Moving a school of 714 students and 185 employees to virtual teaching, learning and working environments has taken innovation, determination and teamwork. In short, it’s been a very Hopkins kind of problem to solve. Launched on March 27, 2020, Hopkins’ virtual campus is now abuzz with students and teachers, albeit from the comfort of their homes and sometimes in their pajamas. And, there’s always the chance a class may catch a glimpse of a teacher’s dog entering the frame or overhear the parent of a classmate taking a work call in the background.
But how did our community get here?
In early January, before the coronavirus altered daily life and work in the U.S., Lan Lin, the Modern Language Department Chair at Hopkins, had an inside look at what could be heading west to the United States; her parents live in Wuhan, China. She shared her concerns with Head of School Dr. Kai Bynum, planting an early seed that would help prepare Hopkins for what could be coming. Dr. Bynum quickly cancelled a student trip to China slated for spring break. He then assembled a task force to prepare a plan for how to deal with the imminent disruption that would arrive stateside in a matter of time.
“In this time of incredible uncertainty,” Bynum said, “I’m certain of one thing: Hopkins is prepared for this. We have the tech support and a framework to quickly build and launch a virtual campus, and we have teachers and students who are incredibly adaptive and resourceful.”
On the technology side of things, Hopkins has been increasing its preparedness for this type of scenario since the H1N1 Swine Flu Pandemic in 2009. Strategic decisions made over the last ten years have helped pave the way for Hopkins to move successfully into distance education.
“Our move to cloud-based services, such as Google and the introduction of our new student information system in 2018, helped to create a solid foundation for remote sustainability and allowed us to quickly pivot to virtual classrooms,” Director of Technology D.J. Plante said.
In addition to Google, Hopkins utilizes the Blackbaud platform to support everything from enrollment management, learning management and the School’s website. This connected system, which is augmented by the use of Google file sharing platforms, helped prepare Hopkins for this recent transition. The one new addition to Hopkins’ fleet of digital platforms is Zoom, a video conferencing tool. In February, the School purchased Zoom licenses for all faculty and students. As for hardware, the Technology Department loaned out equipment including laptops, Chromebook and webcams, so every member of our community is connected. They also launched a dedicated support phone line that instantly connects the community with tech help as they need it.
On the curriculum side of things, Hopkins is uniquely positioned to transition to a remote learning model as a founding member of the Malone Schools Online Network (MSON). Founded in 2012, MSON bases its course structure on the most successful online high school in the world, Stanford Online High School. The online class structure used by these programs relies heavily on using class time for discussion and interaction, underscoring the sense of community through a digital platform, while out-of-class-time is used for reading assignments, self-directed work or watching recorded instruction videos. Additionally, Hopkins benefits from the guidance of our own Director of Academic Technology, Ben Taylor, who is also the MSON Dean of Instruction. Working alongside the Technology Department and the school’s administration, Taylor has been integral in planning, implementing and supporting the Hopkins faculty and students in this transition to a virtual environment.
“I think a lot of people in our community think I have a deep love for technology, but I actually don't,” Taylor said. “I love being with people. In this troubling time, I hope for our community to get what they need most: time together. Beyond that, I know that the Hopkins community will do what it has always done: work hard, learn much, and stay curious.”
Taylor believes that the first week of online classes have been a success. Teachers in all departments have reported ways in which they are thinking creatively about how to keep their coursework moving and engage students beyond a standard lecture format. Science teachers Kristen Abraham and Jennifer Stauffer, for example, were able to record themselves doing a chemistry lab during the first week of spring break. Their students will watch the recorded video and collect the data gathered in the lab to write their own reports. In the History Department, teacher Sarah Belbita is building an active component into her virtual classroom everyday, whether pairing students up for group work in breakout sessions or playing games. She is currently developing versions of "History Charades" and "Win, Lose or Draw” to match their content.
Of course, not all modes of instruction translate easily to online platforms. “We have several classes that revolve around hands-on work such as design and woodshop classes, and we also have a variety of performance classes. These will be challenging to replicate virtually,” Bynum said. “However, our teachers are creative though and are embracing these challenges head on.”
For instance, the Drama Department is producing a radio drama, which will be purely acoustic with no visual performance, while performing arts classes are experimenting with recording technologies, like Soundtrap, to create dynamic video performances of both classic and original music. Studio art classes are sharing their sketchbooks digitally, looking for materials to use around the house, and seeking inspiration in nature.
“All in all, spirits are high, creativity is everywhere, and we have talented and eager students and faculty who are enjoying their classes this term,” Art Department Chair Robert Smith said. “Whether we present in a virtual gallery, Instagram, or some other online venue, we will be showing the Hopkins community what we're up to and are always looking forward to finding new ways to be artists at home!”
On the other end of the classroom experience, Hopkins students have been patient and willing to rise to the new challenge. While they report they miss seeing their friends in person, the start of the spring athletic season, and all the celebratory events normally held in the spring, they are remaining hopeful.
“While distance learning is obviously very different, I think all of my teachers have done really good jobs maintaining our classroom atmosphere and making class feel as normal as possible,” Georgia Rivero ’21 said.
“I’m disappointed that we won’t have our senior spring,” Kyle Shin '20 said, “but I know that it is the best decision for everyone. I really want to highlight Mr. Taylor’s work in making Zoom smooth and easy for everyone, and the adapted schedule, which seems like it is running better than some of my friends’ schools. Overall though, I am happy I get to at least see my friends and teachers’ faces, and that is enough motivation to get myself out of bed and ready to begin class.”
The social and communal aspect of gathering online has also been very important in a time when we must distance ourselves physically from each other. From meeting with peers and staff for virtual academic support, to exercise classes on Instagram, to participating in our #HopAtHome challenge, Hopkins is providing ways for community members to stay connected. The School will be continually looking for additional opportunities to host virtual events and activities.
Bynum said he is grateful for Hopkins’ faculty and staff, who have worked tirelessly to prepare for the transition to the virtual campus, and encourages the Hopkins community to join him in thanking them.
“I commend them for their innovation, and I applaud our students for their ability to adapt,”Bynum said. “This is uncharted territory, so we will figure this out together. We will be course correcting and our plans may change. I, however, am incredibly confident that we will navigate whatever lies ahead and support one another during this time of uncertainty. We are Hopkins, 360 years strong.”