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Distance Learning at the Lyceum Alpinum Zuoz: a Field Report

With the start of the new school year 2019/20, Swiss school Lyceum Alpinum Zuoz introduced Microsoft Teams on its campus as the official channel of communication. The Microsoft Teams service is integrated in the Office 365 suite and is offered as one of its platforms.  All students attending the international school in Switzerland with its German and English programmes were given access as active users. This lay the foundation for potential distance learning courses, i.e. programmes which allow students to to receive their education through online study. In line with the school’s ICT strategy, which was also drafted and put to paper at this time, the institute organised internal courses and training for teaching staff, covering tips and tricks on how to use the technology for digital lessons as well as imparting skills on how to facilitate actual distance learning.

Step by Step to Distance Learning

At the start of the school year in Switzerland, the institute’s IT administration set up a group for every single study course the Swiss school offers. This means that for every subject, from languages to economics to sciences, a Team consisting of a teacher and his/her students was established.

With the development of the global situation and the spread of the corona virus across the world, including Switzerland, Lyceum Alpinum Zuoz was taking the next steps in early February at the start of the school's second semester. Strategies for online study were elaborated in anticipation of the eventual decision by Swiss authorities to close schools for the welfare of the students. At this point, students as well as the majority of the teachers were already equipped with either a personal laptop or one offered by the school free of charge. To cover all bases and provide additional flexibility, the school management spontaneously decided to re-prioritise its finance budget and invest in a further 20 Surface devices.

Trial Run for Online Learning

Staff and students both started testing the Microsoft Teams technology as well as other available platforms just before and also during the Swiss March holidays.  All international boarders who remained on campus during this time because a return home was not an option took part in these study trial runs together with a large group of teachers. Together, they tested distance learning under as realistic conditions as possible. 

Implementation of the Distance Learning Courses

The next step demanded the development of teaching strategies for the individual lessons. Online study or distance learning only works if it follows a strict time schedule and a precise structure. Each teaching event needs to be clearly divided into clearly-defined educational units, i.e. teacher input, student activity etc. In addition, all students needed to agree to follow clear rules while continuing their studies at a distance.

Time Zone Challenge

A large number of Lyceum Alpinum students who did not return to Switzerland after the March holidays, or those who would be flying back to their country soon for Corona reasons, have their homes and families spread all over the world. The school management therefore took into account that they would need to accommodate for significant time differences between teachers and their students. A student in Japan would require the same degree of continuing academic tuition as a student from Mexico planning on graduating this year. Between the two lies a 15-hour time difference. The trial runs helped to establish a guideline for ensuring a maximum level of contact between teachers and students is achieved despite the challenge of diverging time zones.

From Theory to Practice

Right at the end of Switzerland’s March school holidays «Lyceum Online» was put to the test for the first time under real-life conditions: Four teachers were unable to return to their classrooms as they had spent their holidays in Italy. Their potential exposure to Covid-19 in this high risk area warranted a 2-week quarantine at home. With very little warning, numerous lessons therefore had to be conducted by distance learning. In this particular case the teacher joined the students via video from home while the students were sitting in the actual classroom on campus as they normally would.

Official Start of «Lyceum Online» Distance Learning

On Friday, 13 Mach 2020, the Swiss cantons announced that all schools across the country had to close down. The following Monday, Lyceum Alpinum teachers gathered one last time to convene about the official launch of «Lyceum Online». At 1:15pm that same day, at the exact time when the school’s regular afternoon classes would normally commence, the «Lyceum Online» concept with its comprehensive range of distance learning courses went live, providing a virtually seamless continuation of instruction in both English and German.

Smooth Operation with a Touch of Fine Tuning

The fact that most teachers were still teaching from their actual classrooms on campus, albeit on their own, allowed the school’s IT administration to carry out regular quality checks. At the same time, they were able to ensure that everything worked well at the students’ end, as around 50 international students had remained in their boarding houses from where they logged into their online lessons. Any questions or problems could be addressed directly and the school management carefully monitored what worked well and what did not.

Sweeping Success with High Impact

Just one week into the launch of the Swiss «Lyceum Online» distance learning, the success of the program was confirmed by overwhelmingly positive feedback. Continuing an academic education without longer delays is of utmost importance from a social and psychological point of view both for students as well as teachers. While one side worries about their personal academic development and acquisition of knowledge with the aim to successfully graduate, the other side is concerned about fulfilling their responsibility to their students and their ability to continue practicing their profession and contribution to the global economy. Until the medical and research sectors get the corona virus under control the distance learning program at Lyceum Alpinum Zuoz offers the chance to achieve, excel and move forward together.

Tiziana Gees, Geography Teacher

Teaching online seemed quite a challenge in the beginning, and I missed having the students with me in the classroom. After an initial unease, I realised all the positive potential. We work with interactive maps and go on virtual excursions together. The majority of my students have fully embraced working digitally, although printable worksheets are still available for those who want them. Together and with the help of visualizers and webcams we continue to have great discussions as a class.

Christoph Wittmer, Head of School

Teaching my first German class online was a very special experience indeed. Simple procedures like checking attendance at the start of the lesson now take place on a virtual platform. Surprisingly, it all began to feel very natural rather quickly. The experience has taught me that there is a strong need to develop online learning further and not stop here. One of the major challenges we are facing is how we can maintain a sense of community.

Mina, Student

What I like most about distance learning is that I can follow the lessons from the comfort of my own room. I’ve decorated it really nicely and I have much more freedom within my own four walls. Technical issues can be a little nerve-wracking, though. Sometimes the network becomes overloaded, the connection gets disrupted or the quality deteriorates so much that it’s difficult to understand what my teachers and classmates are saying. The other thing I’m struggling with a little bit is to find the motivation for self-study once the lesson is over. As I am in my room and alone in front of the computer for my regular lessons, I miss the social contact I enjoy when lessons are held in an actual classroom. Overall, I have to say that distance learning is working well for me and that I have no trouble keeping up with the lesson content through this form of online learning.

Alessandra, Student

My most positive experience with «Lyceum Online» has been that I am still able to ask and discuss questions with my teachers and my classmates. Devices like the white board allow me to interact with the teacher and to learn new study content through mindmaps, for example, which make it easier to digest the material. The noise level can be challenging sometimes when everybody has their microphones turned on and the background noises get a little distracting. Overall, I find studying in a classroom easier, but given the current situation I am extremely grateful that the Lyceum Alpinum Zuoz is giving us all the opportunity to continue our studies in this form. In any case, I have to admit that I didn’t expect online distance learning to work so well.

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