ONLINE LEARNING IN ACTION: An interview with Director of Academics, Nick Jolly - Cranbrook School

ONLINE LEARNING IN ACTION: An interview with Director of Academics, Nick Jolly

04 May 20 by Nick Jolly

Cranbrook enacted its Distance Learning Plan on Wednesday 25 March, following advice from Government authorities. Distance Learning is being offered for all 1500 Cranbrook students from Pre-School to Senior School, with Year 12 and 11 Accelerant students and the children of essential workers able to complete their online learning under supervision on school campus.

Cranbrook students have embraced online learning, adapting quickly and responding positively to this new way of learning. Parents have also been very supportive and are now more connected than ever with their child’s learning while having increased accessibility to their child’s teachers as they enable them to learn from home.

Canvas is the main Learning Management System we use at Cranbrook. We supplement this with a range of other innovative technology, including Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Clickview, Education Perfect, Edrolo for senior years and Padlet for junior students, MusicSoundtrap for composition and music production, Noteflight and Smart Music for online practicing for ensembles.

Many of these technologies were utilised by our teachers pre COVID-19, however, we are now utilising them more holistically.

Cranbrook staff and students operate under a strict Digital Citizenship Agreement. Our Technology Team is regularly reviewing the safety and suitability of the distance learning plan’s technology platforms. With all students now learning online, this team continues to work to identify ways to strengthen our security profile so we are not in a position to be exposed to any breach or inappropriate use of technology.

Delivering face to face, learning in a classroom is undoubtedly the preference for teachers, but in this current situation, our online learning programme is certainly the next best thing.

Familiarity of routine is important to ease anxiety in these unprecedented times.

In order to support students and encourage engagement, we are operating the normal Cranbrook School timetable, virtually to the minute for our Senior School boys who attend six periods a day, as they would if on campus. In Junior School, we provide four to five hours of learning covering all subject areas with 2-3 breaks in addition.

Our goal is to replicate as closely as possible classroom learning in an online environment. This of course presents a major challenge, but one our teachers are responding to innovatively and with excitement, delivering a range of blended learning classes.

Live connectivity is essential in keeping students engaged. These technologies give us the ability to connect and interact with students in creative ways and enable us to bring that human touch of learning, still craved by students and teachers, to the forefront. Using these technological programs, our teachers are able to combine interactive visual collateral, video theory, formative assessment, exam practice and other resources and provide real time feedback to students for all subjects – from mathematics to design and technology, sport, drama, music and English.  

Our teachers are inspired and energised by the new and different opportunities available through this different mode of instruction. Day by day they are trying new and interesting ways of teaching and sharing with their colleagues what is working with their classes.

The innovation we have already seen is inspiring. As examples, our swimming coach - former Olympian Kenrick Monk - is filming himself swimming laps and tumble turns so that stylistically our swimmers can review and incorporate at home or in on-ground practice which our coaches can watch and direct online. Students are acting out scenes from plays in online drama classes, Microsoft Teams is supporting debating practice rounds between students, photography and student media team students have been given digital tasks to complete at home and more than 550 students are participating in instrumental music lessons occurring via live video conference.

Moving away from lecture style learning, a typical Senior School class starts with a Zoom or Teams conference where teachers greet students and discuss the tasks for the lesson, share resources such as videos, information sheets and online resources. This is usually followed by group or individual tasks, with the students reconnecting with the teacher part way through or at the end of the lesson.

Through Canvas, student work is uploaded for marking and feedback can be provided by the teacher in real time or after class. Students who are not contributing or meeting teacher expectations are easily identified, with immediate action able to be taken to discuss issues and provide additional support.

Cranbrook is renowned for its strong and healthy pastoral care programme and we have been ensuring that students across our Pre, Junior and Senior Schools are still receiving fulsome support.

We believe the strengthened delivery of pastoral support to students is as imperative as academic teaching, to support students experiencing this enforced isolation and disconnection from their usual educational routines, their teachers, fellow students, friends and school environment. We are replicating our daily tutor groups, house meetings and assemblies via conferencing technology and ramped up our already high level of pastoral care.

Maintaining connection is vitally important: along with individual check-ins, we mark rolls and Senior School students still participate in the daily mentor period connecting them with their mentors and each other. We are also continuing regular pastoral sessions and are even running assemblies across the school.

Students have the option of wearing our uniform or appropriate casual clothing as they would on a uniform free day – whichever makes them more comfortable for learning.

Currently we have a mix of educators teaching distance learning from home or their classroom. This will change next week however, when all teachers are expected to move to distance teaching except those required on campus to supervise children of essential workers and those of our Year 12 and 11 HSC Accelerators who are completing their distance learning on campus.

There is no rest for teachers as they work even harder to embrace this paradigm shift in the way they provide education. While many have already been using technology to deliver classes, this shift to entirely online teaching has required the need for additional upskilling to occur at a rapid pace. Marking and feedback loads have also increased exponentially. Teaching instruction will now likely have shifted permanently, with technology embraced at a more rapid rate than we may have otherwise seen. The upside is that our teachers in the future will now be far more comfortable using online methods to supplement their face-to-face teaching methodologies.

We have already learned many lessons and will continue to do so as this situation evolves and our distance learning plan shifts to accommodate. We are committed to being nimble, agile and responsive and remaining connected to our students, ensuring we can deliver continuity of education until classes return to normal.