Tech trends changing international education

Throughout the pandemic, international schools turned to technology to adapt to the situation as it unfolded. Dan Worth finds out which of these innovations is likely to last long into the future

Dan Worth

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"Necessity is the mother of invention".

When it comes to the past year or so, nothing could be truer. Across the world, teachers of all experiences, in all settings, reacted to the pandemic and the need to teach in new ways, with innovation and ingenuity.

And while some sense of normality may be creeping back in many nations, it is clear that the past 12 months have opened international teachers' eyes everywhere to the idea that there are new ways of teaching, learning and working that should be retained long into the future.

Online parents' evenings 

Perhaps one of the clearest ways this has manifested is the online parents’ evening – which has been a revelation for teachers across the world.

Katie Tomlinson, head of primary at Sri KDU International School in Malaysia, is one leader who definitely intends to keep parents' evenings online post-pandemic – after all, with attendance “almost tripling” since the move online, to give up on them now would seem churlish.

"Parents' meetings will remain online – no parking or traffic issues for those wishing to attend. And attendance will be greater since they can 'attend' online from anywhere."

Caitlin Gray, a secondary English teacher and extended essay coordinator at an international school, also in Malaysia, agrees and says she hopes these benefits are retained for the future.

"From a general school standpoint, online parent-teacher conferences have been an absolute game-changer and I (along with many others) hope they remain in place in the long term. They have increased parental turnout, as parents can join from anywhere, including work or even in the car," she says.

"They ensure everyone sticks to the appointment times, as you are cut off after the allocated time (5 or 10 minutes usually), so this encourages parents to be punctual and teachers to only discuss the most important information."

It's not just parents' evenings that are benefiting from the new ways of connecting remotely either. Ms Tomlinson says that networking between schools in the nation will almost certainly remain remote most of the time to allow for great inclusion.

"For the Malaysian International School network [which is made up of 40 schools, some of which are a two-hour flight apart], two of the three annual meetings are likely to remain online to make it easier for 'outlying' schools to attend," she says.

"The plan will be to make the one meeting a year we do have more 'conference' style and gauge guest speakers to make it worth the travel."

CPD boosts

Removing the barriers that travel can create has also been central to a new wave of continuing professional development (CPD) uptake among international teachers during the pandemic – one that many are hoping to keep post-pandemic to continue their growth as educators.

Sneh Wadhwaney, cross phase leader at The British School Delhi in India, believes this has been a major positive for international teachers by making it possible to attend a far more diverse array of training opportunities – something she says should remain even as "real-life" CPD activities return.

"So many webinars, on a range of topics, have been made available to educators and have allowed greater autonomy and choice in professional learning. Online availability of CPD has also made it more equitable, with access to more colleagues who are interested and willing," she said.

"We are definitely going to ensure that we continue to navigate this world with a balance between online and face-to-face CPD, and create spaces for ongoing dialogues, peer collaboration, and in-practice training and coaching for sustained focus on priorities."

Welcome from anywhere 

And the benefits of using video for remote activities does not stop there – with one of the biggest developments for international schools being the discovery that, by moving to online teaching, it is now far easier to "on-board" new pupils, as Tomlinson outlines.

"As an International school, we are likely to remain with our hybrid provision long-term, since we often have children joining from China, Hong Kong etc, who are waiting for visas to be cleared before entering the country. Now they can join hybrid provision and do not have to wait."

What's interesting, especially, is that Tomlinson says this way of operating "could have happened before but no one had thought about it" and so students would sometimes miss as much as a term because of visa or housing delays.

"We just couldn't imagine this before but now it seems an easy alternative," she adds.

It is clear this way of operating is here to stay. "I currently have hybrid learners who are 'stuck' in China and Korea joining online hybrid classes," adds Tomlinson, who notes, too, that it also a great way to offer "taster sessions" to people remotely.

Indeed, the idea of using remote virtual tours of school grounds and lessons is another pandemic innovation that other senior leaders expect to keep long into the future.

Julia Knight is principal at Eton House School in Bahrain and wrote for Tes last year that she is convinced this way of guiding parents around a site and chatting with them is actually more real and natural than an on-site visit.

“There is a genuine connection that happens, and the joy when you pop into the classroom and kids cheer and say 'hello'. I think it has something to do with the informality of it all: the process has become more intimate and less formal," she wrote.

"No travelling to school for the meetings, no sitting around waiting in a cavernous hall. Being virtual can give back time to busy parents and staff – and it is a precious commodity in our lives."

It seems clear there is a desire for such innovations to remain post-pandemic – and its seems logical to imagine how they might complement more traditional methods of parents' evenings or CPD, for example – perhaps alternating each term or being offered as a hybrid model.

Evolving remote models

But what about the big change of the past year – remote teaching? While most teachers, parents and pupils are keen to get back to a more traditional form of teaching in the classroom, could the knowledge gained on remote teaching see this way of working remain, too?

Kai Vacher, principal of the British School of Muscat in Oman, certainly things that a net gain from this will be that days lost to learning – be that on a whole-school level due to weather or an individual level – could be a thing of the past.

