Virtual Schooling

Victoria needs a virtual school

It’s time Victoria had a virtual school. At present the state is served by a number of providers catering for students who need access to curriculum beyond what their own school can provide. There are also students learning outside normal school settings who need the support of a school or another educational provider. It’s historically been assumed that this need is greatest in rural and regional Victoria but there is evidence that significant demand also exists within metropolitan Melbourne.

By far the largest of the current entities is the Distance Education Centre of Victoria (DECV). Another key service for foreign language learners is provided by the Victorian School of Languages. In recent years a number of other providers have emerged to meet perceived gaps in provision. There are a number of video conferencing arrangements in place in different parts of the state, there have been programs set up to provide support for inexperienced or isolated teachers in schools (through the Country Education Project, for example) and my own school has an online model through which we provide delivery for other schools.

The Victorian government is moving to establish a digital learning strategy, I imagine to provide direction and support for teachers in schools, and an online learning strategy which will attempt to draw together the expertise and experience of current providers. What shape this takes and how it affects provision is yet to be seen but I think this is a time for the state government to be bold and to establish a new entity to serve the needs of students and teachers. But first a little background.

Most of the current providers listed above exist because individual schools are not able to meet the curriculum needs of their students, or students outside school are unable to access curriculum. Let’s not underestimate the importance of access to a broad curriculum, particularly in the senior years of schooling. It’s a major equity issue, particularly when high level Mathematics, Sciences and Languages cannot be accessed by students. This is a very real possibility for rural students and the evidence is fairly clear that these students are less likely to progress on to university.

Up until the point of starting their VCE students need access to a high quality curriculum and good teaching and there is certainly a role for a Victorian Virtual School to provide online materials, professional development for teachers and perhaps even some short courses or electives for middle year students. But the greatest need is clearly in VCE provision, and perhaps in some vocational areas of study at Years 11 and 12.

Over the last couple of decades a small fortune has been spent around Australia creating digital learning objects for teachers to use with their classes. The bulk of this content has been created for F-10 level and all of it in the form of individual learning objects which teachers can use to support their teaching. Because of the lack of national curriculum and the control of assessment by individual states there has been no investment in the area of greatest need – the senior years of schooling – and in whole courses as opposed to learning objects.

Creating content for use within the VCE (and the same would be true for the senior school certificates in other states) is a challenging exercise. These students do not have access to a teacher in their own school, either because of teacher shortages or the school not being able to afford to run classes with small numbers. So there is a clear design challenge: it’s one thing to create digital content for a teacher to share with and explain to their own students. It’s another thing again to create something which stands on its own and can be used by students in isolation, even with the support of an online teacher. And there is also a vast difference between individual learning objects and whole courses loaded with assessment.

It shouldn’t be assumed that the online option is a lesser one for students. There’s a good argument to suggest that blended modes of delivery – where an online curriculum is supported by an online or face to face teacher – can actually improve student learning. If the content is high quality and the teacher is outstanding then this will be a better option for some students than the standard option provided in their school. Why wouldn’t we want to make the best curriculum, the best resources and the best teachers available to all students?

Funding for Victorian government schools currently includes loadings for small and rural schools, often running into hundreds of thousands of dollars per school. This equity funding recognises the need for viable small schools in areas where students have no other choice. At present the funding is primarily used in secondary schools to provide curriculum breadth in the senior school, allowing these schools to run very small classes. One of the questions for the government is whether it is prepared to rethink this model as it redraws its funding parameters to incorporate the Gonski principles and investment. One option is to pool some of the existing funding, or isolate some of the additional Gonski funding, to create a series of high quality online offers for students in all schools.

As it decides what to do the government needs to consider the current pattern of provision. The DECV has moved into online delivery in some areas and appears to be undergoing something of a transformation but still suffers from a bad press in the eyes of some schools, unfairly at times. Can their business model be changed? Video conferencing serves localised needs and is impossible to scale because it’s a synchronous mode of delivery – students in other schools need to be free when the delivering teacher is timetabled to teach. It’s also limited by the quality of the delivering teacher.

In my opinion the state needs an asynchronous model at VCE level, one where quality content is presented in a fully online course supported by an online teacher. An investment needs to be made in the creation of courses. They should be constructed using the expertise of the best available teachers in the field, be fully interactive and measured against international standards. Likewise, the online teacher needed to support the delivery should be the best available.

I believe the government should create a new entity for this purpose. A Victorian Virtual School would harness the best available talent in the three skill areas needed for this type of work: content experts (teachers), instructional designers and technology experts. It would require a degree of centralisation to ensure quality control, particularly during course construction, to oversee delivery and manage support for students and schools. There are great risks in spreading the creation of courses too widely but once created they can be delivered from anywhere.

What I’ve described above is an advanced version of the model our school currently runs through the Victorian Virtual Learning Network, under which we will deliver subjects to students in 45 other schools around the state in 2014. However there is much to be learned from the best of the other provision models as well and bringing all the providers under one umbrella has some attraction. If the government’s inclination towards market based solutions prevails this is unlikely, however. It may also be reluctant to fund a start-up Victorian Virtual School as a separate entity with significant research and development funding, although I consider this necessary to create real transformation in this area. So it may become a question of whether or not the government is willing to lead and invest.

The absence of a broad national curriculum and a national assessment regime in the senior years means that the Australian education market lacks the scale necessary to attract much commercial investment in online school education of the type described above. But Australia should not remain isolated from the development of online curriculum and teaching for much longer. There is some level of activity in each jurisdiction in this field, although interrogation often reveals a fairly simple ‘virtual’ model which lacks interactivity. Victoria has a chance to lead and the financial capacity to do so. The question is whether it has the vision and the willingness to act.

The question of what it would take to run a successful virtual school is a good one for a future post.

Categories: Virtual Schooling

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1 reply »

  1. Dale, it appears to me that the department already has a visionary leader willing to take on and accept the challenge. Keep pushing!