Grampians Virtual School

Virtual, Blended Provision

What has it achieved?


Gary Schultz - 2011
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Report Prepared by
Tamara Downeythethinkingtree@bigpond.com
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INTRODUCTION
The following report outlines the leadership development context for the 2010 Baillieu Myer Rural Education Leadership Scholarship winner, Mr. Gary Schultz. It aims to promote discussion about technology in education and blended learning in schools in particular. The extension of leadership in rural education and personal professional growth made possible by the Baillieu Myer 2010 award took place within the field of blended learning. Blended learning refers to a learning environment mediated by technology where teachers use a mix of strategies in both synchronous and asynchronous modes of support and delivery. This report draws on Mr. Schultz’s professional learning experience during 2010-2011 – action research, study tour and use of research literature – to show how the meaningful inclusion of technologies into teaching and learning is creating new and significant possibilities for rural education. As Moyle (2010:5) states: “The challenges for educators in the 21st-century can be summarised as requiring fresh thinking about what is taught, how it is taught and why it is taught”. A major outcome of the professional inquiry enabled by the Baillieu Myer Award and presented in this scholarship report is validation of the idea that blended learning is a viable and meaningful educational alternative for rural students and their teachers.
Rural schools grappling with the most effective way to provide for students’ needs using learning technologies are looking for answers to at least three fundamental questions, as identified by Bosco (2010:4-5):
  • How does fostering innovation and creativity advance from being an abstract goal to a concrete reality in school programs?
  • What is a school? Is it no longer necessarily a place?
  • Can school personnel take a full measure of benefit from these [technology-based] resources to make our schools work better for our kids?
As a case study of innovation in 21st-century curriculum provision, the Wimmera Virtual School – now known as Grampians Virtual School 1 - leads the search in Victoria for answers to these questions. The following discussion concentrates on the evolution of the Grampians Virtual School (GVS) in order to share how this model of blended learning is meeting rural students’ needs effectively; in sharing evidence of this early success, the discussion also identifies areas for future research and development. The report consists of three main sections: an introductory section outlining the GVS model of virtual, blended provision as the professional learning context, an analysis and discussion section presenting a current picture of teaching and learning in a blended environment and a conclusion and recommendations section which considers the implications of this picture for the nature of teaching and learning into the future. Scholarship work during 2010-11 has concentrated on virtual, blended provision in the senior years of schooling, finding that the provision of a differentiated and somewhat self-paced, self-directed approach to teaching and learning in a blended learning environment can better engage students.
Learning with Technologies – The Grampians Virtual School
Over the past two decades, the importance to individuals and societies of including technologies into education and training at all levels has become clear. Research evidence shows that these technologies are changing the ways in which students and teachers find, create, share and gain knowledge (DEECD, 2010). In Australia and overseas, the virtual provision of education, utilising blended learning approaches, has emerged as a viable way to provide for learning in rural areas. The Grampians Virtual School has grown to suit the local situation in north-west Victoria and is currently a network of 23 schools and 200 students led by Gary Schultz as Virtual Learning Systems Project Officer. Importantly, however, technology in and of itself cannot transform learning and the GVS offers a model from which other administrators, educators and communities can learn how to assist students in the achievement of their chosen pathway in addition to traditional modes of schooling. Other models of virtual provision visited during the study tour confirm that the type of learning made possible for students in virtual learning environments represents a significant move away from traditional teaching and learning:
With developments of teaching in an online environment, I teach the kids in my face-to-face classes here at school in a more online way now, I don’t stand in front of the class and ‘teach’ hardly at all anymore. I walk around the room and they are doing the online work and I give them assistance when they require. They are usually always at different stages. I provide different levels and types of resources and activities or standards for the students to work on, they choose that which they want to do, get assistance from me when required. I try and tailor the programs to suit the needs of the individual students, they can go as far and fast as they want to go.
– Lynda Walsh-Pascoe, OtagoNet Cluster, New Zealand Virtual Learning NetworkIn the GVS, this blended model of curriculum delivery is negotiated by teachers and students to incorporate the best mix of online and face-to-face instruction. The mix is varied across the GVS depending upon personal circumstances, suitable access and subject requirements. Many definitions of blended learning abound (Watson, 2008), ranging from incorporation of some use of educational technology (e.g. interactive whiteboard) to a percentage breakdown of online curriculum and face-to-face instruction. Rather than being wholely and solely about the technology however, blended learning represents a shift in instructional strategy. “Blended learning should be viewed as a pedagogical approach that combines the effectiveness and socialisation opportunities of the classroom with the technologically enhanced active learning possibilities of the online environment, rather than a ratio of delivery modalities” (Watson, 2008:5). The breadth and diversity of blended learning approaches means the main feature of this pedagogical approach overall is its flexibility. The promise of blended learning is that it can be adapted for the type of subject, learning context and teachers and learners involved. Visiting other schools where blended learning is successfully occurring has endorsed the educational direction taken by GVS whereby technology is used by teachers to differentiate learning for students, i.e. that the learning drives the use of technology and not vice versa. 2 The mix of learning technologies used in the GVS is a combination of synchronous and asynchronous elements as illustrated in Figure 1.
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Figure 1: Components of blended learning in the GVS

