What virtual schools can teach us about the benefits of online learning

What virtual schools can teach us about the benefits of online learning

Victoria’s largest school has more than 5,000 students, and they all study online. So what does their experience reveal about the possibilities of virtual learning?

Online teaching and learning expert Michael Phillips outlines his latest research findings.

Teaching is a sophisticated profession. It requires teachers to apply their knowledge and skills to maximise learning for all students. These do not necessarily translate easily into an online environment.

Researchers from Monash University have been working in partnership with 20 schools in Melbourne and regional Victoria to investigate what effective online teaching and learning really looks like.

This includes Victoria’s largest school Virtual School Victoria, a fully online school with students enrolled from Foundation to Year 12.

Here are five things that really stood out.

1. Virtual schooling offers opportunities for students who would otherwise miss out

From an elite athlete who is training for the Olympics to a student suffering from chronic fatigue, virtual schooling offers education for students who can’t attend face-to-face schools.

Virtual schooling, when delivered by qualified and highly-effective online teachers, provides equity and opportunity for students who would otherwise miss out. It is a vital part of the Australian education system.

“There are so many students who just don’t function well in what we call mainstream schooling. Virtual environments give them options which they don’t get anywhere else.” – Peter Read, Leading Teacher - Student Engagement, Virtual School Victoria.

captionVirtual schooling provides equal opportunity for students who would otherwise miss out.

2. Establishing safe online spaces

Teacher education has not prepared the majority of the teaching workforce to be able to teach effectively online. Classroom techniques – for example, the use of visual and auditory cues to understand how well students are progressing on a task – can be lost online.

Students can be muted, have their cameras off or be in break out rooms. This fundamentally changes how teachers can work online, deliver content and create safe learning environments. For music teacher John Bartley, establishing relationships is vital.

“Coming into an online setting kids are unsure of what to do. They need reassurance that this is doable, this is achievable and that someone is going to help them. Not that feeling of when you log in and you’re just working on your own.”

Need caption here...
Teachers from virtual schools are quite adept at creating a safe environment for students to learn in.

3. Bridging the city-country education divide

Virtual schooling bridges the education gap for rural and regional students who want to continue their education – and to complete subjects that would otherwise be impossible for them to do face-to-face. For example, students can do VCE Japanese from rural communities who don’t have a high school, let alone subject offerings. This is something teachers working in online schools are passionate about.

“It’s really important. I live in regional Victoria. I’m very passionate about life in the regions and I think that those students deserve every chance they can get.” – Mark Woodroffe, Physics Teacher, Bendigo Senior Secondary College and the Victorian Virtual Learning Network.

4. Teaching skill sets are very different

Our research project analysed over 500,000 words of interview data with experienced online educators. They all work full-time in online schools. Nine elements were identified as important for working as an online teacher.

Using a process called Epistemic Network Analysis (ENA) we were then able to map how each of these different elements related to each other. What you see below is typical of the interconnected and sophisticated thinking that was required.

Diagram of skills of teachers who work in virtual learning environments
Diagram 1: A network of skills observed in teachers working in online schools.

In contrast, teachers who are new to this style of teaching – and who work in schools new to virtual schooling – make different connections. Simply taking what you do in the classroom and replicating it online can lead to impoverished learning experiences for students.

Diagram of skills observed in teachers who came to virtual learning environment from a standard face-to-face classroom
Diagram 2: A network of skills observed in teachers who are new to online teaching environment.

5. Virtual schooling makes education more accessible

There are many reasons why students cannot attend school. They may have experienced family violence and be affected by trauma or may not function well in mainstream school.

It can offer personalization for students of what they learn, when they want to learn it, and also allows students to have more flexibility. John Bartley says, “they can learn in a better way that suits them.”

Virtual schooling also helps disengaged or disadvantaged students get a legitimate pathway to complete VCE  – even if it’s a four-year program rather than two, says Sara Tacey, head of English at Virtual School Victoria.

“These are students who a few years ago may not have even though this was possible. Or even three months ago at their previous school and things weren't’ working.

“It’s about the kids. And if they can get out of the year with VCE, that’s what’s important. It gives them a concrete qualification. It gets them a pathway in life.”

Need caption here...
Virtual schooling enables students with disabilities to learn at their pace and succeed.