Today is February 16th, 2020, and instead of looking out at the Shanghai skyline (not much to see from my third-floor apartment), I am looking out that sun setting over Patong beach in southern Thailand. I am here as it felt like a safer place to be, given the uncertainty in China, during the COVID 19 outbreak.
I am very grateful to be blogging from this spot, the weather is beautiful, and the cool sea breeze greets me every morning with its refreshing embrace. Having said that, I find myself yearning to be back at school in Shanghai, preparing for my tech integration sessions, media lessons, ISTE conference, the FLL robotics competition. I miss seeing the students every day and have empathy for them and my colleagues during these uncertain times. And, as it stands we find ourselves in the midst of a virtual learning revolution – and that my friends are where I draw strength from.
Although I felt fully prepared for virtual learning, I did feel that maybe some of my colleagues and students and their families felt like a character in Hunger Games during the countdown to grab their weapons and open up the supply boxes – not knowing who would survive and what would lie within! Except our faculty and students are not expecting to find weapons, but instead apps, training, and tutorials inside the boxes. Moreover, they are not fighting for their lives, but instead, they are fighting to learn virtually and keep our community going strong – once a dragon always a dragon!
What’s Inside the Box?
When I first learned that our school was preparing for virtual learning I was tremendously excited about what we could achieve with technology. Furthermore, it struck me that every teacher was without question being upskilled in a way that I could never have imagined. They were about to address, with or without knowing, every single ISTE Educator standard (particularly learner) over the coming hours, days and weeks.
That being said, we wanted to limit what tools (apps) we would put inside the survival kit for all involved. My reasoning for this is that although teachers certainly have the content and pedagogical knowledge (not to mention passion to teach), they may not have all the technical knowledge; according to TPACK So, armed with this information, I put the following apps inside the survival box.
We have been using this at our school for a few years now, mostly to deliver resources, assign summative and formative dates, communicate through the internal (asynchronous) messaging service. The students and their parents are competent users of it, given its ubiquitous use in school, and several coffee mornings that we have put on to get everyone confident and competent.
However, we hit an (unanticipated) snag quite early on. I dare say that many of you are aware of the Great Firewall here in China. Now here’s the thing, ManageBac had moved their servers from outside of China into China, in order to improve performance. It sounds like a great idea, right? Well yes and no – the problem is that a LOT of our students and faculty currently aren’t in China, so they started to experience a range of issues; most importantly uploading files-projects etc! Now as you can imagine this caused a bit of a problem. Enter Microsoft Teams…
Our technology department has been using Teams for over a year now, and we love all the accessories that come with it! From instant messaging to integrated OneNote notebooks and from GIFs to hosting live events for up to 10000 people!
This is the only app, from the survival box, that I have not introduced to faculty, although all the students I teach use; this decision was made earlier this year as we did not want to overburden staff with yet another new app – but the time is nigh! And, given that this will be a new app for almost all of our community I set about creating a few video tutorials to help everyone on their way. I have also started my first ever online live lessons with my students and co-teacher – and I simply loved it! I loved being able to talk to my students again, and it was a great opportunity to re-establish connections.
I also created a team (group) in teams for all the faculty I work with so that they can reach out to me if needed for troubleshooting, updates, and ideas for integrating tech. Something interesting happened, in that only a small percentage of people are active, quite a few lurkers (remember course 1) out there, but that was to be expected. In fact, after two weeks of using Teams with faculty and students pushed me to read more about virtual learning and I came across this paper from Northumbria University titled Communities of Practice and Virtual Learning Communities: benefits, barriers and success factors, found on Google Scholar! It discusses the concept of a virtual Community of Practice (CoP); which is essentially what I clumsily stumbled into with the creation of the survival guide. I appreciate it having a cool acronym now!
Another key point, and one that will take time, but has been expedited given the current situation, is the need for technology to be the accepted and transparent form of communication.
Stream and Flipgrid
The final two apps are Stream, Microsoft’s answer to YouTube, and Flipgrid, my infatuation with this app grows every day.
Stream was an easy win for most faculty and students – given that it is a video sharing platform; and one that you do not need a VPN for. A really nice feature that only faculty and staff, or whoever the creator designates, can view the content. However, by far the most well-thought feature is the ability to embed quizzes in a video, which of course adds a layer of interactivity for those watching.
Flipgrid is just a superb tool, that should be in everyone’s tech tool kits, regardless of whether or not virtual learning is taking place. Their tag line is Empower Every Voice, and that is realised in every video reply that a student or faculty uploads. I found that given the asynchronous nature of Flipgrid, students were way more likely to participate than leaving messages in ManageBac or speaking out during a live lesson in teams.
We felt we needed to reach out to our students with something more than a message or email. We wanted them to know that we were thinking about them during these uncertain times, so we had the students upload a video with these three questions:
- Where are you currently staying?
- What is on your mind at the moment?
- What are your expectations regarding virtual learning?
Their responses were mixed. Some were anxious, some were curious – but the one thing they all had in common was their drive to continue learning!
And so it is with all these tech tools, knowledge, skills and understanding that we will push on with this unexpected virtual learning journey.