Joining the Digital Revolution

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Earlier this year, the Dragon School moved online. From lessons to Bun Breaks, Spectrum to musical productions, lockdown meant that the Dragon Education went fully digital, and the Virtual Holistic Curriculum was developed. Director of IT, Paul Dunleavy, speaks about the move to online learning and the benefits of a flexible and digital approach to schooling.

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A Digital Dragon Education 
Paul Dunleavy, Director of IT

Digital Schooling is not a new phenomenon, but educating our entire school community solely via digital means wasn’t something we had ever truly considered becoming a reality at the Dragon. We’ve been working on the basics of digital teaching and learning for years. Still, like many schools around the world, we had never needed to focus our attention so specifically on actually making it happen, as we did at the start of lockdown this year. The challenges involved in delivering education to an entire school in this way were not trivial, but the Dragon has a great way of coping with, reacting to and going beyond the challenges which are presented to it.

In some respects, we were lucky. Our preparation was certainly very fortunate. In September last year, we had embarked on a three-year upgrade project, specifically targeting improvements to our provision of digital education and mobile working. We transformed the fabric of the Dragon IT networks, equipping every teacher with a laptop and validating our use of the Cloud. Having these fundamentals in place allowed us to bring into sharp relief our real advantage, and that is our Dragon community. More specifically, their resilience, imagination and fortitude; our Dragons, our parents and most importantly in this endeavour, our Dragon Staff.

Once Dr Hyde-Dunn had launched and named our online provision the “Virtual Holistic Curriculum”, or “VHC”, we had a clear focus on what we needed to deliver: maintain the community, provide a Dragon Education, and challenge ourselves by adopting a Growth Mindset. The latter part even had its own email address, with Dr Hyde-Dunn encouraging Dragons to write to him, detailing their responses to challenges that they were facing.

“We changed our timetables. We invented the “inner” and “outer” core. We adapted what we had delivered on-site at the Dragon for over a century, to our online classrooms.”

We cannot pretend that it was all plain sailing as we navigated our first few weeks of the VHC. There were some genuine issues, which prevented us from executing everything that we had so carefully planned. Like many Cloud providers at that time, Firefly – the company behind the system we use to catalogue and deliver our lesson content – hadn’t quite anticipated the volume of traffic that they suddenly had to provide. In much the same way, lockdown’s favourite communication package, Zoom, experienced reputational, security and capacity issues as it struggled to cope with the massive increases in popularity, and therefore the demand for the services it offers. Other factors, such as time-zones, broadband speeds, access to equipment and the amount of available desk space at home added greater complexity to an already complex situation. We were certainly being challenged.

It is when people are challenged that you see what they are capable of. Without exception, the Dragon staff delivered an engaging and stimulating online classroom experience to our non-resident Dragons, translating what comes so naturally in the classroom to a digital medium. Many Dragon families also took real advantage of the time they spent together. For example, two young Dragons wrote a book and published it, whilst raising money for charity. Two young Dragons in another family, based in the USA, were so determined to maintain contact with the Dragon that they changed their daily patterns to fit in with Registration, morning lessons and afternoon activities. In all of this, there was a common thread. We transacted and experienced life digitally. This allowed us to be “present” with each other, even though we were often isolated and distanced.

With very few and necessary exceptions, we remained remote from the Dragon until we were allowed to return in September. Prize-giving, celebratory assemblies and the Leavers’ Service were all conducted in quiet rooms, socially distanced and live-streamed to all those who would otherwise be present. It certainly wasn’t what we would choose over what we are used to experiencing, but we altered our provision as well as we could in order to celebrate the remarkable events, successes, and achievements we witnessed throughout the academic year.

“Our ability to so readily translate our offline offering to an online presence, allowed us to retain and deepen our relationships and to strengthen our community.”

There are certain things within the operation of the Dragon which we have had to adopt over the recent months that we will choose to retain. I doubt we will ever have another “snow day” quite as we are used to. As we have proved, since our return to site in September, we can still deliver a Dragon Education to all our pupils, even though some members of the class are not physically on site. Our digital provision has become embedded into the way we conduct our teaching and learning. Parents’ Evenings, meetings, INSET days, and training are now predominantly delivered online. We have a new verb – we “Zoom” as we once “Googled”.

When we come to reflect on the last 9 months, I think it was right to focus on developing a Growth Mindset at the outset. We all had to become more flexible, and develop our resilience, crucial skills which we will no doubt require in the times ahead. We will definitely put those skills to use to deal with some of the legacies of lockdown; poor mental health, the breakdown of relationships, unequal access to education and growing income disparities. We recognise that we have been very fortunate at the Dragon. Our ability to so readily translate our offline offering to an online presence, allowed us to retain and deepen our relationships and to strengthen our community. As Henry Ford said,

“If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself.”