Bracing for a digital future

With the number of newly confirmed Covid-19 cases going down and the rollout of SAR-wide virus testing, students will finally return to schools again – albeit in phases – this month.

But there is no guarantee that online education will not resurface if the pandemic worsens – it could happen, although no one wants it to. As a result, it is important that schools learn from the past few months’ ups and downs to develop an online education infrastructure that better serves students.

Nancy Law Luk Wai-ying, deputy director of the Centre of Information Technology in Education at the University of Hong Kong, suggested that schools’ e-learning coordination teams be composite and diversified to contribute to positive student outcomes and teacher preparedness.

Law’s suggestions came after new results of HKU’s eCitizen Education 360 study – a comprehensive survey on the experiences and needs of primary and secondary schools during school suspension and resumption – were released.

Having previously released the first phase results in July, the second phase results released last week focus on how schools’ e-learning policies and implementation affect their coordination teams’ size, composition and performance, which influence teachers’ support and students’ learning.

Of the 53 schools where data was collected, the number of e-learning coordinators in 19 schools was between nine and 12, while four schools had more than 20, but one school had only two.

“We have never analyzed this figure in the past, so we were surprised to learn that different schools can be quite different,” said Law.

In addition to team size, the team’s composition is also an important factor.

The study determined that e-learning coordination teams should be responsible for three functions: overall strategic planning for e-learning development, the planning and organization of pedagogical support and professional development for teachers, as well as routine operations and maintenance.

As these functions require personnel with different areas of expertise and decision making capacities, the study also looked into staff involvement.

It was found that the more types of school personnel were involved, the more positively it contributed to several aspects of students’ online learning experiences and outcomes, as well as to teachers’ online teaching preparedness.

Law said e-learning coordination teams should also have academic leaders and teachers of non-IT subjects involved, so as to develop and implement an all-around strategic plan for fully online and blended modes of learning and teaching.

“Some schools allocate only technicians and IT teachers to the coordination team. Clearly, this no longer meets the needs of online teaching and assessment strategies required today,” Law said, adding that the results show a gap between teams comprising a dozen teachers with different areas of expertise and those with just two technicians.

The study also found that the number of e-learning professional development opportunities that schools organized in the past academic year correlated positively with teachers’ online teaching preparedness and students’ digital skills improvement.

This is consistent with the conclusions of the first phase of the study, which found that students from schools that focused on e-learning before the pandemic showed more improvement in digital skills and less anxiety over the resumption of classes.

In response, Law suggested that schools provide more school-based teaching and assessment-related professional development opportunities that are practice-oriented – in other words, closely connected with blended and online modes of teaching and learning within the school curriculum.

Such activities will also foster teacher collaboration and community building.

Another strong basis for improving students’ online learning and teachers’ teaching preparedness is that the study found it pivotal to students of lower socioeconomic status.

In the study’s first phase, most respondents agreed that students who had more digital skills did not worry about the prolonged school suspensions’ impact on long-term academic attainment.

However, parents from lower socioeconomic backgrounds saw significantly less improvement in their children’s digital skills and worse emotional conditions. Law said that this is possibly because students with higher socioeconomic status had more learning opportunities and support during school suspension, while students of lower socioeconomic status could only afford resources provided by the schools and nothing more.

(This article was published at The Standard on September 1, 2020: Education: Bracing for a digital future )

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