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Ensuring equitable learning during the COVID-19 pandemic

It’s much easier for a student, who may struggle with a particular topic or lesson, to ask questions in a classroom and gain understanding. But in a virtual environment, how can educators ensure that students don’t fall through the cracks? Principals of the early years and elementary and middle and high School, Graham Thompson and Anthony Allard, from Rome International School, speak with IB World Magazine.

On 5 March 2020, Rome International School in Italy switched to an online learning environment, following the decision by the Italian government to temporarily close all schools in response to the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) outbreak. Since doing so, there has been an increased demand for face-to-face time, as students need their teachers on both an academic and human-interaction level.

An online environment can present certain challenges, but ensuring that students are listened to is crucial to ensuring an equitable classroom, especially during these challenging times. Students are motivated to learn, and teachers are motivated to teach when an equitable classroom is established. When we listen to our students and create an environment that values their feedback, students feel respected and encouraged to learn.

For example, in the middle and high school, we adjusted the timetable to obtain an equitable balance between screen time and independent study using Google Classrooms and Google Meet. For schools wanting to try this, start by looking at the general patterns that make up a good face-to-face lesson—fascinator starter, development, demonstration, plenary—and use that online. Avoid lecturing and setting too much work.

Getting the balance right

We are all different, so a challenge to one person may be a stress to another. Guiding students through a wide range of tasks with questioning and answering, praise and encouragement to make it attainable is how to ensure subjects present an achievable challenge, possibly even creating excitement over stress.

Online learning is no exception. An advantage of a virtual learning environment is that communication can either be personal or general, giving opportunities for differentiation. Constant monitoring and feedback provide incentives and the work can be modified downwards or upwards depending on the work submitted.

Positive feedback is always encouraging. Even though the online environment can present some obstacles to this—for example, not being able to observe non-verbal cues from students—it does not mean that it cannot be achieved. Setting up peer groups in the early years and elementary school for example gives students the opportunity to receive encouragement not only from the teacher, but also their classmates.

In the upper school, we always communicate at the end of the week. We inform parents when students are not learning effectively and equally send letters of praise from the principal when students are doing well.

Overcoming challenges

One challenge that has been faced by both teachers and students is being online and in front of a screen for so many hours a day, often without any contact with the, “real”, world.  We have tried to keep morale high through online coffee times, and simply maintaining the, “human touch”.

“There have also been technical challenges and a strong ICT technician has been vital.”

Unattainable parental expectations were also a challenge. We had an excessive demand, particularly with the parents of younger children, who expected 100% online and on-screen activities. This would not be appropriate with the IB ethos of fostering independent inquiry, so some timetabling adjustment was necessary. In addition, we had to deal with inequality of delivery, which is inevitable given the varying ICT competences amongst staff. We overcame this by having guidelines for the style, content and delivery of a lesson.

But we have all made significant progress in our ICT skills. It has led to a high degree of sharing best practice in the online environment and it has created a very rich stream of data about student progress. We comply with data protection regulations. These skills will undoubtedly be useful in a wide range of circumstances in the future. For example, when a student is off sick and needs to learn using an online platform.

Good practice in school is also good practice online

For educators that may be concerned that particular students are not progressing as they should, remember that, “virtual students”, and, “real students”, are the same people. We have discovered that good practice in school is also good practice online, however teachers need to be more overtly caring and responsive.

Face-to-face care and interest in students and their learning is implicit in the ethos and interactions, many of which are non-verbal and not written down. Therefore, it has become especially important to display interest and concern explicitly. As we move into the eighth week of a virtual learning environment, this has certainly gained a positive response.

Learn more about Rome International School by visiting their website or following them on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. For more advice regarding online learning, download the IB’s Online learning, teaching and education continuity planning for schools. 

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