With the outbreak of the Coronavirus emergency and the closure of all schools in Italy from the end of February until April 3, the country’s Ministry of Education has set up a dedicated task force to enable teachers to teach remotely. Their pupils will also get access to an online platform to support their learning during the closure period. “The Ministry’s role is to provide a selection of tools for schools like remote learning platforms, training webinars and digital content”, explained minister Lucia Azzolina. “What’s at stake over the coming weeks is not just continuing with education, but also safeguarding relationships between people, even remotely.”
As part of the ‘Cura Italia’ decree, the Ministry of Education has undertaken to help schools get the IT platforms they need as quickly as possible. Money has already been made available by the fund for digital innovation and laboratory teaching: 10 million euro so that state schools can immediately get platforms and digital tools for remote learning or upgrade existing ones; 70 million euro to help underprivileged children, providing them with their own digital devices on loan to use the platforms and access the network; 5 million euro to train teaching staff on remote learning methods and techniques.
Unfortunately, in Italy the development of e-learning across the country has been rather uneven. Though there are outstanding examples (such as the Tosi High School in Busto Arsizio, the Prealpi High School in Saronno and the Ungaretti High School in Melzo - all towns in northern Italy), most schools are not equipped to cope with this emergency as rapidly as is needed. It’s true to say that, over the years, any progress has been very much due to those ‘geeky’ teachers who took the task on themselves or to the individual initiative of rather forward-thinking headteachers. Where state-of-the-art equipment has arrived – such as interactive multimedia whiteboards and 3D printers – it has often ended up in a corner gathering dust, thanks also in part to technology fast becoming obsolete which does not marry well with a lengthy education system. It is mainly for these very reasons, say the experts, that it won’t be easy to improvise in introducing effective digital solutions, above all in an emergency. Teachers need specific training and considerable bureaucratic efforts are needed to ensure full compliance with privacy legislation, especially when you consider that the vast majority of pupils are minors. In the opinion of Alessandro Fusacchia (member of parliament for the mixed group and of the permanent commission for education) it is unlikely that a platform can be developed in such a short time. What is certain is that revived interest in e-learning is “a good sign and timely” provided that certain conditions are fulfilled: “that it is well thought through and not simply ‘augmented schooling’, it should back up traditional teaching methods rather than replacing them; it must be inclusive to ensure teaching standards are maintained and that social relations are not undermined; and that it complements the return to the classroom and is not just to deal with an emergency.”
To facilitate remote learning, mobile communication providers Vodafone, Tim, Fastweb, Wind and Iliad have offered giga bytes free of charge through the portal of the Ministry for Technological Innovation and Digitalisation.
While the Ministry of Education sets up a truly online platform, some tools have already been made available. One solution has been to allow teachers to purchase webcams, microphones, touch screen pens, scanners and mobile hotspots. To facilitate remote learning, mobile communication providers Vodafone, Tim, Fastweb, Wind and Iliad have offered gigabytes free of charge through the portal of the Ministry for Technological Innovation and Digitalisation.
Whether schools have the right equipment or not, many useful online tools are already available. Lessons can be organised remotely and there is content that teachers can share with pupils so that they use their time at home constructively. On the Ministry of Education portal, for instance, access is provided to the national television (Rai) package called ‘Rai per la didattica’, which includes channels for culture, school, young children and teens with video content on a variety of topics. Another example, offered by the famous encyclopaedia, Treccani Scuola, provides teachers with tools to easily integrate content into their lessons, generate exercises in a few simple steps and keep teachers and pupils in contact. Last but not least, the Reggio Children – Loris Malaguzzi Centre Foundation provides content for younger children and is based on the use of Scratch to create digital objects and characters to build into stories and have fun.
The offering of materials and tools online is as rich for teachers as it is for their pupils.
There are many more opportunities on the web if you are curious enough to explore. The Scuolab platform by Protom Group helps manage e-learning activities for science subjects with its virtual reality experiments and experiences in physics, chemistry and earth sciences for first and second grade secondary school pupils. Also worthy of note is ‘Lezioni sul sofa’ (Lessons from the couch) which makes learning fun and is a great alternative to playing video games. Audiobooks, video nursery rhymes, stories and other content organised by age group is available to parents and teachers of younger children – there’s everything from mythology to multiplication tables. Redooc, on the other hand, is more ‘scholastic’ and structured and provides actual lessons in video format together with notes, question sheets and interactive exercises focusing mainly, but not only, on STEM subjects. Founded by Italian Chiara Burberi, Redooc is suitable also for pupils with learning difficulties or special needs and has content in English. Thanks to the support of the Global Thinking Foundation, Redooc has recently launched the #ScuolaACasa initiative which allows Primary Schools and first and second grade secondary school pupils to use the platform completely free of charge.
The offering of materials and tools online is as rich for teachers as it is for their pupils. On YouTube, for instance, App per Prof is a really useful channel developed by Middle School teacher and digital trainer Luca Raina. The channel is a showcase of all the tools teachers can use to give lessons using technology, with 5-minute videos explaining each App. Raina, in collaboration with other experts in the field, has also developed Bricks Lab, a simple and intuitive Web App for teachers to build digital lessons, selecting the contents as if they were bricks.
Then, of course, there are the conventional platforms such as G-Suite for Education which has all the tools to create documents, presentations and various types of file. Google Classroom, WeSchool, Edmodo, and Fidenia all provide the tools to create virtual classrooms. Finally, there are video conferencing tools like Skype and Google Hangouts for the whole class to join in. For the curious and those with time on their hands at home, Internet opens up a whole world of opportunities for learning at home. Just switch on the computer and start digging around.