On-Line Learning: Humans at the heart

Bruce Collins is the Director of Member Engagement at the International Boys’ Schools Coalition. In this post, having canvased educators from around the world, Bruce shares three principles that can guide schools in the shift to on-line learning. He also reminds us to keep people at the centre of what we do . This is the second in a series on learning on-line. Read Part 1 here.


I have watched with interest (and awe) as schools around the world have shifted from face-to-face instruction to the online delivery of content. I have seen successes and failures. I have seen excitement and anxiety. I have seen an embracing of the new, mixed with a mourning of what has been lost.

Mostly, I have seen tired and overwhelmed teachers, students and parents.

Three guiding principles

It seems unavoidable that – for the time being – schools will have to embrace an online solution for learning. However, I don’t believe – like some would say – that this signals the end of school-as-we-know-it. While we must certainly be grateful for advancements in technology in the educational space, this shift doesn’t, I believe, force us to adapt edtech as a panacea. Technology offers a good solution in the current crisis, but the foundational principles of good pedagogy cannot and should not be ignored.

I would urge schools to take an approach, where students are given as many opportunities to be offline and productive, as they are expected to be digitally engaged.

As I have mulled over the approaches being adopted by schools around the world, some principles stand out for me as important. If I had to choose three that are most salient I’d probably highlight the following:

1. Adopt a hybrid approach

Many schools seem to be adopting an all-in approach, where tech becomes the all-encompassing backbone of their distance learning roll out. Considering the rich research available about the negative impact of excessive screen time, and the sometimes painful physical effects of hours of behind-the-screen-hunching, it makes sense to me that schools should adopt an approach that embraces the ability of tech to reach into students’ homes, while at the same time acknowledging that there are other ways to work productively and showcase knowledge, effort, and process outside of apps, video calls, and synchronous learning. I would urge schools to take an approach, where students are given as many opportunities to be offline and productive, as they are expected to be digitally engaged.

2. Less is more

Schools have to realise that they cannot simply replicate a school day by overlaying a set, and busy timetable on top of the now-complex home circumstances of students. So many variables exist.  At any given time, families might be facing a number of challenges that range from relational to technical stresses. For example, how many devices are available for learning purposes? How much bandwidth is available to students at home? How equipped are parents to provide support? Relationally, how functional are the family units in which students find themselves, and how does this impact their ability to focus and work optimally? I could go on. Truth is, less is more.

It’s up to teachers and schools to make good decisions about timetables, curriculum scope, and the resultant requirements under distance learning. There is a case to be made, I believe, for moving slower and focusing on the essentials, while remaining as aware as possible of the developing stressors on students, families and teachers. Remember, many teachers are also balancing complex home circumstances with an exponentially more complex set of expectations from the schools for which they work.

3. Gradualism

Hal Hannaford – Headmaster of Selwyn House School in Montreal – highlights gradualism as a key tenet of their online rollout at this time. All schools should consider a gradual reform in this time, rather than a sudden change or revolution. I believe strongly that an accumulation of gradual changes based on a school’s existing readiness for distance learning benefits students and staff alike. Gradualism also prioritises empowerment. I am a strong proponent of the principle that there can be no expectation of success in any new circumstance, unless there is empowerment for success. Both students and staff should be empowered to do their best with the tools and framework provided to them by their schools.

It would be a sad day for education if the mental health of teachers and students suffer unnecessarily because schools fall into the curriculum-over-community trap.

Humans at the heart

Be gentle with people, and have grace. Don’t assume that this is easy for your students or the staff teaching them. Surely it is incumbent upon school leaders to scaffold their processes well and support their teams unwaveringly in this time, especially as people adapt to a new normal. Gradually, as people adjust, new protocols can be introduced.

As a closing aside, I’d like to note –  as I’ve already alluded to – that people are central to the success of any organisational or process shift. Schools are experiencing both at the moment. As a result, schools have to be open to hearing from their people and correcting mid-stream where necessary; creating safe spaces for people to give constructive feedback. It would be a sad day for education if the mental health of teachers and students suffer unnecessarily because schools fall into the curriculum-over-community trap.


Bruce Collins was previously the Director of Academic Innovation at St Alban’s College, South Africa before moving onto the role of Director of Member Engagement at the International Boys’ Schools Coalition (IBSC).

As part of his work with the IBSC Bruce produces the podcast ‘Exploring Boys’ Education‘. You can learn more about the principles that have guided schools in transition to online learning in the latest episode ‘Community in a Time of Distance’

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