School closures: A guide to the tech to help you cope

A round-up of the key technology-related information that schools and teachers will need during closures

Ofsted has criticised a Harris Federation school for mass entry of pupils into a computer qualification

As teachers brace themselves for the unprecedented situation the coronavirus pandemic is now causing, using the right technology tools and services will be vital to trying to keep as much operating as normal.

Below is a round-up of some of the key things teachers should be aware of around video conferencing technologies, Google Classroom, Microsoft Teams and much more that will likely become central to daily operations.

Quick links:

11 tips for using Google Classroom
How to deliver lessons via video
What other tools can you use?
Benefits and risks of free technology
Be aware not all student may have technology access

11 tips for using Google Classroom

1. What’s the lingo?

Google Classroom – This is where you put your announcements, lesson material and assignments. Files, videos, images and links can all be uploaded here. You can also mark work and have control over whether students have permission to comment or post.

Google Classroom Stream – Just like a chatroom, Google Stream allows students to post comments and ask questions. 

Google Docs – A bit like an online word document, Google Docs allows you to create a file to be shared with others.

Google Hangout – An online chat facility where you can speak with or without video over the internet connection.

2. Where do I find everything?

Luckily, there are plenty of videos online to assist you in setting up Google Classroom.

You can use the links above, and these videos, to talk you through the step-by-step process of setting up your classroom.

3. Set up all teachers with class registers and data

It’s a good idea for school leaders to set up every teacher for Google Classroom using SIMs, says Freya Odell, a teacher of English at St George’s International School in Rome. 

4. Offer training and planning time

“As soon as we knew the schools would close, we had in-person training on using Google Classroom,” says Odell.

All teachers received a day of CPD on the different programmes, and then one-to-one support was provided for any teachers who needed specific help with setting up their classes.

The following day, lessons began.

“This gave everyone a bit of breathing space, and meant we weren’t all panicking about getting lessons ready straight away,” she says.

5. Check your servers

Anything you’re running from your school servers might require larger capacity than normal – make sure you’ve checked with your IT team that what your planning won’t overload the system.

6. Don’t over-complicate it

Jennie Devine, principal at St Louis International school Milan, which has been closed for three weeks, suggests less is more when teaching remotely.

“On our first few days we tried to put up videos, quizzes, worksheets, etc – students found it tricky to navigate and they weren't sure what order to do things in,” she explains. “We now try to aim for a lesson video (maybe two parts) and any other materials or quizzes attached to the lessons.”

7. Create a routine

Devine and Odell agree: you need to have a system and stick to it.

Odell suggests organising one folder per day per class.

She begins each lesson with a Google Hangout in the classroom area, and then students can ask questions on the Classroom Stream (see terminology in point 1).

Students can complete their work and post it in the Classroom.

“We can easily track who has and hasn’t done their work this way,” says Odell.

Devine adds that clear rules help to avoid repeated questions clogging up your notifications.

“You need to establish certain norms and behaviours. Comments should be regarding the work only, and they also have to read the previous comments before asking a question,” she says.

8. Take control with your settings

If you’re not careful, you can be crushed by the notifications – sort out your settings so you’re not being spammed with notifications every time someone comments on a document.

You also need to be able to switch off when you’re off – be strict with your working hours and don’t let the laptop rule your life.

Too much screen time is not good for your mental health, so set an out of office message on when you need to step away from the computer.

10. Be clear and realistic in your instructions

Not all students will have printers or paper materials at home, says Devine, so ensure your tasks can all be done without printing off any extras. 

“I keep the tasks very straightforward,” adds Odell. “If students feel their tech abilities aren't up to being able to edit the documents, then they use Google Docs and just share the link. I can comment directly onto their document when I feedback.”

If you don't think that would work for you, another system you might want to try is setting up a separate assignment in Classroom for handing work in.

“I have personally found that having a daily assignment called "ATTACH work here" works well for my students,” says Devine. “Students can upload all of their tasks in one go, and I can see who has completed work.

"Otherwise, students start attaching work to video lessons and it can be confusing if there is more than one video.”

