As the coronavirus outbreak intensified in Italy, the government ordered the closure of all schools and universities nationwide on March 4. In some parts of the country, schools had already been closed for a week before that.
Private tutors and language teachers began to lose classes and contracts, before being left unable to visit students at all when nationwide quarantine was enforced on March 12. As we reported earlier this month, this has caused severe financial difficulties for many.
And schools dealt with drastic and sudden changes as they scrambled to find ways to ensure classes could continue from a distance.
For many this meant getting teachers and students used to working in a completely new way, using technology they may never have tried before, at a moment when they were already experiencing significant stress and disruption to their personal lives due to the outbreak.
The Local spoke to staff at one school in Milan which managed to successfully navigate the change to online learning to find out what they've learned from the experience.
“The biggest initial challenge was getting the technological infrastructure in place in such a short time, literally from one day to the next,” explains Peter Luntz, Director of ILS International Language School in Milan.
“Sure, some of our teachers were equipped and already did online lessons, but the majority were not.”
The school had been affected since the very beginning of the outbreak, Luntz explains, as staff teaching in-company classes found themselves being turned away as businesses began blocking external personnel from entering their premises.
“The result was a spike in lesson cancellations and a big drop in work for our teachers,” he says. “We realized we needed to get as many lessons as possible online. It was the only way to salvage our business.”
Photo: ILS International Language School, Milan
“Our students, corporate office workers, were much less prepared for online communication than we thought. The majority had video conferencing systems on their computers but had never used them before! Many company VPNs were starting to become overloaded as these large multinationals had never expected to have their entire workforce working remotely.”
Many students were “reluctant” to move their classes online, Luntz says, “but others accepted our offer of temporarily converting their course to online delivery. All staff and teachers now work exclusively from home.”
For some teaching staff, this switch came with added complications.
ILS teacher Gabriella Luise was in the US when the outbreak began – and is now teaching students in Italy from her family home in Boston.
“When I left for a vacation I could have never planned, predicted, or foreseen this coming, to be completely honest with you,” she tells The Local.
“I was on vacation in North America when I woke up to my phone exploding with updates and notifications from newspapers, friends, and family checking in, and in complete shock about what was happening. For most of my trip I contemplated how I would get back to Milan, and if in fact it was the right decision to do so.”
As her state of Massachusetts continues to impose its own restrictions, she says “people are really observing Italy and using it as a lesson in order to take preventative measures.”
But she stresses that she feels “very fortunate” to be able to continue working, “especially from abroad.”
“The fact that I can be connected directly to my computer in Milan from the US is incredible and for that I am very grateful,” she adds.
Back in Italy, other teachers are facing different challenges as family life has changed drastically under lockdown.
Samantha Candeggi, from the UK, is a teacher, writer, and translator, as well as a parent.
“I have a toddler and both my husband and I are working from home. It is a challenge to say the least,” she tells The Local. “We swap who sits with him. So if I’m teaching, I close myself in a room, and when he has a conference call, he does the same and I stay with our son.”
Even though she has worked from home before, and also had experience of teaching online, she says it's “not easy” in this situation.
Parents have had to find ways to continue working from home while their children are also home from school. Photo: AFP
But she too says teachers are “lucky to have the technology to continue providing our services during this surreal situation.”
“At the simplest end, a Skype call can suffice, but there is also more sophisticated conference software which has extra features, like a whiteboard and document sharing with annotation facilities which can be very useful when reading text together,” she explains.
At first, she admits she was “very skeptical” before she started teaching online. “I felt it was somehow less of a lesson, but now I know that the same amount of preparation goes into both an online and a face to face lesson and the material is also the same.”
“Initially I think everyone feels a bit self conscious,” she adds, “maybe more so than if they were in a normal classroom situation, but that in itself is a good challenge for the students to build their confidence.”
Fellow teacher Anna Niro says that overall, the swich to working online “has been a positive experience.”
“I’ve found the most challenging thing about converting to remote lessons has been the connection itself. If you don’t have a strong internet connection, it can affect the conversation or lesson flow, especially with group lessons.”
“I’ve also found, however, my students to be enthusiastic about the opportunity to learn in this way as it’s more challenging than face-to-face,” she explains.
“It can also be challenging for the student to change over to remote lessons, so I like to give them extra resources and more practice between lessons,” she says. “I feel that many of them are motivated as they have more spare time on their hands!”
Working and studying from home is becoming the new normal in many countries due to quarantine. Photo: AFP
Luntz adds: “There's a learning curve for both teachers and students in this situation, but it is a good opportunity to upgrade our skills. Students are practicing their language skills for online meetings in a realistic setting. Teachers are adjusting course content to meet these new needs.”
“The emergency phase is now passing and teachers and students are starting to settle in to their online lessons,”
With quarantine measures in Italy not set to be relaxed any time soon, Luntz says the school will be able to keep up remote teaching “for as long as it takes” and expects to continue in the future, as this experience has an impact “on the attitude towards online teaching”.
“We believe that this emergency situation will have a profound effect on Italy. It has given people a big boost in tech skills and greater familiarity with online communication,” he explains. “I foresee an upswing even after the emergency passes.”
Tips for teachers making the switch to online classes:
If you're one of the many teachers in Italy and elsewhere now making the switch to teaching online, here are the teachers' tips for getting the most out of remote lessons.
Don't fear online lessons
“Don’t be afraid, don’t think an online lesson is any less effective than a classroom lesson – it’s not. Reassure your students as well – they will see this in time,” says Candeggi.
Use all the features
“In order to have success with these online lessons, I think it’s crucial to use all the tools available on the various virtual platforms – the chat function, screen sharing etc,” says Niro.
“It makes the student more involved and allows the lesson to be more interactive and engaging.”
Luise advises teachers to do trial lessons “to avoid having technical disruptions in the virtual classroom, and test all features available.”
“Also take advantage of publishers' free content for students and teachers,” she says, adding that publishing companies like Oxford University Press and MacMillan Education are creating webinars for teachers.
“With larger groups it can get difficult if everyone speaks at once,” says Candeggi.
“Set out some guidelines for group lessons to avoid everyone talking over each other: Either that they mute their microphones if they aren’t speaking or maybe – my students do this – put their hands up if they want to speak.”
Despite them being on the other side of the Atlantic, Luise says checking in with her colleagues regularly has been very helpful.
“Even though we're not in the office and are geographically far from one another, we have taken on strategies like creating whatapp groups, video conferencing for check ins, and weekly newsletters to share feedback.”
“This experience has strengthened our professional relationships and has proved our ability to maintain our team-focused approach.”