Online Education in a Time of Uncertainty


My experience with online education comes exclusively from a crash course over the past four weeks—moving an entire school into the virtual world for the start of our second semester. So I profess not broad expertise, but rather since many others around the world now face similar challenges, I wish to share some lessons learned, from the perspective of a novice, and from having undertaken this endeavor in a period of profound uncertainty. A few simple Google searches can reveal a wealth of further insights on platforms and strategies developed by veteran practitioners; all of this relates to synchronous learning in an international secondary school.

My broadest concerns have involved student well-being and faculty morale, since in China most everyone had already endured a few weeks of self-isolation during the New Year holiday before a return to classes. Everyone will need to adapt to the unique circumstances in their own locale.

I understand the urgency of practical tips and specifics, though I must also stress the bigger picture:

  • be honest and acknowledge uncertainty. Commit your support as a leader, though also as an equal. Recognize the stress involved in such a transition, as well as the anxiety already accruing from COVID-19 and interruptions to our daily lives. Avoid giving specific dates and requiring determined outcomes until you have the clarity to do so. Recognize this involves both day-to-day issues while also extends to things beyond your control, like AP or IB exams, school travel programs, and summer course applications—not to mention non-educational impacts facing your broader community. Everyone is doing their best, and I continually reassure parents and students that these are not our problems alone, and solutions will be found.

  • provide abundant opportunities for feedback, support, and adaptability. Things will be rushed, but this must be a priority. Use online tools for professional development, letting people experiment and innovate in real-time. Invite people to share their tips and tricks. Let people vent frustration without fearing your judgment.

  • teach the moment. We must have continuity in learning, but we must also address head-on, and constructively, our current circumstances. Find a balance between all-virus, all-the-time, and the chance to use what’s being taught in classes from biology to literature to come to terms with the present.

  • begin with community, and end with community. Integrate everyone into the conversation and recognize the roles of support that we can provide one another. Acknowledge your institutional values, and the strengths you have—actively and often.


  • have a unified platform that allows everyone to gain familiarity and doesn’t overwhelm students with too many different sites, interfaces, and approaches. We’ve primarily used Zoom, which has met the majority of our basic needs, supplemented by our existing learning management system. In China WeChat is the ubiquitous tool for sharing and communication, whereas email might fulfill a similar role elsewhere. Despite the informality of it, though, deploying WhatsApp or the like for its convenience and the potential for more fluid and regular interaction may have benefits.

  • strive to ensure stable faculty connectivity. We found that even the slightest hiccups with WiFi networks can create challenges. Luckily we were able within days to purchase all the necessary adapters and cables to provide wired access. Know that in your own community, access to devices and the internet may vary widely and require further contingency plans.

  • when in doubt, re-start. Rather than fretting over delays if things do freeze up, feel empowered to quit a program and even if necessary restart your computer. Those couple of minutes lost almost always resolve any issues, instead of compounding the worry that things aren’t working and further interrupting your efforts. Students should feel similarly able to leave and re-enter meetings if they’re having issues with connectivity, rather than face any sort of recrimination.

What’s different?

I’ve constantly questioned what does or doesn’t translate well from in-person to online. Some areas require much more adaptation (like physical education) than others. I would encourage as much as possible that you sidestep frustration: when able, look to innovation or alternatives and, if that’s not viable, move on to what you can do rather than becoming overly discouraged by what you can’t. It’s not going to be anything like a perfect one-for-one match with what you’re used to (nor should it).

Flexibility will be the byword of your own experiment, though I must also extol the importance of structure—creating something durable that gives shape to days and weeks.

  • have a clear schedule that allows students to stay focused and maintain a healthy work and sleep-wake schedule. We’ve used more block periods to consolidate some teaching time, while also giving slightly longer breaks between sessions. Everyone should be encouraged to get up, stretch, and take their eyes away from the screen.

  • recognize parents will now have a profoundly different connection to their students’ learning. Ask for their support as it makes sense, and engage them as a resource—while also setting boundaries. When we began, we had numerous parents “sitting in,” some attempting to do so covertly and others just hovering in the background. We neither encouraged nor prohibited this; they’re understandably curious. With time and the establishment of routines they seemed mostly to lose interest, and I’m glad we avoided making it an issue.

  • allow real-time feedback from all constituencies. We began soliciting anonymous feedback from students, parents, and faculty on day one. This might seem quick to overwhelm you, but it was pleasantly surprising to see almost entirely positive and constructive responses—and essential for everyone to know that they had a voice.

  • double down on advisories, homeroom periods, assemblies, and the like. Make sure that there are regular opportunities for faculty to check in with students, to reflect on their experiences, and to identify difficulties that may arise.

