eLearning on a hairpin

Some great advice for managing online learning

Our campus closed on February 3rd 2020, although effectively it was the 24th January when all the students and teachers went on holiday for the Lunar New Year.

In this post I want to outline how I have approached eLearning, the tools I have used and how I have used them, along with my perception of how students have recieved them.

My thoughts cover the period from the 3rd February until the end of March 2020 and are based on needing to get to grips with a new approach, with little to no training, amidst some personal challenges that I will outline in a later post.

Our school closed with almost no warning and we were provided with voluntary training (which I attended during the holiday) on ClassIn which we didn’t use (but looks very good), followed by one day of prep on Monday 3rd February before diving into delivering the full program.

My classes have already become fairly routine driven. I have a method and I stick to it. This is partly because I juggle a lot of different responsibilities and having a repetitive plan takes some of the strain away, which is good for my students because they don’t benefit if I am constantly stressed out.

I found the initial switch quite easy as my routines could transfer quite easily into an online environment and for the first two weeks we were not required to hold live classes.


I have been using Quizlet a lot over the last few years and have completed construction of key terms decks for the entire 2016 IBDP biology course and the current CAIE IGCSE biology course. Links below:

Links to my IGCSE Quizlet decks
Links to my IBDP Quizlet decks

I use Quizlet in a variety of ways. Any activity can be used in class or at home but I focus on the learn activity for students to pre-learn vocabulary before starting new concepts. In my classes, students who complete this task quicker can work through the other learning activities to overlearn the words.

The live activity makes a great team starter to review prior learning and can easily be combined with share screen on Zoom. The gravity and match activities also make good starters that have a competitive edge for individuals. Mostly I use Quizlet to pre-learn vocab and access prior learning. This formative assessment is great for review as well.

All in all Quizlet is hugely versatile and can be used in any sequence. For a vocab heavy subject like biology, I would argue it is essential.


One of the best moves I think that we made last year was to move to digital books. There was a variety of reasons for this. Procurement of books in some countries is not always easy for a variety of reasons.

Kognity acts in the same way as a normal textbook and I have always been keen for my IGCSE and IB biology students to develop independent note taking and writing skills. They need to be prepared to be independent adult learners and need the skills to be able to self study. I use the connect-extend-challenge routine regularly in class and so have made sure to give students time during their eLearning to continue with this exercise when encountering new concepts and topics.

But Kognity has two features that make it exceptionally better than a physical textbook: 1) the practice section for students 2) the assignments and statistics sections for teachers.

The inbuilt practice functions of Kognity lend themselves to formative assessment really well. Not only do students have to take questions to mark a section of the textbook as having been read, but they can self assess through strength tests and strength battles. In the strength tests students can pick any section of the textbook and take 5 multiple choice questions on that topic. In the strength battles they can compete against a friend or the “bot” to see who can answer the questions first. Combined with Zoom breakout rooms the strength battle tool is a great way to get kids interacting in small groups. I have found that they are more comfortable talking and socialising in smaller groups than in front of the whole digital class.

I use these as starters to access prior learning and may spend a fair bit of time getting students to review this material together or in groups. Using breakout rooms in Zoom allows students to be grouped into pairs to do strength battles.

Teachers can set assignments in the form of sections of the textbook to be read, multiple choice questions or extended response exam style questions. These assignments can be scheduled, allowing you to plan for weeks at a time.

The statistics pages are very useful in allowing you to see how many questions students have taken for a topic and how many they have got right in total, easily allowing you to spot trends of topics that may need further teaching. In the statistics pages you can also easily see what assignments students have or have not completed and can also even see when students last logged into the textbook.


Zoom was the biggest learning challenge for me during this period (and remember my wife and I are both teachers with a 3yo and 4yo at the time and not working from home but from random hotels – so there wasn’t a lot of time for personal CPD). I had used it a couple of times for meetings but now teaching one live lesson a week per class with it felt like quite a lot to learn.

Zoom allows you to share your screen so that you can take kids through a PowerPoint or explain instructions for using Kognity or Quizlet etc. You can also pause the screen share if you need to bring something else up, like emails, that you don’t want your whole class seeing. During screen share you can also add annotations, text and drawings, that you can save.

Combined with sketch pad this becomes a very powerful tool for “chalk and talk” where necessary.

Another feature of Zoom that I really like are the breakout rooms. Here you can assign students to “rooms” within the call so that they can work on individual of group tasks. You are able to enter and exit the rooms as much as you like, as well as broadcast messages to all rooms. Using breakout rooms I have students go head to head in strength battles, design Kahoot quizes for their peers or take the time to meet with students one to one or in small groups.

