We asked a principal of a primary school to share her tips for effectively delivering remote learning for younger learners. We also spoke to a parent and student who told us what they liked and disliked about learning in the midst of a pandemic.
Taneeta Lala is the principal of SPARK Randpark Ridge, a primary school in the SPARK Schools network. SPARK Randpark Ridge switched to remote learning in March, when South Africa went into a lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“We hadn’t started on itslearning yet when we went into lockdown. Our schools had been gradually introducing itslearning to our scholars, and we had just started with the older grades.
“So, trying to make itslearning user friendly for the younger students – including students from Grade R (pre-primary, 5 years old) – was something we had to look into very quickly. We had to accommodate universally how to target our younger scholars and at their ages.”
“Our Grade R scholars (5 years old) are just starting to learn to read. So, they need quite a lot of parental guidance – to understand tasks, assignments. This is why we recommend that teachers make videos and create other content that is attractive to younger children.
“They don’t react so well to words, but they will respond to pictures and videos, and especially the teachers face. They build their learning style around trust, and so having a person they trust appear on the platform, and seeing that same person daily creates a consistency for them in the platform.
Putting the plan to work
“I first looked at how does a scholar that age and how does a parent (as parents will have to help the younger students) view the platform. Also keeping in mind that we as a school have specific targets areas that we want them to reach. These were for specific subject areas such as literacy, mathematics and, our third one, which is isiZulu (language).
“But first I had to get the teachers on board with online learning. I created training manuals explaining to the staff how to utilize itslearning, how to upload resources, and then of course, it was about navigating the platform and understanding the different functions.
Inclusive, easy to follow routines
“All our resources are maintained in folders divided by terms in the Resources tab. The main thing is to create a Page. The way I was trained was with a vision of when you walk into a shopping mall – do you walk in with something in mind that you intend to buy or just go in to browse? So, when a parent or scholar is logging on to the platform they are going in with a purpose because they want to find specific content for that day. Make it easy for them to access the content.
“I had my teachers lay out content in a specific way, as well. This means, the way it appears for Grade R will be the same as for other grades in the school.
“We’ve got the different days – each page reflects a week – and the expectation is that there will be a live video or our teachers would record a video. This information will be in the timetable and at the end of that day they would upload content to istlearning because very often the scholars that we intend to reach – their parents may not have data, access or they might not be available at that time, so this allows them to access the recording here. It’s the same for every day – so it is easy for them to find and follow.
“80% of our students have started returning to school, 20% are still learning from home. And of this 20%, a lot of them don’t have access to computers, or the Internet – so we have to think of ways to make learning accessible for them, and paper packs is what SPARK Schools has decided to use.”
Involve the parents
“One of the key things when using Assignments is to give detailed instructions so parents can help their younger children at home.
“Once we had trained the teachers and they were building content, the next thing was to have training sessions for parents. I walked them through the platform and showed them how to navigate around the platform, where to find the resources, how to upload the resources, how to use the parent portal, receive feedback from teachers, how to send questions to teachers. We use Announcements to share information, so I showed them where that was and how it was connected to the Courses.”
“I also made a simplified training manual for parents with diagrams and took them step by step – that helped them, but, of course, we want more of the parent cohort to be engaged. I also put up ‘rules’ – that they need to engage in the correct way, for instance, when to use or comment on announcements, and when to send a direct message to a teacher. So, if a student could not access a resource folder, then they shouldn’t be asking how to get access in a reply comment to a teacher’s announcement because it might be missed. In those instances, it would be better for them to send the teacher a direct message. Replying to an announcement should be more for content related questions.
“The next step is to get parents and students to use itslearning to its full potential.”
Engaged teachers, engaged students
“We have teachers who are extremely creative, and they found different ways to engage with their students remotely. They use colors, add jokes to liven up the lesson, and videos to connect with the students. Some teachers start every day with a video greeting. They have found different ways of incorporating what they need to ensure that students stay focused.
“The big benefit of using itslearning is that we can extract the data from student engagement and interaction, and use that to modify lesson delivery.
“We are also trying to make it easier for teachers from a time management perspective – parents are more used to getting emails, so we are trying to migrate them to the platform. Ongoing training helps and we encourage our students, who pick up things faster than adults, to go home and ‘train’ their parents. It can be an enjoyable parent-child bonding session for them.”
The perspective from a parent and a student
Octavia Selepe is a Risk Management Consultant, whose daughter Lesedi Selepe studies at SPARK Randpark Ridge. She and her daughter shared with us their experience of learning during Covid-19.
What was the biggest change/challenge for you?
Octavia: “What changed most for me was my involvement in my child’s education. I was active before but now I became more hands-on. Another change was the routine of school, as well as planning of interactive events, that used to take place. All our plans for each term had to be shelved.”
Lesedi: “I really didn’t have any problems with itslearning, besides Internet connectivity and load shedding (power outages); it was lovely and really easy to use. I did, however, miss my friends and the interaction we had before lockdown.”
Octavia: “The months that followed were full of uncertainty, accompanied by conflicting reports about the pandemic, that it made it difficult to plan for the future. The first 21 days of lockdown was manageable but the extensions created more anxiety in our household.
“As a parent it was tough to comfort my children while I was dealing with my own fears. It was such a difficult decision to make between sending the children back to school and safeguarding their physical wellbeing. We didn’t know what school would be like from then onwards.
