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Preparing for the Worst as an Opportunity for Change

November, 2009
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There is more than one way to get a school to start looking at online learning as a way to reach students. As an international educator, I have found no greater motivation to get the conversation started about online learning than planning for the worst…..school closure.

In 2003 it was the
attacks on the compound in Riyadh that led my school to think about how we were going to educate students if we had to shut our doors. The following year we implemented Moodle and started training our teachers.

In 2005 we moved to Shanghai, China and within weeks of getting my feet on the ground I found myself in a meeting talking about how we could sustain learning if SARS were to return to Asia. Luckily Shanghai American School (SAS) did not have to shut their doors during SARS but other schools had to and they were now looking for ways to sustain learning if the worst was to occur. Two months later we installed and start using Moodle, we got a couple teachers on board and we started to build a wave of technology users. In my eyes that was the true start to online learning systems at SAS. Of course, now they have a whole e-learning portal system and are going 1:1.

A couple of days ago I got an e-mail from the leadership team here at International School of Bangkok (ISB) who are starting to have conversations about H1N1 and what systems we have in place that would allow us to carry on the learning process. There have been international schools that have already had short term closures throughout Asia due to H1N1 and just last week we saw our first confirmed case at school.

These are not the best ways to bring attention to e-learning systems, but honestly I’ll take what I can get!

Here’s the problem with all three of the above stories. Online learning is not something you can “switch on” and then do well. There is so much training to be done on both the teachers’ end and the students’ end that switching it on is the least of your worries.

Why every classroom should be a blended classroom:

Of course I could go into the learning theory on why I believe every classroom today, especially in middle school and high school where students are more tech savvy, should be a blended model of both classroom learning and online learning.

However, let’s just look at it from a ‘preparing for the worst’ perspective. If your school or class is already using a blended model for learning, moving to a full time model either way is a much shorter jump than moving all the way without having a system in place. Both teachers and students understand how the system works, where to go, and what to do. If online learning is just part of their daily routine in school, than we do not need to worry….we just continue on the journey of learning.

In all three stories above I’ve helped my schools start with Moodle:

                        It has minimal set-up costs (free, you just need a server).

                        Setting up and getting classes going is easy.

                        It’s secure (walled garden), which both teachers and administrators like and feel comfortable with.

                        It can do everything you need in one nice package (Not everything….but everything you need).

All three of these schools are in much better shape today to deal with school closure. Here at ISB most teachers in the middle school and high school have moved to some form of blended learning. Whether it is blogs, Moodle, Elgg, or Google Apps, they are using online techniques daily. What H1N1 will do is force the rest of the teachers to move there so we are prepared for the worst…this is not a bad thing!

The elementary school is always a bit harder, as students rely on more guidance when it comes to learning. Our teachers continue to adopt blogs as a communication device with parents and turning that into an educational learning communication to parents if they were at home with their students is not a far leap. Uploading worksheets, having discussions, and even giving advice to parents on how and what they should spend their time doing is a simple switch for teachers. The parents are already trained to look at the blogs for class information, and teachers are getting better at understanding the software and uploading documentation. Therefore, an open communication learning platform is already in place.

We talk about needing a
Sputnik type reason to change education. Internationally I’ve found mine! It might not be the best way to shift school policy or change the thinking of teachers regarding online tools, but I’ll take it! In the case of SAS that simple step of installing Moodle has led to a shift in thinking, school culture, and their beliefs on what a blended classroom can do for both teaching and learning. It has allowed new conversations, new ideas, and a new outlook on what is possible. So, as much as I hate to fear H1N1 I also see it as an opportunity to start new conversations and new ways of thinking about education. Preparing for the worst can certainly be an opportunity for change.

By Jeff Utecht


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