The year is 2020, and the year of the Rat started barely a month ago. Like many other foreign teachers working in China, me and my husband came back home to Europe for the Spring Festival holidays. Little did we know that going back to China would hardly be possible in the coming month or so.
At the end of January, right after the Chinese Spring Festival holidays, the coronavirus started spreading in China and the Chinese authorities took drastic measures to contain it. One of those measures was to prolong school holidays and to shut down schools until further notice to ensure the safety of students, teachers and the entire community.
The school we work for is an IB school located in the city of Nanjing. It is also closed, but this does not prevent us and our colleagues from teaching and supporting the learning of our students to ensure that they will not fall behind and will be well prepared for the coming IB exams in May. Our school warned all teachers to prepare for online teaching which started on 10th February. We were asked to explore possible online environments for both synchronous and asynchronous teaching and learning a week in advance.
Online Learning Resources
My husband and I discussed various options and decided to use the Moodle learning management system to set up weekly tasks for our IB Diploma students. We also realised the need for a conference tool to discuss subject matter with our students in China and to allow for safe communication while they are isolated in their homes.
Our search for balance between asynchronous and synchronous tools took quite some time and we had to decide on how to access and use certain tools. For those of us who teach in China, the knowledge of many blocked sites is a reality which we need to keep in mind for our students. So we had to find tools which will be easily accessible by students as not all students use a VPN.
Here are some suggestions that can be used to solve a variety of issues related to online teaching and arising from the current situation in China and other countries recently, like South Korea and Italy:
- Moodle – an open source learning management system, widely used by the IBO for online workshops. In my capacity of IBO online workshop facilitator I am somewhat familiar with Moodle and how it functions. It has multiple functionalities which can be used by teachers to prepare online content and assessments for students. However, it needs to be installed on a hosting server which can be quite costly if a school does not have own hosting server or the necessary IT support. Another inconvenience for teachers is that they have to input the content and tasks themselves.
- Kognity – as I have consulted for Kognity, I am familiar with some of their digital textbooks which also provide practice for students. Kognity provides online textbooks and a learning centre for IB, IGCSE and GCSE subjects. The availability of their digital textbooks can save a lot of time for researching topics and preparing content and exercises for students. They have also kindly extended invitation to affected schools to use their resources free of charge for a period of time, which is very helpful for those teachers with a lot of students, teaching different subjects and levels.
- Blackboard (coursesites.com) – this learning management system allows for 5 free courses to be set up with multiple lessons. It also is convenient for enrolling students and is very similar to Moodle learning environment. Teachers have to prepare their content and assignments and organise their lessons. It is more structured than Moodle as it offers choice of user interface to enhance the learning experience. Although it is more user-friendly for teachers without experience in online teaching, it has its limitations. The biggest one being that it is hosted on a third-party server and teachers need to be careful with using copyright materials.
Online Communication Tools
I was very aware of the circumstances of isolation in which our students find themselves due to the spreading of the coronavirus. This made me realise the need to keep regular live contact with my students which required a good conference calling tool. Below are some suitable conference calling tools which allow group conversations:
- Zoom – this was the tool that I selected. Very user-friendly, easy to set up, quick to install. And most importantly, with good quality of sound and video. The only inconvenience of Zoom for groups is that group calls are limited to 45 minutes if the free account is used.
- Big Blue Button – from past experience I knew that BBB is with poor quality in China and with slow Internet speed it often drops. Its advantages are that it allows drawing and writing due to the in-built white board which can be suitable for interactive lessons and practices. But for me this could not compensate for the poor connectivity in China.
These online tools for teaching my IB students are at the top of my list, and helped me and my students overcome the challenges of the disconnect imposed by the current circumstances. My school also showed welcoming consideration of the time difference and set up my classes in time convenient for me, being stuck in Europe. Having a set class schedule provided by the school also helps establish the necessary routine for appropriate learning process.
The positive aspect of online teaching and learning is that students, especially high school students, get exposed to the way of teaching and learning which they will encounter during their university years. It is also a very positive experience for future work collaboration and cooperation through online interactions, both synchronous and asynchronous.
Technology has definitely enriched our life and work experiences and should be used in a positive way even when the circumstances are not making it necessary. And it definitely proves very useful when adverse conditions strike, such as the outbreak of new viruses or natural disasters. Due to technology we are able to support and provide the sense of community to our students in China during these challenging months.
Has your school been affected by the coronavirus? Kognity is offering free access during the lockdown period to our online learning platform for impacted schools teaching the IB, IGCSE and GCSE. Fill out the form below for more information.