One of the things that I learned in my first few weeks was that Zoom lessons are not like normal lessons. Students may well have been sitting in quaratine or home isolation for weeks, not leaving the house and certainly not seeing friends. I think it is important to create as many opportunities for our students to chat to one another and play games. I find that breaking them up into smaller groups in Zoom rooms helps them get over some shyness and actually connect with each other.


I discovered Seneca while on this learning adventure and has been a fab resource for my IGCSE class, adding something different into the mix.

From the teacher side it allows tracking and setting of assignments like Kognity and is free.

From the student side it encourages recall through self testing and therefore thought to improve retention. I introduced it to students during the eLearning period and they said they prefer Kognity.


Combined with Zoom this is a fun tool. Give students the opportunity to make their own Kahoot quizzes to test each other. These can be made in breakout rooms, by pairs or small groups of students. Or teachers can deliver their own quizzes, like running a Quizlet live session.

Screencasting & Sketchpad

I have one live session a week where I run some of the activities outlined above. I also use the live lesson for checking in with students to find out how they have been getting on with the other asynchronous tasks that I have set.

I find that screencasting is quite difficult to get right without a silent room, good microphone, or space to annotate and draw effectively – my mac track pad with sketchpad is not ideal. Sketchpad is a great tool though when you can get it to work!

A final word of advice

Go easy. Even if you were lucky enough to prep, you and the kids need time to adjust to a new scenario.

Be mindful that the students situations may be very different. Some kids may be looking after siblings. Some kids may have to share a laptop with other siblings. Don’t set so much work and don’t expect it all to get done. Be compassionate and try to understand the issues your students are facing.

This piece of research, although aimed at managers, is useful for teachers, particularly the first point. It is important to understand the students individual situations. I wish I had appreciated this more at the start.

Finally, your students may be isolated away from friends with limited opportunities to socialise. Give them the chance in your live lessons to talk and play. Zoom breakout rooms are great for breaking the class up into smaller groups. Give them a collaborative task to get on with and let them catch up with their friends. This is a scary and stressful situation for all of us.

Scratching at the bark

In my first term of teaching in 2008 my mum was hospitalised.

She had been unwell for several years. There were some really quite alarming events surrounding her health for us as her family over the years leading to her hospitalization, and there were lots of strange explanations from GPs who clearly, in hindsight, failed to diagnose her illness properly.

Mostly, as her family, we were quite confused.

Until she got admitted.

When she was admitted, her condition in intensive care rapidly declined, until a specialist finally correctly diagnosed her issues and was able to treat the underling problems.

During her alarming decline, my dad called me to say that this may be it and that I should come and be with her.

After 6 weeks in my job as unqualified, untrained teacher I had to request leave, to go up to London, and to visit my mum in hospital. I wasn’t sure how much time I needed and I said so.

After a few days staying in London with family and visiting my mum at UCH in Euston I had a call from the “Undermaster”.

I don’t really remember much about the call except that he asked “Is your mum really dying?” and said “The kids are missing you”.

At that stage, at 25, it was enough to make me feel guilty and with my mum’s condition improving I felt the I needed to go back. I felt the pressure to go back. Infact in 2008 I was lucky to have a job as a recent MSc graduate.

I had to go back. After all who would look after my classes for one more day? What would happen to my students learning if I stayed away even one more day to help my Dad, to spend time with my mum who I very nearly lost.

In hindsight, and soon after my mums recovery I am ashamed to say that I even questioned my own motives for going to see her. “See, she was fine!” “There was no need to go.” “I just wanted an excuse to not be in work”. This was the self talk I gave myself for a few years until I had convinced myself that she wasn’t really dying when I went up to the hospital in 2008.

My sister put me straight recently. Her memory was very clear. Mum very seriously nearly died.

I realise now, that hindsight is a wonderful thing.

Mum’s situation could have not recovered and I may not have gone. What would I think about myself then? It is very easy to look back at an event and to look at is skewed. Facts just don’t seem the same after an event as they did before.

Unintentionally or not I was manipulated. My senior colleagues’ concern was not for my welfare in light of my mother nearly passing. He just needed me back in work to keep the ship running. Thats true. But it is also true that this motive was probably obscured even to himself.

Teachers really are amazing people. Mostly, they go above and beyond all the time, continually making personal sacrifices in the name of the learning, and of their students. And they can be easily manipulated into doing so.

But where does that stop? When do we draw the line? When is it more important to focus on the wood than stare at the trees or even scratch, up close, at the bark?

