At Virtual School Victoria, teachers are accustomed to building relationships with students and families who have to learn from home.
As schools all over Victoria scrambled to come to terms with teaching remotely, one school was better placed than most to deal with the COVID-19 lockdown. Virtual School Victoria, previously Distance Education Centre Victoria, is well-accustomed to dealing with students who can’t be in the same room, due to medical, geographical or other reasons. Science teacher and Year 8 coordinator Jordan Anderson says he has nothing but admiration for educators rapidly coming to terms with the unique challenges virtual learning presents.
“It’s hard for me to imagine what it must be like for mainstream school at the moment,” Jordan says. “I can’t imagine trying to do all the things that I’ve learned in five years in a few weeks.”
When there isn’t a pandemic, a typical day at Virtual School Victoria starts with responding to emails received overnight from students and their carers, many of whom might be in a different timezone. Throughout the day, the campus’s 200 teachers swap between running online classes, marking work and making phone or video calls to students and their families. About half of the school’s 4000 students are VCE students doing one or two subjects not offered by their usual school. The rest, those in junior school, attend remotely full time. As with any school, pastoral care takes up a large part of the day, but the virtual setting provides unique challenges.
“A lot of our enrolments are students who haven’t had the best experience at a mainstream setting,” Jordan says. “There are students who just want a social connection and a chance to get on with their learning without the things that might have hindered them at mainstream school.”
But how do you build that social connection when your only interaction is via a screen?
“We do spend a lot of time on that relationship development with the students. We have learning advisors, which are essentially home-group teachers for small groups of students, who build those bonds and do those everyday communications with the students, but then we have classroom teachers who also work on building those relationships and making the classroom a communal place, not just where you go to listen to the teacher talk.”
This need for a communal place drove the centre’s shift from distance education to virtual schooling, as new technology made it possible for a class of students to gather together in an online setting and to see the same faces every day.
Even though it’s online, they get to see that they’re not learning alone. They’re learning with other young people. They’re miles apart yet all kind of sitting next to each other.
“Even though it’s online, they get to see that they’re not learning alone. You have to work towards getting the most from the chances you have to interact with students and their families. They may not be in the physical room with you, but we do get to know their personalities and what makes them the young people they are, and that’s extremely rewarding.”
Jordan facilitates a weekly games club, where students can get together, play games and socialise outside the virtual classroom. The forum allows them to poke fun at each other and, as a crucial bonding exercise, their teacher. Fellow teacher Sam Ellis says the virtual environment actually makes it easier for some students to socialise.
“Some of the pressure of being in the room is taken away,” Sam says. “It gives students levels of engagement or levels of visibility so they’ve got some control. They can switch off their web cam or their microphone. They can choose to chat.”
That technology is a double-edged sword, however.
“Sometimes teachers think it’s so much more straightforward not having to stand in front of a class and manage the students,” Jordan says. “In a normal classroom, you’re the presenter and the actor. At virtual school, you also have to be the director. You choose what they look at. If you show them something that’s not interesting, they’re gonna switch straight over to Minecraft.”
The nature of the virtual classroom also makes it easier for disengaged students to fly under the radar.
“You really do actively need to be looking at which names aren’t popping up, which students haven’t responded. Sometimes it’s about getting that student who’s a bit anxious about class to learn how to privately message you, so no one else can see it and so they’re still involved.”
Another key challenge is learning to manage parents who might find the virtual schooling system confusing or even confronting.
“The parental ability with technology is a huge factor,” Sam says. “When parents and learners are encountering new learning platforms or video conferencing or new communication systems, some of them take to it immediately. Some of them never want to use it ever again. Acknowledging the challenges that they are experiencing is very important.”
Jordan says that, while some might imagine a virtual school means less interactions with parents, the reverse tends to be true.
“I probably talk to the parents more than I could imagine would be possible in mainstream school because most of the communication you do with a student is essentially the parent as well. And we also have family group conversations on WebEx, just to get to know the parents.”
While some parents and students take a while to get used to communication that isn’t face-to-face, Sam says being restricted to talking through a screen can mean that communication is actually a little more direct. When you can’t rely on conveying meaning through body language, tone or, perhaps, a disdainful look – all important tools in a teacher’s utility belt when it comes to corralling a class – you have to actually say what you mean.
“I think Victoria is, as a whole, in a tremendous time of change in education, even before the coronavirus happened.”
“We can learn a lot from stand-up comedians, who know that the way to win back a crowd is to address what’s going on,” Sam says. “You acknowledge the reality of what is occurring and you say it out loud; say, ‘This conversation has gotten off topic, as much as I’m enjoying it’, or ‘ I think that some people here are being very quiet’. Or ‘I’ve been doing too much talking, haven’t I?’ ‘Oh, this is really annoying, isn’t it, with all these technological problems?’”
Both Sam and Jordan have been working at the virtual school for four or five years now and have developed a keen interest in helping other teachers make the most of emerging teaching tech. The pair recently started a series of webinars on the subject, which became unexpectedly topical as Victorian schools made the sudden leap to remote learning. Although there’s a perception that younger teachers are better placed to adjust to the virtual environment, Jordan says that collaboration between the generations is key.
“Teaching online requires that basic pedagogical skill that is getting students engaged in good work. Around the school, there’s a lot of collaboration with younger staff helping older staff to figure out technology, but also the older staff training the younger staff on how to be excellent teachers.”
The virtual school environment is unique in that, working side by side at their desks, teachers often have a chance to overhear each other’s lessons.
“The best learning experiences you can have as a teacher is to sit next to a range of people, where every day you get to hear what they’re doing with those students. The rate of improvement is quite high, because you get those chances to have those real, deep, meaningful discussions about pedagogy.”
That collegiate environment is evident in the school’s thriving sub-branch, of which both Jordan and Sam are active members.
“I think Victoria is, as a whole, in a tremendous time of change in education, even before the coronavirus happened,” Sam says. “Which makes these local branches very important. They’re also really one of the few forums outside of formal staff meetings where teachers can just get together and have a good old whinge or celebrate things.”
Sam says he hopes the current pandemic – and the resultant struggle many teachers have had adjusting to an unfamiliar form of learning – will lead to some positive and lasting shifts in how we think about the future of education.
“I think the real purpose of education is to challenge the comforting stories and to dare to encounter the unfamiliar. And, in doing that, to encounter frustration. Hopefully, the real lesson of overcoming the technological barrier is that you can solve problems.”