It's early 2020, and many school leaders, parents, and students look to the near future with uncertainty due to mounting pressure that the Covid-19 virus will close down schools around the globe. Hong Kong International School, already affected by closures, was ready to step up to the plate and devise a completely virtual program to finish out their Spring 2020 term. Leveraging technologies to aid them our Co-Founder Vlad spoke with HKIS's High School Principal and Technology Coach to learn about methodologies for implementing an effective and long-lasting distance-learning program.
Vlad: Hi David and Hamlet. Please give us an overview of Hong Kong International School. What are your core values and technology outlook?
David: Sure, we have about 3,000 students, approximately 200 students per grade level, K-12. sure. We have about 85 teachers, with class sizes around 18-20. Our school has been here just over 50 years founded by a group of missionaries from the Lutheran Church of Missouri Synod. (Learn more about HK International School here).
We’re a well resourced international school, 1 to 1, with Macbooks; in fact, many of our faculty and students are 2 to 1. We use iPads and Hamlet runs a number of pilots with student groups who are experimenting with different technologies related to iPads as well. We use Schoology as our LMS and have been doing so robustly for a number of years. Having a strong LMS where all of our information is housed is really important.
Vlad: Have you experimented with distance learning in the past?
David: Well, we were actually forced into it this due to protests that were happening in Hong Kong. The government shut us down for five days. One of the things that happens here in Hong Kong is that you don’t get any advanced notice from the government before schools shut down. When this happened in Fall  we needed to shift immediately into online learning.
At first, we gave teachers the freedom to do what they wanted to do. Within a couple of days, we realized we needed to keep everybody on our bell schedule and move toward a synchronous learning system. And then after that experience, our associate Principal Brent Brayko and Hamlet and a group of teachers have been brainstorming about what to do in the event we’re ever in this situation again.
Fast forward to late January , with the coronavirus, and all of a sudden, we read a news article stating we're closed for two weeks, we only had a couple of days to to lift into virtual learning. Our team sat down again and made some big decisions on how we were going to run it. And we decided to run a synchronous system as normalized as possible to our bell schedule, taking attendance on Hong Kong time. And so our system actually looks very similar to that of the traditional model as if students were still on campus. Hamlet was working with groups of students and teachers training them on how to use Zoom and we’ve been using Zoom Pro licenses for a number of weeks.
Vlad: How did you initially communicate with students and parents?
David: Well, Schoology is our main go-to and we communicate regularly through there and I spend a lot of time answering questions and having Zoom sessions with parents on Fridays. For teachers, it was shifting them from everyday procedures and how they normally do business. We had to shift the way that they were thinking about instruction, interactions and activities. Our teachers have been working day and night, to upskill and create new learning systems.
Hamlet: It’s not just synchronized teaching, because we need to prepare something for them to do asynchronously, which has been more taxing than teaching traditionally done in the classroom.
David: About 40% of our community is all over the world right now. We're recording every session, and then students are able to do self paced learning if they are in different time zones so they don’t have to wake up at 2 a.m. their local time for school. For parents, there was initially a lot of fear about how we would catch up since we were out of school for three weeks initially.
Hamlet: Yes, but something that has been very beneficial is parent-teacher conferencing on Zoom. Parents are able to visualize the curriculum through the eyes of their students and we’ve received a lot of positive feedback already.
David: To that point, virtual parent teacher conferences have really opened up access - allowing conversations to occur where they otherwise would have been restricted in a face-to-face situation. Recently we hosted a Zoom conference between the student who is located in Hong Kong, mom is in Japan, and dad is in the U.S. which is pretty incredible.
Already, this experience has opened up opportunities for future distance learning. In the past we were skeptical that this would work and had fears of a watered-down curriculum. Now we’ve been doing this for so long and we have established that it is possible to have a robust system of learning, virtually. It’s really going to open up some doors for our students to be able to partake in internships out of the country looking forward.
Vlad: In terms of teachers’ adaptation, are they redoing their lesson plans and rethinking the structure of how to deliver lesson plans? Is there a third party toolbox you used to create tutorials for them?
