The transition to online teaching and learning due to COVID-19 school closures has presented both significant challenges and tremendous opportunities. We have learned (and continue to learn) many lessons along the way, guided by feedback from our teachers, students and parents as we navigate a pandemic together.
As school closures loomed on the horizon in January/February 2020, Brandcliff House investigated a variety of online environments, including Moodle, Microsoft Teams and Google G-Suite. Although there are many systems and platforms out there, Brandcliff House we wanted to prioritise simplicity, accessibility and security in developing our online programme. At the time, the Google Meet system provided a lot more control and security than Zoom. Many staff members were already familiar with the Google Classroom platform, therefore we successfully applied for a G-Suite for Education account and began training teachers in using the platform effectively. Once schools had to close, the basic systems were already in place.
Technical challenges were evident almost immediately. Due to the hard lockdown, many parents were unable to purchase webcams or laptops to participate in online lessons. Fortunately the majority of teachers had laptops at this stage. Internet connectivity was a major hurdle for teachers and parents working from personal internet connections strained by the requirements of multiple family members. High data costs and overloaded routers often made it hard for learners to join lessons and access content. Some learners had no access to the internet whatsoever.
As the weeks drew on, it became difficult to teach practical components of certain subjects, and many students had difficulty keeping to a work schedule in this unfamiliar online environment. This was amplified by the general anxiety and emotional trauma that COVID-19 imparted on families from an economic and social perspective. Teachers faced the significant burden of adapting lessons to an online medium, and managing learners who were unresponsive or used “technical issues” as an excuse to miss deadlines. It became difficult to hold learners and parents accountable in a remote setting.
As an independent school, Brandcliff House received permission from the DBE to reopen for Grade 8 and Grade 12 students on 1 June 2020. Intensive preparations were made to safely support the return of these learners to physical classes. Teachers could now operate from the school property, making use of our fibre internet connection to conduct their online classes. This greatly improved the quality of lessons that they were able to deliver, however added a significant strain on our broadband internet connection. Some parts of the school were in WiFi dead zones, and physical network cables had to be installed where possible.
As we continued to refine our learning programme, we distributed digital hyperlinked timetables were distributed to learners and parents, with point-and-click access to their live video lessons throughout the day. Once this system was adopted, online lessons ran far more smoothly.
Although the school was open, several learners had comorbidities in the family and were unable to come to school as a result. Therefore a parallel approach was adopted, as teachers live-streamed their physical lessons to those at home. While relatively effective, this was practically inconvenient for learners in the classroom due to frequent disruptions by remote students joining late or leaving early due to dropped connections. Teachers struggled to judge how online learners were doing, as many had intermittent internet access which was compounded in some cases by a poor work ethic. It is difficult to align the pace of those learning online with that of the physical classroom. Students were far less responsive in an online environment, and had to be addressed individually, as few wanted to speak first. Teachers noted this draining experience as being an “emotional vacuum”, with such limited input from learners.
Practical subjects like Consumer Studies, Visual Arts and Computer Applications Technology had to restructure assessments and work schedules, as learners at home did not have the required resources or equipment.
Loadshedding in the later part of 2020 added an additional element of unpredictability to online lessons. Real-time communication with learners became difficult as cellphone networks went down, resulting in stress and anxiety for learners and teachers alike. All grades returned to school on 13 July 2020, but online lessons continued in parallel for learners with comorbidities.
Given the number of school closures in 2020, the volume of work covered online meant that we could deliver an untrimmed curriculum with a full set of assessments and examinations. This was particularly important for the Grade 12 students, who completed full June examinations in preparation for preliminary and final examinations. It was clear from the end-of-year results which learners had struggled with online learning, however these barriers have been identified and will be addressed. The stressful year had also taken its toll on several learners, which was indicated in the results.
Attendance in online lessons was high, with few discipline issues. Learners with good time management skills and motivation benefited from an environment with fewer distractions. With careful planning, certain theoretical concepts could be conveyed more effectively in the online medium. Notes and textbooks could not get “lost” or left at home. Teachers were able to provide access to recorded lessons and other content for learners who were absent due to illness. Learners also developed good “netiquette”, and the importance of good digital citizenship.
Our online teaching and learning programme has improved significantly during COVID-19 related school closures. This was achieved by providing adequate training and support, and streamlining the process to be as simple as possible for all involved. We continue to review and update the online learning programme where necessary – for instance, we have since migrated to Office 365, and Microsoft Teams is also an option.
Our teachers have shown themselves to be extremely adaptable and receptive to new technology and new solutions to problems. They have coped well with hardware and software failures, internet and electrical outages and inconsistent students. We are very proud of our teachers and staff for their dedication and commitment during prolonged periods of school closures. They have worked tirelessly, always with our learners’ best interests at heart.
Our learners have demonstrated resilience and responsibility during the pandemic. They managed to achieve fantastic results despite the uncertainty and unrest of a disturbed academic year. Our students received constant emotional support from their families and loved ones, and parents were very supportive of the school during difficult times.
Elements of our system (for example, the Google Classroom) continue to be useful tools beyond school closures. Learners can be reminded of homework, or receive extension activities in addition to their daily physical lessons. Catching up is a simpler activity when notes can be made accessible online. Events and assemblies can be broadcast to parents remotely.
Our online teaching and learning system was rolled out again successfully during the delayed reopening of schools in 2021, giving our students an early lead in the academic year. Student participation and enthusiasm was great, and we seamlessly transitioned into online lessons, and then back into physical classes. As our online system of teaching and learning has been in place for almost a year now, it ensures that Brandcliff House does not lose any teaching time in the event of any further school closures – due to COVID-19 or otherwise.