Belarus: a school experience in moving to online learning

Natalia Iskortseva is Principal and co-founder of Stembridge School in Minsk, Belarus. A private school with 150 students aged 6-15, it was founded in 2008 and teaches a range of academic disciplines according to national educational standards for secondary schools with a focus on 21st century skills. The well-equipped school even has its own radio station. We interviewed Natalia to know more about her schools' move to online learning, as part of our #learningconnects campaign.

Stembridge School is the first in Belarus to switch to online learning in the face of the Coronavirus Pandemic. What drove that decision? Is the fact that you are a private school a key factor that enabled you to act independently and swiftly?

On Friday March 13 we had nearly a third of students absent - and only half because they were sick. The next day, we received a lot of messages from parents asking if they could keep their children at home.

Families were concerned about the news on the COVID-19 outbreak albeit Belarus had not closed the schools or introduced any strict measures in education.

With just two weeks to go before the end of term, this was a pretty important period for the school. But we understood that even more children would be kept home from the Monday and during a scheduled teacher-training day on the Saturday - where we had planned to discuss general issues - we understood we would have to make a decision on how to proceed. After conducting a survey of parents via Viber on the Sunday morning - about whether to use distance learning in the circumstances or not - the decision became clear and we swiftly moved classes online.

Is the fact that you are a private school a key factor that enabled you to act independently and swiftly?

A quick transition was made possible thanks to foundations we laid down almost a year ago. Last year we received the official education package from Google - G-Suite (although it took us three months to get it). Since September, we began to work with it and brought all students and teachers into the system, creating a 'corporate' email for everyone, and some teachers started using the Google classroom platform in their lessons. We also ensured that every child had a device that they could use to access the system. So, children have already been taught to enter these platforms, complete tasks, take tests, and use tablets and laptops for educational purposes. This experiment was simply extended to all children, teachers, and subjects.

Such a basis is not common for state Belarusian schools – this is the big barrier for a quick shift from offline to online learning.

Are all subjects now being taught online? Do you have any vocational training courses or practical lessons (for example, cooking, mechanics) that are a challenge to teach online?

Yes, for now we have all subjects online – even physical education, music and arts. But of course, not all are equally effective. Let’s say, it’s pretty easy to do some physical exercises through online instructions but you can’t play football or sing in a choir via distance learning. Same with vocational training, which requires specific equipment. But we can switch to other curriculum – for example, do some cooking lessons instead of carpentry.  

How important are parents in the process? And staff? Are they now a team that works together to ensure the education of your students is not interrupted?

Before asking parents, it was crucial to test the mood of the teachers - as they are key to the process. They gifted their day off on Sunday to go online to create virtual classes, upload material and prepare for the new format. Those who already had experience in blended learning and used google classroom since September became our internal experts. They shared experience, gave instruction and produced video-guides. Of course, for those teachers who had never used technical tools before it was a huge challenge, but they succeeded due to teamwork, commitment and help from colleagues.

As for parents - we provided instructions we created ourselves on what they need to do to help their kids prepare for the new format (installing apps, finding schedules, material etc). We also provided technical support with logins, passwords, etc - this was almost round the clock on the first few days. Within a week or so everybody was on board and we were surprised how constructive and supportive the feedback has been!

As a team we also emphasised communication, with daily meetings during the first week, sharing good practice and challenges, and devising rules for online lessons. By the second week the need for such meetings was much reduced and now we have weekly meetings - and these too are online.

Of course, cooperation of the parents and the Stembridge team has been one of the key elements in making our distance learning work. This is particularly important for the younger children who need a lot of help. Naturally there is both opportunity and risk here, that is why trust, openness and the ability to ask and give constructive feedback is so important. The belief in future results becomes the glue between teachers and parents, which is necessary for success.

Do you think other schools could copy your example?

