by Dr. Spencer Fowler CEO & Superintendent of the Affiliated High School of Peking University's Dalton Academy
Seldom has the world seen an epidemic spread as quickly as COVID-19. Countries are responding to the COVID-19 outbreak by restricting travel, quarantining exposed individuals, and even working to devise a COVID-19 cure.
Countries are also attempting to manage COVID-19 by ensuring it does not dismantle the daily lives and progress of their citizens. This includes the field of education, which is relied upon to develop solutions and continue providing instruction to our younger generation.
As the CEO and Superintendent of Beijing’s PKU Dalton Academy, an international school with student-centric curricula and world-renowned professors from around the globe, our challenges have been especially acute. It was our responsibility, as leaders in education, to turn our program digital overnight. Three main areas allowed us to do this expediently without compromising the outcomes of our students.
It is no secret that technology has moved into the digital space. From assignment submissions to virtual classrooms, the web has become a tool to better prepare students for a rapidly changing world. Amidst COVID-19, our digital rooms have become the classrooms.
While staff loved that our online platforms could act as supplemental education tools, we did not appreciate how important it was for our platforms to be well-developed and intuitively designed — until COVID-19. Much of our staff were overseas for the Lunar New Year holiday and unable to return, making us reliant on technology. Our face-to-face teaching and video conferencing platforms have allowed our teaching and non-teaching staff, students, parents and the like to remain engaged with our education program.
Terrible situations arise; it’s the manner in which we respond to them that defines how we grow. Digital tools are beneficial as supplements — and stand-ins — for education delivery. Of course, the preference is always in-person face-to-face classes because the learning experience is superior. Through student work sampling and achieving data, our institution will be able to note any emerging trends and challenges. That said, prior investment into a robust technological platform has allowed our school to remain relevant and impactful in the lives of our students during the COVID-19 outbreak. It has enabled us to resist the pressures of quickly re-opening the school, allowing our students and staff to return when they feel safe.
Openness instead of control
During times of mass panic and fear such as epidemics, the immediate response is to control, control, control. While this response could be reasonable in some instances, it is important that we do not suffocate the very principles that have made us great.
Our teachers are afforded freedom to support and evaluate our students. The immediate reaction to the COVID-19 outbreak was for our team to institute standardized assessments for our teachers, exacting a measure of control over our educators that went against the institution’s foundations.
Our leaders resisted this impulse and instead relinquished authority, giving teachers even more authority and responsibility over the academic program, because digital technology, as we already know, can diffuse existing power structures; we decided to embrace that spirit of diffusion and apply it to our institution as a whole. Today, teachers are engaging with their students through one-on-one video conferencing, expanding their office hour availabilities to guarantee students are receiving invaluable insights.
Regular conferencing with faculty and non-teaching staff ensures they have the ongoing support they need to deliver a laudable education program. We have been able to manage the fallout from COVID-19 by trusting our competent and well-prepared staff.
When success is the standard, anything less is a disappointment. While the situation has changed in light of COVID-19, we can continue supporting our students in a way that still allows them to reach their goals.
What does this mean for us? Our students custom-tailor their curriculum for themselves. No student is the same, with each creating a rigorous program that appeals to their interests, complete with experiential learning, year-long research projects, and overseas trips that reach refugee camps and rainforests.
Just like our leadership, faculty and staff, our students have needed to be responsive. They have re-worked their existing projects, changed course, devised localized projects, all in an attempt to continue their growth.Challenges still remain, and it is essential that our team revise our expectations, however moderately, allowing us to remain reasonable amidst a fluid situation.
I will continue to provide periodic updates regarding our institution’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak, and how our teachers and students are striving to meet their goals during a difficult time.