Sunny Thakral -- The British School, New Delhi -- COVID-19 impact
Sunny Thakral, Head of Technology and Communications, The British School New Delhi
An educator who taught in the UK for 11 years before deciding to shift horizons and travel the world, Sunny currently works in Delhi, India at The British School as part of their Leadership team.
He has a wide ranging experience of successful and often award-winning tech integration in multiple international schools. He is also cofounder of the #INZPirED initiative which aims to bring the benefit of online professional development to offline schools in rural areas. He was recognised in the top 50 list of e-learning influencers for 2019 and awarded both the Global Teacher Award and the Teacher of the Year Award in 2019 related to personalisation of learning and use of Artificial Intelligence in education.
His website is www.sunnythakral.com and Twitter handle is @KSThakral
Mangahigh.com Director of Schools (Indian subcontinent). Ritika Subhash, spent some time with Sunny to gather his thoughts on the role of technology in education to help schools adapt to the impact of COVID-19.
As the world has seen a shift in the last one month, please share how you have adjusted to the new normal.
I am doing surprisingly well on the personal front. Perhaps this is one of the perks of being an international educator, especially one who works with technology. Change is a constant, and learning to adapt is part and parcel of the work that we do. Having said that, it is the people and our daily interactions that we need to adjust to. Things that we miss now - all those smiles in the corridors; relationships that we build through non-verbal communication and the speed at which things can often get done face-to-face, takes some time to get used to. One thing we all can agree is that it is now clear to everyone that schools are much more than spaces where just learning in the traditional sense is imparted and hopefully a better understanding of the role that teachers play in the education process. It really isn’t as easy as one thinks.
You have taught in the UK for 11 years before returning to India and joining the leadership team in a prestigious school, in the capacity of Technology Head. Can you throw some light on the general preparedness of schools in the UK versus India to handle this never-before change in pace and style of schooling that we have experienced in the last one month? Have you heard from previous colleagues in the UK about how they are coping?
The truly international schools have adapted fantastically well to the change. As the crisis developed in China, we kept an eye on the changes in the education space. Contingency plans were made and staff training put into action. Safety measures were put into place and generally international schools like The British School were ahead of the curve. Compared to UK schools, we were much better placed in adapting to changing circumstances as well. What I find is that the systems and procedures that true international schools follow are the best that are in place globally. They don’t restrict themselves to just one nation’s policies. They refine these to suit their local context and that is something which is embedded in the school ethos over time, across all levels. From the leadership team to support staff, all work in unison to ensure that the safety, well-being and learning of the community are not impacted. You would be surprised to hear that most international schools have Crisis Management Teams and procedures which support preparedness for all sorts of crises, including pandemics.
The jump ,though, has been in ensuring that virtual learning is delivered at the same level of quality and consistency as face-to-face learning. A lot of techniques have to be quickly unlearnt and new ones adopted. The physical classroom, which is part of your teaching with easy access to resources and established procedures, is now not accessible. It does take time to get used to the virtual space and rely on the self-organisation of students and parents.
Some of my colleagues in the UK, especially in public schools, are still working. They are educating children of key workers and in essence, have become key workers themselves. Others in private schools are participating in virtual teaching and are trying to cope with learning new skills and adapting to the digital divide which is also prevalent in the UK to some degree.
Like educators all around the world, they are trying to balance personal well-being, upskilling themselves, dealing with lockdown measures, supporting their children and caring for sick loved ones and so on. The cancellation of exams has added another layer of complexity on top which they are dealing with. One thing I know about teachers is that they are a resilient bunch and they are adapting quite well and with general positivity around the world.
When we last met, your school – The British School, Delhi had just won the International School Award in London in the category of implementing digital technology in classroom learning. Do you feel your proactiveness in employing high-quality digital resources has given you an advantage over institutions who were traditionally averse to educational technology? Do you feel you are fully covered in terms of subjects and skills to potentially plan for a longer closure?
Our proactiveness with both utilising digital resources and, more importantly, long term staff training has paid dividends in the current scenario. Our successful use of Gamification and embedding the Mangahigh platform was recognised as a world-class example of implementing digital technology in the classroom. What we learnt as part of that process is now being utilised to support virtual learning. We had normal lessons delivered according to the student timetable from the first day we closed. The school day runs as normal. Attendance to virtual school is high. Students who have even left the country and are in different time zones participate in learning, as these are recorded and our digital resources support anytime, anywhere learning. Our digital ecosystem covers a wide variety of subjects at an age-appropriate level and we have plans in motion to continue refining and implementing our blended approach to learning if school closures continue.
Schools which have been averse to education technology, on the other hand, are still trying to cope. A lot of underinvestment in both tools and training has created a huge gap and a lot of them are now trying to cope by just throwing everything they have at it. This creates an atmosphere where the strengths of online learning are being overlooked in the race to recreate normal school. The power that digital resources hold in supporting asynchronous learning is not leveraged at all and teachers end up talking at the students in a virtual environment.
