NZ’s first wholly digital high school lends Ministry a hand

With the benefit of close to $10 million of investment and two years planning and testing, Crimson Global Academy (CGA), the country’s first fully online high school (which remains on schedule to commence classes later this month), is offering its support and resources to the Ministry of Education to assist schools transitioning to fully online.

The nature of traditional schooling in New Zealand has drastically shifted, as schools and teachers scramble to navigate their new reality amid Covid-19. One school may have already cracked the e-learning code.

CGA became a registered secondary school late last year and all students are taught via real-time, online classrooms where the teachers can see and interact with every student. Known as ‘synchronous’ learning, the approach differs from how the vast majority of New Zealand’s students will be taught during the lockdown period, where lessons can be completed by students at any time of the day.

CGA Executive Principal and former head of Auckland Grammar, John Morris (ONZM), is currently in discussions with the Ministry of Education about how CGA can help support schools – from advice on best practice in online learning, to specialist subject support for individual students studying IGCSE and A-levels, International Baccalaureate and NCEA curricula.

Last week Morris hosted a live webinar for 25 top high school principals and officials from across Australia, sharing the learnings from his teachers about their experience moving online.

He says the transformation from teaching in a regular classroom is not simple.

“All our staff and teachers, including myself, have found it challenging – frustrating at times – but also exciting and a massive learning experience.

“We’ve learnt to listen and to try things we never thought possible. Even if the lockdown doesn’t persist, I predict that a lot of what we’re learning will change teaching forever.”

CGA is a subsidiary company of Crimson Education, co-founded by 25-year old entrepreneur Jamie Beaton. He has three Masters degrees in Education Technology, Applied Mathematics and Business Administration gained at Harvard and Stanford Universities, and is currently a Rhodes Scholar.

While Beaton has been guiding the development of CGA’s pioneering high school teaching model, his PhD studies at Oxford University have been focused on in-depth research into online learning environments in general.

“Unfortunately, the research confirms that with the exception of gifted students, online schools generally result in worse student outcomes unless parents are highly engaged,” says Beaton.

“It’s primarily because physical school environments offer more control, while students studying at home who are not engaged, are more likely to be distracted and less productive.

“My message to parents is: parental control is critical.

“Online schools are not new – there are lots of them internationally – however when lessons are not live, and are recorded and can be viewed at any time, completion rates can be as low as 5 percent.

“That’s why we went out and employed some of the country’s top teachers, because quality learning clearly requires live teachers who can truly engage with students in real time.”

John Morris, who came out of effective retirement to work for CGA, says he’s learnt a lot during the past year.

“Teaching is based on relationships and because there’s no facial connection in a large online environment, it’s impossible to pick up on the usual visual cues that show overall student-teacher engagement.

“While live video conferencing technology like Zoom can help bridge that gap, we’ve found it’s just not feasible for groups any larger than 15 students. There’s hope though that emerging facial recognition technology will help teachers with larger classes to track which students aren’t engaging.

“We’ve also found that interactivity is essential in keeping online learners in touch with their teacher and their fellow students. For example, different video conferencing systems allow students to ask questions instantly through the ‘chat mode’ or ‘hands up’ button. It’s important they get immediate feedback to keep them engaged.

“But we have to be careful to not think that online schooling is all about technology, it’s not. It’s still about a brilliant teacher leading a classroom and inspiring young minds.”

In physical classrooms Morris says a teacher’s personality, passion and knowledge will often carry the lesson, but when you’re talking to a screen that’s not such an easy thing to do – which is why CGA has spent months training its high quality teaching staff in online practices.

“You need to have confidence – not just in the technology but in yourself. You’ve also got to be a very good communicator to showcase your personality and your passion for the subject. However we’ve found that’s easier in a classroom and much, much more difficult online.

“It wasn’t until we started delivering practice lessons to the rest of the CGA staff that we fully realised the level of engagement you need to inspire your students.”

Morris says the most important thing right now though is to reinforce his colleague Jamie Beaton’s message about parental supervision.

“Right now most parents have no excuse to not be highly involved in their children’s study.

“If online learning becomes our new normal they simply must take heed of the research, as it clearly shows that unless their child is gifted, their educational outcomes will suffer.”

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