In a virtual learning environment such as GVS, teachers have ‘local’ students in front of them and ‘remote’ students via video-conferencing. Other technologies such as email, learning management systems and web conferencing are used to support learning outside of the virtual synchronous class time. The use of the Moodle™ learning management system in the GVS model offers students and teachers the capacity to personalise learning opportunities and to put students in control of the pace of their learning (Moyle, 2010). Students can access content, revision notes and practice tests from remote locations, including podcasts, video footage and screencasts recorded by their teacher. Students learn through videoconferencing with teachers, and often other virtual classmates, in at least one other location. In 2011, not just point-to-point but multi-point classes are running where up to four schools are connected at the same time. It is the intention that when the Ultranet 3 can successfully link students and teachers from different schools, it will become the primary platform for online and resource sharing, providing further opportunities for collaboration across Victoria and systemic application of technological tools.

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Figure 2: Numbers of schools successful in aligning students, teachers and timetables 2009-11


Consistent with international developments in virtual provision of education (Cisco, 2010), the growth of the Grampians Virtual School since 2009 has been driven by the need to provide students with greater subject choices together with teacher and student demand and expectations surrounding the use of learning technologies (Moyle, 2009). Issues of distance and resourcing which have previously limited the breadth and quality of the curriculum offered to senior students have been overcome in the Grampians region by co-operation between schools to align timetable blockings for VCE subjects. The pattern of growth is such that more educational pathways are now available to students due to greater subject choices across the virtual learning network. 4 Figure 2 above, and Figures 3 and 4 below illustrate the growth of the GVS since 2009, showing the rise in numbers of schools, virtual classes and student enrolment.

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Figure 3: GVS student numbers 2009-11


Schools that have traditionally utilised the Distance Education Centre of Victoria (DECV) to ‘fill the gaps’ in subject provision have progressively seen the GVS model as a more attractive alternative. Figure 2 shows the number of schools fully engaged in virtual provision since 2009. Other schools that have investigated the possibility, been involved in discussions or offered subjects virtually but links could not be made across the network or no student chose this subject are not included. Due to the growing number of schools in which blended learning is occurring, increased acceptance and integration on a greater scale is envisaged. The rise in enrolments in virtual classes is comparative to that seen in the Florida Virtual School which experiences 40% increase in enrolments each year.

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Figure 4: Number of GVS classes 2009-11

The growth of the GVS is reflective of the enthusiasm by schools and students to engage in this style of provision. Such growth, however, has implications in terms of guideline development to facilitate fair and reasonable, cooperative reciprocity and sharing of resources. This is particularly important as there is no monetary exchange in the GVS model. By comparison, Florida and New Zealand models include structures of payment or agreed combinations of sharing and payment. Other factors require further consideration as well. OHS and workload guidelines that have been developed by GVS to date need further discussion, clarification and alignment to suit a wider range of school demographics. Good systems for monitoring and documenting enrolments, student progress, feedback and technical assistance for students and teachers are necessary. Whilst most of these issues have been addressed by the GVS to some degree, wider collaboration by stakeholders is required, with the possible creation of a board of management or similar made up of teachers, timetablers, Principal class and Regional representation. The learning opportunity provided by the study tour to compare and contrast different models of virtual, blended provision has confirmed that developments in Victoria are equal to, if not ahead in some respects of the virtual learning landscape in Florida, Canada and New Zealand. Examination of the educational, administrative and technological aspects associated with virtual provision internationally has generated many ideas for continued growth and improvement. Future possibilities include clustering of schools as in New Zealand whereby students across the virtual learning network express subject preferences which are matched to teacher availability rather than stand-alone schools working out links via alignment of timetables.
BLENDED LEARNING AND LEARNING OUTCOMES
Student Learning Outcomes
The greater access to educational pathways for senior students made possible by the establishment of the Grampians Virtual School entails examination of student performance in this modality. Does blended learning make a difference to student achievement? Discussion in this section of the report concentrates on the results for senior students to date using data collected in the course of scholarship work. Two main sets of data are presented: a comparison of aggregate results for GVS remote students with aggregate results for GVS local students and secondly, a comparison of results in GVS subjects with results in home school subjects on an individual student basis. In 2010, as per Figure 3 above, 26 students took GVS subjects from remote locations at Years 11 & 12 level and 65 students across the network were in virtual classes as local students (classes where the teacher was also teaching remote students). Figure 5 shows the performance of 15 of these 26 remote students in comparison with the performance of 29 of the 65 local students in 2010. Data for the entire number of students in both local and remote cohorts was unavailable at the time of writing.
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Figure 5: Comparison of 2010 subject rankings for local and remote students

