FSA Member schools were invited to join Mary-Lou O’Brien and Peter Hutton in conversation on Tuesday the 12th of May.

“Mary-Lou is a digital transformation leader, a change maker, an innovator, a self-confessed geek, a global explorer, a trend watcher, an Aussie retail pioneer, an intrapreneur & forever a student! In 1997 she became one of Australia’s internet pioneers when she launched Australia’s first online retail business, Australia Presents. With a varied background with an extensive cross sectoral history across education, travel and tourism, recruitment and retail, this conversation on how digital technology will redefine school-time in a post COVID world, is one not to be missed. Mary-Lou was a key change agent behind Melbourne Girls Grammar transformation to be positioned as one of the most innovative schools in Australia. A zoom link will be sent to FSA schools.”

Live Interview recorded May 2020

There is that old saying that says “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade!” 

As schools around us begin to close one by one the reality has hit and within weeks, if not days, ALL schools could be forced to close. I know many school leadership teams have been entrenched in crisis planning this past month and it’s a hard slog when you’re behind the eight ball, understaffed and underprepared. 

For those who have implemented online or blended delivery modes already using robust Learning Management Systems (LMS’s) and portals, they are quietly confident. They have been retraining their staff in new delivery modes for years and now they get to reap the reward of their investment in online learning.

For the rest it’s time to start making lemonade, as this is your opportunity:

  1. To leapfrog (surpass or overtake another to move into a leading or dominant position). You have the choice of some incredibly versatile and mature LMS platforms out there so don’t wait any longer.
  2. To change mindsets. You don’t have the luxury of a slow change management process, preparing the educators and students, however this means the educators have no choice but to embrace it alongside the students and join them on what might be the learning adventure of a lifetime. It’s an exciting time of momentous growth, an evolution in teaching practice and a flipped mindset for many. It will mean many educators are learning alongside their students for the first time, they will be nervous as they will not have the control they crave and they will have to finally move on from being “the sage on the stage’. 
  3. To test your IT teams. Is their focus on the end game of teaching and learning or just on technology? Are they able to support the community in setting up, and providing training and support, in online conferencing tools? Is the infrastructure and the policies in place to allow and support students learning from home? If school devices don’t have webcams, do you at least have a mobile app or responsive interface that will allow teachers and students to interact via any mobile device?
  4. To lift digital skill levels. All the tools teachers will be forced to embrace new tools to boost learner engagement, some of which they may have never used before e.g. blogging, chats, web conferencing, online whiteboarding, videos, audio feedback, widgets, surveys, quizzes etc Many will need to be told that an LMS is not the place for uploading daily PDFs and PowerPoint packs and many will need someone to help them build their LMS classroom/content pages so that they are appealing, well designed and engaging. Remember there’s no need to reinvent the wheel either, as there’s plenty of content out there and perhaps it’s time for you to consider microcredentials or linking to external content via MOOCS (Massive Open Online Courses).
  5. To test your business continuity plan.
  6. To get feedback. When it’s all over be open to feedback and be open to reflecting on what went right and what went horribly wrong.
  7. To apply to school leadership and boards to get more $$$ to invest so that you can remain future focussed and future ready and never find yourselves in this position again. 

My tip is that the biggest area for growth in K-12 education right now is for teachers with instructional design skills. At my previous school, we first employed an Instructional Designer in 2013, we then moved to training our educators (as opt-in professional development) and before I left in January we had trained around thirty of them. It’s definitely time that our teacher training courses take on this burden from schools, as from this point onwards these skills will no longer be “nice to haves” but absolutely required.  

 It is disruptive times like these that force change and innovation. All parts of the community will be more open to change during a crisis. Embrace this opportunity, change is often hard and the community is often resistive, but just like we keep telling students, the future is all about being adaptable and agile. 

Last week’s confusion around school closures in the face of continuing Coronavirus outbreaks had people baffled as the Independent Schools and Education Department Schools were taking very different stances.

To me it seemed obvious that many Independent Schools responded far faster in enforcing students returning from China remain in isolation. Last week the Education Department was hesitant to isolate students and when one of their Schools did it became news headlines: “Melbourne primary school defies state coronavirus advice and isolates students”. This week they have flipped and as the virus spreads globally and is at risk of becoming a pandemic, the Department is now enforcing the isolation recommendation below, but at what cost?

Today the Australian Government Department of Health has stated:

  • If you have travelled from Hubei Province within the past 14 days, you must isolate yourself until 14 days have elapsed after leaving Hubei Province.
  • If you have left, or transited through, mainland China on or after 1 February 2020 you must isolate yourself until 14 days after leaving China.
  • If you have been in close contact with a confirmed case of novel coronavirus, you must isolate yourself for 14 days after last contact with the confirmed case.

There are many underlying issues at play here, political volley-balling, political correctness and even racism, or perhaps the fear of being seen to be racist. However, what most people don’t understand is that many schools, and almost ALL independent schools and Higher Education Institutions have Learning Management Systems (LMS) that allow students to access their classes when they can’t attend a campus. Many are still as not as advanced as they should be but in the case of emergency situations like this, they could be the lifeline these students (and their schools) need.

I was employed as a Director of eLearning in 2019 with the task of selecting and deploying an LMS to support online & blended learning to ensure that every student could continue their education whether they were at Ski School at Mt Buller for three months of the year, on an exchange trip to France, in the Children’s Hospital unwell or in the case that the School had had to be shut down due to a power outage…or even a health pandemic. Coincidentally just as I began my role Australia was hit by the Swine Flu outbreak and several schools were closed across the State of Victoria at that time. I remember reading about a great moment of leapfrogging by a rural school who immediately responded by executing, seemingly overnight, a Learning Management System. This enabled schooling to continue with students accessing their classes and their teachers online via web conferencing. It is a moment etched in my mind, a classic example of making a firm decision, taking a calculated risk, embracing the solution and bringing the community along for the ride.

That was 2009 and have we not learnt anything? Did schools not complete risk assessments back then? If they did, what were the outcomes and recommendations and why were they not acted upon?

I would suggest that the investment in an LMS would not only provide an alternative virtual location for your School, but it could also mitigate risk. The risk could be huge and there have already been headlines focused on the impact on our economy if all our International students are delayed entry or self-isolating by the time Uni’s reopen in March. On a smaller scale think of your local schools, particularly those with international borders and the impact the loss of students would have at that level. Of course, it’s not as simple as everyone turning on an LMS tomorrow, like everything it takes time. We took five years to reach the point where EVERY educator had the training, knowledge and confidence to present their content online and I’m not talking about just whacking up hundreds of PowerPoints and .pdf’s either but thoughtfully curated content based on mastery learning and with UX principals top of mind. By 2017 the whole senior year’s curriculum was ready to be delivered in a blended model and given that every school’s senior cohorts are high-risk cohorts due to the focus on their results, future pathways, parent pressures and by the fact that they are the highest fee payers etc it makes sense to start there. In the US many states mandate that senior students must complete a minimum of one subject online to graduate, as a way of ensuring they are ready for higher education and the future of work.

With so many reasons for implementing an LMS, the time is now, what school board wouldn’t approve the expense when weighed against the risk right now?