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While offsite learning has created many difficulties, the Ivanhoe Girls' community has strongly supported each other through this challenging period.

Towards the end of Term 1 2020, schools across Australia were tasked with the unprecedented challenge of protecting staff and students from transmission of the COVID-19 coronavirus while continuing to provide excellent educational outcomes.

At Ivanhoe Girls’, offsite learning began on Monday 23 March, a week before the end of Term 1, and continued until Monday May 25 when a staggered return commenced. The transition to an online learning environment was remarkable, both for its speedy implementation and the willingness of the School community to adapt to a new reality.

Offsite learning incorporated many aspects of classroom teaching, facilitated through hive (the School's online learning platform), plus online meeting platforms such as Zoom, where staff and students working from home could connect for classes, tutorials, faculty meetings and events such as assemblies and House debating.

While it created many difficulties for staff, students and parents, it was also wonderful to see how the School community supported each other through this challenging period.

The Head of Curriculum

As part of the Curriculum Team alongside Mrs Jan Leather, Director of Learning and Teaching, and Dr Katherine Putnam, Head of Curriculum (Years 7-9), Mr Rob Fuller, Head of Curriculum (Years 10-12), helped design the School’s approach to offsite learning. “The Curriculum Team pulled together really well,” says Rob. “We sat down in Week 4 of Term 1 and we brainstormed all the things we had to consider. By early Week 5 we took the guidelines to Faculty Heads to get their feedback, and we were ready to go by Week 6.”

“All the decisions we had to make have been right. Not perfect, but right,” he says. “There is no perfect with this, and I think that’s really important.”

Once the decision had been made to begin offsite learning, the Curriculum Team disseminated the information to staff. “They took it on, and started working out how they were going to do their normal teaching through abnormal means.”

For all teachers, adjustments were made to the way they managed their classes. “Flexibility was really the key,” says Rob.

“As a teacher I was just trying to vary things up, keep things interesting, add value where I could. I tried to explain the things that I had to explain,” he says. “I just needed to get across those few things, and then the students could have some time to work on their own, and they could self manage,” he says. “I didn’t want them on screens all day,” he adds.

Student wellbeing was not the only issue here. “They’ve got other siblings working from home, they've got parents working from home. It’s one of the reasons we decided not to do lesson after lesson of Zoom classes. You’ve got to give families a bit of flexibility,” says Rob. Plus, technical issues took on a life of their own, he says. “Normally we wouldn’t consider technical issues as that much of an issue. But there weren’t any other options.”

As Head of Curriculum (Years 10-12), Rob made the difficult decision to postpone SACs for VCE students. “I didn’t want students stressing out about how it was going to work,” he says. In general, he thinks it’s still too early to tell if offsite learning will affect student outcomes.

Generally, Senior School teachers rearranged their Curriculum to prioritise projects that students could work on independently. However some subjects, such as Studio Art and Physical Education proved difficult to translate to online. He’s grateful that the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (VCAA) permitted a limited number of onsite classes for hands on classes such as Studio Art. “It’s the sort of work they couldn’t do from home because of the materials they use,” says Rob.

Maintaining a sense of connection to colleagues was also important when working from home. “We have a really collegiate staff,” says Rob, “and people were just helping each other out with tips and tricks.”

“Leadership is one thing, but it's the way that the staff worked as a team, where people have actually taken on a role within the team and made it work. That’s what’s really made it function.”

Emerald (Prep) learning at home
The Deputy Head of Junior School

Mrs Helen Moore, Deputy Head of Junior School, is amazed at how well the Junior School classrooms adapted to offsite learning. “Even though the Curriculum is the same, we had to reinvent how to do it,” she says. “We usually work in collaborative groups in a classroom.”

“It’s been a complete transformation,” says Helen. “There was a lot of tweaking in the first few weeks,” she says, “but we got to a model that worked really well for students.” 

The key was structure, she explains. Making sure students knew what was expected of them, and modifying tasks so they could be completed independently. “Students also had to learn a new protocol for the Zoom classroom,” says Helen. “Knowing when to mute and unmute, knowing not to draw on the [digital] whiteboard, knowing not to use the Chat feature. Knowing that you need to sit still at your table, with your headphones and not have distracting voices or things going on around you. It took a bit of settling in,” she says.

