This February, Monica Bahl got the best birthday gift she could have asked for–her daughter surprised her by flying in from Hong Kong. But as the technology coordinator for primary students at The British School in New Delhi, Bahl was required to quarantine herself as per the school’s guidelines, put in place as a precautionary measure against COVID-19.
“I couldn’t go to school, but that wasn’t going to stop me from teaching my students. I moved to Teams and conducted classes from home while my students were at school. I was the first teacher in the school to try it,” she says.
Moving to remote classes was intuitive for both Bahl and her students, as the management at The British School was preparing for a situation like this for a couple of months. The preparation came handy for the 57-year-old school, especially now, when all schools are shut due to COVID-19, leaving millions of students without any access to classroom education.
Fifteen kilometers away, The Ardee School in New Friends Colony (NFC), which has been in operation for three years, had started with remote learning via Teams even before the schools were shut due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Our mission has been to ensure that learning will never be interrupted, no matter what,” says Rashima V Varma, the head of The Ardee School, NFC.
“In the beginning, we invested in a video conferencing solution but soon realized we needed to offer a lot more to our students than video conferencing. Keeping that in mind, we got an Office 365 subscription for the entire school at the beginning of the school session in 2019 as it provided many tools for teaching and learning,” she adds.
The foresight proved beneficial in November 2019, when the Delhi government directed schools to close secondary classes as the city grappled with unprecedented levels of air pollution. The Ardee School moved its classes to Microsoft Teams to ensure that its students do not fall behind.
“We had already mapped every student and teacher to their Office 365 accounts. Moving them to Teams according to classes and subjects was very intuitive from the Office 365 administration panel. That enabled us to move very quickly,” adds Amit Gupta, head of IT at The Ardee School, NFC.
The early experience enabled the school to swiftly deploy Teams for the entire school in the current COVID-19 situation.
“We’d been following developments around COVID-19 since January and saw how schools were impacted in China. We wanted to be prepared,” adds Satendar Pal, head of IT, The British School. “We did one training workshop on Teams for our teachers with Microsoft representatives and created step-by-step guides for both teachers and students.”
“Even before the Delhi government announced school closures, we’d already done over a hundred dry runs (for classes on Teams) across the school. On the evening of March 5, the government announced the closure of primary schools and at 8:05 AM on March 6, we delivered our first class over Teams,” Vanita Uppal OBE, director of The British School says with pride.
Human beings in general thrive on social interaction, which was missing in traditional e-learning platforms. You can never really replace a teacher because the teacher provides that human interaction, but I think platforms like Teams enable a teacher to be able to reach out to their classroom remotely and continue to interact.
– Vanita Uppal OBE, director of The British School
Online learning, in the form of MOOCs (massive open online courses), has been around for years, but it lacks real-time feedback and collaboration. Distance learning is often viewed as an inferior experience as compared to traditional in-person classrooms. Would Teams be any different?
“Human beings in general thrive on social interaction, which was missing in traditional e-learning platforms. You can never really replace a teacher because the teacher provides that human interaction, but I think platforms like Teams enable a teacher to be able to reach out to their classroom remotely and continue to interact,” says Uppal.
The school had transitioned to remote classes over Teams in November when they had to stop classes due to pollution in Delhi.
Deploying Teams in schools was the easy part. But it meant a mindset shift for teachers, students, and their parents. Schools had to relook how their teachers planned and conducted their classes.
“When you are teaching in a classroom, you can look at your students and get a sense of whether they are engaged or not. In online classes, teachers cannot control the environment—students can log off from the class. Teachers needed to completely reimagine their classes. They have to build in a lot of interactive elements to ensure that the students are engaged in the teaching learning process,” explains Varma.
“Students do not have the same attention span online as they would in a 20-minute class. We are introducing new activities by using other tools on top of Teams like Microsoft Forms and document sharing, to get students to participate in the lesson and to collaborate. The teachers have used the virtual whiteboard in Teams as a handy tool,” adds Shaistha P, the academic facilitator for Grade 6 to Grade 12 at The Ardee School.
Deepika Bhatia, the ICT mentor for students from Grade 9 to Grade 12 at The Ardee School, NFC, viewed it as an opportunity to collaborate with her students the way she could not earlier.
“In my classroom, I would demonstrate how to do a task and we could go back and forth. But that process gets elongated in an offline environment. On Teams, I share the document I am working on with the class so they can work along with me and ask questions in the chat window simultaneously,” she says.
Parents too are echoing the sentiment.
“Our children are facing frequent disruptions to their education, but by moving to Teams the school is ensuring they do not lose their momentum. One of the biggest benefits is that in these times of uncertainty, the children continue to follow their routine. They know they have to be ready by 8 AM and attend all classes like they would have done in school,” says Sayma Ansari, whose son studies in Grade 5 at The Ardee School, NFC.
Other parents, like Bhawna G Bali, whose daughter also studies in Grade 6 at the same school, are also noticing a change in how children are collaborating with each other.
“Our children are using tools to collaborate that I didn’t even know existed. I see my daughter and her classmates work on the same document on Teams where one person is typing on the document and others are giving their inputs. This enables them to work on projects irrespective of their location. Earlier they would create groups for projects depending on where students lived, Teams has helped break those barriers,” she says.
We are considering how we can reconfigure learning for secondary students. Teams also gives us the opportunity to include students who are home-schooled for various reasons. I think it’s a paradigm shift in teaching and learning.
– Rashima V Varma, head of The Ardee School, NFC
Reaching a tipping point
So, what happens when this pandemic is behind us, and we get our classrooms back? While this might have started as a contingency plan for schools to manage disruption, online and collaborative learning is likely to be the new standard, even when schools resume their regular operations.
“For us, it is pedagogy that drives technology in our school, not the other way around. We weren’t just looking at using Microsoft Teams because of a crisis, we started using it before the crisis hit us. This process has shown the value of interaction and engagement that technology can enable; it has really been made abundantly clear. This is the tipping point. It is going to be the new normal,” says Uppal.
“I’ve installed Teams on my phone as well, so my students can reach out to me whenever they see me online. This was not possible earlier,” says Prabha Iyer, who has been teaching mathematics at The British School for over 24 years now.
“I see my daughter chatting with her classmates on Teams in the evening where they discuss their assignments and other projects. This is far better than other messaging apps because they continue to be in the school environment,” adds Bali, whose daughter studies at The Ardee School, NFC.
The Ardee School is taking virtual interactions and collaboration beyond the students as well. Apart from moving its classes to Teams, it conducts parent-teacher meetings on Teams. The school is also considering recording classroom sessions so that absentee students can revisit the class and teachers can also do self-assessment after the class is over.
“We are considering how we can reconfigure learning for secondary students. Teams also gives us the opportunity to include students who are home-schooled for various reasons. I think it’s a paradigm shift in teaching and learning,” says Varma.
Looking at moving to a virtual classroom? Here are some handy tips to help you use Teams effectively to make the transition.