every business, including schools, has a management layer.  Schools may be directed by remote governing bodies, and there may varying degrees of autonomy depending on their constitution.  Whichever way a school is incorporated, the principal, head, and management team should ensure they have a plan, understand why they have a plan, and know who is responsible for what.

Ensure everyone is contactable

In a world where privacy is sacrosanct collection of personal data is often frowned upon.  In a case like a COVID-19 outbreak having everyone’s cell phones or equivalent contact details, from teachers to students and parents, is imperative. 

Think about your chain-of-communication, and don’t depend on one person at any point.  Empower people to make decisions in the absence of the boss. There must however be a structure to it to avoid chaos and panic.  There are many different models.  Central communication ensures everyone gets the message, but puts the burden on a small, less connected group of people.  A cascading communication model means more intimate communication as the teachers will know their students better than the admin department, but it can be inefficient, and links in the chain can break.  Think about what works for you, and don’t forget, the parents have their own communication networks.

Think about how you plan to communicate technically, including the cost and efficacy.  You might for example choose WhatsApp, but many people see this as a personal tool and resent having work infringe on them.  They might even mute groups which get too much traffic.  Good old SMS became the domain of the marketer for a long time and we stopped using it.  However, to my surprise recently it seems the marketers have moved somewhere else (for now).  Tools like Twilio and BulkSMS can help you reach people very quickly, assuming you have maintained accurate contact details.

You cannot forget that this data is sacred, and you have been entrusted with it.  Do not leave pages or USB sticks of children’s cell phones and personal email addresses lying around for someone to pick up and sell to the Darknet.  Only people who need-to-know should have access, but not so few people that if the Headmistress is sick the house of cards collapses.

What other logistics should you be thinking of?

Schools are complicated systems with a lot more going on than many corporates.  Aside from the students and teachers, they support administrative, janitorial, security and other staff.  They also need to manage extensive extra mural activities like sports or cultural activities.  Some schools even lease out facilities for additional revenue. 

Schools also have complex supply chains to manage, such as medical services, food and printing.  How would these services be alerted and managed during a protracted closure?  Would you need to use them, and if so, how, if your students and teachers are all at home?

What about the technology?

Yes, we are a technology business, so who are we to talk about things we have no idea about? 

Before we even talk about the technology, I want to make sure you keep something in the back of your mind.  Technology is well-and-good, but can you use it?  I promise you our children can, but can the teachers and parents?  Are you prepared to be eyeball-rolled at by a ten-year-old?

What do schools and teachers need to think about?

When I find an adult, who can’t use a printer or email I am still amazed.  I shouldn’t be.  Several years ago, we partnered with three primary schools in Alexandra.  We went to their campuses and the leadership showed us around.  At one school I found a room packed full of unopened computer boxes.  The headmistress told me the machines had just been delivered. Her teachers had never used computers.  They were unable to even open Windows, let alone set up a lab.  And this is where a significant portion of our schools are today.

The good news is people can learn the basics very quickly.  I’ve seen 80-year-olds adopt cell phones and Skype when they need to speak to their grandkids and share pictures of their cats.  I suspect my mother is better at sharing photos on WhatsApp than I am.  Nothing teaches someone faster than a real need.  Change Managers call this a “burning platform”.  Corona might well be such a need.  I believe there is a fantastic opportunity for open-minded teachers to make a significant difference to their students through experimentation and learning.  I hope our learnings during this event are retained and we see revolutionary changes established.

Some thoughts for teachers

  • I’m sure most teachers know the tools they use at their schools.  This might include a Learning Management System (LMS) and other tools.  Make sure you really know how to use these tools as in many cases you are just touching the surface.  How would you use the LMS if you never got to see your student?
  • Teach yourself to an online collaboration tool such as Skype, Zoom, or BlueJeans.  Many tools offer free packages but often our schools are subsidised. As teacher you probably have access already.  These systems allow you to stream video and audio of yourself or your presentations to many students and have one-way or two-way conversations with them.
  • Make sure you have a device which works with these tools and that you have enough bandwidth every day.  Ensure you know how to use the basics like getting onto the network, what to do when the network goes down, how to use the camera and microphone, and how to turn these off when you decide to take a break and scratch your belly with a loud “aaaah”!
  • It is difficult to stay engaged for extended periods online.  An hour online is like a day in the class and you need to come up with creative ways of keeping the students engaged.  A full day online is unheard of, but we may find ourselves testing the boundaries.  A typical model involves blending different forms of learning to keep the brain moving around.  This involves a lot more preparation and design, and in the case where you find yourself working from home tomorrow, you might have to think on your feet.  Be prepared to experiment and research, ideally with peers first. There are many apps which can help you,
  • Share your learnings with each other.  Teachers and schools can use the same tools they deploy for students between themselves.  There is an amazing opportunity for us to create a community devoted to serving our students and we should leverage this.
  • Preparation, setup and technique is much more important when you are online.  In a class, you can see what your kids are seeing.  Not so much when you are online.  Before you start, test and get used to the environment.  Use a friend to critique.  Check that lighting is good, and the audio is strong.  Nothing turns an online person away faster than an echoing or stuttering audio stream or a dark, grainy video.  You know this, think of Netflix.
  • Don’t talk from a room full of distractions.  My study is full of gadgets.  Every time I have a meeting from home, I waste time explaining why I have a ukulele and showing them the one song I’ve worked out so far.
  • Give the students lots of breaks and try use formats other than just “talking-heads”.  For example, try get the children using discussion boards or crowd-sourced answering platforms like Kahoot or AnswerGarden.

What do Parents need to Know?