"The obvious gain is that temporary forced school closure due to hazards such as snow (or rain in Oman) should be a thing of the past, pre-Covid era – now kids can go home and switch to remote learning. Furthermore, students who can't attend school temporarily because of, for example, a family bereavement, could still access learning remotely."

What’s more, this understanding of how remote learning can work could well mean more parents and pupils willing to learn in this way for the long term – perhaps not as a sizeable number compared with those in class, but more than may have considered it before.

"We have some parents who are now asking us if their children can complete this school year with us online while they relocate  to another country next month," he says.

"They need to leave Oman but they don’t want to check out of our school. We also have some families who are leaving Oman this summer and want their children to finish their two-year GCSE or A-level course online with us next year." 

For Vacher, this way of teaching was already under way pre-pandemic after a project – termed FlexEd – was put together to deliver learning to pupils at a sister school more than 1,000km away, to help provide the community there with high-quality education.

He says that where, before, this idea was seen as a novelty, it is now being looked at more: "FlexEd has opened up more people's eyes to the potential for remote/blended learning – and that is a key point, as a whole range of opportunities for offering more flexible, education provision which is not entirely school based, opens up.

"This development could also help to solve seemingly intractable global education challenges, such as the global shortage in teachers and the 223 million children not in school."

Technology to boost engagement?

It's a thought-provoking idea and it will certainly be interesting to see if this plays out in the years ahead.

For now, though, the reality is that, for most parents, pupils and teachers, the return to the familiar classroom dynamic will be the ultimate goal.

However, here, too, new ways of setting work, marking homework or providing feedback that came to the fore in the pandemic through technology platforms are likely to remain.

Perhaps the biggest development will be around how everyone has become a lot savvier about how they use online learning platforms.

These tools were always in use but it is perhaps fair to say that their true benefits and functionalities were not being realised before. All that has changed, though, with schools everywhere fully embracing what they have to offer.

Marym Elagha, Year 5 leader at Alice Smith School in Kuala Lumpur, says that at her school, this work involved utilising Google Classroom far more extensively – something she sees as having major long-term benefits.

“If a student is sick or injured, and staying home for a day, they can still access all learning and carry on at their own pace, meaning they don't fall behind. We no longer need to print paper homework sheets, as these are also accessible online.”

Meanwhile, Mike Godwin, head of pre prep phase (Years 1-5) at Harrow International School Bangkok, says that at his school, there has been a clear focus on which tools are worth keeping post-pandemic – with one called Classkick likely to be retained.

“Classkick has been a major part of our teaching development. The ability to structure lessons, allow pupils to work at their own pace and, as a teacher, support them at the click of button while monitoring them all at the same time is excellent," he says.

"Classkick has a positive place in the teaching resource repertoire and is certainly worth holding on to."

For Claire Nuttall, headteacher at St George's International School in Luxembourg, the use of the platform Seesaw has greatly improved, so that it can now play a far greater role in the school's operations than it ever had before.

"It grew into our key tool for home learning. Staff, alongside students, quickly learned how to use the more complex features of Seesaw – from presentation, recording, annotating and more – enabling significantly wider and more imaginative use of the tool."

And looking to the future, the school intends to continue this development to use the tool in a host of other ways – from allow groups within the school to share tasks to peer evaluation, recording observations and using the platform as an at-a-glance resource for pupil progress.

Lend me your ears 

Another new way of working that seems to have taken the international teaching community by storm is the use of audio feedback, with numerous teachers advocating for its potential as a new form of feedback.

Paul Gardner, secondary school deputy headteacher at Deira International School, Dubai, is one such teacher to sings its praises – saying he see it as a very efficient way to provide feedback.

"One of the ways in which tech has improved the efficiency and potency of teaching is through improved feedback for students – particularly verbal feedback," he says.

However, he sounds a note of caution that "only the bravest leadership will continue to pioneer with what is, in my opinion, a much more effective and meaningful method for feedback".

"On the one hand, there is the opportunity to fundamentally improve how feedback is given and how feedback is received. On the other hand, we have a responsibility to our current cohort of students not to use them as case studies for future better practice.

"The question that will be raised across the table of many senior leadership team meetings in the coming months and years will be to what extent we have learned enough information during the pandemic to ensure that the risk to the current cohort is marginal."

Being brave

This is an important point – and one that Gardner elaborates on further by outlining that perhaps it is this openness to new technology innovations that will be the biggest positive from the pandemic's tough times – but only if school remain open to its potential.

"It is the openness to the idea of something new and tech-based that will remain in education post-pandemic. Alternatively, of course, it won't," he says.

"This is the biggest risk to post-pandemic education. A return to the safety blanket of how things have been done for a very long time, and the security that goes with knowing the outcomes of certain approaches, will be tempting for many senior leadership teams to revert to."

Yet, as all the above demonstrates, the international teaching landscape has shown itself more than willing to adapt, change and innovate when required. While necessity may have caused much of this, it seems there is a clear willingness to take what has been learned and retain these benefits.   

Dan Worth is senior editor at Tes

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