We are often asked whether it is possible to switch to distance learning - the good news is that there is a way and temporary distance education is possible. How? The answer is simple: everybody has Viber or some other instant messenger. Once you agree on a common platform you can create a group chat. Then tasks can be sent out to children. They do the assigned work, take a photo and send it back to the teacher. We are not talking about complex technologies.

In cases where children are being assigned new, difficult material, one can first prepare them by using platforms with training materials - most of which have now opened their material up for free access, such as SkyEng, Infourok, Foxford, KhanAcademy, Courcera, Epforlearning…

A lot of useful material can also be found on YouTube. In these cases, it is important that the teacher switches from the role of (re) translator of knowledge to that of navigator, finding the necessary material, filtering it and providing students with links. Once students have had a chance to look at the material, a group call can be arranged to clarify any questions - just as one would do in class. Teachers can always go live - may instant messenger services have this option - and conduct a lesson in that way.

How are you organising teaching? Are staff working from home or do you have a "command centre" at your school? Are you keeping to normal teaching hours?

The first week we mainly worked from school where it’s easier and quicker to get the assistance from the team. Later only a few teachers preferred to come to school – because of big monitors or better internet connection or working conditions.

Regarding hours – yes, we keep the schedule as it was offline. Even music, arts and physical education lessons. But now we are reconsidering the schedule for the next term (as this week is holiday) – to provide longer breaks and more effective lessons.    

What are the key challenges - and opportunities - you have met so far?

The challenges I can give are:

  • Lack of digital competence of teachers may slow down the education process as well as a lack on the student side. Short and very clear instructions and supervision of more competent colleagues may be of a great help during the beginning.
  • Screen time increase together with decrease of physical activity – it requires special attention to energizers during lessons and restructuring the lesson itself for the blended format where a big part of study should be done offline by the students themselves
  • Concentration depends on the format and the task. Group discussion requires new rules and takes additional time. So teachers needed to rethink the whole curriculum and to find new formats which better suit online.  
  • Test in online format should be different so that students can not Google the answers easily. It requires more conscious and creative preparation from the teacher’s side.    
  • Technical issues may appear suddenly – such as electricity outages or password loses or problems on the side of internet-provider or another service-provider.  To ensure catching up in such situations, all the instructions should be also written at a decent place (such as class e-journal, wall of the subject, etc.) to be available at any time.
  • Students are missing their friends and live interaction of teachers. And teachers are missing that too.  

On the other hand the opportunities presented are many, such as:   

  • It’s a rapid educational process for the teachers themselves – they’ve dived into the world of technology which is so normal for kids. And they have no other choice rather than to swim forward if they want to help kids develop.
  • A lot of educational activity in front of the computer during the day often means that kids do not want to use their devices after the lessons for playing games or surfing social media.  
  • Quick and diverse development of digital competence– how to find the required info, how to open the proper web-site, how to attach the homework to the task, how to share your screen, how to convey the idea if you see just icons on the screen instead of eyes, etc. – students learn a lot of this in parallel with the standard curriculum
  • Many students admitted that it’s easier for them to concentrate while they are at home because there are no external interruptions and distractions

What advice would you give to other schools that might wish to follow your example?

- Give a lot of support to your team-members: provide them with information, feedback, useful resources, guidelines, materials, positive emotions, etc. – share everything you can.

- Involve parents, you should become partners (if not yet).

- Think about every minute of a kid in front of the screen: what he/she is doing right now? Is it adding value and development? Ensure they are not wasting their time – otherwise you’ll lose them.

- Create additional possibilities for kids to communicate and interact: they are missing each other and real communication.

- Take all this not as a temporary solution but as your new way of living. The world will never be the same again, nor will you.


Natalia Iskortseva is a member of the ETF Open Space community. Natalia has a Master of Sciences in Social Work and Management from the UK's Manchester University, also has a background in HR management and is a communication, motivation and management coach. Her motto is: "Those who want to do something will find the means; those who don’t will find the reason." She says that the "most important thing in the school is transparency and ensuring the clear meaning of everything we do."

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