How ISB was prepared for online learning

By Nick Yates, ISB Communications

The International School of Beijing (ISB) was among the first schools in the world to shift to online learning after the emergence of Covid-19, back in early 2020. That experience, together with the huge amount of work faculty have put into preparation and contingency planning, has made for a new online learning program as ISB and many other Beijing schools have once again been forced to limit campus activity to control the spread of the virus.

The first period of online learning began last February and ran into late spring, when ISB was allowed to start reopening campus in a phased approach. Based on government guidance over the Winter Break, following a resurgence of the virus in some areas, students in ISB’s Early Years Community up to Grade 8 are now back online, and those in grades 9 to 12 can choose whether to study online or attend classes on campus.

Two weeks into what has become a familiar situation for schools worldwide, the challenging and joyful learning is continuing at ISB despite the limited campus opening, and the school is providing a range of resources through its website and virtual conferences with experts to help parents through this time. Ever since this journey began, ISB has been surveying parents, students, and teachers about online learning and acting on their feedback to further improve. This will continue – the first survey on the new online learning model will be issued today.

Unlike 2020, when travel restrictions left the ISB community spread around the globe, having the majority of students and teachers back in Beijing has allowed ISB to offer a more synchronized program and therefore to better support students and families. The following covers some of the work that went into getting to this stage, and please click on the video for an interview on the subject with Laura Brown, who led ISB’s preparations for online learning.

Staying nimble

Ever since Covid first raised its ugly head, schools have had to be nimble and adapt fast to changing regulations. Over Summer Break, with great uncertainty regarding when and to what extent the campus could reopen and how long it would be allowed to remain open, ISB established a number of alternative learning models it could implement according to the scenario. “What we needed to do was make sure we were thoroughly prepared for a transition at any point,” said Ms. Brown.

These models were based on feedback from the surveys of parents, students, and teachers. All three groups said they wanted greater consistency between classes, and more synchronous learning opportunities. This has been achieved through coordination of the curriculum and use of online learning platforms to facilitate class discussions, breakout rooms, and one-on-one meetings for students with teachers and mentors.

Also considered was the experience of colleagues elsewhere in online learning. ISB empowers its teachers to study the latest educational theories and revise their practices. As Ms. Brown pointed out, this was challenging in this instance because of a lack of research on how best to teach during a global pandemic. ISB teachers did, however, do a lot of consulting with staff in other schools to study their successes and consider different approaches.

ISB teachers’ work reflecting on online learning, studying best practice, and picking up new tech skills continued over the summer vacation and into the 2020-2021 academic year. Teacher training was led by Jennifer Wathall, a regular ISB consultant who has a PHD in online learning. Dr. Wathall advised ISB on its learning models and on the creation of a host of resources for parents, many of whom have been taking on a much more hands-on role in their children’s education during online learning.

Online learning collage

Ready, go!

A transition plan was created, charting – for faculty, parents, and students – the steps to be taken as soon as the school received notification that it would have to return to online learning. The first day back after the Winter Break was a transition day to get everyone prepared for the kick-off of the new online program. Parents had online information sessions with the principals on what to expect, drop-in support for online learning platforms, and workshops with Dr. Wathall on setting their children up for success in online learning.

The ISB website’s Parent Education and Support section includes a series of new videos with experts from the school’s Office of Learning providing parents with guidance to support learners at home. These will be added to as the school receives student and parent feedback on topics to be addressed.

Nobody knows how long we will have to cope with Covid-19. What is certain is that, as the world gets accustomed to living with the virus, top schools like ISB are better and better prepared to provide a quality education in this new normal. With their growing experience and expertise in online learning, faculty are ready to keep listening, improving in response to feedback, and serving the ISB community in the best way they can.

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