Monday, 04 March 2019 09:59

Virtual School at the International School of Belgrade

CEESA schools have had plans in place for many years to implement online learning in a ‘virtual school’ format if and when the need might arise.

We are also fortunate to receive funding from the U.S. Office of Overseas Schools to support software to enable this implementation. I do not know if other CEESA schools have needed to actually activate these plans, but I do know that ISB had not had the occasion to do so previously. Well ... now we have.

ISB was on vacation during the week of Feb. 11-15, which is in line with the Serbian national schools. At the end of that week, the Serbian government (Ministry of Health, Ministry of Education, Belgrade City authorities) issued an ordinance whereby all primary and secondary schools, whether public or private, were told to extend the vacation by another week to combatthe spread of flu. This particular strand was responsible for 28 flu or flu-related deaths within Serbia up to that point.

With very little notice, and with administrators and teachers returning from various corners of the world from their vacations, we sprang into action. At the Upper School it was business as usual with teachers connecting with their students using different Google Suite Applications. Teaching and learning continued seamlessly with some required tweaking of lesson plans to suit the online learning focus, but overall the need to switch to a ‘virtual’ lesson did not interrupt curriculum delivery.

Students were able to receive support and task clarification from their teachers who were present via email, discussion boards, live comment threads or via Hangouts. Many teachers were pleasantly surprised by the increased level of student engagement and task completion during lesson time with some commenting that they were able to connect with their students in a new and meaningful way. Students enjoyed a flexible learning environment and the opportunity to self-manage.

As age-appropriate, we took a different approach at the Lower School. Teachers were in contact with families at the beginning of the week to outline expectations for the week with suggested assignments and activities connected to maths, reading, writing and the unit of inquiry. Emails and messages through the online platform of SeeSaw during the week ensured good communication between home and school. Teachers also used our online subscriptions such as Raz-Kids and IXL which made it easy to individualize and differentiate according to student need. Our Grade 5 students were in the research stage of their Exhibition so for them, online learninglooked a little different.

The Grade 5 teachers set up a google doc for each of the students, and  included their mentors, with individualised expectations and guidance about their research. It was impressive to note that all students in Grade 5 took their learning very seriously and returned to school well-prepared to continue with their Exhibition preparation. Parents also gave feedback about the impressive level of independence shown by our oldest primary students. Upon our return to real-life, physical school on February 25, we sent surveys to parents, students and staff. The results from all three groups were overwhelmingly positive, while we did receive feedback from individuals that the week was more difficult to manage for some.

Here are some samples of feedback from students to the question - What went well?

  • I concentrated more than in class.
  • I liked the aspect that I could be comfortable at home and work which I feel may have raised the quality of my work.
  • I could wake up later, therefore extending the time that I can sleep.
  • Communication between teachers and students through email, Google classroom & Drive.
  • Submission of tasks was very simple.

We learned that we need to vary the delivery next time, in part with help of student comments like these regarding the question - What could be improved?

  • Sometimes it is difficult for me to ask and explain questions by typing.
  • Use video chat.
  • Some classes could have been done through skype or verbal communication. Overall, I thought
  • Overall planning, technology problems (receiving 10 emails for one subject), class structure
  • Hard to follow at home.
  • Nothing, I actually enjoyed going to online school!

And finally, one very honest answer from a parent with multiple young children at home to the
question - What could be improved?

  • My patience!

While the experience was overall successful, we fully recognize that online learning can not replace the personal contact with a teacher, or the human relationships that develop in a group, and the International School of Belgrade community was happy to resume regular classes on campus with the knowledge that we can address any future possible school closure with meaningful learning opportunities for all.

Written by Rob Risch - ISB Director, Kristine Greenlaw - Upper School Principal, and Warren Bowers - Lower School Principal