Lockdown and its impact on international schools

How we need to rethink the future of assessment

Dr Simon Watson

Principal, St Christopher's School, Bahrain

The ‘New Normal’ is already tired and wilted. The phrase is used indiscriminately to describe anything and everything since Covid-19 trespassed into our world. How will we learn to live not only with Covid-19, but Covid-23 and Covid-29? Clearly the WHO were thinking ahead when they named this virus.

And how much are educators thinking ahead? What have we learnt, how will we coexist with Covid? International education has changed dramatically over the past decades and will continue to evolve. During this crisis international teachers are remotely preparing well-structured activities and facilitating learning through virtual connections using a carefully selected pallet of software and creativity; looming and zooming, jamming with Google, and many other colourful ways to engage with learners are being utilised by teachers.

The benefits of online learning

Some students have reported that they enjoy the new offerings from their teachers much more than being in a classroom, finally being allowed to demonstrate their independent learning, while appreciating the flexibility that accompanies their semi-structured day. The virtual learning pattern that is emerging leaves teachers time to support students who require further direction and attention. These lessons for students and teachers alike must continue to develop, as schools dance the Hokey-Pokey over the next year and possibly beyond. Some students have returned to their school buildings with only partial enrolment and therefore the continuance of virtual learning must stretch for an extended period.

Staff and student wellbeing has become more pressing yet harder to support during Covid-19. How many international schools will continue to allow vulnerable teachers and students to teach and learn remotely, once a partial or full return to school buildings takes place? A very real measure of a school’s compassion will be how well leaders respond and protect this susceptible group.

The possibilities of online learning platforms

International schools have a chance to expand their portfolios of learning, allowing flexible opportunities for success at differentiated costs. Some UK schools already offer online learning courses, facilitated by expert tutors. So in the same way that franchise schools started their journey a few decades ago, before spreading throughout the world, so could international schools with virtual learning. Initiated by Covid, international schools have the resources and requirement to develop their own bespoke virtual learning platforms. These platforms would appeal to families about to move to a new country, those families currently living in the country and also to families that leave the country to relocate back home. 

With international travel predominant among international employees, the extended transmission of Covid could be another factor that supports international schools’ development of bespoke virtual learning platforms. Many international families have seen the benefit of virtual learning and with the decline of companies paying large amounts of money for international education, virtual learning could provide a solution for many mobile families, regardless of whether Covid-19 is here for the long haul.

How assessment could change

By far the biggest problem to solve at present is virtual assessment of learning. Instead of reassessing assessment strategies, many schools are currently trying to assess student learning using their tried and tested methods that have been in place for almost a century. Systems do exist for remote, high stakes assessment that mirrors previous practices, however, examination boards have been forced to demonstrate that it is possible to assign grades to students without the students taking examinations. Governments and examination boards can no longer claim that these examination tools of torture are necessary instruments for students to master to navigate their passage to adulthood. Optimistically, this could signal the beginning of a progressive approach to assessment. Schools would only need to reimagine and refine their assessment processes to be in step with the potentially exciting new guidelines from governments and examination boards.

Realistically, the move away from high stake examinations seems unlikely unless the pandemic continues for a significant amount of time, so it leaves international schools with a new problem to solve. It was clear that once the UK government cancelled GCSEs and A Levels this year it impacted significantly on the decisions by international examination boards to follow suit. It doesn’t take much foresight to envisage a situation in the near future where UK schools are administering external examinations in the same way as before, yet local Covid conditions in another country may not allow students in that country to take external examinations. Would this lead to a hybrid system of assessment or as some examination boards already stated before the UK government stopped their national examinations:  ‘tough luck,’ telling students that they will need to take their examinations in the next examination series? The solution to this potential problem seems to be beyond the reach of international schools alone, so it is critical that international schools engage with larger organisations to ensure parity of access.

Whatever happens over the next few years, international schools will benefit from continuing to develop their own high quality, well-resourced bespoke virtual learning platform that is accessible to all stakeholders. This will have a lasting effect on how the majority of teachers will teach. Their use of technology has been enhanced through having to think carefully about what they want the students to learn and how best to assess the learning. Even when we return to school we will still have virtual learning, and blended learning will take on a new dimension.

Sensible and dynamic assessment of learning that responds to the fast changing decisions regarding access to buildings should be part of a school’s learning policy. And, as we cautiously accept the new world order where countries like New Zealand lead the way, let’s embrace the myriad possibilities for educational progress.

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