For virtual schooling to be successful, educators can try to give students a break from their screens

Skipping the screen: A virtual lesson from Hong Kong

For virtual learning to be successful, educators can try to give students a break from their screens

Hong Kong has been conducting remote schooling for nearly 12 weeks. In that time Hong Kong International School (HKIS) has delivered over 200 hours of daily lessons online, across all subjects, from language arts to culinary arts, PE to science, religion to Chinese.

But a couple of Wednesdays a month, middle school students at HKIS push aside their laptops and turn off their tablets. These are Wellbeing Wednesdays, which means no screens all day.

Related content: 5 ways to support the shift to distance learning

Pulling the plug on classroom time was not an easy decision – it took time and some trial and error. Adjusting to virtual learning, which was implemented in little over two days at HKIS, has required us to upskill, develop new strategies, and consider radical solutions more than ever before.

Back in February, when virtual learning began, we went through several iterations of our schedule to make learning as efficient as possible, and we consciously took proactive steps to make sure that our students, and our faculty, could have productive offline time.

Even so, after two months, it became clear that students and teachers, and even our parents, were still spending too much time in front of screens. Everyone reported screen fatigue. It was at this point that we finally made the move to go offline for an entire day. We chose a Wednesday because it split the week, and helped students break up concentrated teaching blocks with more creative and physical activities away from their devices or computers.

The strategy has proven to be a success and has been key foundation in our ability to support our community and provide the best holistic education we can during the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to our Wellbeing Wednesdays, we continue to integrate other wellbeing blocks, including time with Pastoral Care student groups and a screen-free afternoon, into the school calendar.

As schools in the US near the one-month mark for online learning, students and teachers may soon also face screen fatigue, and while switching off for a whole day may not work for everyone, there are other areas where teachers can take action to ensure screen time does not dominate in a negative way:

• Increase efficiency of class time

To make each moment on screen high-value, we asked our teachers to hone down each lesson’s learning objectives to 4-8 minutes. Not only did the sharper lessons reduce students’ overall screen time, but teachers could also better capture students’ attention in class. For teachers, the adjustment has been difficult, but they now tell me their lessons have improved and are more impactful. Nearly three months down the line, we’re even ahead of schedule on our curriculum.

• Teach live and pre-recorded video classes

We have gone through several iterations of our schedule based on teacher and parent feedback. If we had to roll out 100 percent virtual schooling again, I would start with our current bell schedule, which combines live classes and pre-recorded lesson videos, and has short offline breaks throughout the day. The schedule has many benefits, including reduced screen time for students and increased cooperation amongst teachers who are team-teaching and sharing resources.

• Provide engaging offline activities

Art, music and PE teachers, as well as librarians and counselors, have supported parents and students by providing activities to make offline time fun and productive. Art teachers ask students to create using materials found at home. Music teachers manage practice time. PE teachers host friendly fitness competitions. Librarians give reading recommendations and even mail library books to students. Counselors suggest family activities and tips to structure the school day. There is no single answer – instead, we have tried to build up a range of options that provide variety and a change of pace throughout the day. Remote does not have to mean “the same”.

• Have a reprieve from screens

On our Wellbeing Wednesday students can read for pleasure, be active and exercise, and catch-up on schoolwork only if necessary. Teachers have the chance to work on lessons and catch up on work, and parents do not have to be in-house tech support. This is a chance for everyone to connect back to their families and refocus for the second half of the week. Take a breather.

• Frequently survey your school community about the virtual learning experience

We have conducted thorough surveys of our parents and students on a biweekly basis to understand, anonymously, how they are managing the screen time at home. We ask: what is working and what is not? We check up to see if there are external issues such as whether technology glitches or the volume of work are causing extra stress. We give an opportunity for people to vent or ask for what they need. Then we use this information to refine our approach and to offer solutions. As an administrator, these surveys have been invaluable to my decision making.

In the space of a few days and weeks, a virus changed the way that schools operate and have to deliver education. There will be more changes ahead, and if we are honest, as educators we are still figuring out how to adapt in the best way. But the one point we have learnt so far in Hong Kong is that by proactively managing screen time we can better balance education, creativity and wellbeing during COVID-19.

We are making some of our home learning resources available for free to teachers and parents. Please visit Hong Kong International School’s special home learning resource webpage.

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