Published/ May 25, 2020
By/ Wang Yutong Olivia, CITE Research Assistant

Facing the challenge of extended school closures, many primary and secondary schools in Hong Kong had to quickly shift their operations online to maintain the continuity of teaching and learning. However, taking school systems to an online environment isn’t just a technical issue. It is an organizational, pedagogical and leadership challenge as new technology infrastructure, pedagogy and fine grain curriculum design, changes in organizational and staffing structures, as well as everyday routines such as timetabling are needed. Successful change along these lines can be referred to as learning at the school level. To achieve such learning requires that school leaders (at different levels, not just the principal) work collaboratively and creatively on the establishment of an effective “architecture for learning”.

In this blog, we share the school level “architecture for learning” and the outcomes of the successful learning experience from the Caritas Fanling Chan Chun Ha Secondary School (CFSS). Several senior teachers from CFSS shared their experience at the CITE online professional development workshop on March 11, and this is a write up on their sharing. Founded in 1988, CFSS is an aided catholic school located in the New Territories, Hong Kong. The school has 24 classes from Secondary 1 to 6 with around 65 teaching staff members. As e-learning is part of the school’s three-year development plan, most teachers and students have some prior experiences with online learning. Here is what we learnt from them:

1. Building shared vision and goals

Before pulling the trigger and racing to the virtual space, it’s important for school leaders and teachers to agree on a sustainable vision and shared goals. Instead of seeing online learning as a problem to be tackled, the school leaders from CFSS treated it as an accelerated approach to achieve its three-year development plan through scaling e-learning adoption and deepening self-directed learning practices. To fulfill the vision, the school prioritized four goals for online learning at the very beginning when teaching had to be moved online:

  1. Ensure learning continuity for all students
  2. Ensure teaching continuity according to the curriculum
  3. Sustain students’ motivation for learning
  4. Track student progress and incorporate assessment

The school leaders and teachers did not swerve from their agreed vision and goals throughout the stages of online learning implementation. Strategies and teaching plans were formulated accordingly to engage students and their families in a coordinated manner.

2. Designing a multi-level leadership structure and decision-making mechanism

Upon class suspension, the school quickly formed a taskforce involving the principal, the vice principals and the subject panel heads. Each time when the Education Bureau (EDB) announced an extension of school closure, the taskforce would meet to discuss policy adjustments and develop action plans for the next stage of online teaching and learning. These include strategies to various challenges, including making learning accessible for all, tracking student learning progress and outcomes as well as maintaining learning motivation. Communication plans with students and their families were also formulated at different phases, leveraging diverse communication channels. Timetables and attendance-taking protocols were consistently updated to enrich and monitor students’ online learning experience. Each member of the taskforce has a unique role. The principal led the taskforce to set the overall principles and policies for administrative duties and teaching arrangements. One vice-principal is responsible for monitoring the implementation, while the other is in-charge of student and parent outreach. The subject panel heads act as a bridge between the taskforce and the teachers, organizing weekly teacher meetings, overseeing teaching plans and coordinating resource sharing. Through the multi-level leadership structure, policy and strategy decisions are made at the top level in response to EDB announcements, while suggestions and feedback from the teachers are collected from the bottom-up to refine the action plans and resource allocation. In addition, the IT and e-learning teams are also actively involved in providing infrastructure, technical and training support for the implementation of administrative and pedagogical decisions.

3. Building interaction mechanisms to support teachers and facilitate the implementation of online learning innovations

Teachers’ experiences in online learning vary greatly. Hence it’s crucial to empower them with the necessary skills, competencies and peer support at this time of change and uncertainty. CFSS helped teachers to be prepared through the subject-based teacher communities led by the subject panel heads. As members of the communities have a shared understanding of the curriculum content, they know what needs to be prioritized for online learning and may face similar problems on how to teach effectively. The teachers would meet with their community members on a weekly basis to discuss teaching plans and issues encountered. For example, recording high quality teaching videos for students to view before and/or after online classes could be challenging and time-consuming. Hence, teachers of the same subject and grade decided to take turns to create videos and look for appropriate online learning resources. They would offer feedback to one another and make use of these shared resources. While each subject panel head manages progress and innovation within their respective teacher communities, they also serve as connecters at the boundaries of communities, aligning learning across different levels of teachers and school leaders by consolidating progress reports and share good practices.

