Catholic Education WA (CEWA) fires up Teams and Office 365 for Virtual School Network, expands student opportunities

Since HG Wells first wrote The Time Machine, people have flirted with the possibilities that time travel might afford.

In Western Australia, Meredith Roe is opening up the world of time travel to students across the State. But instead of having to clamber into a machine, fire it up and relocate instantly to the town or city where their teacher is located, students simply log on and get cracking.

The virtual school program manager for Catholic Education Western Australia (CEWA), Roe leads the Virtual School Network (ViSN) which makes online courses available to school students – promoting equity of access to learning opportunities.

Now in its second year of operation, demand for the service has grown strongly. In 2018 ViSN delivered eight courses to 60 Year 11 students – this year there are 17 courses for 130 students and 22 of CEWA’s 42 secondary schools are involved, up from 13 last year.

Research[1] reports that online learning outcomes do not differ markedly from face to face learning. For CEWA it means that smaller, regional or remote schools, that may not have the resources to teach a broad range of subjects, are able to tap into the State-wide teacher network to offer additional subjects online. This type of shared network also supports students who may be unwell and unable to attend classes, or who are engaged in elite athletic programs that make timetabling complicated.

At the same time, it prepares senior students for the sort of blended learning they might encounter in tertiary education.

CEWA’s overall digital transformation, called LEADing Lights, provides enterprise-grade toolsets and services that bring together 162 primary and secondary schools into a single, unified digital platform. CEWA chose the Microsoft stack as its foundational technology because of its flexibility, scalability, first-class security and dependability.

Microsoft’s Azure Cloud Service and Office 365 serve as the foundation for CEWA’s ViSN program. Roe has eschewed a formal Learning Management System (LMS) primarily due to cost and the complexity that can introduce, instead leveraging Office 365 and Microsoft Teams to create the network and promote communication and collaboration.

“Microsoft Teams is our hero tool,” says Roe. “LEADing Lights has enabled schools to work collaboratively using a single platform. This has enabled our ViSN program to flourish in a short amount of time. Using tools like Teams and OneNote has also made more efficient our teacher workflows and made the student experience much richer.”

For smaller schools this approach promises significant savings – there is no longer a need to hire expensive specialist teachers for small cohorts of students – instead expert teachers can be leveraged in an online environment in a more cost-effective manner.  This allows a school the possibility of serving the learning needs of just one or two students for specialized courses.

What is ViSN?

Meredith Roe (MR): ViSN offers senior secondary courses like in a traditional school but fully online for five periods a week. The teacher is also timetabled for five periods – but they are not synchronous. Students and teachers come together once a week through Teams – but for the other periods they are working independently  or collaboratively through lessons designed in OneNote – and the Class Notebook resides in Teams. If they have questions, they can flip them to the teacher in Teams, or ask their peers and we also have the potential to develop bots in Teams to help students.

Why did you develop ViSN?

MR: It was born out of a need to provide access to ATAR courses in remote parts of WA. If you have only 15 students in Years 11 and 12 in one school you can’t have that many specialist teachers. There is a Government online program but it is expensive for private and independent schools and so not very sustainable. We also have a really big focus on relationships because we believe that when you have strong relationships between students and teacher you get a great connection, and with a great connection you get great collaboration. Teams gives us the flexibility to collaborate in one spot.

What are the mechanics of this?

MR: Students must be enrolled in a CEWA school – they may study in the library or a quiet room, and each school with ViSN students has a mentor – more of a guide than a subject matter expert.

Schools that provide a teacher for a ViSN course get 15 free enrolments in any ViSN course that we offer. We spend a year with the teachers training them on how to use the tools, deliver classes, encourage collaboration and we have developed a bespoke program around that teacher training.  In return for the teacher’s involvement the school gets 15 free enrolments in any ViSN course that we offer.

Schools that don’t have a participating teacher can still enroll students in ViSN for a fee which is about half of the Government online courses.

And the underlying technology?

MR: We don’t use an LMS or student information system. We use Office 365 in very creative ways to meet the same functions. The problem with LMSs is they are very top-down, lecturers to students; very clunky for students to communicate – we stayed away from that. Instead we love Forms and Teams and we are refining some processes through Flow.

There is a lot of interest globally in what we are doing because the LMS is what makes online learning expensive and prevents flexibility in the online environment.

How do you engage the students?

MR: This year we ran a camp for ViSN students at the start of Semester 1 to bring the students together – and those that could not attend were Skyped in by their teacher. We had a study skills session, some practicals and a session on digital distraction and strategies around that. Hopefully by getting to meet people face to face it will make them more comfortable in the online environment.

What next?

We are unveiling a new ‘playlist approach’ to teacher professional learning this year, to better meet the diversity of online teacher development needs.  This personalized approach for teachers means they can plan for and implement an annual learning program that supports the growth of their own skills, which will also benefit students they teach.  Teams, OneNote, Stream and other 0365 tools will be used to deliver this learning, so teachers will also benefit from an online experience related to that of their students.

We also have plans afoot to partner with several external organizations this year, to provide support for students with special educational needs in regional, rural and remote locations across the state, and to provide online experiences that will support transition to post-secondary options.  These will be a first for online learning in WA so it’s exciting to be working alongside leaders on these projects who are committed to accessibility, diversity and equality for all students.

We also need to ensure ViSN is sustainable – it has grown really quickly and we need to make sure we can sustain that while going through more growth, to continue meeting the needs of our students.

[1] https://www.sri.com/sites/default/files/publications/effectiveness_of_online_and_blended_learning.pdf

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