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The Transition to Online Learning

18 March 2021

A Reflection by Shirla Sum Nga Wan, Vice Principal at UWC Changshu China.

Former Intel CEO Andy Grove once said: “Bad companies are destroyed by crises; good companies survive them; great companies are improved by them.” Education institutions are no different. The COVID-19 outbreak in 2020 has presented all UWC schools with one of the greatest challenges yet. As international schools with ‘deliberate diversity’ at our hearts, the closing down of borders around the world poses a direct threat to our education model. Limited to digital interactions, UWC educators have been compelled to create experiential learning experiences which are dramatically different to those on physical campuses. We have probably not gotten it completely right, but with a spirit of bold experimentation, UWC educators globally have made notable strides in enhancing our education offering in the online learning environment. 

Online learning has given teachers the much-needed push over the edge to let go of the drivers’ seat. When we can no longer track students’ every move in a physical classroom, teachers must learn to trust students to take ownership of their learning. Flipped instruction, for example, presents a student-centered model where instructional content is delivered outside class time, and students engage in hands-on interactive learning activities especially designed to consolidate and extend their learning during class time. Students own the choice to decide the pace at which they would  like to learn and how they would like to learn. What has surprised teachers is that students still learn! In fact, students become more motivated when they feel trusted to exercise their learner agency. Meanwhile, an interactive cycle of experimentation starts to gain momentum as teachers design ways to create a nurturing learning environment with stimulating digital resources and appropriate levels of challenges to our students. 

Experimentation with technology during these times has shed new light on how we may meet the learning needs of incredibly diverse UWC students. Disparate time zones, varying levels of connectivity, juggling family responsibilities: these are just some of the additional hurdles UWC teachers and students had to deal with this year. By creating high quality instructional videos, for example, students can engage with the material when it best suits them. English learners, meanwhile, may watch the video with subtitle support. And some students who are less vocal in a physical classroom have found new confidence in the alternative spaces for peer learning offered by a number of digital platforms.

Meanwhile, students’ well-being remains fundamental to their learning, and even more so during these turbulent times. All UWCs have identified promoting students’ well-being as a paramount objective of the past year. Frequent communication and consistent, empathetic dialogue help to foster meaningful relationships between students, as well as between students and teachers/advisors. As much as possible, we have strived to uphold a sense of belonging to a shared community across UWCs. The online and offline cross-cultural collaboration involved in producing music and dance shows at events such as the virtual One World event at UWC Changshu China definitely stand out as terrific reminders that our community bonds, despite being stretched by distance, nevertheless remain intact.

This is not to say it was all a smooth journey. All UWCs have had their fair share of ups-and-downs in offering online learning. What has excited me the most is the collaboration and innovation spurred by the crisis. Collaborating with representatives across 14 different UWCs, together we launched the Guidelines for Effective UWC Teaching Online to support teachers through this transition as well as The UWC Global Campus. With developments such as these, I am hopeful that innovation and collaboration among UWC educators will continue long after we return to ‘normal’, meaning that the crisis would have led to improvement after all.