Teaching everyone in our classrooms. That, we are familiar with.
Teaching everyone remotely, from our homes, and even scattered around the world. This was novel and certainly had its challenges; blending and balancing synchronous and asynchronous delivery, for example. However, we worked through this together as a staff team.
But providing both in-school teaching and remote learning, when both staff and students are at once on campus, or at home, in the same time zone or hours behind or ahead… That is a whole other scenario – and one that schools around the world will increasingly face as lockdowns come and go, and individual students and staff need to self-isolate off-campus.
A brave new world
We gained some initial experience of this brave new educational reality when we re-opened our Shanghai Senior School campus in May.
Most of our students and staff were with us on-site, but some students remained at home in the city, and other students were still with their families overseas and in different time zones.
Some of our staff were also in different countries and time zones while border restrictions persisted.
Our primary aim was to make any remote student experience as educationally robust and effective as the in-class experience.
However, if this was the metaphorical moon that we reached for, accepting landing among the stars was a healthy and pragmatic perspective for everyone’s state of mental wellbeing.
Perfection was not our benchmark, but we did the best we could in the interests of our students.
A single timezone
Running a hybrid timetable across multiple time zones was mentally and physically exhausting for everyone, and it was not sustainable.
Once back on campus, therefore, we operated in the school’s local time zone.
For the relatively small number of staff overseas, this meant working during hours of darkness so that they could deliver live lessons, beamed in remotely to the waiting class of students.
While not an easy request to make for those colleagues affected, they understood the need and everyone was committed to putting students first.
As leadership, we considered each teacher’s timetable and agreed the best balance between professional role and personal wellbeing.
Additional in-class supervisors were scheduled to facilitate technical connectivity and support student needs as they arose.
If staff are within the time zone, but unable to be physically on campus and yet still able to work, the same practice could apply.
Wireless microphones in the classroom helped us to capture students’ spoken contributions for the remote teacher.
For students outside of the country, there were two scenarios.
If their own time zone had appropriate overlap, they could connect to the live lesson of their remote teacher, when tuition was also being delivered virtually.
Or they could connect live to the in-class lesson, which was physically being delivered by their teacher on campus, and also recorded.
The technology to enable this evolved with each week; we were learning as we went. By the end of term, we had swivel devices in classrooms that motion-tracked the teacher as they moved around the classroom, and wireless microphones on the teacher and also positioned strategically in the room.
Pedagogically, staff knew at the start of the day which students would be connecting remotely with their lessons and planned to differentiate accordingly, finding ways to include them as much as possible in the activities and discussions of the lesson.
If students’ own time zones meant that live attendance remotely was not appropriate, all lessons were available as recordings for catch-up, and staff checked in with their overseas students regularly.
We made every reasonable effort to reassure our out-of-country families that we were aiming to provide for them as equally as our in-country families; this was handled by regular and open communication with parents and students directly.
Wellbeing has become even more important in this present crisis, and hybrid education also brings with it specific mental health issues.
Both staff and students shared feelings of being isolated from the on-campus social cohesion; since remote connectivity cannot sufficiently compensate for being with others in person, side by physically-distanced side.
Additional pastoral support was provided, therefore, to help. Working days felt quite extended, as we maintained connectivity across four continents’ time zones.
All of this may feel unnatural to the teacher who enjoys the face-to-face, daily buzz of a classroom, within a routine structure. And understandably so. But perhaps there is a positive aspect here. Not just that we can make this form of education work, but that we are giving learners a whole new set of skills that will serve them well.
After all, if a future workplace of increased automation needs flexible, creative, and open-minded staff, then this may be a taste of what will come.
And for staff, it shows that while technology is a great facilitator for this unique mix of hybrid learning, its ultimate success relies upon the ability of leadership and staff not only to think and work outside of the box, but to care for their students – just as they have always done.
Craig Jenkinson MA (Oxon) PGCE MInstLM was Head of Senior School at Dulwich College Shanghai for two years.