From time to time, we feature guest blogs from educators who are making a difference in the lives of young people and who are eager to share their success with the Microsoft Education community. These Changemakers, as we call them, offer insights into the effective use of classroom resources, how to prepare today’s youth for the jobs of tomorrow, and ways that technology can personalize instruction and empower students to lead in their learning. Today’s Changemaker blog was written by Meredith Roe, virtual school program manager for Catholic Education Western Australia.

The global COVID-19 outbreak is challenging the continuity of learning for schools and other education institutions. Whether you’re at a school that has experience with remote learning, or one that’s learning how to implement it in the moment, there are resources available to help. I’ve found Microsoft Office 365 tools can be especially useful for remote learning.

The learning opportunity

Events that close schools can leave us with a sense of loss, sadness and worry, and going remote can come with negative connotations or be considered a second-rate option. However, if we try to see the current crisis, hard as it might be, as a chance for reflection and staff and student skill development, then remote learning seems like less of a burden. Let’s be clear, though, there are important conditions that must be met for remote learning to succeed. I’ve listed the ones that I believe are critical here.

Staff professional development 

Developing teacher skills ought to be a top priority for any school or system. We can ensure quality learning continues if we prepare teachers through strategic planning and meaningful professional learning opportunities.

There lots of options for delivering high-quality professional learning. Here are some examples, all of which should be possible to try even during a closure.

  • Online courses through the Microsoft Educator Community
  • School- or system-led webinars delivered via Teams
  • Access to existing resources in a OneNote or a SharePoint site or many of the other resources that Microsoft have created specifically for remote learning.

Remember, Teams and OneNote, along with other Office 365 tools, can provide a platform for easy collaboration and communication and access to resources.

Spending time to skill up for distance learning during ordinary times is worthwhile. If a school ends up not needing to close in the event of an emergency, it will simply have had an opportunity to engage staff in learning that helps integrate technology into the curriculum. It’s hard to argue against that!

One great resource is the Network of Microsoft Authorized Global Training Partners, which is available to help schools develop a comprehensive professional development plan and staff training.

Student skill development 

Experience with remote learning can help students gain the skills needed to transition to post-secondary settings, such as college and the workforce. Among other things, it can build resilience and the ability to collaborate and problem solve.

Students need to be given some independence and taught technical skills to be ready for distance learning. Here are some ideas:

  • Use the Praise app in Microsoft Teams as a badging system and feedback tool when working on skills development.
  • Involve students in your remote learning planning by using Polly, a way to conduct polls in Teams, to determine structure of the class team.
  • Through Flipgrid you can gather student voice, such as what they perceive as challenges and opportunities during remote learning days.
  • Microsoft Forms is terrific for feedback, including after a school-closure event is over.

During the school year, it’s a good idea to promote remote learning as it will provide parents with a springboard for conversations with their children about the importance of keeping learning going.

Clear expectations 

Clear expectations are essential to make remote learning work. These should include expectations around:

  • Educator and staff availability
  • Communication tools and strategies
  • The completion of student work
  • Staff response time to student questions

Ensuring everyone understands these expectations prior to starting remote learning will avoid rash decisions during an emergency. While these plans can be documented in a text-based tool, consider also recording a message in Flipgrid or Stream so staff can access those during the remote learning period if clarification is needed. Also add them to a OneNote document, as a tab in a staff team, for easy access.

Communication strategy

During an event that requires schools to move to distance learning, school and system leaders have to communicate regularly with key stakeholders including parents, students, staff, and the relevant authorities. Teams can be a huge help.

Creating a staff Team will help school leaders and teaching staff remain connected, enable easy sharing of resources, and contribute to a supportive community. Asking staff to ‘like’ your posts in Teams is an easy way for administrators to make sure all parties are seeing what you’re communicating. And adding the Insights app as a tab in your team will also give you detailed data on staff activity in Posts.

Staff support

Remote learning can feel isolating, but with Teams, educators can remain connected to their department leaders, school leaders, and each other. School leaders also need to be visible during remote learning, which can mean:

  • Being an active member of the team – liking staff posts (emoji’s)
  • Posting a daily staff message of encouragement (announcements)
  • Sharing best practices (through a collaboration space in a Class Notebook, embedded in the Team)
  • Showcasing examples of great work by staff (using the praise tool in Teams)
  • And encouraging the usual banter that would occur in the school corridors and staffroom (gifs, memes).

Don’t miss the opportunity to also connect and share via Teams calls, which you can record for staff unable to attend the live call, or a Flipgrid video.

Backup plan

As educators we know, there will always be a need for a backup plan. It’s true when physically in the classroom, and its true with remote learning. A staff member or student might be without internet, for example. Keep in mind that if students sync their OneNote/Class Notebook before leaving school at the point of closure, they can continue to work offline.

The more opportunities students and staff are given to use the tools needed to make distance learning a success, the smoother the transition to this type of learning will be. In an ideal world, such a transition would be seamless and the disruption to learning limited. I think that’s achievable with Teams, OneNote, and other Office 365 tools but, going forward, planning and preparation are the key to making this possible!