King’s College School students who returned to the classroom this fall found an unfamiliar cylindrical object with owl-like eyes sitting atop their teacher’s desk.
“It’s a ‘Meeting Owl’ video-conferencing device with a 360-degree camera for a panoramic view of the entire classroom, and with a smartboard that displays images of the kids at home,” says Sandra Donovan, director of admissions at King’s College in Caledon, Ont., northwest of Toronto. “This way everyone can feel connected, wherever they are.”
Like many other educators in the country, King’s College turned to technology when COVID-19 forced students to stay home after March break. As they looked at various video-conferencing options, the administrators and teachers at King’s wondered how they could continue to deliver on the school’s promise of enriched, immersive learning.
It was a challenge faced by many other private schools, which typically teach in settings that provide richer experiences. Some schools, for instance, boast classrooms on farms or in a forest. One school, Class Afloat in Lunenburg, N.S., teaches students aboard a tall ship that sails to about 20 ports in four continents over two semesters.
How can even the most sophisticated technology match these rich, unique learning environments?
It can’t, says Tom Lupton, director of teaching and learning at Shawnigan Lake School on Vancouver Island, B.C. That’s why educators need to find ways to make their technology-enabled programs engaging for students who already spend much of their free time in front of a computer screen.
“We got very creative,” says Mr. Lupton, whose boarding school houses students from Grade 8 to 12.
Without the immediate, personal connections afforded by in-person classes, teachers held their students' interest by working new content into their courses. Mr. Lupton used Google Maps' street view function to lead a virtual tour of Venice, Italy during European history class, while physical-education teachers set up webcams for exercise and dance classes.
The school also offered extra activities through a program called SOUL – short for Shawnigan Online Unique Learning. One teacher played host to French cooking classes through Zoom. Another SOUL activity, which focused on outdoor pursuits, spurred one student to build a bike trail in the woods.
At Neuchatel Junior College, the challenge of virtual learning was complicated by the school’s mandate of getting students to “step outside” by spending their final year of high school in Neuchatel, Switzerland, where they live with Swiss families and travel throughout Europe as part of the curriculum and during independent-travel weekends.
“Experiential learning and building an international perspective are key cornerstones of our school,” says Deborah Kimmerly, Neuchatel’s managing director of operations. “How do you do that when you’re suddenly forced to move your program completely online?”
Recognizing the historic significance of COVID-19, Neuchatel teachers reworked lessons to draw connections between the virtual classroom and the real world. In business and economics class, students learned how COVID-19 was affecting global supply chains. They also learned about Neuchatel alumni at the forefront of COVID-19 research, such as infectious disease expert Dr. Allison McGeer at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto.
Antonio Herrera Despradel, who graduated this past June from Neuchatel, says having distinguished guest speakers made virtual classes even more interesting.
“We got to talk to Tim Hortons’s CEO, a representative of the TSX Ventures Exchange in Brazil, and someone from the [United Nations] World Food Programme,” says Mr. Despradel, who now studies economics at Western University in London, Ont. “I think the school did a really good job.”
Mr. Despradel’s praise extends to how the school took graduation online. Instead of the traditionally elaborate affair that ends with a reception held on the grounds of a historic mansion, Neuchatel set up a video-conferencing platform that could host 400 guests and support multimedia and several breakout rooms where students, families and faculty could mingle virtually.
It was the people in attendance, not the technology, that gave this virtual graduation a true sense of ceremony, Ms. Kimmerly says.
“Our special guests included TV host Ron MacLean, Serge Ibaca from the Toronto Raptors, Cavan Biggio from the Toronto Blue Jays and Mirande de Pencier, an alumna who is now a successful director and producer,” she recalls. “This year’s graduation was definitely different – in a positive way.”
Different is also how Ms. Donovan at King’s College describes the past school year. It was a year that saw a King’s art teacher use a camera-equipped drone to give students at home an up-close view of his painting technique. It was also when, for the first time, King’s decided it would start offering distance learning as an option this fall – with the help of the Meeting Owl technology – alongside its in-class programs.
“We now have students from Bracebridge, North Bay, London [Ont.], Montreal and even Nova Scotia, whereas prior to COVID, our families have usually come from within an hour’s drive away,” says Ms. Donovan. “We realized that, even after COVID, online learning will continue to be part of our offering, whether it’s to serve families looking for a top-notch academic program but can’t find it in their area, or to ensure we can provide continuity for our students in the event of another pandemic.”