Zoom fatigue, Macbeth and innovation coaches: remote learning, an international example

Tim Goundry teaches at a NIST International School in Thailand. In this guest blog post he shares how the school’s approach to remote learning has evolved over time in response to ‘Zoom fatigue’ and student feedback – and the value of the CPD that prepared teachers to use the technology

NIST school, Thailand

In the secondary school we have been using Zoom and Google Classroom for both synchronous and asynchronous learning. Google Classroom is a tool that nearly every teacher uses on a daily basis anyway.  Every student has a laptop and we use these in class everyday.


In preparing for closures due to pollution in Bangkok, we have been training staff and students on Zoom since the start of the academic year. This was accelerated as soon as the situation worsened in Wuhan. We have two Learning Innovation Coaches who ran drop-in  sessions for staff on how to use Zoom, while we ran 3.5 practice days in the secondary school, staggered over a month before the school was eventually closed. As a result, we have had very few technical issues and I have been impressed by how well the students have adapted. 


Macbeth via Zoom


We have kept the timetable the same as a normal school day, including 15 minutes of registration, in an attempt to provide structure and make the transition smoother. In classes I will, typically, set a task verbally on Zoom with written instructions also shared on Classroom, then set them a timeframe to complete it. For this, I’ll either put them in small breakout groups on Zoom or, if it is an individual task, ask them to come back to the ‘classroom’ at a certain time. Then we’ll come back as a group to discuss. I’ll cold call here as I would in a physical classroom to check for understanding and address any misunderstanding.


Year 11 have recently been studying Macbeth. Specifically, they have been studying three different cinematic interpretations of the play culminating in a comparative essay on two of the productions. In recent lessons I would ask a student to summarise the previous scene, then put them in breakout groups of 3-4 to read the next scene, and to discuss comprehension questions (shared on Classroom), before reviewing as a whole class. This has been working well and I don’t think there has been a significant effect on the quality of student learning. 


Screen fatigue


Year 12 and year 13 is also working well (although the latter’s exams have now been cancelled). They are able to conduct excellent group discussions on Zoom, but then the classes have only 10 and 12 students respectively. Things get noticeably more challenging with year 10, where there are more signs of fatigue with the amount of concentration required for online learning and lots of screen time. Larger groups (20-24) also make it more difficult to conduct discussion, while a small number of  students are definitely looking at other things online when you want them to be on Google Classroom or working on a specific task. 


Semi-synchronous teaching


As a result of screen fatigue and the results of our weekly wellbeing survey, which showed that students disliked all the screen time and were feeling increasingly anxious, we responded by changing the model. I know that some schools insist upon synchronous teaching and learning, while others have changed their timetables or have gone completely asynchronous. Our school leadership has left this decision to individual teachers, saying that the teacher should structure learning time in the way that is best suited to the goals of the specific lesson. I generally use a blended ‘semi-synchronous’ model whereby I check in via Zoom for 10-15 min at the start and end of each 80-minute lesson, while the rest of the time the students will be off Zoom, completing a task of some kind. I stay on Zoom if any of the students have a question, but I don’t have to stay glued to the screen (the chime function is handy here). This approach is a relief for teachers, too, because a three or four period day stuck to the screen is incredibly tiring. The challenge as we continue  is how to keep students engaged while limiting screen time but also keeping them socially connected to their peers and teachers. The wellbeing survey also showed that, while they found the amount of screen time unpleasant, they liked seeing their classmates and teachers.


We have significantly reduced homework so that the students can get away from their laptops. Many, or most, of my written assignments were submitted on Google Classroom (where I also give them feedback) and so assignments and assessments have been able to continue more or less as normal, but we are using Turnitin more frequently to check academic honesty. In English lessons we always have 10-20 mins of independent reading at the start of class and we have continued with this. I tell them to keep their video on, but sit away from the screen and open a blank tab so they’re not distracted. This has been working pretty well as far as I can tell.


Zoom ‘norms’


In a recent ‘Teachers Teaching Teachers’ workshop, one of our deputy heads co-delivered a presentation with one of our year 11 students about how using a platform like Zoom can be intimidating for students. When speaking online we are constantly visible and we don’t know who is looking at us which is, understandably, disconcerting for students. As a result I have spent time discussing ‘Zoom norms’ with classes. For example, we agree not to ‘pin’ videos and I also encourage the use of the chat function for asking questions. I think it’s also important that students only have their cameras on for direct instruction and group discussion. 


We have been getting really positive feedback from parents which has been nice, but working in this way is also very tiring and a lot of work. It must be especially challenging for teachers who also have kids at home to look after.

Having worked in London state schools I am aware of how different my current  context is. Our students all have their own laptops, stable internet connections and, usually, their own space for studying. We also have smaller classes and fewer problems with behaviour. That said, we are a non-selective school and have many students with complex learning and emotional needs. But we have an excellent team of counsellors and learning support staff who can work with these students and their families.

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