As the technology and innovation head of such a prestigious school, what are your top 3 recommendations for the technology departments to help keep the school moving together and ensuring seamless communication even though everyone is physically apart?
First of all, have a clear vision of what the purpose of virtual learning is for your school. This will allow you to invest in tools and training suitable to support that vision and also leads to minimal fragmentation and greater consistency across the school.
Second, there is no need to reinvent the wheel; tap into existing resources and support structures out there. Establishing clear guidance on what works and what doesn’t is crucial and there is plenty of research done for you already out there. Can’t stress enough the importance of adopting the correct platform for communication and the need to avoid multiple channels.
Finally, adopt patience. There are going to be times when technology will fail and when you are apart, the stress is compounded. From the student that can’t participate in the lesson due to a power cut to the parent who might not have internet working at home to the teacher who might have forgotten the appropriate settings, treat everyone with grace and kindness even when they might have repeated issues. Your key workers at this time are going to be the IT team. Work with them to support others and once again clear policies and procedures will work wonders in the long run.
What are some of your suggestions for school leadership at this time to ensure that the staff is motivated and equipped to work in this new environment?
This is the time to lead, inspire and support and not manage. Touch base regularly with your staff and ask about how they are doing and their families and not just about work. Lead by example and showcase the use of the tools that you expect staff to use. Review policies and procedures in light of changed circumstances. Don’t sweat the small stuff, as we say back home. Listen to concerns actively and address them. Note what works and what can be taken forward when schools get back to normal. If you plan to continue the same way as before, you are going to set yourself back even further. Invest in the correct resources and digital training mechanisms to upskill staff as needed. Recognise achievements in the community and celebrate them. Most important of all, have an open virtual door and communicate that to all staff and not just teaching staff.
What are some of your suggestions for leadership to enhance learner motivation and sustained engagement with learning, as distance learning becomes the norm?
I wouldn’t call it distance learning as that requires a certain degree of independence and motivation which not all school students will have. Virtual learning perhaps is apt and as it becomes the norm, parents play a crucial role here especially with younger age groups. Getting parents on board is crucial and for us, one of the key reasons for our success.
After the initial euphoria about virtual learning dies, there is a dip in motivation and engagement. This can only be countered by designing bespoke and personalised learning experiences. Empowering staff to leverage the use of digital resources and platforms which are well established and can take the heavy lifting away from staff is crucial. This enables them to focus more on supporting students rather than on creating and delivering content. Multiple pathways can be created within a lesson which challenge students. Gamification plays a crucial part here as well. It might be essential for leadership to upskill themselves on how to utilise digital pedagogy themselves rather than outsourcing it to others.
Will data play an even more important role in teacher and student development going forward? How does your school plan to use analytics to support meeting learning objectives?
This links in with what I was talking about in the heavy lifting part earlier. The benefit of learning analytics and platforms that support them is that these free the teachers from the burden of assessment and analysis. They can leverage the results and use it to target the development goal of students. Data underpins this and just like every industry, it is the next big thing in education as well. Teachers love data and we hoard all kinds of it however in my experience not everyone understands how to make the interventions more impactful. Our use of platforms like Mangahigh, Literacy Planet and Firefly, to name a few, over the last few years has led to greater confidence in staff on how to support learning using analytics. In addition to this our assessment coordinators focus on ensuring staff are effectively trained to deal with the use of data in all its form and within curriculum areas, there is a great emphasis on personalising the learning experience for each student. This has migrated easily to virtual learning. Just be cautious though, not all learning analytics are the same and just having a bunch of data on a dashboard does not make it effective.
Lastly, the education community would highly benefit from your insights about how you see the future of education as getting transformed in the short term (3-4 months) and long term (for the coming years).
Over the next few months, a lot of schools will have experimented with various digital platforms and settled on the ones that work best for them. The conversation on screentime is also turning positive as researchers are finding out that three months down the line the negative impact that was often touted about regarding digital devices is nowhere to be found. I suspect the same will hold true a further three months down the line. This will have an impact on how schools view digital devices and content in the long term. Parents are also seeing the value of online platforms compared to tutors, especially in Asian countries. There will be a shift there of some kind. Teachers will be upskilled extensively with digital technologies and this will have an impact on their practice. They will choose which parts to keep and more than likely, homework will go the digital way to some extent and there will be a greater reliance on learning analytics.
Schools, that can afford it, will be looking at investing in a digital eco-system and staff training. For most Government schools around the world, there is going to be an impact on finances as the world recovers so they might be looking towards the myriad of free tools that are out there. Tech companies might need to work at the policy level to ensure that systems are put in place to support such schools. Without a great collaboration between industry, government and the education sector, we run the risk of going back to default mode and missing out on all the positives that virtual learning has brought to the fore.