Figure 5 shows that for 53% of remote students, their virtual subject was in their top three ranked subjects and for 47% of these students, their virtual subject was in their bottom three ranked subjects. Students enrolled in one virtual subject only as remote students; some students were also in a local class which was being provided to other schools virtually. For students who were in virtual classes during 2010 as local students, 55% had results in this subject in their top three rankings and for 45% of this group, the virtual subject ranked as one of their bottom three results. Comparing the performance of remote students with that of local students in this way indicates that students are not disadvantaged by taking subjects in a virtual classroom, given that student performance is roughly equal for both local and remote groups of students.
The finding that there was little difference in the ranking of subjects between students whose teacher was at a remote location compared to students whose teacher was in front of them would suggest that for students involved in blended learning, the learning is not compromised for either group. On an individual student basis, however, how does performance in GVS subjects compare with regular subjects taken in students’ home schools? Table 1 compares results for 8 of 15 Year 12 students across the virtual learning network who had taken one virtual subject each (as remote students) in 2010. Of the 26 remote students in 2010, results for those Year 12 students who had completed six VCE subjects were sought to look at performance across the broadest possible range of subjects; 15 students were in this category but data for only 8 of them was available at the time of writing.
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Table 1. Individual VCE Student Performance GVS 2010

For students 1 and 4, performance in the GVS subject is equivalent to, if not better than results in other subjects; for students 2, 3 and 6, GVS results are close to mainstream subject results and for students 5, 7 and 8 GVS performance is generally below performance in other subjects. Average results for home school subjects compared with GVS results are reasonably close in most cases. The data suggests that remote student results in virtual subjects are generally as good as those in traditional subjects or at least that blended learning is not having a negative impact on students’ learning. The data presented in Figure 5 and Table 1 are provided for discussion rather than as conclusive evidence about the impact of blended learning on student results. A larger study using more targeted research methods is required to examine the effect of blended learning on student achievement.
The above data is reported in light of the research literature concerning measurement of the value of technologies in school education. Studies over the past decade have highlighted the difficulty in demonstrating a causal link between use of technology and improved student outcomes (Moyle, 2010) and to date, “… there is no definitive correlation between increased investments in ICT and better test results” (Cisco, 2008:14). According to current New Zealand research: “Unfortunately with the tools we used, we didn't actually find significant differences in the growth as a 'learner' of the 'blended/online learners' (which I'm sure does happen when these learners are well supported) [italics his] compared to students only doing traditional face-to-face classes” (K. Pullar, 2011, personal correspondence). Clearly, further investigation is needed to fully understand the effects of blended learning. As Moyle (2008:225) states: “Little research has been undertaken to investigate the complex issue of the value of technologies in schools, but school leaders are regularly required to make pedagogical, policy, accountability, financial and infrastructure judgments about the value of teaching and learning with technologies”. The continued growth of GVS requires a larger evidence-base to show how not only access to technology but how the application of technological tools, resulting in valuable learning, can take place. The identified relationship between evidence-informed inquiry and school improvement (Timperley and Parr, 2010) reinforces the need for evidence-based decision-making: “A challenge that remains for school leaders is to identify and establish mechanisms that enable ongoing, regular easy access to data that can inform school-based decisions” (Moyle, 2008:225). It is important to note – from the experience of Grampians Virtual School and from the literature – that when technology does not produce improvements in student outcomes, it is often because the necessary conditions for the effective integration of technology, including clarity around how technology can best serve educational objectives, have not been met (Cisco, 2008).

