18 Mar 2020

Coronavirus: Schools and universities prepare e-learning in case of shutdown

2:20 pm on 18 March 2020

Schools are figuring out how to teach students from home if they are shut down because of the Covid-19 outbreak.

High school students on their way home, teenagers.

Photo: 123RF

They say it is not easy to set up an online course and one Wellington school is having a practice run on Friday.

The Ministry of Education has been calling every school in the country to ask if they can teach over the internet, and public health expert Michael Baker has urged the government to close all schools now to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

However, the ministry has indicated the most likely scenario was individual school closures for one or two days if staff or students were linked to a case of the virus.

Wellington College principal Gregor Fountain said with that possibility in mind, it would hold a trial-run of learning from home on Friday.

He said the trial would allow the school to check the technology and give teachers and students a taste of how it might work.

Fountain said a lot of schoolwork involved assignments and research, but some topics required direct teaching and teachers were using a range of approaches to provide that via the internet.

"I know there are teachers that are experimenting with using video to be able to show concepts and explain strategies for solving problems. I was in a class today and they were working on a live-stream where they've worked out how the teacher can run the class over YouTube and the students can be in real time asking questions through the comments section," he said.

Meanwhile, a group of e-learning experts was offering a basic course in e-learning today to help teachers get ready for school closures.

One of the group, the principal of the Virtual Learning Network primary school, Rachel Whalley, said maintaining children's social connections was critical for successful online learning.

"The most important thing for our kids when they're away from school is that social connection and keeping an even keel for what's going to be a very disruptive situation. So being able to connect to their teachers, to their classmates is going to be important, more so than keeping up with their reading, writing, and maths."

Whalley said some teachers were looking at using Minecraft and other open world gaming programmes as a means of providing whole-class interaction.

A smartphone with online multiplayer game Minecraft.

Playing minecraft on smartphone. (File image). Photo: 123RF

She said some schools were likely to be well prepared for online learning, and others less so but the biggest stumbling block was likely be the digital divide - the families who did not have internet access or devices that children could use to learn from home.

The principal of Rowandale School in Manurewa, Karl Vasau, said that could be a problem for some of the families at his decile 1 school and teachers had already figured out how to work with them during a closure.

"We're making education packs with books and worksheets in it and we'll very happily after the day the school is closed, deliver these to the mailboxes of the families that can't [access the internet], and then they'll just be able to access that from the letter box and take that in and work with their children."

Vasau said other families might have only limited access to the internet so the school had to bear that in mind when setting up online learning.

"Some families, the only internet or device access they have is mum or dad's phone," he said.

Those families would be able to access a list of tasks or activities from Facebook.

"That's how simple it's got to be so that it's achievable in an environment where we've never done this before."

Secretary for Education Iona Holsted said this afternoon the ministry was talking to telecommunications companies about helping families who had limited or poor internet access.

She said the ministry was not planning to start the April school holidays early or to shut schools down.

"We are not currently expecting or planning for widespread school closures. We are planning for temporary closures, as is happening at Logan Park," she said.

"As the World Health Organisation confirmed, the risk to children remains low."

  • If you have symptoms of the coronavirus, call the NZ Covid-19 Healthline on 0800 358 5453 (+64 9 358 5453 for international SIMs)

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