Often I think about the focussing illusion and how it impacts our working lives as teachers. I think that this is a major factor in our working, day to day decisions to sacrifice for learning. We spend hour after hour, day after day, week after week, thinking about other people. How to help them learn, how to differentiate for this kid, how to hook in another, how to enthuse, how to inspire, how to bend ourselves backwards and spend all night making whizzy animations on our PowerPoint just to engage a student.

When we are in this mode, learning is the MOST IMPORTANT THING OF ALL TIME.

Unfortunately, the downside of this thinking like this is that we lose the ability to recognise when learning isn’t the most important thing in the world.

Learning is important in so much that it benefits an individual and enriches society by having well educated individuals collectively. Often we place our students learning above our own wellbeing but no one can keep sacrificing themselves indefinitely.

Eventually you get to a point where you have to stop going the extra mile today, so you can keep walking tomorrow.

In this age of the coronavirus, I hear stories of teachers complaining about loss of learning time if schools close. The focussing illusion is rearing its head again. We are anchored on learning. We think learning is more important than keeping people alive and keeping people healthy.

In this age of the coronavirus I hear other Diploma Coordinators complaining about their teachers who, after staying away from a virus hit country will not come back as the dust settles. They forget that this is now going on all over the world. They are anchored on their schools, on their concerns.

For international teachers, the game has changed. The rules have changed. No longer is it just about school closures in one country. It’s about global travel bans. Border closures. Indefinite quarantine. It’s about family members on the other side of the planet who are now also exposed. It’s about the limited and decreasing availability of flights. It’s about uncertainty about when this may be over. And it will be over, eventually.

And yet, while this forest grows round us, some of our school leaders are focussed on one tree and mending it – school closures and getting them reopened. They forget about the rest of the forest that has grown up around them. They forget about how some of their staff may now have other considerations, they didn’t have a month ago. They will even ignore government advice in their pursuit of re-opening a school.

My mother said its barmy. The UK government wants to self isolate over 70s for up to four months. She can’t understand why COVID is so different to SARS, MERS, Swine Flu, Ebola, that causes the global government reacts so. It is hard to comprehend.

COVID is way more infectious than any of these other diseases. It can be transmitted without the individual evening knowing they are infected. Super infectious and super transmissible. Thankfully it isn’t as deadly as Ebola, but is probably 10x more deadly than seasonal flu.

I just hope that school leaders, in their eagerness to re-open schools and get learning on campus up and running again, step back from scratching the bark and look at the wood and the myriad obstacles it presents for their staff.

I just hope that school leaders can be strong enough to allow their teams to be humans when they need to be.

The Core: Extended Essay in the DP

A summary of my week hosting #DPChat focussing on the integration of the extended essay into the rest of the IBDP.

With much thanks fo the many educators who got online and joined the discussion that week and provided the ideas that I have collated here. These are the people to follow on Twitter:

@JeffersonLars @Elfdaws @ExtendingEast @agudteach @rajashree_basu @trigrama @malikah_sheriff @AdrianvWJ @shoey_sarah @geogeducator @IdeasRoadshow @zoebadcock @bear48

Why is the EE important?

At the most basic level, it’s good preparation for university.

Students get to follow an interest (lacking in some subjects) develop excellent research skills, work one on one with their mentor (communication, self development) fine tune essay writing skills for further Ed.

I think EE is a great project that is an opportunity for students to formally connect content, concepts, and context in a meaningful way. Investigating, researching and reporting a detailed evaluation of diverging viewpoints is a life skill.

As a former IB student, the two takeaways that you keep for life are: 1) learning about learning, the ATLs that make you a lifelong learner; and 2) knowing about knowing, which comes from #TOK and builds up your critical thinking skills.

Ideas for structuring the EE

We’ve just kicked off the EE with our EEco @MalinMeiLing . We started with a fair to celebrate the end of the grade 12s. They gave tips to grade 11 & their essay review. Next was the intro workshops explaining process & looking at global issues. Next week we’ll have fair with subjects represented.

#DPChat As a mentor it seems to be my job to teach my #IBEE std how to reference and use the library databases and walk them through appropriate EE structure. Students didn’t even know about the reflections they need to do.

I think as a minimum the cohort should have some workshops in the library about how to use online databases and how to reference properly using the different conventions. I don’t believe this currently happens at all.

We have an EE coordinator (@ExtendingEast) and she does an incredible job of structuring the EE for both students and supervisors, including introductory carousels, support workshops, and an EE day for focused writing and research #DPChat

HoD’s present mini-workshops (20 min) based on subject area. 1/2 our #G11 students choose which 2 they’d like to attend; the other 1/2 attend a research/writing workshop in the library. The next day, they switch. This all takes place during mentor time in the morning.