David: Fortunately, we jumped into this early and because we had that trial in the fall, we seriously just flipped a switch. We had one day of professional development, and then we were going. Our middle school did a nice job of building a template for lesson planning so we adopted that. Teachers don’t have to use it of course, but they have to utilize some template. And we just created parameters around certain expectations. Every Zoom session is going to be recorded, they’re going to be posted in a very specific place, and Hamlet and our associate Principal have been helping each teacher achieve uniformity across all of our lesson plans. And this has been crucial for guiding students who are scanning lessons from eight different teachers.
For resource gathering, I met with other Principals (on Zoom) who have faced similar circumstances - in all parts of the world - colleagues I’ve made acquaintances with over the years. From these meetings, we’ve shared different tools for communication and resources for online learning.
Vlad: What adjustments did you make to measure student engagement? And how do you handle student collaboration? Surely delivering lectures are probably a little bit easier, but then how do you manage collaborative sessions or project work?
David: Within Zoom, there are a number of different tools for this. Teachers can put students in breakout rooms, and then the teacher can pop into the room. So if there's a class of 20 they could put 10 breakout rooms together, and those kids are the only kids in that room speaking - and that's been really cool!
I would say engagement and summative assessments are probably the two pieces that we can team to try to adjust and focus on more because again, you have a kid sitting at the computer for six hours a day - that can be rough.
Our routine has been paramount to keeping this going. And we’ve been very collaborative with parents on this. We say: make sure your kids wake up at the same time, shower, eat breakfast, get dressed, etc. And while it was harder for some to adapt at first - for example, we saw kids joining Zoom while still in bed - after five weeks, it became normal again to attend school, just at home.
Vlad: What are your long-term plans?
David: I think that right now if we were forced to finish out the year virtually, I don't think that we would make adjustments to our schedule. Probably a couple of things that we would put in is build in a few days of no computer screen time, maybe just assign some reading.
Our PE teachers have been building individual workout plans for kids and it’s been really interesting because we actually a lot of the kids because they live in the same apartment buildings. Those kids will come together and do the work out together, film it, and send it back to the PE teacher.
Hamlet: (laughing) Some of the parents are enjoying the workouts as well!
David: Another area we would like to improve is summative assessment. We’re trying to make them more performance-based; and when it’s a paper and pencil it’s hard to ensure the integrity of the test. We’re going to try some lockdown browsers, but we also don’t want to always test that way. I think this is the toughest challenge for any program engaged in virtual learning right now.
Vlad: Where does Swivl fit in your plans?
David: Hamlet works with a team of people that do professional development and coaching at our school. One of the visions for that program is to have teachers recording themselves and have other teachers elsewhere observing them without messing with the environment. And now everything is online, so we’re doing classroom walkthroughs already through Zoom, all the time.
Swivl is going to be an ongoing part of our professional development program because while we love using Zoom, teachers want to move around, they don’t want to be chained to their computer.
Vlad: What are some lessons learned you can share from this experience?
David: Some of the things we did well: we made some very big decisions and put parameters in places so teachers wouldn’t have to guess what the expectations were or how to navigate certain terrain. things. We adapted a tool created by a Shanghai-based American for operating in a virtual environment. What are the roles of everybody in the school? What's the role of the nurse? What's the role of a teacher, you know? We have all that outlined and then and then had really clear expectations whether you’re a faculty member, student, or parents.
Hamlet: From my point of view as a technology coach, is that you need understand the different learning curves of individuals. There are so many excellent tools out there, but you’re pushing people outside of their comfort zone when they first transition to a virtual environment. They had skills and abilities they mastered in a traditional classroom and then they need to shift to practices they’re not accustomed to. It’s important to make that transition as smooth as possible by taking incremental steps.
David: To that end, you also need to be cautious. Everyone wants to go find the new “bell and whistle” and you just have to be careful you’re not trying to implement 15 different platforms. Hamlet and our AP Brent have been vetting platforms suggested by faculty in order to keep everyone on the same page.
Hamlet: Communication has never been more important, and like we said earlier, you cannot ‘over-communicate’ in a virtual environment because everyone needs to know what the expectations are. For IT and Technology Coaches, we use Slack and then for communicating with faculty, we use Google Hangouts.
David: True, I have always sent out a Sunday night newsletter to be read on Monday morning. In this environment, I’m sending them on Sunday and Wednesday. We’ve started compiling FAQs and have been careful not to immediately react to everything we hear. We wait, we evaluate, and we respond.
Access all of the resources referenced throughout the interview by David and Hamlet here.
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