In 2018, Our Lady of the Southern Cross College, in the wheatbelt of Queensland’s Darling Downs, embarked on an initiative to digitally enhance the curriculum and develop students who are digitally capable and ready for the modern workforce. The transformation to digital pedagogy, along with the strategic rollout of technical platforms, meant that staff began to shift away from operating in silos of excellence moving towards a digitally connected community of learning.
A Prep to Year 12 co-educational school in Dalby, OLSCC is a part of the Toowoomba Catholic Schools (TCS) system made up of 31 schools and colleges encompassing a large area of South-West Queensland, reaching as far as Quilpie.
As part of its transformation plans, OLSCC had issued a laptop to all years 7 to 12 students, replaced classroom technology throughout and had begun training teachers in the new learning environment, which includes the Canvas learning management system and Microsoft Teams. The integration of Canvas and Teams is providing the critical communication and collaboration glue linking teachers to one another and to students, regardless of location.
These robust digital foundations meant that when Queensland’s Premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, declared that the State’s schools would be pupil free from late March in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, OLSCC was prepped and ready to teach its 630 students remotely.
While children of essential workers were able to return to schools, the vast majority of Queensland’s schools were staffed by teachers delivering online learning to students who were studying from home.
Principal Peter Cuskelly says, “Last week I was lucky to see a video conference in Teams where the Prep teacher was talking to eight Prep students. I witnessed staff gatherings and students having the ability to talk to one another about their learning and Year 12 chemistry students, who are at a critical stage of their senior education, discovering the potential of these capabilities to learn individually and collaboratively.” Teachers are relishing the security features of Teams that make them confident about hosting secure videoconferences with one another and students.
He adds that it has also transformed the way that teachers are able to share information and insights. “It’s a particular boost for team teachers who don’t have to give up a day a week to update their teaching partner – but share information over Teams and have a chat at lunchtimes,” he says.
While the benefits are brought into sharp relief by the need to offer remote learning to students at present, Cuskelly believes there will be enduring benefits. “This makes learning available 24×7 – so if students are off at the Sunshine Coast playing touch football for a week, they will not fall behind in their learning, they simply need to vary the hours in which they commit to their learning.
This is giving us the impetus to make the change we want to become embedded in teaching practices.”
For Dr Pat Coughlan, Executive Director, Catholic Schools in the Diocese of Toowoomba, “With the recent COVID-19 pandemic we have been able to take advantage of the significant work that has been done to make technology available to our staff and students; to enable the best possible learning opportunities for students through using the online platform Teams.
Microsoft Teams provides the ability for our teachers to communicate with each other and with students in a safe videoconferencing and collaborative environment. Integration with Office 365 tools enables collaboration between staff in schools and the Toowoomba Catholic Schools Office in ways that were not previously possible.”
He adds, “TCS’s adoption of the Microsoft product suite extends to not just Teams. Our school and corporate intranets are developed using SharePoint. The Surface range of laptops are prevalent across schools and the office, and Surface Hubs are consistently used in meetings.”
The initial trigger for the introduction of Teams at OLSCC was a need to provide teachers with tools that would allow them more flexibility and spur collaboration.
Matt Hodge, Assistant Principal Senior Years explains, “We had a lot of teachers working dawn to dusk at the College because they couldn’t access what they needed at home. Through Teams, we have been able to solve that problem now – we don’t use Teams as our LMS but use it as a tool to enhance our collaboration.
Teams is fantastic – a clever piece of clay that we have been able to mould for us and our context.”
According to Cuskelly, it has transformed the way the school operates. Previously, “We could only collaborate if we spent a lot of time gathering places, people, and materials so that we could work together in a highly structured and non-trust-oriented environment. It was more about top down management – in a staffroom, around a particular issue.”
“Teams,” he says, “changing the landscape, allowing groups of people to work together when and where it suits them. The number of actual meetings here has dropped – we don’t have meeting schedules. I ask people who want meetings to send me a question on Teams Chat. I can answer that at night. We don’t need to take time out of our days – we can dedicate that to the kids.”
He adds, “I’m enjoying the engagement with Teams as an educational tool rather than as simply a business tool.”
Hodge notes that the transition to Teams has halved his email load as teachers now communicate via Teams, share information through Teams, and collaborate with one another on a series of projects.
And he says that the transition has been largely painless. “There is some 101 skills you need to learn – but once you have the basics, it’s teachers teaching each other.”
Cuskelly says that holding ‘Tech Tuesdays’ allows teachers to share information and learn from one another, while Hodge notes, “Our teachers here have rallied around this transition. When we rolled this out, they rolled with it. More collaboration, less emails and access to their files 24×7.”
The ability to use Teams to communicate was brought into sharp relief when OLSCC moved to the COVID-19-prompted remote learning model. Not only could teachers use the platform to connect with one another – they could connect to students now studying from home.
Students themselves have also been able to use Teams as a secure environment to stay in touch with one another which has proved important to feelings of isolation and vulnerability.
While some schools have sought to limit the range of technology features and functions that students can access, Hodge believes that is self-defeating. “It’s like the old YouTube debate. There’s no need to block YouTube if you teach students how to use it correctly and (equip them with) digital citizenship skills.”
Teaching digital ethics is a critical part of modern education he explains, “When they leave school and are in the big wide world no one says, ‘you can’t use YouTube’.”
Tegan Darnell is the Information Services Applications Trainer for TCS and has supported OLSCC through its digital transformation.
“The idea is that we provide support and the software and then normally, as a group, we would try to enable schools to use that in ways that suit them,” she says. “That includes freeing up access to many of the features and functions of technology that support schools as they move to offer remote learning.
With Microsoft we do not have to worry about data storage or security as we would with a number of other products. Safeguarding students whilst online is a major consideration in an increasingly digital world.”
According to Coughlan, “We consider student protection everyone’s responsibility, and that includes in an online environment. For teaching and learning, we encourage the use of tools within our Microsoft Office environment specifically for secure data encryption and for information to be stored in accordance with the Australian guidelines and legislation.”
The nationwide requirement for remote learning and the adoption of digital technology might not revolutionise teaching according to Hodge, “But it will shake it up quite a lot.”
This period of remote learning and the use of the College’s digital platforms has allowed students and staff to develop a wide range of micro-credential skills. These skills ensure that the whole OLSCC community is fully prepared for the needs of the modern workplace.
It is a clear sign that OLSCC’s digital transformation and its embrace of rich communications and collaboration through Teams is delivering on its future-ready promise to students, staff and the wider community.
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