Technology Published 20 Aug 2013

New distance education model broadens curriculum options



AUSTRALIAN education systems have long grappled with the tyrannies of distance, small school size and teacher shortages.

In combination, these factors restrict the access of students to a broad curriculum and higher education pathways.

Our response at Bendigo Senior Secondary College has been to establish a variety of distance education models and localised sharing arrangements supported by technology, facilitating access and supporting collaboration.

Our college has adopted a unique approach to these challenges. With almost 1800 Year 11 and 12 students, we are Australia's largest provider of senior school curriculum and have few issues in providing access for our students to a broad curriculum delivered by well qualified and experienced teachers.

But, in 2009, we identified the need for a very contemporary model of distance education provision to service the needs of other schools.

Approaching the Education Minister provided endorsement for a business plan and funding has subsequently been sourced from a variety of sources to support the development of a very different model of distance education.

Our college set out to establish a model based on asynchronous delivery, the state and perhaps the nation's first truly virtual school. Fundamental to the model has been the creation of high quality, interactive content which students can access at any time and from any location.

Over the years we have seen governments make significant investment in the creation of learning objects, all designed to support teachers in the classroom. There has been no attempt to address the significant need for access to whole courses, particularly at senior school level. Teachers just don't have the time or instructional design expertise to do this work on top of their other duties.

We set out to create courses in high stakes subjects in the sciences and mathematics and this year rolled out courses in specialist mathematics, mathematical methods and physics to students from around the state.

Twenty eight schools from every corner of the state and including metropolitan Melbourne have enrolled students to do these subjects through the Victorian Virtual Learning Network (VVLN).

In 2014 new subjects will be available including chemistry, legal studies, psychology, general maths, and health and human development. We expect the current enrolment of over 100 students to more than double next year and we anticipate significant growth in future years as further subjects are added and understanding of the model builds.

The journey has not been without its challenges. Each of the courses has cost around $200,000 to develop and the financial support of the Victorian and Commonwealth governments has been significant.

The state education department has backed the project and the current courses have been developed and delivered with the support of its Broadband Enabled Innovation Program and DEEWR's NBN-Enabled Education and Skills Services program.

Our college has also made a significant investment in the work. At the outset we carried out research of existing models and the available research literature. In 2010 we sent 12 staff to the USA to visit virtual schools and undertake professional learning. But our biggest challenge has been the development of the skill sets needed for this work.

Schools have plenty of content experts but we also needed instructional design and technology expertise. The teachers involved were experienced, highly capable and working full time on the project but it was the most challenging work of their careers. Thankfully it was also among the most rewarding.

Designing an activity to be accessed asynchronously is fundamentally different to designing an activity for a class where you can be physically present. Our courses comprise text, video, animations, voice and simulations. Our design process and the Moodle platform allow us to monitor student activity and progress.

Online students have an online teacher [Kyle Staggard, pictured, is one of the teachers ] available through various technologies, to provide 1:1 support and advice.

Host schools provide a liaison staff member to assist with logistical support, but there is no need for this to be a specialist teacher; in fact it can be a non-teaching member of staff. Assessment is managed through a combination of online and proctored tasks.

For the first three years of the project we employed three teachers/developers and a part time project manager. We now have 14 staff including two project managers.

As the project has grown we've identified the need to standardise our development tools in order to manage support and provide professional learning. We've opted for a set of Adobe tools — Captivate, Presenter and Connect — which integrate well and are both sophisticated and intuitive.

In the early stages we had difficulty in building understanding of our model and our needs. This model is quite different to video conferencing-based models, which are primarily synchronous and thus limited in their capacity for scaling. And it is different again to more traditional models of distance education provision.

Many institutions claiming to be 'virtual' are in fact doing little more than posting video or flat text supplemented with weblinks and course notes. Our model differs primarily in the nature and quality of the content.

Apart from building a pool of teacher expertise the benefit for our college is in the ability to take this content and turn it back into our own classrooms to support blended models of delivery. The potential to fundamentally change the role of the teacher is significant and we will progress down this path with caution given the high stakes of the final years of secondary schooling.

We hope the VVLN is a forerunner to a Victorian Virtual School which may address issues of curriculum access, but also the broader matter of the use of technologies to support student learning across the F-12 spectrum.

  • This article appears in the Term 3 issue of Technology in Education – a standalone magazine inserted into the September issue of Australian Teacher Magazine . Technology in Education is published every term. The latest magazine is available to download free on iOS and Android devices.
iOS: https://itunes.apple.com/au/app/teacher-+/id569816828 Android: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.paperlit.android.teacher Dale Pearce is principal of Bendigo Senior Secondary College and sponsor of the Victorian Virtual Learning Network.

This story appeared in the Term 3, 2013 edition of Technology in Education.

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