Virtual Schooling

Virtual School: How and Why

My last post – Victoria Needs a Virtual School – generated a series of questions to which I have responded below from the perspective of my own opinion and experience and the work of the Victorian Virtual Learning Network.

1. Asynchronous v synchronous delivery
The model I advocate is asynchronous i.e. students can access their course anywhere at any time. This provides the greatest access and allows students to fit their online subject in around the other school based commitments. The great downfall of synchronous delivery, such as video conferencing, is that the online teacher is typically teaching his/her own class in one school and delivering to others at the same time. Students thus need to be free of timetable constraints at their own school at that time. If you interrogate the number of ‘remote’ students in current video conferencing models that’s the reason they’re fairly small for each subject – it’s too hard to align timetables across multiple schools.

2. Synchronous support
Once the content is created for an asynchronous course (see below) the next step is to put in place some synchronous support in the form of an online teacher. The teacher will use one or more tools to run regular tutorials to supplement the asynchronous course; most of the software packages used for this purpose will also record the session for students who might not be free at that time. The teacher also makes themselves available for one on one Q&A with students.

3. Content is king
Successful online or blended delivery depends on high quality content. It’s not as simple as collecting existing resources and threading them together to make a course. The VCE, and its equivalents in other states, have clearly defined curriculum and specific assessment needs. So the Khan Academy, for example, might be useful for helping students to understand some concepts but it will be of limited use to a VCE student who needs to learn in context.

Similarly, you can’t create a quality course by using links to external content which you don’t own or control. Link rot and maintenance become major issues. The most celebrated of the virtual schools is probably the Florida Virtual School. While they also function as a franchise providing content to other US states, their courses are useless for us here as some people have found out to their great disappointment.

It’s a mistake to think that teachers will create this content in addition to their other day to day work. It takes considerable time and expertise and therefore cost.

Our research and experience tells us that you need to aggregate the development of online content. There is an advantage in creating an incubator for the development of online courses, learning and expertise is shared. On the other hand there are great risks with spreading this work out too thinly because mistakes are repeated and it becomes more difficult to ensure course development meets the required standards.

In the model we are using at present we have around 15 staff involved in the development or delivery of online VCE courses. So far all the development has been done in Bendigo but in order to get the best minds involved it’s logical that we will look in future to engage with experts in other schools who will be better placed to create some courses than we are.

Delivery of courses, on the other hand, can occur from anywhere once the course is created. In 2014, for example, we will have an online teacher working from home down along the Surf Coast.

4. Delivery platform
Critical issue. There are many platforms out there suitable for online delivery such as Blackboard. Our Victorian Virtual Learning Network model uses Moodle which is free and open source and contains a range of tracking tools which allow our online teachers to monitor student work and assessment.

There was a mistaken belief that the Ultranet would be the platform for online delivery. It wasn’t designed for this purpose and had little of the functionality needed for this task.

5. Handling assessment
VCE assessment is a combination of school based assessment moderated by external assessment i.e. an exam. I imagine school based assessment could be handled in several ways; our method is to have school assessed coursework (SACs) completed under supervision in the home school and them scanned and emailed or snail mailed to the online teacher. The development of online assessment within the VCE, flagged by Minister Dixon recently, would be a boon for online delivery.

Pracs in subjects like Physics and Chemistry, by the way, are managed in the home school under the direction of the online teacher. Our online teachers have also found several or developed excellent simulations for many science activities.

6. Relationships
Important to success on three levels. Good teachers develop positive relationships with students and the same is true in an online environment. In our program our teachers use Skype alongside other tools to create dialogue with students and our teachers pay at least one visit to each school they service which helps to build on relationships formed online and in induction sessions.

Secondly, each school enrolling students in an online model should be providing support through a single key contact. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a teacher but needs to liaise with the online teacher and administrators to address any issues which arise and provide support when it’s necessary.

Finally, a good online model will create learning communities among the students studying in each class. It should not be teacher in one place delivering to many individual students in many different locations. Students need to feel that they’re part of something and have opportunities to engage with others in their class.

If I had the funding I’d run a start of year conference for all online students and staff.

7. Isn’t all this expensive?
Yes and no. The creation of high quality content is expensive. But if you scrimp at this end you compromise the learning experience for students. Each of the two-year VCE courses created  under our model has cost around $200,000 to develop. The course also needs ongoing refreshment. But this becomes a bit more affordable if you think in terms of the number of students who might access the course and the number of years over which this might occur.