4. Defining the technology stack

In this context, a technology stack refers to the collection of platforms and tools that are used to shift the operation and communication of a physical school to the cyberspace. Many factors need to be considered when choosing the appropriate technologies to ensure coherence and sustainability in the long time. While inclusiveness is essential to a successful online learning implementation, enterprise level factors such as monitoring, accountability, and sharing of information and practices throughout the school need to be carefully addressed as well.

CFSS has undergone three phases of implementations with progressive improvement on its technology stack:

Phase 1 (3 Feb – 14 Feb, 2020): The focus at this stage was to ensure all students and teachers have access to online learning with the appropriate hardware and software. CFSS first took steps to make sure that all students and teachers have a device and a reliable connection to the Internet for online teaching and learning. For those with accessibility issues, the school either lent an iPad to the student or provided a safe space with computers on campus. Many schools in Hong Kong face the technical challenge of engaging cross-border students with Google Classroom and Google-based collaborative tools. CFSS reacted quickly by switching to Moodle, an accessible learning management system (LMS) to all geographies, and enforced its usage across all subjects and grades. To promote teacher collaboration and monitor the quality of learning materials uploaded, CFSS set up a Google Site for teachers to back up and share their materials and resources.

Phase 2 (17 Feb – 13 Mar, 2020): CFSS expanded its focus to formalizing online learning and incorporating monitoring and accountability mechanisms upon receiving the notice of extended school closure. To enrich students’ online learning experiences, more diverse subjects were introduced to the timetable on top of the essential subjects, such as English, Chinese, Math and Science. These include Mindfulness, Music, Visual Art, Sports, Computer and Technology. As a result, more teachers were involved in this transition to online learning. To enhance students’ learning motivation, teachers were encouraged to incorporate diverse methods and tools in their teaching practices, including videos recordings for asynchronous learning, Zoom for synchronous learning, Padlet for collaborative learning and Quizizz for pre- and post- teaching assessment. Teaching assistants were assigned to each class to collect attendance and learning data from Moodle as a way to track students’ participation and learning outcomes.

At this Phase, the school also introduced Teaching Journals via Google Form for all teachers to record and reflect on their work on a daily basis. While the Google Forms serve as a tool to foster teacher accountability, they also bring to live an effective feedback loop by sharing teachers’ experiences at the frontline of online learning implementation with the leadership for refining their strategies, action plans and providing targeted support to teachers.

Communication tools for engaging the parents also became an essential part of the technology stack at this Phase. CFSS made use of a range of channels including e-Class Parent, WhatsApp and WeChat to ensure the awareness about school strategies and teaching plans for parents and invite them to play an active role in supporting and monitoring student learning at home.

Phase 3 (16 Mar – 8 Apr, 2020): Given the positive outcomes from the previous two phases, CFSS focused on further refinement of its sharing, monitoring and accountability mechanisms at Phase 3 to better align the implementation of online learning with the school’s vision and goals. For example, student participation and learning data from Moodle were analyzed to provide insights for teachers to improve their teaching practices and engagement with students and their families. More feedback channels were created for teachers to share their reflections and concerns. The progress reports compiled by the subject panel heads were also shared on the Google site to foster monitoring and aligned teacher learning.

5. Rome wasn’t built in a day

It could be overwhelming for school leaders to come up with a master plan in a short period of time. Not to mention that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to get everything right at the first attempt. For example, CFSS started with a few essential subjects and enriches its timetables step by step with more subjects and innovative teaching practices. To ensure that teachers are adequately supported and have a voice in the process, it created teacher communities to promote collaborative teacher learning and a robust feedback loop that effectively connects the taskforce with frontline teachers. Creating an effective online learning environment requires careful and creative planning, coordination and decision-making. There is much effort needed in every step a school makes, and what is impressive about CFSS is that they make every step count while keeping in mind the long term impact and sustainability. It’s important to see what is done in dealing with COVID19 school closure not as a one-off, stop-gag operation, but as capacity building for the school.

In this blog, we have introduced the “architecture for learning”, defined as the structures, interaction mechanisms, knowledge artifacts and technology infrastructures to support “learning interaction” across levels among teachers and other staff members within the school as they engage in exploration, decision-making and implementation of their school-level online learning strategic plan.

To learn more about the practice of Caritas Fanling Chan Chun Ha Secondary School, please check out the links: