HEAD OF DEPARTMENT OF SAINT PAUL SCHOOL – “Distance learning is a solution”

Marco Carvalho

In 2012, long before the current pandemic paralyzed the world, Saint Paul School did something that no other educational institution in Macau dared to do until then: it gave up on notebooks and school manuals, got rid of old methods and approaches and adopted an educational system that is focused exclusively on IT and a technological approach. The decision set the difference when Covid-19 forced the local schools to close their doors in February. Philip Lai, head of Curriculum and Professional Department of Saint Paul School, explains why.

Saint Paul School was and still is a pioneer in Macau. It was the first school that dropped textbooks and adopted a digital environment. Was this, in any sense, an advantage when the schools were told to adopt e-learning due to Covid-19?

Sure. Some schools did not have any e-materials. At the beginning of the pandemic, when classes were suspended, they had to spend what little time they had to gather e-materials and to upload them to their own platform. We had already all the teaching materials; we had the platform and both our teachers and our students were already used to teaching using distance learning. This was an advantage for us.

You were saying that it was an advantage both for teachers and students. No problems whatsoever in the transition to a digital environment then…

Actually, for Primary 4 up to Form 6 students, they have eight years of experience using e-learning, both in the school and at home. There was no problem at all for them. Teachers and students were prepared.

Nevertheless, there were some challenges to cope with the new rules set by the Education and Youth Bureau…

Yes. At first, it was not easy because we didn’t know for how long the lessons had to remain suspended. We limited ourselves to following the instructions we received from the Education Bureau. At first, we were told we could not teach new content. We could only revise the things that we had already taught. Suddenly, they announced that we had to extend the suspension period for another month. It was then that we decided to adopt online learning and to teach new materials that were part of the actual curriculum. Before, during the first two weeks, all that we did was to revise what the students had already learned as per instructions from the Education Bureau. After we learned that the suspension period would be extended and the classes would resume we started to use Zoom to have the lessons.

In more traditional schools students still have to acquire a lot of books, notebooks and other material. This has not been the case in Saint Paul School for a very long time already…

Yes. At least for eight years, as I mentioned, for Primary 4 to Form 6. The first big difference is that the school bag is a little bit lighter than at normal schools, because those students have to bring a lot of class books everyday. In our case, a computer and a few notebooks and that’s it. We are talking about around four kilograms altogether in the school bag. So, from the point of view of health issues, I think a digital classroom is good for the development of the children, starting from primary four. But we have a double-edge problem, concerning the eyesight. Some parents were worried about the amount of time their children spend in front of a computer, so we asked the Kiang Wu Nursing College to set follow-up consultations with our students every year, so we can have an idea about their health development and the impact of this method on their well being.

Do you have any conclusions related to the impact that a digital environment might have on the health of your students?

I don’t have that kind of data here with me, but last year we sent the parents a general report saying that, concerning the eyesight, the results are similar to those that were obtained in 2015 in a big survey made by the Sports Bureau. They are the same. What does this mean? This means that we are using the technology as a tool for teaching, but the data obtained for the same age group in other schools are quite similar, and so our methods don’t have any particular impact on the eyesight. Nevertheless, we found out that, for particular groups – Form 2 and Form 3 girls, there are some specific health problems: they are either too light or too heavy, because they eat too much or they skip breakfast because they want to be fit. After we became aware of this data, we talked to the parents, as well as the students and our Physical Education teachers. Sometimes girls skip the lessons because they don’t want to do exercise. This decision is something that has a great impact on their health. After we became aware of this, we told the teachers, the parents and the students that, based on the data, we have this issue to solve and we try to tell them what they need to do if they want to live a healthier life.

Does the digital classroom project still make a difference compared to other schools?

Yes. In terms of using IT technology, students are very good at it. Hence, in synthesizing the data that they get from the internet or from other sources, in my opinion, they are much faster than those using traditional ways of teaching or that study in traditional schools.

Students and teachers are back to school, with new rules. How difficult has it been for the students and for the school to cope with the social distance, the compulsory use of masks and the other directives? Was it easy to enforce the sort of rules that were set by the Education Bureau?

In my opinion, most of our students and teachers are used to wearing masks, to use sterilizers to clean their hands and keeping a one-meter minimum distance. I don’t think this is especially difficult: they have been doing the same thing for months already. There are some minor issues. When the students have Physical Education lessons, they obviously feel hot and they usually remove their masks for a while. When they go back to the classroom, they have to wear it again, though.

