What happens in a school when it has to close? How can the learning continue? How can teachers communicate with each other? How can they communicate with their students? How do school systems manage to function?
These essential questions (and more) we have been asking ourselves at BISS (Beijing International School) since the start of the academic year. The threat of closure due to H1N1 has hovered over us since the start of the year and other schools in China and Hong Kong regions have already had to close their buildings for a period of time due to this. At BISS however we have been fortunate with a lack of H1N1, however on September 30, we decided to close a day early for our break due to the Chinese 60th birthday celebrations (we were in fact going on break because of the National Holiday, however the preparation for the great parade was affecting us). Two weeks ago we closed for a half day as the government declared all people had to be indoors withing the third ring road by a certain time in order for the 60th birthday parade to rehearse. Given that BISS is an inner city school right near the third ring road, and given the difficulty for teachers and students to get in and out under these circumstances and given that October 1 is the big day, we decided to close on the 30th of September and keep off the roads generally.
Much activity been going on preparing our school for a V-BISS day as an actual rehearsal while at school....swapping classes etc to trial it all, but now that we face 'the real thing' we scurried and rallied to be prepared.
Discussion at school centered around tools to use, and mode of interaction. Let me summarise briefly:
BISS have implemented StudyWiz, and although we are shakily using the 9.3 version and waiting for our upgrade to the better performing 9.4, we have had much success with the features and ability to share curriculum and provide interesting tasks for the students. Some issues with network stability have caused frustrations, especially as we are not certain what the reasons are.
In addition to StudyWiz we are using Google docs and spreadsheets and other Web 2.0 tools including wikispaces and more recently, chat room facilities.
Mode of interaction
Should we approach this synchronously or asynchronously? All of our online tools allow for asynchronous interaction between stakeholders. However, what if we approached this also with a synchronous set of objectives? What if we asked students to observe the normal school day and be available for each 'class' according to the normal class time? Then, what if teachers designed online learning activities that took advantage of this synchronous ability?
My V-BISS day
What joy not having to climb out of bed at 5:15 to face the freeway trip into BISS! Needless to say I overslept a little but was at my computer (munching breakfast) by 8am. First on the agenda was to open up the tinychat.com room set up yesterday for all teachers and IT support to interact in real time to share frustrations and successes. A handful of colleagues were already in, mentioning StudyWiz was not opening for them. I was able to open SW straight away....hmmm, is this localised, as can be the case here in China right now it seems. No real answer except to keep trying.....and trying.....slow, fast, slow, stop......SW speed fluctuating and causing some angst so far.
Second on the agenda was an online meeting at 8:30 am with an international group of educators for the Digiteen Project my Grade 9 MYP Technology class are part of. This meeting was held as usual in Elluminate, online conferencing software that allows for screen-sharing, web tours, chatting, whiteboard, uploading PPTs and much more! At this meeting we had teachers from Qatar, Australia, and across the USA together discussing the next stage of the project. I always work with 2 laptops open, so as the Elluminate meeting was on (via my MacBook) I was keeping an eye on the tinychat room for BISS as well as testing StudyWiz movement (on my Tablet). At one stage after concentrating on the Digiteen meeting for a couple of minutes I look over to the Tablet and find about 4 webcam windows open with my colleagues from BISS waving and smiling and trying out the video/audio facility of tinychat.com...it was a humorous moment.
It became even more humorous when some of us decided to put on funny hats! Ok, who started this trend?
Third on the agenda was a Skype meeting with our Head of School, Dr Ettie Zilber and our DP Coordinator Lennox Meldrum. I have been charged with putting together a laptop policy to take to the Board in mid-October to clarify and move forward our current 1:1 implementation at BISS. Our meeting for today was meant to be face-to-face, however being V-BISS day I suggested using Skype (mainly so that I would not need to travel to work....). Ettie and Lennox were at work for other meetings already. So, we Skyped...couldn't get the video to work for some reason, but audio was good quality and the 1-hour meeting was very fruitful I believe.
Meanwhile IT Support are in the chat room and reporting their communication with StudyWiz home-base (in Australia) and letting us know they are there for us to help (excellent) and generally it is working well for all by now.
So, the time for my one and only class on a Wednesday, Grade 10 MYP Technology, came around quicker than I realised. At 12:15 I quickly logged into Edmodo, the 'Twitter-like' microblogging tool I asked the students to use in order to communicate. Some of my class were already in, sending messages etc. However there was a certain discontent with the tool, and a request to open a chat room for us. Once I started a new tinychat room the students and I were in, discussing the technology, and reviewing the work I had set which I had made available via StudyWiz and ALSO via my class wiki. We also experimented successfully with the video facility of the tool. Who said going to school was boring?
Violet's V-BISS day
It goes without saying that Violet (my daughter) did not spring out of bed at the usual time (it's V-BISS day Mum!) but was sort of awake by 8am. She logged into StudyWiz and checked her classes. She had English work to finish off and submit before the end of the day and an English class to attend in the morning with a short online test. She also had other class work to do, all of which was set out clearly in SW for her. The morning progressed...(with Violet mostly in bed still) doing homework and communicating with friends and teachers via her MacBook. The real-time English class in the tinychat.com room turned out to be a highlight. In Violet's words: "i found it good that we could ask Ms White questions in the chat".
My final reflection
I was pleasantly surprised that students would be conscientious and turn up to synchronous online events on a day when school is not in session. I believe the Asian student work ethic is very high which makes the planning and delivery of online sessions like this viable. However, out of a class of 18 I have about 13 online in real time....so what about the rest? Well, one student's parents emailed to advise the Internet was down on the day....and the others I have not heard from yet. (We are about to start school again tomorrow after the break).
I was also pleasantly reassured that teachers generally were able to cope with an online mode of learning and those who 'got it' were engaged themselves and structured creative learning opportunities for their classes. We still have a lot of work to do...and data to collect via narrative and survey questions based on V-BISS day happenings. I am sure there will be a sequel to this blog post with further updates.
However, in closing.......V-BISS day was:
Virtual - we used online tools to connect, communicate, collaborate and create from our own homes
Visible - Those who were online were visible to others, showing an engaged approach to learning and connecting and inquiring
Vocal - We do not have to be in the same place at the same time to learn from each other. We have the technology, we have the power, we are constructing the bridges that connect us all together. This is possible...it is now, not the future, and we are successfully participating!
Finally......In the words of an admired colleague, Jabiz, currently working in Qatar, 'There's no such thing as virtual: It is all teaching'.
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