  • Accept that the teachers will need to engage with you more often to ensure the students are still online. 
  • This might impact your own work-life.  Have you arranged the necessary bandwidth, food, and environment for your children to work?  Are they safe at home? 
  • Try and get to know the tools they will be using as much as possible.  You might find apps which you can use at your office as well.  This situation is not just impacting schools, but businesses too.
  • Be appreciative that the teachers are learning themselves and hold back on the cynicism.  ‘Online isn’t as good as in-class’ is not what we want to hear, the situation might have been imposed on the teachers.  Give them positive feedback and suggestions.  Criticism will just demoralise them and reduce the quality of their engagement with your children. 

I can guarantee you from my own experience that once the momentum is there online can be just as engaging as class, if not more, because people like me who were always in trouble for disrupting the class can be muted out.

  • Keep an eye on your home resources.  This includes technical stuff like bandwidth, but also simple things you might forget, like food and water.  You can go through a day online and only realise you haven’t had a glass of water by dinner.  Healthy food healthy mind still applies online.
  • If children are walking around with devices, have you thought about their personal security?  Not all kids live in secure complexes and many catch public transport.  The schools and parents have a responsibility to ensure that their safety isn’t compromised.

And the Children?

  • The younger children might need help typing and getting around for a while, but most older children will just get it.
  • Parents should be there to bridge the gap between the children and the teachers, but it won’t be long before the kids are going “okay you can go now”.

Okay now the technology

Right, so what do you need to do to equip your school technically?

  • Bandwidth is foundational.  In a remote model this means everyone needs their own bandwidth.  This is no simple feat.  South African bandwidth is expensive. I am hoping the large cellular providers come to the party for Education during this crisis. 
  • Power is another challenge.  If you are teaching, you can’t afford to go down in the middle of a lesson.  We can’t expect teachers to all go out and buy generators.  This might mean teachers could be teaching from the campus, or from Mugg and Bean, although in a viral outbreak this might not be viable.  Think about your backup plan.  A laptop battery can last for a few hours but is your internet connection on the same battery?  How do you communicate with your students when the link goes down?  Do you have an SMS or WhatsApp group for your students on your phone? 
  • Technology suppliers often give education providers support in terms of software license subsidies.  Do not be scared to ask.  To be cold about it, they want the children on their platforms because it locks them in later and puts pressure on IT guys like me when they arrive in corporate. 

Technologies you should be ensuring you have:

  • You have got to have a way of providing content and assessment to students.  Traditionally this was a Learning Management System like Moodle or Blackboard.  The complexity of the LMS depends on many factors and I am seeing a move away from them, but they still play a role. Some LMS platforms cater for many of the other tools as well, it’s up to you and the school to decide what to use as a group. 
  • Collaboration such as video conferencing would obviously be fundamental in this scenario.
  • You would also want to be looking for a-synchronous tools for communication such as email, text messaging, discussion boards, and alternatives.
  • There are a wide variety tools out there to improve engagement.  My advice is that you identify what you are trying to do and Google or speak to your peers to find the right tool.  Share!  People have learned that lesson before, the solution will be out there.
  • In a protracted outage you need to think about how you will handle assessments and moderation.  In the younger grades the LMS platforms or design tools can help you at least develop online quizzes.  When you get into higher cognitive functioning, such as considered essays, this becomes tricky.  Are you prepared to accept a degree of cheating?  If not, how can you ensure the student is responding truthfully?  I have had a broad range of companies trying to convince me their assessment tools can address this, for astronomical amounts of money.  I have yet to find a system I can’t work out how to cheat in the sales meeting, and our kids are smarter than me.  There are ways of getting them to engage, you must think out the box though.  Approaches like gamification, competitive assessments, and group exercises are ways of changing the landscape a bit and making them responsible for their own integrity.
  • Not all contact needs to be “talking-heads”.  In fact, we are finding that the less facetime and the more content-time the better, much to my relief because I have a radio-face. 
  • Talking over a PowerPoint is about the simplest way of doing this but remember your technique.  Do not just read the PowerPoint.  Neuroscience has proven that repeating the visual content audibly actually reduces the learning impact.  Design slides to support the learning.  If you are talking, talk around the supporting material.
  • If you are fortunate enough to have access to design tools or a design studio, awesome!  Design is a time consuming and costly exercise, but well-designed eLearning can save a lot of time which can be used for moderating and “guiding” students.
  • Think about how you could record sessions for students who can’t attend (or nodded off).  Many of the video conferencing tools build this in but people forget to use the features.  You can for example buy secure storage on Zoom for sharing of videos. If you aren’t worried about public access then you can send to YouTube, remembering GDPR and POPIA if your kids are speaking.  But why not?  The more content out there, the less the broader community needs to panic and generate their own content.  Teachers could focus on coaching their learners rather than dragging out a textbook day after day.

In parting

As a parting note, I want to share a story I read in a book I unfortunately cannot find.  I will update as soon as I have the reference.  The author spoke about a university where the top medical students were doing a search-and-rescue practical in snowy mountains. The pass rates on this exercise were vastly different from physical class.  What they eventually realised was that the context of being in the wilderness was something a top-class performer might not have had the skills for.  These students had not learned the “technology” required to survive in the wild, like ropes, gas stoves, layered clothing etc.  The students had to learn the technology before they learned the actual subject, which was about stabilising a patient in the wild. Because of this, less of the curriculum was absorbed.

Don’t overwhelm your students with technology.  Sure, they are undoubtedly better than us at the stuff, but keep it simple.  Try and maintain standards across the school or the children will be shifting between Google, Apple and Microsoft between lessons, and nothing will be going in other than which technology is better.

Good luck with this new journey.  Please feel free to contact us if you have any questions, suggestions, or need help.