“Fortunately, SPARK Randpark Ridge had sent us a very detailed plan of how the school planned to operate. I was concerned about the disruptions of having to close the school for a number of days, if Covid-19 positive cases started being reported at schools. Also, that they were opening school right at the peak of the winter season was a major concern.”
What did SPARK Schools do to make hybrid learning easier for you and your child?
Octavia: “SPARK sent us videos of how arrivals and dismissals would work. They emailed newsletters and all the information of how to prepare our children with wearing masks and washing hands before schools were to open. They sent videos of how to emotionally prepare for the new way of being at school. Through constant communication, SPARK Schools went above and beyond to alleviate concerns of parents and scholars as well as the teachers.
“The teachers sent learning packs and exercises for the scholars to continue learning from home during lockdown. My child coped very well on her own, as she was already one of the top achievers at school. She found it relatively easy to study using the packs and going online.
“She is in Grade 5 and loves learning. I was not surprised when she created her own routine of what her day would be like. She had a timetable setup for when to wake up, how long to spend on each subject, mealtimes and included her chores as well. All I had to do was prepare her meals and make sure her cousins did not disturb her while she did her schoolwork.
“When we started with online live classes I helped her check that she was logging in to the correct classes, using the right code at the right times. The process was much easier once each SPARK School had their own live classes on itslearning because the codes were not changing and the timetable was more stable.”
What are your thoughts about remote learning?
Octavia: “As a parent I’m a bit traditional because I believe in the benefit of writing with a pencil on paper and engaging physically with the environment and people. I’m a strong supporter of limiting screen time for children. Remote learning required them to have a much higher screen time.
“I had to rethink my strategy and be creative in my approach. I still printed some of the work so as to minimize some distractions that come with having to be on a computer or mobile device most of the time. I made sure she used a laptop for classes and homework as I found the cellphone or tablet not so user friendly. I also found doing the pop quiz or assessments challenging because we had interruptions from loadshedding.
“Although we initially opted to return to school (face-to-face) when schools reopened, after a few weeks we had to revert to online live classes. This was as a result of a close family member testing positive for Covid-19 and thus we had to self-isolate for 14 days. My daughter was so happy with online learning we ended up doing remote learning until the end of Term 3.”
Lesedi: “I enjoyed remote learning because I could work without the distractions caused in class. I also had more time to complete tasks and activities. We did live sessions over Google Meet in itslearning then, if anyone missed a class, it would be recorded and posted on itslearning, to view. They also sent documents and tasks via itslearning. My teachers also comforted us a lot because it was a difficult time.
“They helped us to figure out how to use itslearning. They made tons of videos and sent documents on how to use itslearning. I didn’t really struggle with it. I was okay. And it did get better and easier the more I used itslearning.”
Have there been any benefits from remote learning in your view?
Octavia: “There were definitely benefits to remote learning, because it can be accessed from anywhere. Firstly, it allowed my child to be a proficient user of software like Microsoft Word, Acrobat, Google Meet, itsLearning, and really improve her use of technology. Secondly, she could learn at her own pace, which for her is very fast. She would most of the time be ahead of what was being presented in class. Thirdly, because the classes were recorded and loaded on itslearning, it made it super easy to make up for a class missed due to Internet connectivity or power outage. Lastly, another benefit was that because we didn’t have to wake up very early and not deal with traffic, we had a more relaxed day, time and energy for schoolwork.”
Lesedi: “I made my own routine ☺. I woke an hour or two before my first online class, which was either at 7:45, 8:00 or 10:15am. It was hard at first but then it got easier as I did it more. I had a lot of fun remote learning and using the itslearning app.”
Octavia: “The school has done really well in adapting rapidly in response to the changing environment. The SPARK Randpark Ridge leadership as well as the teaching staff have demonstrated their commitment to the educational needs and emotional wellbeing of the scholars. They should really be commended for their efforts.
“I think the offering of online learning needs to continue, whether through live classes or pre-recorded videos. I feel this gives the school a competitive edge, as most parents are looking for schools that can continue to offer learning that can adapt to disruptions.
“It was really disheartening to hear that scholars who were online fared lower in performance to scholars attending face-to-face. What I can share with parents is that we become more involved in monitoring our children who learn online to see if they are facing challenges. Online learning cannot be approached in the same way as ordinary school.”
How easy was it to use the learning platform?
“We switched from emails to a home learning portal, and then to the itslearning platform. Each stage had its own teething problems, so just as we were grasping the whole online learning system; it was time to move to a different platform. I was one of the class parents assisting other parents in navigating the learning platform so some of the challenges were not directly my experience. I’m just going to address the itslearning platform here, which is what we are currently using.
“We found navigating the learning platform relatively simple. The “how to” presentations of using the platform was given by Mrs. Taneeta Lala and Mr. Oliver Dick through online parent meetings. They also sent out manuals, so I can say enough help was given.
“I think I have now become quite proficient with the itslearning platform. The only challenge we had was uploading video assignments so when that happened we sent it directly to the teacher. Sometimes, we would fill out the pop quiz and if it shut down we’d be unable to edit the PDF again. In my opinion most of the challenges were technical, depending on the type of device used to access the platform, but these were easy to overcome.”
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