  • be clear with what’s expected of students—for instance, having their face visible on camera, or not eating during class—while also allowing for a period of adjustment, during which new perspectives can be gained, and practices adjusted as necessary. Students will almost certainly be more adept with the online universe than faculty, both positive (and I have repeatedly encouraged them to share and suggest ways we can improve) as well as with circumventing whatever rules you may put in place.

  • embrace students’ home environment, while helping them to make it a place of learning. In addition to schedules and routines, they will need to identify how and where they can do their best work. Draw on what they have when planning lessons and asking them to complete assignments, and do what you can so they see their circumstances not as a liability (what’s missing from a classroom) and rather an asset (what more they can accomplish from home). As just one example, we’ve had students use fitness trackers or make their own work-out or wellness video clips in place of standard PE, developing at-home routines for physical health. Indeed, balance online practice with purposeful off-line endeavors, not least to help avoid over-exposure to media and other stress-inducing elements of technology.

  • understand that time may work differently online. In teaching my own class, I’ve been surprised that some lessons or activities I would normally develop over an hour or more struggle to have traction for even twenty minutes. Others I’ve imagined lasting for only part of a period have held things together for a week. That said, in basic planning, shoot for likely shorter-than-normal increments of instruction, so that there’s a possibility to shift gears or alternate learning modes every ten or so minutes.

  • maximize interaction in classes, and students’ working with each other. This can be a challenge, but passive learning will almost certainly limit success in the virtual world more than it already does in a brick-and-mortar environment. I’ve done spontaneous instant polls using chat features to judge students’ attentiveness and gauge their understanding. Assign discussion-leader roles; ask them to write learning summaries and reflections at the end of each class; help them discover the mediums through which they’re most comfortable and capable expressing themselves.

  • be innovative with assessments: if you’ve ever needed inspiration to depart from quizzes and multiple choice, this is the time. From projects and presentations to journaling and inquiry-led learning, you must find new ways to assess students’ experiences online.

  • imagine continuity for extracurriculars that can work well in a virtual space: we’ve had debate competitions, forums for clubs, and the like. I think it’s crucial for students to stay connected and recognize that their community still exists beyond the classroom, and offers them other ways of engaging with peers and faculty.

  • deploy non-teaching faculty and staff to help in other capacities: our dorm parents, admissions office personnel, and others have been great, for example, in taking attendance in classes, to relieve the burden from faculty trying to manage their teaching responsibilities, while also allowing us to give real-time feedback to parents about absenteeism, students off camera, or the like.

  • manage non-instructional school operations in ways that adapt to current limitations while still providing essential services, from college advising to recruitment planning. Prioritize what’s possible while again recognizing the importance of sustaining community and institutional priorities.

What’s lost, what’s gained—final thoughts

Overall, as overwhelming as the first few weeks of this have been, I’ve been amazed by how well our experiment has gone. Take missteps in stride and try to keep the big picture in mind.

  • stay connected and encourage “face-to-face” interactions. Most profoundly, I’ve missed eye contact. People can’t see you giving them the same level of acknowledgement and recognition we normally create in everyday life. In my own teaching and for others, I’ve encouraged frequent one-on-one interactions amongst faculty and students, using “breakout rooms” in Zoom parlance, or through whatever mediums are available. Use people’s names regularly, in class and in meetings. Let them know that they are being seen and heard. I’ve also dedicated as much time as possible to individual meetings and conversations with faculty and staff. This may include accommodating people in different time zones or addressing other contingency plans if staff are unable to fulfill their roles for any number of reasons.

  • while providing constancy, also empower innovation. We can’t totally break existing budgets, but there must be some ability to support properly new needs and challenges. Make sure faculty are asking for things, while acknowledging that some are easier than others to implement; weigh utility against the proliferation of too many approaches that might overwhelm students. Still, let faculty experiment with new tools, and do everything you can to provide the resources they identify as necessary. Don’t discount what the “dinosaurs” amongst us might say—I fear I’m now closer to that apparent label than I would like to admit, and insights can come from unexpected places. Share your own attempts, too—I’ve quite taken to making video compilations of my cat photos with the mobile app InShot—brought to my attention by a student—because everything needn’t be entirely constructive, and some levity goes a long way.

I wish everyone the best of luck, and indeed moments of good humor along the way, while hoping that good health, physical and mental, will endure in your communities. I also happily acknowledge that everything I’ve mentioned has been possible because of our amazing leadership team, our adaptable students, and our supportive parents—far more so than any individual role I may have played. I’ve never been prouder of our school.

As you may have heard in tributes to Wuhan, 加油, jiayou—literally, “add oil,” or more colloquially, keep going, stay strong, you can do it!

​—Christopher Moses, 8 March 2020