But according to Helen, they adjusted well. “They learnt really complicated skills on hive like how to submit due work, they wrote emails really well, they planned their learning…”

For Helen, the use of the shared screen on an iPad was the most effective tool. “I’d use my iPad to write on and I'd share that screen onto the Zoom meeting with the kids,” she says. “It’s great that they could add to it, they could write on it,” she says.

For Helen, there will be positives to offsite learning. “The idea that our children learn to become self managers of their learning, self directors, having self control. That’s a life skill,” she says.

The Year 12 Students

For Year 12 students, offsite learning increased the pressure of the VCE. At first, Alana was concerned about when exams would be held. “Would we be the class of 2020 or 2021?” she asks. Julia agrees. “It interfered with planning revision and study patterns,” she says.

Both students worried they would be disadvantaged compared to other VCE students across Victoria.

“However then I realised that all Year 12 students were in the exact same boat,” says Julia. “I’m not at a disadvantage. We’re all in this together!” she says.

Neither Julia nor Alana feel as though they missed out on valuable support from friends and teachers during the lockdown. “I regularly saw my friends and peers online through Zoom classes or Facetime,” says Julia. “We were always checking in on each other and our group chat was more active than ever,” says Alana.

For Julia, the hardest aspect was the decline in motivation. “It was tiresome sitting on the same chair in front of a screen all day,” she says. Alana got overwhelmed by the merging of home and school environments, and had to remind herself to take breaks. “Not having lunch and recess with your friends felt wrong,” she says.

There were benefits. Both Julia and Alana agree the strategies they’ve learnt will help them in the long term. “I’ve been able to set my own pace and work in a way that suits me. It’s increased my independence and self-discipline,” says Julia.

Elektra (Year 8) with a poster thanking essential workers
The Year 8 Student

For Year 8 student Elizabeth, learning from home was a lot different to school. “The worst thing was sitting through long Zooms!” Luckily for Elizabeth, not all classes were spent on the video conferencing tool. “I had about 50% of my classes on Zoom but they didn’t always go for the full lesson.” Other work was set via email or the class page on hive, she explains.

Some classes worked better than others. “Maths worked well from home because there weren't many things we needed to do away from our desks,” she says. “But subjects like Food Technology and Art were a bit harder. For Food Technology I had to cook something for my family. For Art we continued to work on our piece with my teacher Zooming every second lesson to show us the right techniques.”

For Elizabeth, there were benefits to offsite learning. “It was nice to be able to sleep in a bit longer and to spend more time with my family and my dog.”

The IT Team

Transitioning to offsite learning posed particular challenges for the IT Department. For Mr Alan Rowley, Director of Technology, the main concern was provisioning computer and server resources to support the offsite learning model, in a very limited time frame.

“In the weeks leading up to the offsite learning we had formulated an IT plan,” Alan explains, “We added resources to servers and re-configured laptops for deployment to our professional staff.” One of the biggest challenges was ensuring all staff were adequately prepared and knew how to use the technology.

“We held Zoom and VPN (Virtual Private Network) lunchtime training sessions for staff on a daily basis,” he says.

For the IT Department, offsite learning required continual monitoring. “As we started preparing for milestones such as Assessment and Reporting, there needed to be considerable consultation,” says Alan. “Adjustments were needed to be made.”

The Student Counsellor

Katrina Morrow, Acting Head of Counselling, was impressed with the way the School faced the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Our entire community was faced with rapid change and uncertainty,” she says.

“We focused on what was in our control, which was educating our students to the best of our ability, and with this focus, we grounded ourselves and found strength,” she says.

Despite the uncertainty, she says “there was also a wonderful flip side to this, where we saw communities moving towards greater support, actively connecting with others and people engaging in empathic actions that warmed the heart.”

“Through adversity we grow, learn and change for the better. The greatest benefit will be that we met and rose to the challenge, feeling stronger and more resilient within ourselves and our abilities,” she says.

“I dare say that students and staff may feel a stronger connection for having shared this experience and worked through this challenge together.”

This article originally appeared in the July 2020 edition of Lux Mea Magazine.