It is Friday, February 21, 2020, and in the corridors of the Leone XIII Institute in Milan the last bell is sounding before the Carnival vacation begins. Students and teachers are about to embark on a week of well-earned vacation. The people of Italy are going about their daily lives, moving freely, going to restaurants and cinemas, attending concerts, shopping for groceries; friends are meeting on the streets and families gather for Sunday lunch. No one imagines that soon after that point, the situation will change.
Within just a few days, various cases of Coronavirus are diagnosed in Northern Italy, and the regions involved decide to close their schools for a week, until two decrees issued by the President of the Council of Ministers close all schools throughout Italy until April 3.
From the very beginning, the schools of the Italian Jesuit Network in Italy launched a program of distance learning, as has been described by Fabrizio Olati, Director of New Technologies for the Jesuit Education Foundation:
with great organizational effort the schools have implemented a complex system that allows continuity with virtual teaching and training. Platforms have been readied to realise live, online lessons, as well as collaborative activities, and the teachers are experimenting with the many new opportunities that applied technology affords to teaching, in the expectation of returning to the irreplaceable and valuable experience of being a teacher with students in the same [physical] space: mind, heart and hands that meet each other at school. In this difficult moment, our thoughts and prayers are with those who are suffering because of the virus.”
In Milan, at the end of the Carnival vacation, school started up again with a completely new modality: instead of taking place in a physical space there was a virtual space.
At Leone XIII, for the students and the teachers in the High School it is simpler: for a number of years now the high school students have had their own iPads for digital learning and a digital account for school use which allows them to manage email, shared calendars, digital files and archives. Now for the first time they have to use this new instrument for video lessons, but this process is not complex because the instrument is already integrated into a system of didactic organisation chosen by the school. The teacher only needs to send a link to the class and everyone can meet in a virtual video conference for the lesson.
In the Middle School they began to share didactic materials and homework through the electronic register, but soon accounts have been created for all of the students and they have been attending online lessons for one week.
The Primary School shares videos of the teachers who greet their students and explain the assignments they have given to them for the week. The parents can find these assignments on the electronic register, and download them to then send back to the teacher once they are completed. Starting next week there will also be live meetings with the teachers, but only in the late afternoon. This is to permit the older brothers and sisters to follow their lessons during the morning, and to permit the parents—who will be helping their elementary school children—to attend to their jobs during the first part of the day, as many parents are now working from home.
So school has been organised since the very beginning thanks to digital technology, which has shown itself to be a precious ally in an emergency situation such as this. School-wide faculty meetings and meetings for teachers of specific classes take place online, just like the lessons. All of this work has been coordinated by the school administration supported by Margherita Giambi who is the Head of Digital Learning in our Institute, and by Christian Devaux, Head of IT.
As of today, two full weeks have passed since the first online lessons began, and we would like to share a few reflections with those who may be facing the same emergency:
- Any institute that has already prepared in the past a working digital infrastructure for teaching will find it much easier to organise and manage distance learning. During the lessons in class, many digital instruments seem superfluous, but it is important to know them well, and to have trained the teachers to use them together with the students, because this will make the transition to pure online teaching seem much more natural;
- New benefits of digital learning emerge that can be reused also in a “normal” school situation: online portals for student athletes who have outside commitments, video lessons and other digital materials shared with students. And the progress in technological competencies that teachers have had to make in such a short time is a treasure that will not go to waste;
- Digital learning should not be conceived as a mere translation of live teaching into online teaching: it is not desirable that students pass the entire morning connected to an online lesson; teaching needs to be conceived of in a new way, within a precise pedagogical paradigm within which are situated some moments online;
- The same goes for the teacher, for whom time online must be balanced with adequate time for personal work, reflection and care of his or her own family;
- The grading of students, which is always a delicate process, needs to be planned with even greater care: it is unthinkable to replicate a physical class online, with oral exams and written tests, maintaining the same type and frequency of testing one has in a normal class;
- Technology permits us to “meet” our students at this moment when it is absolutely impossible to meet them in person, in an emergency in which affectionate contact and care are particularly important. This “accompanying” of the students, this affection and this care are the absolute priority, and the teaching must respond to this single, fundamental, relational criterion, to which everything else (grades, syllabus) is subordinated.
The emergency we’re living through carries with it gifts, both large and small.
I have the perception that even though we are all far away from each other, in reality we are very united. I don’t have advice to share with you, but rather affection, encouragement and trust”.
These are the words that Prof. Vincenzo Sibillo, Principal of the High School, wrote to our students. These gifts—above all to feel oneself united with others—remind us even more that the educational bond is made up of people, teachers and students, who meet each other and grow together, and that this bond needs to be based on relationships that are real and concrete to realize its full potential.
(Translation from Italian: Christina Helms)