With half the world in lockdown due to the Covid-19 crisis, virtual learning has found itself centre stage across Europe and beyond, forcing education to take a quantum leap into the future.

But virtual learning doesn’t mean a world dominated by screens and Artificial Intelligence. Far from it. At King’s College schools, it is being used as a springboard to other types of activities, from yoga to art and crafts and exercise routines, not to mention more academic tasks.

According to an article published by the World Economic Forum by Gloria Tam and Diana El-Azar, prescribed virtual learning across the board with varying degrees of sophistication will put educational innovation firmly on the agenda in a world that has been slow to abandon a lecture-based approach. But it may also exacerbate a digital divide as only 60% of the world’s population is online.

According to Tam and El-Azar, as many as 421 million school children’s learning has been affected by the pandemic in the 34 OECD countries, which for many has brought release from the traditional patterns of learning and opened up opportunities and resources.

“The use of the virtual classrooms is letting staff take advantage of new learning technologies, such as online collaboration, recording tutorials and the opportunity to really provide individual learning to students,” says Shane Nicklin, IT Teacher and Depute Head of Secondary at King’s College Madrid (La Moraleja). “The breadth and variety of the lessons has been really exciting for students. I think it has made the teachers think about how to teach their lessons in a different way and they have created some impressive resources.”

As a member of the Inspired Education Group, which has over 64 schools on five different continents, King’s College schools were ahead of the curve when it came to preparing for the enforced virtual learning classroom that started when governments took emergency measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19 and closed schools.

Of course, as King’s College Madrid Deputy Head Paul Crouch, points out, “You can’t beat personal interaction,” though he does stress that that there are plenty of strategies, styles and tasks that can be employed to keep the virtual classroom almost as vibrant as the real deal.

Given that some students may be feeling disconcerted by the events unfolding around them, allowing students continuity with their studies within the safety of their own home is undoubtedly the best way to keep them focused as well as healthy.

“The main advantage is that learning is still taking place wherever the students are physically located,” says Shane. “Students are learning in comfort with their family and this is really helping at a time when some students could be finding the situation stressful.”

This could be particularly true for younger children. At King’s College Chamartín, Head Teacher Rachel Davies says the system has been working extremely well with parents of children from their five classes posting almost 200 comments a day on the emergency educational measures as they themselves juggle work with support.

Due to the fact many parents are working at home and there may not be enough devices for everyone, Rachel says there has to be a combined approach with a lot of focus on off-screen activities. “After reading the Hungry Caterpillar, the children were asked to make craft versions of the caterpillar’s food that they could later post online. There were also face collages posted on the Tapestry platform with the teacher encouraging children to include a feature that would express an emotion. My little boy had one eyebrow up. The teacher asked him what other emotions he might give his face. It’s not just about saying ‘Well done’. It’s about a dialogue that moves the learning forward.”

At Chamartín, there have also been dance classes and music and song sessions as well as stories in the daily live session.

The parent’s comments have been overwhelmingly supportive and enthusiastic with mother, Ana Mary Perez, saying, “Online learning has given us structure and allowed us to maintain a routine. The children have been very engaged and are well entertained. The day goes by quicker and is a life saver under these circumstances.”

Referring to the Google Meets, mother of two infants, Anniemieke Grijpink-Boom, added, “I absolutely love it. The kids are extremely happy to see their teachers everyday. It gives good guidance for parents.”

Meanwhile, Guadalupe Bustamante, enthused, “I am very impressed with how well prepared the school and staff were to migrate to online learning and I work in higher education.”

While the words virtual and online may not be automatically associated with creativity, according to Infant Teacher Annelouise Jordan at King’s College Chamartín, the experience has actually pushed the children to use their initiative and imaginations even more than usual.

“Teachers, and children get much more creative,” she says. “Some of the things the children have done at home with few resources have been incredible. We’ve had children make their very own telephones out of yogurt pots. We’ve had children using objects from their house and gardens to create a picture. Their imaginations are truly flourishing!”

Annelouise also points out that the experience has allowed parents to see how and what their children learn. Due to their own commitments, however, parents are expecting their children to exercise a greater degree of autonomy.

While Paul Crouch points out that this style of learning “needs buy-in commitment from students – and parental support,” he also notes that it can help to make students feel more in charge of their own education, from tiny tots to those preparing for their final exams.

Shane meanwhile explains that many King’s College students already feel a sense of autonomy due to the High Performance Learning framework that underpins their education in normal circumstances. “It encourages all students to think about their learning and to analyse what they are doing in lessons. This allows students to take more responsibility for their learning. You can see that giving students the freedom to learn at their own pace is making them reflect on the process even more.”

Of course, staying at home for some students can mean the temptation to attend to some other pressing activity becomes too great to resist.

When it comes to avoiding distractions, Paul says, “A lot of communication is needed with parents of those children who do not attend or are not keeping up with set work.”

Meanwhile, Shane says, “Any students that ‘hide’ are easily picked up as they don’t interact and staff follow up on this in the same way they would do in a classroom situation.”

Obviously, unmitigated virtual learning over a long period would deprive students of social contact and be extremely difficult for parents, not to mention those students who have no online access.

Many schools, for example, have had to adapt to the students’ circumstances and send them work during the lock down via WhatsApp groups which is clearly light years away from a virtual classroom which has the teacher on hand to explain tasks ‘in person’ and tend individually to the students.

According to the authors of the World Economic Forum article, “The less affluent and digital savvy families are, the further their students are left behind. When classes transition online, those children lose out because of the cost of digital devices and data plans.”

Few revolutions happen overnight. The social aspect of school is still essential to a child’s education, but the Covid-19 crisis will undoubtedly accelerate the virtual learning trend.

In King’s College schools, of course, students have long been equipped with Chrome books in Secondary and iPads in primary. Online learning, as Shane says, is second nature to them.

“Students are really fired up to be learning this way, asking lots of questions online,” he says. “You can see them logging on early to start the activities. Students are brought up using technology from an early age and we are tapping into something they already use on a daily basis.”

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