We hold sessions in the beginning working on organization and research skills. We have whole group and supervisor check ins. Reflection on the process is a skill specifically taught right after the first interaction. Citation specific session is held at the end.

On #EECelebrationDay, our G12’s came dressed as their #EE after submitting their final drafts. Special thanks to the supervisors who guided them & the parents who fed them! Congratulations, G12’s! #buzzbuzz

Ideas for integrating EE into the DP

We have EAL learners and for support and development of ATL skills of research , thinking and communication we use some templates in the initial part to induce and develop these skills. We have core lessons where explicit strategies for skill development are taught

New Lang A syllabus = new opportunities for the EE. The focus on global issues is a great segue for students to start thinking about a WSEE. Can also be more seamlessly connected to both TOK & CAS. Loving the layers of learning here

I think the knowledge framework from ToK is a great resource for World Studies EEs, helped students to clearly understand and article the different approaches of their two subjects.

This year I had students do a practice ToK presentation on their EE topic. This helped them (I think!?) to frame their topic as a knowledge question, and think a bit more about their methodology.

I think we need to structure the EE for all students in task-specific goals for each step of the EE. Break it down into doable segments with frequent meetings and strict deadlines. ATLs should be developed BEFORE DP, but we have to remember, these are NOT yet responsible adults.

We just did this service workshop with @cbkaye . The MISO method is a great way to ask a lot of questions in a short period of time. Connect your EE to #SDGs or #service and you could most likely combine your CAS and EE in an awesome way. Is this ok? Or is it double-dipping?

It’s great! In my experience consulting for #IBO they loved when there was intersection between EE and CAS. More connected learning through different vantage points and experiences.

I love sentence starters. As often know the information but may need help getting sentences and paragraphs started.

#DPchat I suggest adding one more discussion point to the #IBEE discussion: What is the role of librarians in support students with their #EE? Librarians can provide important training to students and advice on academic honesty. #lksw2019 #intlchat #sisrocks #IBDP

For EAL students doing the EE I’d say it’s actually not so different? I’d suggest going over the assessment criteria along w/ subject-specific expectations from the EE guide. I’d also want to discuss research practices to be sure they’re drawing upon quality sources …

In many cases those could be in their best language, but also pulling a lot from research in target language (probably English).I’ve been doing the EE, but realized recently I need to support the handling of sources better: finding/selecting, reading, analyzing/evaluating, using.

IBDP induction

The last week in September was a week of firsts.

It was the first time that I presented at a conference and the first time that I ran an IBDP induction morning for my new year 12s.

Most induction programs happen at the start but what I know about how people learn tells me that spacing information out over a period of time is probably best for their long term retention of the facts.

There is a trade-off then, between front loading inductions which save time but probably doesn’t help attendees remember the material all that much and spacing them out which may maximise retention but takes a lot more time.

In fact one of my prior schools used to do just this, new staff induction was spaced out over the first term.

This year, I ran the induction morning at the end of week 5. This, I hoped, gave kids the chance to get used to the new routines and social dynamics of year 12 but was near enough the beginning of the program to not render the information meaningless.

The following were the objectives of the morning:

  • Introduce students to key information about the IBDP
  • Introduce our students to the Academic Integrity Policy
  • Introduce students to the idea of assessment, specifically formative and summative assessment and the difference between them.
  • Introduce students to the library, Questia and citations
  • Introduce some key ideas surrounding study habits

For the assessment activity we had a paper airplane competition where students were judged on the criteria below. If students asked to know what the criteria were we shared them but if they didn’t and just proceeded to make an airplane using their own assumptions about what the assessment criteria were.

Download (DOCX, 13KB)

When they came to be judged they were given one set of “feedback” against the rubric and a chance to resubmit.

Understanding the IB Theory of Knowledge and Extended Essay for Admissions

Last week, on September 21st I presented at the CIS-EARCOS Regional Institute on Admissions and Guidance in Bangkok. My session, which I co-presented, was entitled “Understanding the IB TOK and EE for Admissions”.

This was the first time I had given a presentation at any conference so represented a significant step for me.

The presentation focussed on the questions:

  1. Are IBDP students fairly rewarded for completing the EE and TOK elements of the DP?
  2. Do university admissions officers understand what these courses require?
  3. How can students best show case their knowledge and development from these experiences in the applications to university?

My co-presenter and I spent the few months prior collecting data from university admissions officers and interviewing teachers and students about their experiences with these elements. We the presented our findings and thinking, inviting discussion about how universities thought the best way to proceed may be.

Download (PPTX, 4.4MB)