How Microsoft Teams kept pupils learning during the UK lockdown

With most students spending the majority of the last 12 months outside the classroom at home, two educational institutions turned to Teams to allow them to continue teaching.

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Last March, students and teachers across the UK suddenly found themselves banished from the classroom, facing the challenge of trying to emulate their educational experience from home.

As was the case for many office workers; teachers, pupils, and parents were unable to avoid the stress caused by COVID-19 lockdowns. Students who should have been taking GCSE or A-Levels exams were concerned about what closed schools and cancelled assessments might mean for their future. And parents had to juggle the dual responsibilities of home schooling and work.

Hugh Baird College in Merseyside, a college that provides further education courses and apprenticeships to more than 5,000 students, and Cognita Schools, a global private schools group that oversees 40 schools in the UK, are two institutions that have spent the last 12 months navigating the challenges of remote learning.

Both schools turned to Microsoft Teams.

Moving from classroom to home

Although the March 20 lockdown order came as a shock to Hugh Baird College, it had an advantage: “[We'd] been using Microsoft Teams for about 18 months before the pandemic,” said John Billington, director of facilities and technical services at the college.

john.billington Hugh Baird College

John Billington, director of facilities and technical services at Hugh Baird College.

The college's original VLA (virtual learning assistant) and Moodle-based system (an open-source learning platform) had become increasingly clunky and incompatible with the technology needs of staff, prompting the school to evaluate Teams, Google Classroom and another Moodle-based option.

“There was a clear winner,” Billington said. “[Teams] fit in to that Microsoft ecosystem that we already had; it worked with the same user credentials and just made things better for staff and students.”

So when students and teachers were sent home, the college already had a solution in place to ensure learning continued with minimal disruption. Even so, remote learning still brought challenges.

Principal and chief executive of Hugh Baird college, Rachel Hennigan, said that getting everyone used to video was a new experience for many; though Teams was routinely used as a portal to keep staffers updated, it hadn’t been used for remote learning.

“At the start of lockdown, the concept of a video call was still quite unusual, because we hadn’t been using Teams in that way,” Billington said. “The idea of me using Teams to call Rachel was just peculiar, but now it’s like second nature.”

While some teachers were nervous about turning their cameras on and inviting students into their living rooms, there were no issues in terms of the scalability or performance as the school brought all 5,000 students on board, Billington said.

How Cognita fared

Cognita Schools faced similar challenges, in that it also had Teams in place but before the pandemic had not used it to facilitate collaboration. Andy Perryer, digital learning adviser at Cognita, said the school moved to Teams as part of a technology refresh aimed at bolstering teachers’ efficiency and an effort to shift the culture around using technology in the classroom. 

andy perryer Cognita Schools

Andy Perryer, digital learning adviser at Cognita Schools.

That rollout was completed in February 2020 — just before the pandemic swept the globe.

Overseeing schools in Asia, Cognita was able to pre-empt the pandemic shutdown earlier than other educational institutions in the UK and gain insights into the challenges remote learning would bring. 

“We created what we called the online learning protocol, which was a document we sent to all of our schools with the aim of standardising our work in order to support with CPD (Continuing Professional Development) training with scalability,” Perryer said. “We knew that some schools have dabbled in Google Classroom, some schools already have something like Firefly in place, but we absolutely knew that to be successful, we needed a singular vehicle — and that was Microsoft Teams.”

Rival platforms didn't offer the “shop window of what [Teams] could deliver," he said, from the face-to-face collaboration to file sharing. Security was also a big factor for Perryer, especially after the issues Zoom had last year with Zoom-bombing.

“That was unfortunate because the vast majority of those problems came from humans not pressing the right buttons to lock down their rooms, but with Teams, we just didn't have that worry, it was locked straight away," Perryer said.

Officials at both Hugh Baird College and Cognita Schools stressed that teacher's embrace of technology led directly to success with remote learning. At Cognita, Perryer said, teachers got a a week of webinars and workshops to give them a crash introduction to the platform and what it could do. That effort included a forum where teachers could share best practices with some 1,200 colleagues from across Europe.

