On January 25th 2020 the Hong Kong government made a sudden announcement: to contain the spread of novel coronavirus (now classified as COVID-19) all schools in the region were to be shut immediately following the Chinese New Year Holiday (Feb 4th). Students had to be educated from home until it was safe to reopen schools.

Across the globe in New Zealand, specifically Kami HQ, news of the school shutdowns was just starting to break when our chairman received an SOS call we simply couldn’t ignore. Mr. iGardener, Hong Kong based ICT and math teacher, wrote to us asking for some much-needed support. iGardener’s school had opted to use Google Classroom during shutdown to organize their teaching during the closure; but they desperately needed a way to grade and edit all the online work they were receiving from their students.

What transpired was the start of Kami’s free school-wide offer to any school, anywhere in the world, impacted by COVID-19. We checked in with Mr iGardener (who has since become one of our very first class of Kami Educators) to see how his remote learning strategy has developed, the main challenges schools in HK are facing, and exactly how he is using Kami to navigate virtual teaching.

Hong Kong schools shutdown

School shutdown is now a globally experienced phenomenon, but back in February, Hong Kong educators were some of the very first to transition to remote learning. And it was a fast transition! School teachers and administrators were given almost no warning of the closures. Some had only a few days to pull together resources and a complete online system to teach their students.

For Mr iGardener the school shutdowns were reminiscent of the SARs closures back in 2003, ‘…but that time we had warning and time to prepare!’ By contrast, the COVID-19 shutdown was a bit of a panicked affair and remote learning strategies had to develop in real-time rather than be decided prior to closure.

To add a bit more stress, the goal for Mr iGardener’s school has been business as usual for all teaching and learning. While in the UK and some parts of the US major exams have been canceled, in Hong Kong exams are merely postponed indefinitely until it is safe to sit them. This means students need to be kept ‘exam ready’, and for everyone else learning and progress need to be maintained pretty much as normal. It’s a big task, and one that feels to teachers like iGardener as out of step with the realities for students and teachers in the region.

Challenges along the way

The challenges of huge and sudden transitions in educational systems are both obvious and subtle, universal and yet regionally specific. For Mr iGardener, as for many teachers across the world, students and their wellbeing are his main concern. But it’s tough to balance their needs with the demands of administrators while simultaneously constructing a workable remote learning strategy.

In this atmosphere the consistent challenges have been:

  • Student home dynamics: Many students live in classic Hong Kong-style apartments with multiple family members. This can make learning very difficult as students have little or no private or quiet space to work.
  • Lack of devices and equipment across the student body: Not all students have access to their own computers. Many are trying to complete work using smartphones or short spells on a family device.
  • No time for planning and time frames constantly changing: The move to remote learning was very sudden, giving teachers and administrators next to no time to plan. The time frames for shutdown also keep changing (original reopen date was set at February 16) making long term planning more difficult.
  • Not all teaching staff feel comfortable online: Some staff have struggled to adapt their more traditional teaching techniques to tech enabled remote learning. This makes adapting an online learning system more challenging.
  • Gap between administrators demands and reality: The expectation that learning can continue as normal with the above challenges in play is totally unrealistic.

The remote learning journey

As his school’s IT Coordinator, Mr iGardener has taken on much of the responsibility for his school’s shift to online learning during the shutdown. With his careful nurturing, his teaching staff have embraced the Google Classroom platform and now use it alongside integrated tools such as Google Meet and Kami to interact with students and complete work. But the process wasn’t a smooth one, with plenty of active trial and error to develop.

iGardener explains his school’s journey as a 2 stage process:

Stage one: From the beginning of shutdown for about 3 weeks or so we used a totally asynchronous teaching model. Teachers used Google Classroom to prep all of their materials for a lesson. These would be uploaded to their individual online classrooms as PDFs alongside the teacher’s notes explaining the content. Students would then be tasked with reading through these materials and completing what they could.

By mid-February it was apparent that this system would not do for the long term. Students were finding it difficult to understand their teacher’s notes without being able to ask questions, and the burden of material production for teachers was immense. At this point, we transitioned to a semi-synchronous structure.

Stage two: Each school day students attend three 40 minute lessons using Google Meet. Here their teachers could explain the subject topics and the class could ask questions. Prior to their lessons students are expected to read any pre-lesson materials so they can largely utilize the online time to clarify things and gain deeper knowledge. Any homework is then completed after the online class and submitted in Google Classroom. Teachers grade student work using Kami.

Kami – the central piece of the puzzle

Kami has been a key component of Mr iGardener’s remote learning strategy. A Kami user for almost 4 years, iGardener is accustomed to having it at hand, but largely as a productivity tool. “I used it pretty much as an online PDF annotator to make grading much easier.” But with the entire school moving online, it was clear that Kami held the key to a lot more than quick edits.

“As a school, Kami is now used by all teachers to grade and annotate all student work. Students can send in either an online file, or more usually, a picture of written work and then the teacher loads it up onto Kami and grades it.” iGardener also noted Kami’s tools for rotating files has been unexpectedly useful when receiving JPGs of student work taken from their smartphones!

Kami has been essential to the school-wide remote learning strategy for two key reasons:
  • Kami is intuitive to non-tech literate teachers: “I’d say about a quarter of our teachers do not feel comfortable with IT equipment … to help them get online we need to make the system as traditional as possible.” says Mr iGardener. The great thing about Kami is that it can be used exactly the same way as a pen and paper in a traditional classroom, but now on a screen. “It gives comfort to more traditionally inclined teachers. They know what they’re doing and they can fit it into their usual classroom methods.”
  • Kami fits seamlessly into the Google platform: The other advantage of Kami is that it fits seamlessly into the Google Classroom environment. This means teachers and students don’t need to navigate lots of different applications with various accesses and logins. Instead “…it’s all packaged inside the Google Classroom platform and everyone knows where everything is after only a bit of coaching”.

While many of his colleagues are enjoying the simplicity of Kami for remote learning, Mr iGardener has been experimenting with some of it’s more dynamic features. “I’ve started using it as a digital whiteboard tool for my online lessons…it means i can demonstrate topics to students as we talk.”

“I can also save the doc used as the whiteboard and send it to my student’s for later reference after lessons.”

Becoming Kami Certified

Mr iGardner’s relationship with Kami was far from finished upon receiving his school-wide license. He was so keen to get further involved with the community that he dived in and become one of our first fully certified Kami Educators!

iGardener enjoyed learning some more about the Kami selection of tools, alongside becoming connected to a global community of educators.

The remote learning journey still continues for Hong Kong, as for the rest of the world. The region has yet to decide when classes may resume, and estimates point to late May at the earliest. To support their school’s learning throughout this period and to boost classroom learning in the future, Mr iGardener’s school has now purchased a yearly Kami subscription. As a keen blogger himself Mr iGardener has written some more about his experiences of remote learning and using Kami here.