Edtechs Blog

Edtechs Blog

Tuesday, 17 March 2020

All students could soon be learning in 'virtual classrooms'. Here's how they work

Each day in NSW, 384 school students don headsets, open their laptops and log into their virtual classroom where a teacher, working in front of a webcam in another part of the state, greets them.

The students are enrolled in Aurora College, a virtual high school established in 2015 to educate gifted students in remote parts of the state. But it could soon offer a template for how thousands receive education in coming weeks, if NSW schools are closed to stem the spread of coronavirus.

NSW Education Minister Sarah Mitchell has assured families the Education Department has contingencies in place for widespread and longer school closures, which include scaling up the Aurora model.

"Because we've got the Aurora College model, we've got subject specialist teachers who prepare lessons, record them and deliver them remotely in virtual classrooms to students," she said.

"If we need to ramp that up, that's an option that we can look at ... In fact NSW is the only state that has [that model]. We know it works well, so I think that puts us in quite a strong position should we need to go down that path."

The virtual school uses Adobe Connect to web conference, Office 365 and G-Suite for cloud-based document sharing and classwork. Teachers issue and mark homework using OneNote, where they can supervise student progress with tasks in real time.

Students can break out into smaller online discussion groups and teachers can mute the class to communicate one-on-one with a student who needs help.

Each teacher works with a headset, laptop, desktop computer, webcam and a document camera - which functions like a digital projector - but principal Chris Robertson said they could carry out most tasks with a laptop alone.

Students also have access to Oliver, a fully digitised school library whose librarian works on the NSW South Coast, and the school can reach thousands of students at a time with live streams.

Last year it reached over 25,000 primary school students during two live online presentations on eSafety, and streamed HSC workshops to 11,000 senior school students via 654 simultaneous online connections.

Mr Robertson said teachers were able to adapt to new technologies quickly by utilising online training modules on the department's website, while the school had only experienced two widespread internet dropouts.
Teachers at the Aurora main office in Lane Cove North conduct virtual classes simultaneously.

Teachers at the Aurora main office in Lane Cove North conduct virtual classes simultaneously.Credit:Kate Geraghty

A NSW Education Department spokesperson said the state's distance education platforms could similarly be extended to metropolitan areas, and the department was "developing innovative strategies to deal with the spread of COVID-19, should it further impact some schools".

These include virtual classrooms, assemblies and excursions that connect students to galleries, museums, research institutes and zoos.

The Catholic Education Diocese of Parramatta is already making use of virtual classrooms for 196 students from St Patrick's Marist College in Dundas who are self-isolating after two students were diagnosed with COVID-19.

Students are working in Google Classrooms and using Screencastify to share online tutorials. Some are also in the diocese's virtual school program, which combines 80 students across the system in online classes taught by a specialist teacher at another school.

They engage in virtual face-to-face lessons during timetabled periods using video conferencing program Zoom, and use a learning management system for homework and classwork.

"We’re early adopters of online learning technology," principal Angela Hay said. "Embracing the possibilities of online learning has meant we’re well prepared to support students who need to study at home."



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