Learning Outcomes for Teachers
For GVS teachers, the transition from traditional teaching to the different pedagogical requirements of blended teaching and learning has seen new levels of support, instruction and facilitation required of teachers. What have these changes meant for teachers and how can such achievements be evaluated? Blending physical attendance at school with online learning has obvious implications in terms of the way schools are organised, new methods of instruction and assessment, access to and development of (digital) content and professional learning but perceived barriers such as inadequate technical skills and insufficient or inferior technology in the school are less important than the teacher’s fundamental approach to the design and execution of the learning experience. For example, one GVS teacher has successfully created a learning environment for students without having the technical skills in all areas herself to complete those tasks required of students (including tasks set by students for themselves). This teacher however has the preparedness to be unafraid of the technology, seek technical help when needed, incorporate changes incrementally, accommodate disruptions that inevitably arise from using technology and most importantly, approach her teaching in such a way that she is ready to go with her students where they need to go. John Hattie’s view on what actually works in schools to improve learning is relevant here:
The message I read from the research is that blended, virtual learning is not the message – it is what is done using it in the name of teaching. It is all about the teaching. I think we spend too much energy on the medium and forget the quality of instruction that can be used using these methods. – Hattie 2011, personal correspondence.
The re-thinking of teacher practice in a virtual environment as described in the literature – from a “prescriptive” approach to a “connective” approach (Guidara, 2011) – underscores the critical importance of the teaching act first and foremost.
The increase in virtual teaching as evidenced by the growth of the GVS – 35 teachers have now taught via video conferencing and use of online tools with 17 new teachers in 2011 running virtual classes – is a strong indicator of teacher perception that this is a viable way to teach. As the extent of virtual teaching ranges from dial-in by a remote student supported by fax material to student-teacher communication via Skype® at scheduled times and recording lecture-style lessons for loading on the GVS Moodle™, teachers are finding new ways (e.g. document camera) to both communicate with and teach their students. When teachers of VCE subjects with low numbers of students can also teach virtually, this will in turn expand the capacity of GVS to meet senior students’ needs. Professional learning required to support such expansion is critical to sustained growth; as Hague and Payton identify, “… time for teachers to engage with changing practices and to connect with other practitioners to share ideas and experiences has been shown to be essential in ensuring lasting change” (2010:54). Interestingly, there has been interest in teacher expertise in the virtual use of technologies from outside the education sector; Telstra as Australia’s premier telecommunications corporation has expressed interest in learning GVS teachers’ views around the optimum conditions for teaching and communication using these technologies.
One of the issues raised in the literature is that non-traditional forms of learning are often seen as being suitable only for students with skills in areas such as self-motivation and time management. The experience of the GVS would suggest that while self-directed and self-paced learning is a reality, students still need direction and to be ‘kept on track’; the importance of synchronicity in guiding, supporting and demonstrating care for students cannot be underestimated. Students too in the learning with technologies research literature testify to the significance of “… high quality teachers who form positive relationships and can construct relevant and engaging learning contexts, with and without technologies” (Moyle, 2009). The observed benefits of blended learning evident from the current inquiry are increased student motivation to learn through self-directed and interest-focused work, personalized learning that supports different learning styles, levels and capacities and greater student control of learning. On the spectrum from fully online to fully face-to-face teaching, blended learning varies considerably in the breadth and depth to which it is utilised by teachers. The benefits of blended learning discovered through Gary Schultz’s educational leadership of GVS, observed by him here and elsewhere and confirmed in the research literature can be crystallised as follows: That the provision of a differentiated and somewhat self-paced, self-directed approach to teaching and learning in a virtual, blended learning environment can better engage students. Twelve months scholarship work in the area concludes with the related proposition that blended learning offers rural schools a huge opportunity to differentiate learning for students.


CONCLUSION
The learning opportunity afforded by the 2010 Baillieu Myer Rural Education Leadership Scholarship has enabled a significant chapter of professional growth for the recipient which has in turn contributed to the expansion of the Grampians Virtual School and a far greater understanding and appreciation across the sector of the exciting possibilities offered by virtual, blended provision for school education and rural school education in particular. Given the challenges for rural education but also the opportunities that technology brings to meet these challenges, the opportunity for leadership development in the field of blended learning has been invaluable. By looking at the evolution of the GVS model since 2009 and outcomes and issues for GVS students and teachers arising from blended learning to date, this paper has reported on the continued search for better and more effective ways to meet the needs of rural students. Discussion concludes by scanning the horizon, making the following recommendations for ongoing growth in this area. It is proposed that the extent to which blended learning has the potential to increase access to education, not just for senior students in the Grampians region but more broadly, is the extent to which:
· Stakeholders’ understanding of the relationship between equipment ‘needs’ and processes of learning in virtual, blended provision strikes a successful balance
· The need for those involved in schools to effectively support the growing number of students and teachers engaged in blended learning is met
· Teacher perception that this is a real alternative for rural students is strengthened by opportunities to build practitioner knowledge and share professional learning
· Young people in schools are given a voice about how teaching and learning that includes technologies can occur given that the potential of blended learning is not just about access to technology
· Further evaluation and research is not only conducted but is aimed at measuring the effects of the myriad types of learning that combine online and face-to-face delivery.

