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The SPARK Schools Covid-19 playbook to keep learning going for every child

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students working on their computers under the guidance of a teacher at a Spark School
Anu Nathan, itslearning

How did this network of schools in South Africa keep learning going amid the challenges of a global pandemic, low Internet accessibility, and having just transitioned to a new Learning Management System? Dee Moodley, Head of Learning Model at SPARK Schools explains.

Dee Moodley has an infectious laugh, but what’s more infectious is her passion for education and her commitment to helping students succeed. “We could not let them down. We had to keep the school open. We had to figure out a way when this pandemic happened.”

And that’s what teachers at SPARK Schools did. The network of 20 private schools in South Africa offers affordable, globally competitive education. They have a rigorous curriculum, and they believe in holistic support for teachers and students.

We balanced academic and practical learning. We even created differentiated learning paths … prioritized the content to be provided online and worked from there.”
Dee Moodley, SPARK Schools

Dee has been a teacher for more than 20 years. Coming from a family of teachers, it was what she always wanted to be. “It’s my flow moment – when I’m teaching,” she says, with a big laugh. In 2002, she moved to England to teach at a public primary school where technology and blended learning was part of the curriculum.

“The teachers there did everything to help their students succeed – it was such a revelation to see this in a public school system, to receive such a great education from dedicated teachers.”

Dee returned to South Africa and joined SPARK in 2013 where she found that same commitment to students.

So, it was no surprise that when the South African government announced a lockdown, the staff at SPARK Schools were already working on a remote learning plan to keep education going. They launched the Home Learning Portal on March 16, three days before lockdown went into effect. The portal offered pupils at Foundation (R-Grade 3) level math and reading material, while the Intermediate and Senior students had access to itslearning.

Reaching students without Internet access

“But we also had to make sure that we were reaching our students who did not have access to the Internet. So, for them we had paper packs – every week their parents would collect a paper pack with lessons, materials and exercises, and submit the exercises from the week before.

“We even created differentiated learning paths not just online, but also with the paper packs. We prioritized the content to be provided online and worked from there.

“We made sure to involve parents so they could support their children in the home learning. Our intermediate and senior students were on itslearning, so we ensured that parents knew how to access the site and help their children. We also provided parents with creative activities they could do with their children, as well as a daily schedule for the scholars.”

A flexible, soft approach to learning during the pandemic

“This was Phase 1. We then progressed to Phase 2 and began recording lessons for students. These recordings were kept to around 5 minutes.

“This was incredible – teachers had to learn how to make and edit videos, make the recordings engaging. It was mind-blowing what the teachers were able to create. We used itslearning and Google documents for exercises. Short video instruction and then the teachers would help the students with their work. We did this for quite a while.”

Since they were independent, they were given permission to reopen at their own discretion, so long as they followed national health and safety protocols.

“Our schools reopened on June 2. That’s when we transitioned to Phase 3 – live lessons. But some parents were nervous about sending their children to school. So, we took the soft approach. We offered three learning models – face to face teaching, fully online learning or hybrid learning – and let them decide what worked best for them.

“We phased in our scholars week by week. We redid the timetable. Instead of teachers owning a classroom, now students stayed put and it was the teachers who moved from class to class.

“During all of this, we worked with itslearning to get our Foundation level onto the platform – that’s Grades R (Kindergarten) to Grade 3. Everything was done remotely. We created site specific courses in itslearning and this was where each school would create the assignment for students who were submitting the home pack.”

Get students to think about their learning

“The one real indispensable tool was the planner. We did a weekly planner and the point of this was to prepare the students for what they would be learning. We used metacognition. Ask the question first to get them thinking. Start off the week with a task rather than the information.

“We also used metacognition around assessment – what were the resources to address gaps in knowledge. This was all done on the planner because we wanted engagement from the students. The planner is a great tool to create structure for independent learning.

“Having a well-dated planner helped, because the students knew what they had to get through week by week, and that helped them stay focused.

“To gauge understanding, we used the test tool, of course. We also used tasks for offline exercises, and assignments. We gave our scholars instructions on how to open a Google doc and submit in itslearning.

“Students would be most excited to do experiments – the practical stuff – and teachers had to get creative and use things that were accessible at home. Teachers would be there with them online, to give guidance.”

Data analysis to improve education delivery

“We balanced academic and practical learning. The younger students, in the primary levels, would have 2 hours a day of academic time, while older students had more.

“We did our data analysis early on in lockdown. We already had the end of term assessment and qualitative data from teachers when we had to close. So that first week at home, we were very specific about what we had to do. We already had a lot of data – we knew which children were progressing well, who needed some intervention and who needed a lot of intervention. So, when the teachers started their live lessons in Phase 3, they already had this information and could structure how they delivered the lessons and differentiated the material for students of different abilities.”

Support for the faculty

“Teachers at SPARK get 2-3 hours of professional development (PD) and one-to-one coaching with mentors a week. Post lockdown, we couldn’t do this. Instead, we used itslearning to deliver PD. We started with PD for school leaders which cascaded to the staff, using the ‘train the trainer’ model.

“Instructional coaching continued – online. Using itslearning courses as PD courses for school leaders, we uploaded all the content a week before so they could prepare, and the sessions not only became shorter, but were also more effective.”

“It’s important to engage the teachers. Get the teachers onto the platform first so they are familiar with how students are experiencing it and will know how to help their students.

We switched to itslearning because we were looking for a robust student management system. We wanted to be able to better personalize education”

Personalized learning: A student getting some extra reading help during a 1-1 session with a teacher.

Finding the right LMS partner

“We switched to itslearning because we were looking for a robust student management system. We wanted to be able to better personalize education, so tools such as learning paths to redirect content to specific children who need a bit more help is simply brilliant.

“We were on Google Classroom before – but Google Classroom is not a full LMS. It was good for term plans, lesson plans, assignment and content. The move to itslearning has been ‘epic’. We gain so much, incredible data. It’s easy to use. And it’s a proper database. Google Classroom was work intensive, we had to recreate classes, plans… every year. With itslearning we can just repurpose and reuse content year after year. So that is a huge benefit for us as a low-cost private school. We save on hours of work and that to us is a big win. itslearning is a one-stop shop – teachers can submit their lessons plans, assignments, content, data, reports – it’s all there.

“I tell the teachers, go in and do the work yourself. Learn about all the capabilities of itslearning. Be hands on, and you will discover that you can do so many things with the LMS. Decide what you want to do and see how the LMS can serve that purpose. The possibilities of the system are endless.”

Dee’s top 4 key factors to consider before implementing blended learning

  1. Define the problem statement and understand the problem/gap you are trying to solve.
  2. Identify the blended learning model that you want to implement and why this model would work best for your institution/district.
  3. Decide whether you want to curate or create the content.
  4. Teachers first, students second. Holistically support your teachers because they need the right tools and training, before they can help the students.

* Shortly after this interview Dee Moodley left SPARK Schools to pursue her own interests. She remains very much involved in the education arena.

Anu Nathan, itslearning

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