The cost of delivery – the online teacher time – also needs to be factored in. An online teaching workload is quite different to a face to face load with the complexities including the number of students and subjects being taught and their locations.

On the other hand, online delivery of the VCE will generate significant savings in schools. If you look at small rural schools you will find many delivering VCE subjects to classes of five students and sometimes less. If a VCE class is 20% of a teacher’s allotment and their salary is $75,000 then each subject is costing $15,000 to deliver. Where schools can do this for classes of 20 students or more the cost per student per subject is less than $1000. But in many small schools the cost can be five or six times this amount. If the same subject can be taken online the school stands to save considerable money, which can then be put back into other programs or the provision of more curriculum breadth.

The challenge is how to turn the savings at the level of the individual school into a funding formula which supports the development and delivery of online courses. The inclination is to say ‘user pays’ but it’s not always that simple. I argue that the government should view this as an equity issue and be prepared to make an investment in a Victorian Virtual School. The functions for such an entity would include the development of digital content, its delivery and professional support for teachers. I consider there are also commercial opportunities for such an entity which might offset the cost to government. Think, for example, what some students and families might be prepared to pay for access to a complete online VCE course even without the support of a teacher – an online tutor or elaborated textbook if you like.

I think that an initial investment of somewhere around $4m would allow the development of up to 25 VCE subjects which could then be made available across Victoria. Delivery and ongoing R&D could be covered through user charges and a recurrent budget of less than half that amount. It’s a pittance in the overall size of the education budget, particularly given the current allocations for rurality and small school size and the prospect of additional funds through Gonski.

8. What about MOOCs?
Probably irrelevant for schools at present, MOOCs are currently a higher education phenomenon. I am not sure what their future holds, surely every university is grappling with the question of how to make a dollar rather than just giving away their content for free. As an aside, they are also probably grappling with the question of how to get their delivery at least partly online in a way which adds value to the experience they provide for students. Not easily done in a university environment.

9. Blended delivery?
What I’m describing as online delivery above might be called blended delivery by others. It’s a complete online course supported by an online teacher. If both the course and the teacher are exceptional then this might provide a better learning experience and results for students than they’d get face to face. But it’s not an engagement tool. Students need to be motivated, capable and organised.

You’ll find any number of definitions of blended learning. I see a continuum with traditional face to face teaching at one end and fully online delivery with no personalised support at the other. In between there are myriad possibilities.

10. What does the evidence say about results?
The best place to look at present is the USA where there has been explosive growth in online delivery driven by several factors, some of which such as credit recovery and advanced placement courses which are probably not highly relevant to the Australian setting. But there is now a lot of research emerging through organisations such as the Evergreen Education Group and the Sloan Foundation which suggests that students do at least as well through blended learning as they do face to face. We maintain contact with iNacol which provides links to a range of research and other useful information.

Our Victorian Virtual Learning Network model is too young to see much statistically valid data based on student results. But other organisations such as the the Distance Education Centre of Victoria and the Victorian School of Languages produces results which indicate that students can certainly achieve very high results through distance and online education. To take the next step to the type of model I have described above we need to build the integrity of our model in the eyes of parents and students and the best way to do this is to produce results.

11. Is this really a question of equity?
It certainly is. Not every student has access to the same VCE curriculum opportunities in Victoria and the places where access is likely to be most limited are rural areas and those in population decline. It’s clear there is significant demand from students for subjects in the areas of mathematics and sciences and also languages. But that’s just what students know they’re missing out on or their school can’t provide. I consider there’s also significant latent demand – students in many schools wouldn’t even know that some VCE subjects exist because their school never offers them.

12. Will the government move?
I don’t know. Over the last five years I’ve prepared several papers and made numerous presentations to ministers and departmental officers on this matter as well as sharing our work and my views internationally. I think that the state is closer now than ever to establishing a Victorian Virtual School, which is good because for a number of years I don’t think they understood what was happening in this space. I suspect they’ll move cautiously and view this as a component of a wider piece of work for them in terms of digital learning. Money is tight and I don’t get a sense this will be a funding priority in 2014. But it is an election year.

Categories: Virtual Schooling

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