What is it like to teach primary school children over the internet?

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Sam teaching his Year 4 class in China using Microsoft Teams

Ireland has announced it’s to close all schools and colleges until 29th March to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Meanwhile school leaders in England are making plans for possible closures in case the British government follows suit.

We’ve been speaking to a Sam Phillips, a British teacher in China, who’s been teaching remotely for nearly a month. Sam teaches English and Inquiry-based learning to Year 4 children at Wellington School – a bi-lingual school in Hangzhou – in the Zhejiang province of Eastern China.

So Sam, how has remote teaching been working for you in practice?

Well the platform we’ve been using is Microsoft Teams and we’re working on a reduced timetable, just 50 per cent of the usual lesson time to ensure children aren’t on screens all day. To make up for the other 50 per cent of the learning time, we’ve been giving children home learning tasks – basically homework.

The children all sign in at the given time, a bit like arranging a meeting on Skype. We have 40 minute lessons and the great thing with Teams is that you can present on there too, so you can open up a Power Point and your face will still be visible in the corner of the screen. You can show videos, play games with the children and even set up online assessments or quizzes.

That works quite well but the challenge I’ve found with it is that it’s very easy for some of the children (I’m teaching potentially 20 children online on a good day) to be very quiet. Sometimes I don’t even know if they’re in the room. It’s challenging in terms of knowing whether everyone’s engaged and it’s also challenging trying to ask differentiated questions. If a child is shy or lacking confidence they can literally disappear into the darkness of the internet.

Discipline is interesting. It was tough at the beginning before we worked out a way to stop them communicating with each while we were teaching. They were communicating in private which was a bit tricky!

Do all the children have internet access?

Yes they do but it might not have worked as well at my previous school in England which was in an area of high deprivation.

The concerns raised by parents have been the amount of screen time for the children. There’s still an issue with that. The challenge I have is that I’m also teaching the parents as well. A lot of them are in the room – actually listening to the lesson.

How does it vary from being in the classroom?

It’s more teacher-led. As a teacher I would generally only input for five or ten minutes at the start of the lesson and then get them learning independently, whilst working with them and giving them feedback.

This is more about me talking. Interaction is very difficult, although it might be easier with English speaking children. They can’t put their hand up. They have to say their name first and then speak. To create that classroom environment is really difficult because you can’t see all of the children, all of the time. The more confident children seem to do better. It’s hard to know how much progress the quiet children are making. I find myself talking more than I ever would. 

Do you think they’re learning anything?

It’s really hard to say. Another challenge is the fact that the parents are helping them with their work. The work I’m receiving is not a true reflection of what the children can do. To overcome this, I’ve basically instructed the parents not to help the children but they still do. A lot of the parents are working from home.

We did some writing and bits and pieces but you’re not there to support in the same way. The best feedback you can give a child is to go through their work with them but you can’t really do that remotely unless you set up five minute feedback sessions with each child, but logistically that would be a tough thing to do.

However the children creating home presentations has been a real success – the creative side of things. We’ve had them making their own volcanoes which has also been great. They’ve produced news reports – as journalists – on a volcano eruption. For them to be able to do active things when they’re at home and film each other has been really good. Last week, they were baking cakes and explaining how they did it in English. These sort of things seem to work better.

Do you think this experience you – and many other teachers – have had will change teaching?

Well it’s not as effective as teaching face-to-face but it’s certainly opened up doors for this form of learning. I think this form of learning will grow, especially in remote areas of China.

We’re also recording all of our lessons for some of those children who’re not in China currently so they can watch them later. It allows children in a different time zone to access the lesson. But it’s not always comfortable watching myself back!

1 comments on “What is it like to teach primary school children over the internet?”

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