With almost 10,000 students across 17 schools in the Former Soviet Union, the challenge facing ORT as the Covid-19 pandemic hits the region has been substantial.
But one advantage has been the organization’s existing experience of remote learning programs. This has allowed ORT to respond quickly and ensure the difficulties created by school closures have been minimized.
As most of the schools are currently on their spring holidays anyway, students and teachers alike are taking the time to recover from the shocking events of recent weeks, learn how to use new tools, build new schedules and prepare for a new term distanced from one another.
Almost all lessons can be conducted online, and for students who do not have computers or laptops, their schools have either provided them with the equipment or are keeping in contact through parents’ emails or on the phone.
With training for teachers underway for a number of weeks as the scale of the global crisis became clear, the region is almost at a point of confirming the entire ORT school system has moved over to distance learning.
Elena Vronskaya, a Physics teacher at Kiev’s ORT-Simha school, said: “Contrary to our earlier fears, preparing the educational process is complete. The introduction of quarantine not only failed to harm our gaining knowledge in academic disciplines within the curriculum, but it actually contributed to the acquisition of new skills in computer technology.”
What is the plan?
Successful distance learning requires suitable hardware and software to be available to all. For students without laptops or desktop computers at home, ORT has provided everything they need.
In Russia, local education authorities have offered schools the use of some software products, as well as laying on some lessons – but online conferencing facilities are being organized by the schools and by ORT independently.
There were no such software offers from the authorities in Ukraine, Moldova or the Baltic States, so each school is making its own arrangements, many with ORT’s assistance. Within schools across the region, teachers are developing the content for courses while school leaders are overseeing coordinated plans and scheduling.
Anatoliy Vasiliuk, head of the ORT Center at the Kiev ORT-Simha school, said it had been possible to train teachers to use proper distance learning resources relatively quickly.
“The ORT representatives at the school created electronic classrooms for all the teachers and students using Microsoft and the licenses we already had. Class teachers informed parents how their children could gain access – and we started,” he explained.
“Taking into account the lack of knowledge about the new technology among the teachers, it was decided to introduce the distance learning in several stages. First we held master classes to provide teachers with practical skills in using these Microsoft applications which they will use to communicate with their students.
“Students receive tasks which, when completed, can be checked by the teacher and comments added. Children find their emotional stress is reduced by the use of Microsoft Teams for lessons – a teacher is present and can communicate with the student in real-time so they do not feel abandoned or stuck with the difficulties of distance learning.”
At the Kiev school, the entire teaching staff has been online throughout weekdays, meaning any emerging issues can be resolved quickly. Online masterclasses and workshops are available to the teachers.
ORT teachers and leaders have worked constantly to share their understanding of how to implement programs, including appearing in the media and at conferences. Between the schools themselves, the results of testing of different programs have been collated and shared to streamline the adaptation process and highlight which options work best for different requirements.
For students the transition has been optimistically received – of course none of them can remember life without the internet, and so learning online provides them with an opportunity to communicate during isolation, while providing schedule and routine.
“It is bad and sad without school, sometimes even scary, because you cannot go outside and you don’t know what is coming next,” says Aleksandra Goldina, a seventh-grade student at the ORT school in Chernivtsi, Ukraine.
“But it is now possible to communicate with teachers almost individually. We have a special channel where video lessons or presentations are available for each class every day – it is very interesting.”
Many schools have resources which they are sharing with others, such as a series of pre-prepared lessons offered at ORT de Gunzburg School in St Petersburg, Russia.
The main problem areas could have been predicted – technical issues, such as obsolete equipment, and a lack of webcams or microphones, would be almost always unavoidable in moving a school to an entirely online presence. There have been some difficulties for teachers who lack experience in some new software products – but these are being overcome.
As an organization, ORT has been assisting the schools by supporting teachers’ efforts to get to grips with the new learning tools, mainly through distributing manuals, running webinars, offering expert consultations and distributing successful explanations. There have also been inter-school online activities organized, assistance in purchasing Zoom licenses, and the provision of laptops for teachers as well as students.
What can the network learn from the FSU’s experience?
ORT staff from Russia and Ukraine who have helped set up distance learning in the region are now hoping to offer tutorials in some programs and software for colleagues around the world. A collective effort is expected in pulling together all material used in the FSU to create a common base of all subjects to share across the network. It is also hoped content created by students will be shared with other schools with a view to replicating that work elsewhere.
Despite the many lows experienced globally at the current time, as people come to terms with new ways of living and working while confined to their homes, the efforts made to get ORT’s schools in the former Soviet Union running in full online have reinforced the many ways in which our global education network reaches across borders to benefit students, educators and communities.
For 140 years, the ORT family has created a sense of belonging where we can all learn from each other’s passion and perspective. In a time of crisis such as this, we are once again united by our shared knowledge and innovative spirit.