1. Blog

How to transition into a fully functioning online school

You may currently be offering a form of online teaching or support to remote students in a bid to keep things moving. But what do you need to do to make this more of a permanent operation with a bit of sustainability built in?

The current global pandemic may not, in the end, be quite a Black Swan moment which changes everything - but it will certainly accelerate change in the industry.

What was a drift towards digital teaching in ELT will become something of a dash. In the short term, it will be the only opportunity for schools to earn revenues in a lockdown. In the long term, it’s likely to be a normal model for education. But how do you make that switch from classroom to online?

Be willing to learn

The first thing to do, is to harness your humility. If you teach, you may be used to being the expert in the room. If you run the organisation, you may be used to being the one that people turn to. But right now, you’ll have to get used to the idea that you’re not an expert. And neither are your students. You are all entering a new environment and there’s nothing wrong with acknowledging that, even at a time when they are supposedly paying for your superior knowledge. Remember though, that they are expecting teachers to know the subject you’re teaching, not so much the mechanics of delivery. That accomodation and understanding may not last forever, but for now, exploit it - point students in the right direction, but get feedback from them. Ask questions of them, of your peers, of IT, of Google. We’re all in a new place now.

It’s about teaching not tech

Those conversations separate the technology from the teaching, and that’s important. Teachers may be using video links, apps, wikis, discussion forums, blogs and commenting platforms, but the common denominator in all of them is not the tech, but the conversations. The role of the teacher (to teach) and of the students (to learn) doesn’t alter with the technology, so concentrate on finding mechanics of engagement that work for teachers and your learners, not on using the ‘right’ tools. Don’t force everyone to use Microsoft Teams if they find it clunky, let them find their own way (for now at least) and use whatever people are happy with. This is the phase where everyone is finding their way - consolidating the technical side can come later.

Keep the teacher visible and available

And, as in traditional teaching, the key point remains the visibility of the teacher - so make sure that that presence remains obvious. That teachers log in and check in with students as often as they would in a real life situation and that they remain available to students. They should respond to questions in a reasonable timeframe, they shouldn’t set projects and then disappear, unable to clarify or answer questions and so on... All this requires balance - not least in work/life - so teachers need to set expectations and let students know what their work hours will be, but make sure that when they say they are ‘around for questions’ that they are.

Be ready to be one big IT team

The trouble is that some of those questions will be IT-related… not everyone’s forté. So it’s worthwhile building good dialogue between your IT and teaching teams, not least to learn the answers to the top half dozen or so questions that students will raise - browser problems, password issue, pop-ups and so on. Build a repository of FAQs to siphon off some of those issues so that students can trouble-shoot for themselves and, ideally, support one another. The entire organisation will be going through a period of upskilling - learning new tech and how to use it, and that will become part of the culture pretty quickly. Encourage everyone to share resources, gleaned from LinkedIn, YouTube, Creative Commons content, and Open Education Resources (OERs), which are often replete with video, articles, lesson plans, and more to guide you all through these formative days.

Keep it engaging - like a good day in the classroom

The notion of students supporting each other can extend to the classroom too. Just as you would ask a student to lead a discussion in the room, so you can get them to lead in a Zoom chat. Get them to form peer networks or buddy systems and make sure the feedback channels are open (and welcoming). You are trying to harness the tech into supporting engagement, conversation and learning - it’s not a question of creating content on an LMS and letting them get on with it. The most rewarding days for teachers are not when everyone listened silently to a lecture but when conversation became natural and animated and students learned through that. You are trying to replicate that. It won’t always work, but always working towards it will help hugely.

Remember you’re all changing and learning from each other

The oddity of all this is that you’re trying to create a tech-led organisation where the technology itself is barely noticed. That takes time and a culture shift, but most of all patience and an open-source approach. The entire organisation needs to see this as a shared challenge - if the tech isn’t great, it’s not the fault of the IT team, it’s a problem for all. And much of the progress will come from work-arounds when the initial set of tools prove to be cumbersome and unfriendly. Students, teachers, management and IT all have an equal say in a ‘why not try…’ culture, where curating the suggestions around content, platform and contact apps become normal. While bearing in mind that this will also be a period of continuous change - platform choices may linger but content and contact will change a lot.

By the time you’ve all got used to WhatsApp, everyone will have moved elsewhere. And that, in the end, is often the hardest challenge - that change is constant. You are iterating to a different approach constantly. Some organisations find that difficult, but the technology is not static and neither should you be. The bonus is that the tendency is to become more intuitive and user-friendly, so the skills become less of an issue. As with all evolutions in the workplace, it comes down to culture more than the tools