Virtually there

Remote learning during COVID-19

It’s been a learning curve for all of us, and we now need to learn from each other. Here we speak to three schools, two in China and one in Kuwait to find out how they have adapted to the lockdown.

Sudden change

The decision to close all schools in China came very quickly. As the first region to experience enforced isolation, the pressure on schools was immense. As Paul Kelly, head of secondary education at The British International School, based in Puxi, the historic centre of Shanghai explains, “It was the third week back after the Christmas holidays; we were getting ready for the Chinese New Year when I received a call on the Sunday evening to tell me that all schools were going to be closed. Initially the suggestion was that the closure could be for three weeks; we’re now into our ninth week.”


For most international schools in China, many of the staff and students were overseas visiting their families and had left their iPads and laptops at home. Added to this, as people began to realise that China was a badly effected country, no one was in a rush to return! The potential of teaching remotely became increasingly challenging.

First steps in Shanghai

Paul’s objective on the first day of isolation was to find out who had what technology and then to establish an effective communication strategy with staff and students through Microsoft Teams.  As Paul explains, “thankfully we were already set up with Microsoft Teams so everyone could communicate through their mobile devices even if these were mobile phones. I found Microsoft Teams to be functional and as we have grown in confidence we have gained a far better understanding of the variety of features it has to offer to support learning. The key benefit is that once you’ve set-up your class as a group, you just press a button.”

Ian Lee, IGCSE coordinator at the Yew Chung International School (YCIS) of Shanghai had a similar experience. “We have used Microsoft Teams for some time and then a few years ago we invested in iPads for all students to give them access to learning content; a lot of our remote teaching resources were already established and this is certainly paying dividends now!”


At The British International School, Paul soon realised that their Microsoft Office 365, contract comes with 1 Terabyte (TB) of Cloud storage. This meant that once he’d established a connection, he was then able to upload all the learning material into different Clouds. For example, the English department could have access to their central repository, while the maths department had their own area.

Meanwhile in Kuwait

The British School of Kuwait’s (BSK) priority on day one was to set up Google Hangouts for each of the classes; functionality is limited but it has served its purpose. The school already structured its learning and assessment around its virtual learning environment (VLE), so when they were given such short notice of the school’s closure this formed the basis of their remote learning strategy.

Structuring on-line learning at BSK

As one of BSK’s science teachers, David Williams, explains, “We wanted to maintain as much of a school timetable as possible, so since the school’s closure, all staff have been making sure they use the VLE every day to give the students instructions on their learning objectives. Each lesson is an hour long, with set learning objectives, study material and follow up activities. While the VLE gives the learning a level of structure we also allow the students to be fairly flexible; some work into the night while others start before the school day at eight o’clock. They seem to be flourishing with the level of flexibility and trust they are being given.”

During the scheduled Hangout time the BSK students can join the conversation to follow the teacher’s guidance and ask questions as they would in a normal classroom setting.

The BIS Shanghai approach

The British International School already had a on-line learning system in place. Before the end of a ‘normal’ school day the teachers provided a summary of the lessons that the children had attended, including what they’d learned. After it had to close, the school decided to flip this idea. As Paul explains, “Instead of Mr. and Mrs. Jones receiving a note to say that Liam had science in Period 1 where the class learned about the ultrastructure of cells then in Period 2 he had PE, the lesson summary became an outline of the learning objectives of each day, what resources the students should use and what homework was expected. Instead of going out at the end of each day, we sent it out at 8:15 in the morning.”

The only problem was the time difference for the 50 per cent of students who were out of the country at the time of the closure, from New Zealand to Chicago. Some teachers started recording their lesson on their smart phones and then sending this out to the children.

Autonomous learning

The next step for all the three schools was to find online learning resources that would allow the students to learn relatively autonomously. The challenge for The British International School and YCIS was to find such systems. Due to the country’s firewall, not all platforms are functional in China; Internet access is good but certain websites including BBC Bitesize are blocked.

BIS in Shanghai already used Kognity’s online textbooks which worked well and ‘Education Perfect’ which provided them with a library of curriculum-aligned lessons and assessments, but Ian Lee also stressed the need for additional learning resources to ensure the students could continue to engage with their studies and educate themselves effectively. A colleague from a sister school recommended GCSEPod, which aligned to the IGCSE curricula. This turned out to be a resource all three schools used to ‘teach’ and assess the students.


Paul said, “GCSEPod was recommended to us by a colleague at another Nord Anglia school. We had to react quickly and set up the GCSEPod accounts for all of our secondary aged students; giving them remote access to quality content through over 3,000 video Pods covering all areas of the curriculum. Thankfully it was easy to set up and there was no learning curve.”

The British School of Kuwait found that the short three to five-minute video Pods have provided the learning, and the short question banks assess their level of understanding. “We can’t see their exercise books but we can see which Pods they’ve watched, how they have performed on the assessments and whether I need to step in to give them additional support,” explains David. “It’s proving to provide a real development hump for the students, while cutting down on teacher work-load.”

Ian added, “Our students are watching the videos, and then going through the test banks. Depending on the results of the tests they then know whether they need to watch further video Pods. It is really letting them self-teach.

Practical problems

Of-course none of this has happened without a number of challenges.

One problem experienced at BIS was that each student needed their own passwords. Most write them in their school diary, but of course these were in their school locker. For those students still based in Shanghai, Paul had to organise with the school guards so that he could go into school, access each student’s lockers, then leave their books at the gates. Each child could then step forward, one by one to collect their bags.

Paul warned schools of another problem they experienced. “Students would normally receive merits, verbal or written, for their work, but this is harder when they are working remotely. The solution we’ve found is that GCSEPod provides a list of the top student users, so I’ve been able to write letters to the parents and students in recognition of their high study scores; right now it’s all about motivating them to continue to learn and  recognise that it’s no fun working from home.”

In the rare incidence where set homework is not completed by a student, the policy at The British International School is to leave it for a couple of days. If by the third day nothing has been received, the teacher will send the student a nice email to remind them of the set tasks. If still nothing is received the year leader will get involved and telephone the parents.

Frustration and ingenuity

During a virtual assembly the other week Ian at YCIS asked his students about their frustrations. The issue they have all felt is isolation; being away from their friends. The only other problem has been the Internet’s bandwidth and loosing connection because so many people are using it.

Ian shares a feeling of all the schools when he concludes, “while quickly becoming adept at using new technologies, the need for adaptability and ingenuity has never been greater. YCIS staff and students have proven to be determined, innovative and resilient. This situation has brought out the best in our school community. It has certainly been challenging but it’s actually been a very positive learning experience for us all.”





Feature Image:by Mudassar Iqbal from Pixabay