Online schooling can work, but nothing beats teacher time

While online teaching is still relatively new in Malta, private schools were quicker to adjust to the new reality 

School closures pitted teachers and students against a new reality, as educational institutions scrambled to complete four crucial months of education through online classrooms and lessons.

Malta was hit particularly hard, as digital platforms were still relatively new and online teaching had yet to take off in earnest.

But under pressure from being quasi-independently financed by parents, it was private schools that were quicker at adjusting to the new reality. The high scholastic fees were instrumental into pushing the independent schools in delivering on the high expectations from parents during the lockdown.

One mother who wished to remain anonymous told MaltaToday the services at St Michael Foundation during the lockdown were “fantastic”. With girls in both primary and secondary school, she said the approach of the school on online teaching was well thought-out.

“The kids actually continued to have assembly, with it taking place for the older kids every day and once a week for the younger ones. They had timetables which included all subjects, even ballet, art and P.E classes – nothing was left out. They also had PSD (personal and social development) classes where kids could talk about their feelings and how they were coping during the lockdown,” she said of the full-day schedules for the children.

It was as if the children were still in school… just sat at their computer this time. Students would attend online classes, with 10-minute breaks in between each class. Students at the junior level had a shortened school day with one 20-minute break; those in senior school had a longer one, with a 40-minute break.

However, despite the school’s efforts, it was still a learning curve for parents. “It was much easier for the older students to get used to taking classes online – because they’re far more used to technology. But for the younger ones the first two weeks were difficult. At first, I tried setting up my younger daughter in a main living area, with the idea that I could keep an eye on her – however, I soon realised that it wasn’t going to work because having me in the room was too distracting, so I moved her to another room alone.”

St Michael Foundation first opted to have students only have their microphones turned on in the junior schools, with teachers opting to either turn their camera on or off. But the unclear guidelines made for some embarrassing incidents with students leaving their microphones on. “After a meeting between the parents and the school, it was decided that students would turn their cameras on, and that worked out better because teachers were then able to see what their students were doing – so if they got up and left, or weren’t paying attention, the teacher would be aware.”   

Things were different for the senior school, where the students never had their cameras on and very few teachers chose to give their lessons with the cameras on. “These kids ended up looking at a screen and hearing a voice – which they found very tiring – and depressing, especially for teenagers,” she said.

Leanne Rizzo Naudi, a teacher at another private school, San Anton, said the teaching experience was a big shock for everyone, especially for children not used at spending so much time in front of a computer screen. “There was some uncertainty among the students as they were scared that they would not be able to cope with all the sudden changes thrust upon them.”

Crucially, it is the school setting that puts students in the frame of mind to concentrate and learn; the home setting does not have the same impact.

“The fact that they cannot physically be in the school, in their class, seeing their friends, their teachers, was definitely not easy. As time passed by the children did get used to the programme, communicating during lesson times and the new routine, as did everyone else.”

Rizzo Naudi, who taught kids aged 10-11, said her students were already becoming more independent in their daily routine. While some children required a bit more help at first, many managed the technology independently, so the role of parents involved periodic check-ups during the day.

“If any queries were not resolved adequately during the lesson time, we had one-to-one sessions with the students to resolve them. After weeks of living this new routine, I would say that we did our very best to assist the students when needed, ensuring student reached their ability.”

Class attendance remained mandatory, despite online shift. “I’m happy to say all my students attended all the lessons. Parents did make sure this was adhered to. There were one-off situations, as happens also in a normal school day, and students who would not attend would have given a valid reason, such as illness.”

But Rizzo Naudi, also a mother of two with their own schedule of lessons, also found the online shift hard.

“In the beginning, I was a bit doubtful about the whole idea of live online lessons. Sitting for all those hours in front of a camera was a bit daunting.

As the days went by, it became easier, quite mundane actually. Speaking for myself, I’d say I was ‘lucky’ – I had assistance from my husband, who was under lockdown, so we made sure that our children followed their own curriculum and they do not fall behind.”

That allowed her to prioritise her students. However, Rizzo Naudi says nothing beats face-to-face interactions at school.

“Being physically in a classroom helps you create that special bond, that unique relationship as you are able to read each other’s moods and physical expressions; being surrounded by students who are eager to learn and also spend time with their friends is definitely more rewarding.”

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