10. No faces in videos

All students should know to close their cameras when using Google Hangout with their teachers, says Odell. This should be communicated from the start, and all students should know to not show their faces when talking to teachers.

11. Share your logins

As per safeguarding guidelines, IT staff and leaders should share teachers' logins, and no chats should be done on teachers' private logins. Leaders should be regularly checking the content of messages.

Teachers should communicate with students only via the school-sanctioned channels, and students should also be told how to expect communications to arrive from their teachers, and to report any communication other than the sanctioned one to the safeguarding lead.

How to deliver lessons via video

Teachers need to get up to speed with the dos and don’ts of video-conferencing etiquette. If it’s not something you’ve done regularly, it can feel a touch daunting but there are some quick and easy ways to ensure that you have as good a video-conferencing set-up as possible, whatever your location, and avoid any potentially embarrassing moments.

One thing that should underpin all the below is to ensure that you are fully aware of your school's safeguarding policy around whether or not you can appear on camera to pupils, or should just be a "voice" being delivered to them via the video-conferencing software you are using. As noted above, children should definitely not appear on camera.

1. Have a clear background free from distractions

When setting up your home video-conferencing location, make sure there is nothing in the background that will be either distracting or potentially embarrassing.

For example, it may be tempting to set yourself up in front of your bookcase to show your erudite ways – but then you risk children turning their necks 90 degrees to try and read the titles, especially any that can be seen as rude or risqué.

Ideally, you want a plain, distraction-free background that allows you and your lesson to take centre stage.

Remember, too, there may be reasons you may have to move throughout the day – maybe as sunlight comes through a window in the afternoon – so have a think about if there is more than one location you can use to avoid having to move mid-lesson.

2. Make sure the camera angle is straight and stable

Make sure your laptop or webcam is stable and pointing straight ahead so you avoid any strange angles that make you look like you are peering up or down.

You also want to avoid the issue of the camera shaking around to avoid distracting your students or making them nauseous.

Don’t be too close to the camera either, as it will not only look a bit unnerving but also you may end up muffling the audio if you are too close to the microphone on your device.

3. Use headphones and a microphone

Ideally, use headphones so you can hear clearly any questions that children ask, while a microphone will ensure your audio is as clean and clear as possible.

This doesn't mean you need pricey kit. Plenty of headphones with built-in microphones are available for around £15 and above. Even a basic pair of iPhone headphones with a built-in microphone will do the job.

If you don't have access to this, it's not the end of the world as most laptops' in-built components are reasonably high-spec, but the dedicated kit will help to bring everything up a notch.

4. Make sure you will not be interrupted

Make sure anyone you live with is aware you may be hosting teaching lessons from home so distractions will not take place.

Anything from a housemate walking past in a dressing gown to a well-meaning partner offering a cup of tea will cause distractions and giggling – and probably continue as a source of teasing for months or years to come.

Ideally, have a room you can lock, or put something outside making it clear you cannot be disturbed.

5. Be aware you are visible at all times

It sounds obvious but a video call is not a phone call. As such, you can’t roll your eyes, yawn or generally look bored; everyone can see you all the time. You’d be surprised how easy it is to forget this, especially if someone else is talking. This may be more of an issue if chatting with colleagues or hearing an SLT briefing given via video conference.

Even if it feels unnatural at first, maintain your natural teacher demeanour while on a video call to help children feel that they are in as normal a learning environment as possible.

6. Resources are ready to be shared when required

If you have resources you want to share with students during a video lesson make sure you know where they are on your desktop, they have clear file names and ideally are already uploaded to the relevant resource hub before you start.

The last thing you want is to be hunting around your downloads folder or browser tabs while students watch on.

7. Make sure your wi-fi connection is good enough

Ideally, make sure your wi-fi connection is up to scratch before you try hosting a video call lesson. Use speedtest.net to see what sort of download and upload speeds you can get.

Once you are up and running with a video lesson, try to make sure no other heavy internet use takes place such as downloading or streaming.

If you do have a poor wi-fi connection, you may struggle to host a call so it’s worth considering if there are other locations you could use. If there are none, this is something you should raise with your school before you are sent home to make them aware of this issue.