Do you think that the Covid-19 pandemic will accelerate the adoption of a more digital environment? Is this the future of education?

Yes, certainly. The Education and Youth Bureau has invested a lot of money to provide this sort of platform to all the schools. Some of the schools didn’t have any sort of IT expertise and it was quite difficult for them to build up this kind of platform for distance learning and e-learning. These schools invested a lot of money and I know that, ever since school resumed, in the beginning of this month, they are fully apt to use those platforms in case there is a resurgence of the number of Covid-19 cases. The schools prepared themselves for this possibility. I am sure that learning in the future will be like this and the same will happen with some of the meetings that we used to have, for instance, with people from Hong Kong or other places. Now we use Zoom to conduct those meetings and the results are almost the same if your involvement is similar. Of course, the students sometimes switch off the cameras and then leave. It really depends on the level of participation and involvement of the users…

You were saying that there’s a real possibility that the number of Covid-19 may increase in the winter months. Do you believe local students might have to remain at home once again if the pandemic resurfaces?

If I could choose, I would rather our students attend face-to-face classes. Distance learning is a solution if the participant is active, eager, enthusiastic and motivated. If that’s the case, there’s no problem. But, in fact, what we saw is that some Form 2, Form 3 students are not that motivated and we saw from their results that the experience we had with them was not that good.

In terms of grades, did the performance of the students of Saint Paul School improve when compared to before? Did their performance improve with the use of these new technologies?

In our school, solely from the academic results, I cannot say there was a big improvement or a big drop in the grades they have, but if we analyze the entrance examination results from our universities, we see a small development in an upward direction. When we receive the information, we analyze it and then we make use of it and the data shows that they are more advanced than those that use traditional ways of learning. There is a small advantage.

For most of the younger generations, a computer is seen as an entertainment tool: it’s good for searching the internet, playing games, chatting with their friends. For Saint Paul School students it’s all of that, but also a work tool. Do you think that this sort of perception can be seen as an advantage?

It depends on the way a class is managed. Some of the students will use the computer for entertainment as well. It happens. I have no illusions about that, but our teachers can block those that are misbehaving, so that they cannot use browsers to navigate the Internet. We can monitor their computer and see what they are doing and through these measures we can prevent the students from using the computer for other activities than learning in the classroom.

In your opinion, what kind of impact can the public health crisis have in the way that teaching and learning are conducted in Macau schools? Do you think that some of the aspects that the schools were forced to learn due to Covid-19 will remain as a legacy for the future?

We must have a good communication with the parents, the teachers and the students, so that in the future, when there’s any kind of crisis that prevents the schools from using the classrooms, we can have a very good communication with them too, so we can organize better all the measures that we are willing to implement in the school…

You were mentioning the parents… Was it easy for the parents to understand that the school had to close and that their kids couldn’t come to school, that they had to work from home? Was this an issue?

Yes, especially for Junior Primary. Actually, there are two very different positions. Some parents complained because they believed there were too many classes and homework. Others complained because they thought it was not enough. We had to tell them that we needed to keep things balanced and those that could do the basic homework, should try to do the advanced one, but it was not compulsory to do the advanced one. We asked for their understanding but some of them complained, they shared their opinions in a parents’ chat and by then we considered that we should also be a part of their conversation and we have explained to them why we had this kind of arrangement and that they had to understand our position. From the parents’ point of view, the most difficult thing was that some parents had to work and, in some cases, children were asked to take care of their younger siblings. In most cases, this was the most difficult thing.

Do you think that after this crisis, the local families will see teachers in a different light? Their work is often taken for granted. Was this crisis important to recall people of how important school is?

Yes. I think some of the parents – especially the parents of those children that didn’t take part in Zoom Lessons – and that had to assume the role of teachers managed to understand how hard a teacher’s work can be, especially if they have two or more children. I think that most schools didn’t assign more than enough homework. But, if parents had to go to work and then, after work they still had to take care of their children, I think that they felt that sort of responsibility was a sort of burden. They had to put themselves in the shoes of a teacher and they understood how difficult it can be. Sometimes they have to deal with 75 students, three classes everyday and this is quite difficult.