That, he said, ensured teachers had a real voice in setting their remote learning strategy and could figure out what worked for them and what didn't.

Accessibility challenges

Throughout the pandemic, accessibility has remained a key issue for schools. Department of Education statistics show that 880,000 children in the UK only have access to a mobile internet connection, while about 9% of children in the UK — between 1.1 million and 1.8 million — have no access to a laptop, desktop or tablet at home.

Although pupils attending schools housed by the Cognita Group typically come from more affluent backgrounds, their students weren’t immune from some of the provisioning challenges faced in the education sector. While Cognita students were more likely to have internet access and remote devices, there often weren’t enough laptops at home to allow each child to receive a full day’s learning.  

Congnita Schools was able to provide every child with his or her own remote device for learning, but procuring thousands of laptops quickly — when businesses were also scrambling to buy remote devices for workers sent home from the office — was no easy feat.

“The laptops we were originally thinking of completely ran out of Intel chips and screens,” Perryer explained. But by the end of the first term in lockdown, 80% of the devices Cognita procured had been handed out; the remaining pupils got theirs in the first two weeks of January.

rachael hennigan Hugh Baird college

Rachel Hennigan, principal and chief executive of Hugh Baird college.

Digital deprivation amongst the pupils at Hugh Baird College also kept Hennigan awake at night.

“It didn't even dawn on me that we’d have students who didn’t have pens and paper,” she said. “Asking them to go to a full-blown online delivery when they didn't have any form of tech in the house or didn't have Wi-Fi led us to bring John [Billington’s] team in to convert old laptops so students could gain access.”

However, since the college offered specialised support for students with special education needs, accessibility at Hugh Baird College was about more than just internet and hardware. Jenny Quinn, head of learner support at the school, said it meant working with students beyond time spent in the classroom.

“We have a lot of dialogue with parents and suddenly it switched from them coming in to see us, even when they just pop in to see us when they’re picking their teenager up, to not being able to have those conversations unless we contacted them over the phone or online," Quinn said.

What she found when she reached out to parents was that many of them were being taught by their children how to use Teams so they could contact teachers when issues arose. Now, instead of having to schedule a time for parents and external agencies to be on hand at school for meetings, important conversations can be done using Teams.

Lessons learned and silver linings

Despite the challenges it faced, Hugh Baird College found several silver linings in the switch to online learning. For many students with special ed needs, Teams allowed them to overcome barriers to learning they faced in the classroom. Quinn cited one student who's made strides since moving to online learning. The young girl, who has speech and language difficulties, found having to communicate face-to-face with people in class stressful. She struggled to make friends, didn't engage in group activities and was spending breaktime on her own — a big concern for both her parents and teachers.

jenny quinn Hugh Baird College

Jenny Quinn, head of learner support at Hugh Baird College.

“As soon as we went online, she started to develop friendships," Quinn said. "She's chatting away in the chat box, but she doesn't use the video function, and that's fine, because she would struggle to communicate on that. Having used the [Teams] chat function, she’s now engaging with more emails than she was a couple of weeks ago and I can't believe she’s now doing group work and group activities, because even though her classmates are all chatting away on the video, she can just type her responses in the chat.”

Another student who was considered the quietest child in class due to speech difficulties was recently elected Class Representative, having become one of the most talkative students on the Teams platform.

Although teachers at both schools look forward to a return to class, the need over the past year for remote learning has given educational institutions a lot to think about.

Said Perryer: “The EdTech strategy that we wrote in 2019 has been scrapped” and the group is now placing a renewed focus on teacher efficiency and improving schools’ digital maturity.

Hennigan is also excited about the removal of barriers that in the past affected students' ability to learn. She said she’s always been an advocate for technology where it supports learning, rather than using technology just for technology’s sake.

“I think we've gone through perhaps one of the most fascinating and amazing years where we've learned so much. I think it will be remiss of us to not use technology in some way, shape, or form and in the future,” she said.

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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