Hopefully, though, with the UK average download speed at 54Mbps and upload at 7.2Mbps, the vast majority of teachers – and pupils  – will be able to video-conference without issue. 

8. Prepare for the unexpected

Video conferencing can cause all manner of weird and wonderful things to happen. A student may fall off their chair, someone’s mum may burst in singing while a child is asking a question, or you may yourself be distracted by someone ringing your front doorbell.

As long as you focus on what you can control, any unexpected moments can generally be ignored or playfully dismissed, allowing learning to continue as best as possible.

What other tools can you use?

There are hundreds of ed-tech resources that offer all manner of teaching benefits. Most teachers will be aware of some of the big hitters, such as Microsoft Teams or Google Classrooms. Indeed, a teacher in Hong Kong, Luis Moreno, has written for Tes about how these tools can be easily used for remote learning.

“For example, Google Meet can be used to check attendance, while Google Classroom lets you upload resources and set deadlines, allows students to turn in work they have done and, importantly, lets you mark it and send back the corrections,” he says. 

In fact, both Microsoft and Google have been touting the availability of their teaching tools, including boosting services for educators during the crisis, particularly video conferencing tools.

For example, Google has said its G Suite for Education platform will offer its advanced Hangouts Meet video conferencing tools to all users of the platform for free until 1 July.

This includes the ability to host calls with up to 250 participants, live stream to up to 100,000 viewers, and record meetings and save them for future reference.

Microsoft Teams platform is already free for educational settings, offering video meetings for up to 250 participants and live events for up to 10,000, recording and screen sharing, along with chat and collaboration. 

Meanwhile, other platforms, such as BlueJeansZoom and LogMeIn, are also available, with the latter offering free access to some of its services to educational institutions for up to three months.

Schools also need to consider purchasing VPN access for staff so they can access school systems securely from any location, while mobile broadband modems – that turn mobile data signal into a wi-fi hotspot to allow teachers to get online – may also be useful to provide a connectivity backup.

Furthermore, specific education-related technologies, such as Class DojoBug Club and Purple Mash, could also prove key to providing simple, web-based access for pupils to obtain learning resources.

The issue again, though, is how ready pupils and teachers are to use these tools confidently, especially if they are turning to them in a time of upheaval, as Baddeley notes,  

“Now is not the time to be attempting to learn a whole new complex online learning platform. If your students receive a pack of well-thought-out resources via email, that is much better than both you, them and their parents attempting to muddle through the unfamiliar,” he says.

Benefits and risks of free technology

It is clear that edtech companies see the potential closures that may impact schools in the UK as a chance to showcase what they can do for schools, with the British Educational Suppliers Association (Besa) saying it is working to get more free trial systems added to its website for teachers to use if they wish.

“Given the increasing number of coronavirus cases in the UK, we are working rapidly with Besa’s 400-plus educational suppliers to adapt our existing free educational trials portal LendED.co.uk,” Besa said, adding that it will “incorporate an easy-to-use database of curriculum and remote-access education resources that schools, colleges and parents can access online and in downloadable formats in the event of school closures.”

This may well prove useful, but Lopez says schools should not rush to use it just because it is free now, but instead be mindful of issues it could cause, too.

“As generous as these are, they may not be sustainable, as the company will have their own quarantines to deal with and staffing may not keep up with the free supply of a platform not usually geared up to being free,” she says.

“If you do want to take up one of the offers, check if you need to sync to your management information system etc as the set up alone could prove difficult.”

Be aware not all student may have technology access

It's easy to overlook this but the reality is many students may not have internet access at home, or suitable devices for remote learning.

Data from the Office of National Statistics says 7 per cent of homes have no internet connection. If even a fraction of these households includes children, that is a lot of pupils unable to access remote learning through digital channels.

And what about access to a suitable place to learn? The English Housing Survey revealed last year that more than 300,000 households were squeezed into too few rooms. How do the children in these homes “go to school” at home when they don’t have the devices, connections or space?

This where packs that can be sent home will be crucial – from providing books from libraries to be read, to setting revision on pre-existing topics to strengthen learning to instructions around new topics that need to be understood and how to learn and build this knowledge.

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