From its inception, Victoria’s Nossal High School has been a trailblazer. The State’s first fully academically selective co-educational Government high school is continuing that tradition, deploying digital solutions that allow remote teaching and learning.
Besides allowing students and teachers to cope with situations where it might not be possible for students and/or teachers to physically attend school, Nossal’s digitally delivered learning events also equip students with the skills and experience that will be valuable when they enter university and come face to face with blended learning, or join the workforce and have the opportunity to adopt flexible working practices.
Nossal runs five scheduled digital delivery events through the year and has the option to use the capability in an ad hoc fashion as required. Teachers either teach live from the school or offer asynchronous learning modules to ensure that students become comfortable with both modes of learning.
A year ago the approach was stress tested when a backhoe cut through the school’s optical fibre connection to the internet. Teachers however were able to go home, access the internet there, and deliver classes to students without interruption.
Nossal’s director of digital development and innovation, Stuart Fankhauser, who is also a physics teacher, helmed the initiative to deploy Office 365 and replace the effective, but quite costly Blackboard learning management system with Microsoft Teams. He says that both O365 and Teams have been well received by teachers and students alike – but he acknowledges that there are subtle differences when it comes to teaching online rather than face to face.
“Teachers won’t pick up a raised eyebrow or quizzical look – the kids have to be more proactive,” about engaging with teachers during a digitally delivered lesson, he says. The chat and collaboration features of Teams has been a great help – allowing students to raise issues or questions at any time.
During Nossal’s team teaching sessions there are often two teachers engaged online – one to manage the Teams channel and another to deliver the content to a combined class of 52 students. Fankhauser notes though that even for a single teacher class, it is possible to manage both comments and content and explains that the school has gamified Teams to some extent in order to keep notifications and alerts to manageable levels for all users.
The digital delivery events have been running at the school for the last six years and have been very useful on occasions when teachers have, for example, broken a leg and been unable to attend school – but can still deliver lessons to their class. Similarly, during recent bushfires when Fankhauser could not physically get to school, the digital delivery allowed teaching and learning to continue uninterrupted.
In his website welcome to Nossal High, the principal Roger Page notes that the school’s “Buildings are high tech. and ICT rich, mirroring features and approaches usually found in universities.”
It’s an approach increasingly attracting attention from other schools and the Education Department itself according to Fankhauser. In particular he notes; “The Department is quite interested in our approach to get continuity of services for a real emergency.”
Face-to-face learning replicated online
As one of just four academically selective schools in Victoria, Fankhauser notes that the Nossal student cohort of 832 students spanning years 9-12 is academically gifted and talented. Nossal still has teaching challenges – but different challenges than many other high schools might face.
“This is all about dealing with very highly motivated students, about making sure the pedagogy is top notch. We have students who put themselves under a lot of pressure to achieve,” Fankhauser says, adding that the vast majority of Nossal students go on to tertiary education.
While they are at school their reports are not graded and the school avoids numbered marks, preferring instead to deliver feedback to encourage a learning growth mindset.
Office 365, OneNote and Teams provide the digital foundations to support that flow of rich insight between teacher and student. In addition, students and staff have dedicated stylus-enabled devices to allow them to take full advantage of OneNote and for students to be able to easily share their work with teachers.
“We wanted a project-based communications system. Teams also gave us the opportunity to centrally manage all our OneNote digital assets. That makes it easy for teachers to move from one course to a new course – we can import a course into a new area and don’t have to start from scratch,” he says.
At the same time Teams’ and Microsoft School Data Sync has allowed Nossal to replicate face-to-face learning structures in an online setting. “For the last two-and-a-bit years we have been using Teams for everything and it hasn’t skipped a beat – it’s made life so much more efficient,” he adds.
Behind the scenes the school did perform a good deal of planning – working out the Teams channels it would use, and how to handle content management to reduce the risk of duplication and to streamline workflows. The students are also given considerable freedom in terms of how they can use Teams, for example having free chat access. Fankhauser says; “The only thing we remove is their ability to throw people out of group conversations – everything else is quite open.”
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