For one reason or another, several schools across the island are struggling in the COVID-19 era to use technology to facilitate teaching and learning, but in Montego Bay, at what is quite likely the youngest school in the country to date, administrators have hit the ground running.
“There will be no change in the way we work together online,” head principal of Fairfield International Academy (FIA) Griffin Morse had told students at dismissal on March 12, 2020, the day the COVID-19-related closure of schools was announced.
“Follow your classes with Google Classroom and email, and the video pieces will be added [gradually],” he had said.
Barely two years old, FIA, an international high school that caters to the second city’s crop of diplomats, expatriates and successful entrepreneurs, has been using technological aids long before it became the new normal. In fact, as Principal Morse explained, it was built into the academy’s programme from the get-go.
“Every student and staff member has their own laptop device for work at school and at home. We have been using Google Classroom, even before COVID[-19], to support our FIA community – students, teachers, parents, guardians and administrators – in the academic journey,” Morse told the Jamaica Observer in an interview last week.
“In our classes like art, history and English, we use technology in interesting ways such as live interviews with graphic artists in their studios. The teachers also integrate animation software into the curriculum to help students expand the creativity in their project work,” he added.
Currently featuring grades seven to 10, FIA’s student population is nearing 100, and its teacher: student ratio is 1:5. Grade 11 is expected to be added this September when the current grade 10 cohort advances. Once the build-out extends to grades 12 and 13, students will be able to graduate with either a United States high school diploma, an international baccalaureate, or both.
Morse explained that at FIA the standard operating procedure includes uploading the latest syllabus – complete with specific learning goals, materials and assessments for each class – to Google Classroom at the start of each term. Assignments are also completed and submitted via the platform.
Importantly, the technology allows parents to be involved by logging in to see the material themselves and tracking what assignments have been set and completed.
These days, the academy has expanded its use of the Google platform by facilitating virtual meetings. It is also using Zoom, another popular meeting app, to host grade and all-school assemblies.
“The adjustment [to the COVID-19-occasioned distance learning paradigm] came more in the form of healthy online habits: a slightly modified daily schedule, attention to physical stretching, good habits for live sessions, check-in sessions daily…adapting attendance procedures, integrating multimedia materials, and encouraging students to advocate for themselves directly with their teachers and advisors [because] finding their voice in technology is different and new,” the head principal said.
Angelina Tolani, who moved her son from Campion College in Kingston when Fairfield opened its doors, is among the parents who have credited the school for a seamless transition to distance learning. He is now in the ninth grade.
“We first used Schoology in 2018. It had everything online for parents to see and for the students to submit their work. Then in 2019 we started to use Google Classroom, as this platform allowed for video conferences, and it is great.
“So, FIA did not feel much of the change as they were already used to using online learning tools, even when the students were in the classrooms. The students have conferences scheduled throughout the day and it’s still a lot of one-on-one learning, as the class sizes are not big,” Tolani said
And while the technology has brought immense value – the increased and diversified use adding to teachers and the students’ skill sets being among them – Principal Morse argued that technology is but one component of FIA’s academic programme.
“It is a tool that helps us achieve our mission, vision and promise of an FIA education and our international, student-focused curriculum. But for expediency, balance and relevance, we have always felt it was important to have a balanced mix of technology-led and in-person-led interactions to manage a variety of school activities.
“There is no single solution in this modern world with constantly changing times,” Morse told the Observer, adding that during normal school the use of technology assists the process in a number of ways.
“For example, it enhances one-to-one learning sessions and students often take a multimedia approach in their project work. We would often use these mixed methods and deliver presentations, readings and performances live, in front of the class, enhanced by technology,” he said.
Where distance learning is concerned, the FIA principal said the two most critical components on which successful online learning/instruction is based are time management and independent learning skills – both of which are hallmarks of an FIA education.
To that end, the school drafted and circulated a distance learning guide among its community, highlighting standard practices for safe and proper Internet use, safe screen time, roles of students and parents, as well as practical and pedagogical guidelines.
The guide was prepared with input from student and parent surveys circulated at the end of the first two weeks of online schooling.
“Teachers ask essential questions and students are accustomed to finding solutions on their own. When working on projects, they learn to break down big time blocks and workload elements into small, daily bites that focus on their solutions and the quality of their work.
“Doing this well online requires excellent and frequent communication, such as live video sessions, personal video review sessions, emails and messaging within Google Classroom,” said Morse of online teaching and learning. “If executed well, these are advantages; if not, they quickly become daunting challenges.”
Going forward, Principal Morse said FIA is finalising its return to campus protocols for an eventual reopening but remains ready for a broad variety of contingencies, “as we have a strong base online and at the school”.
“We hope, above all, that our FIA community and all of Jamaica remains healthy and respectful of practices that will get us all through this sooner and in even better shape than before,” said Morse.
FIA is temporarily located at Reading, near Bogue, with plans to move to a permanent campus at Westgate, closer to downtown Montego Bay, for the 2022-2023 school year.
The school board is populated by Adam and Jill Stewart; Mark and Jaime McConnell; Lisa Lake and Yoni Epstein; Ranjeet and Madhu Mahtani; Michele Rollins and Marvin Hall.
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