Because blended learning can vary in many ways, it presents a number of challenges: for research and policy, for allowing innovation in directions that may not be foreseeable at this time, for overcoming practical, technical and pedagogical issues based on old methods of teaching and learning, for the conduct of professional learning in schools. Meeting these challenges brings with it a necessity, recognised by researchers and practitioners, to reconsider the assumptions and paradigms upon which teaching and learning with technologies are based; rather than simply trying to slot technologies into a pre-existing curriculum, educators are now afforded a serious opportunity to rethink the ways in which they carry out their work (Moyle, 2010). According to the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians, “… schooling should offer a range of pathways to meet the diverse needs and aspirations of all young Australians” (MCEETYA, 2008:12); in light of the scholarship of Mr. Schultz, it is hard to see how this goal can be achieved without blended learning.




REFERENCE LIST
Bosco, J. (2010) ‘Foreword’. In Moyle, K. (2010) ‘Building Innovation: Learning with Technologies’. Australian Education Review: 56. Available: http://research.acer.edu.au/aer/10 Accessed March 9, 2011.

Cisco (2008) Equipping Every Learner for the 21st Century. Available: http://www.cisco.com/web/about/citizenship/socio-economic/docs/GlobalEdWP.pdf Accessed March 9, 2011.

Cisco (2010) The Learning Society. Available: http://www.cisco.com/web/about/citizenship/socioeconomic/docs/LearningSociety_WhitePaper.pdf Accessed March 9, 2011.

DEECD (2010) Study Tour USA and Canada Grampians Region September 6-October 13. Internal Document.

DEECD (2010) Connecting People: Digital Learning Platforms Research Series Paper No. 2. Available: http://www.education.vic.gov.au/researchinnovation/resources/recentpubl.htm Accessed March 9, 2011.

Guidara, S. (2011) Digital Age Education: Why Blended Learning Works. Centre for Strategic Education Seminar Presentation, Melbourne, March 4 2011.
Hague, C. and Payton, S. (2010) Digital Literacy across the Curriculum. Available: http://www.futurelab.org.uk/resources/digital-literacy-handbook Accessed March 9, 2011

Hattie, J.A.C. (2009) Visible Learning. Oxon: Routledge.
MCEETYA (2008). Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians. Melbourne: Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs.
Moyle, K. (2008) What is the value of educational technologies in schools?: Initial findings from the International Research Project ‘Measuring the Value of Educational Technologies in Schools’ Project. International Journal of Learning. 15:9. pp.219-226.
Moyle, K. and Owen, S. (2009) Listening to Students’ and Educators’ Voices: The views of students and early career educators about learning with technologies in Australian education and training Research Findings. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia.
Moyle, K. (2010) ‘Building Innovation: Learning with Technologies’. Australian Education Review: 56. Available: http://research.acer.edu.au/aer/10 Accessed March 9, 2011.
Timperley, H. and Parr, J. (eds.) (2010) Weaving Evidence, Inquiry and Standards to Build Better Schools. New Zealand: New Zealand Council for Educational Research Press.
Watson, J. (2008) Blended Learning: The Convergence of Online and Face-to-Face Education. North American Council for Online Learning. Available: http://www.inacol.org/research/promisingpractices/NACOL_PP-BlendedLearning-lr.pdf Accessed March 9, 2011.




1 The Wimmera Virtual School was renamed Grampians Virtual School in February 2011 to incorporate Central and Highlands networks as well as a small number of schools from Barwon South West and Loddon Mallee regions. The acronym GVS as used throughout this report refers to the operation of the school since its inception as the Wimmera Virtual School in 2009. .http://wimmeravirtualschool.wikispaces.com , Back to Body of Text
2 See Appendix 1. DEECD Grampians Region 2011 Draft Statement – Learning for All … Whatever It Takes Back to Body of Text
3 For more information about the Victorian Department of Education and Early Childhood Development’s Ultranet go to: http://www.education.vic.gov.au/about/directions/ultranet/default.htm Back to Body of Text
4 See Appendix 2. for graphic representations of the growth of the virtual learning network since 2009. Back to Body of Text