Introducing an online education platform

Effective use of technology to maximise student learning is now an important component of school strategic planning. For Kevin Richardson and his team at Immanuel College, introducing an online learning platform has been about much more than delivering curriculum content.

The customised immi platform (short for Immanuel information) allows students, parents and staff at the Year 7-12 day and boarding school in Adelaide to access a range of information, from school news, notices and reports, to class pages, assignment schedules and study resources.

‘It's not just the learning aspect. I'm looking at the wellbeing aspect, the organisational aspect, the communications – a much more holistic approach,' Richardson tells Teacher.

The principal has worked with both the New South Wales and South Australian state education departments, but he has a strong technology background having spent his early days with Apple and Microsoft. He says some schools buy a product and then try to match it to their needs. Immanuel took a completely different approach. ‘We sat down and said “what do we need for our educational needs?”, “what do we need for our business needs?” and then the third thing was “what do we need for our communication needs?”.

‘What we then did was, from a strategic planning perspective, took every application we had in our school – so, all of our data sets, all of our curriculum materials that were online, our software, all of our videos systems – and integrated them into one system.'

The aim wasn't to deliver full courses online, rather to complement the traditional school structure and classroom teaching built on face-to-face relationships. This includes giving students access to additional study materials and the ability to submit work digitally, and creating a space where teachers can collaborate, assess online and communicate with both students and parents. Integrating student data means teachers can also better analyse learning progress.

In a maths class, for example, the teacher may give a whole-class demonstration (there are interactive touchscreen TVs in all the rooms) and save it to the online system, then work with students individually. Students can use the social media stream to collaborate in class and access additional resources – such as Wootube or Khan Academy – embedded into the unit of work. The platform also provides an overview of the course structure and required learning.

Immanuel opted to go with a commercial learning management system called Schoolbox and has worked with Digistorm to build a customised app. Richardson says the school is also one of the biggest users in Australia of the online video service ClickView. ‘The last couple of years, we've embedded video conferencing and we've been building video resources. At the moment we probably use a lot of third-party resources … now we're getting teachers creating their own videos and, in some cases, students creating their own.'

There are 160 staff at the school, including 100 academic staff, and immi is now in its third year. Martyn Anderson, Director of Teaching and Learning, says the implementation has been very strategic and gradual. ‘There was real thought in terms of just working out where teachers were in this space. This wasn't the first learning management system that we'd played with, but when we introduced immi … we built little goals for each semester.

‘At first it was just about getting a class page up and then we looked at how we established the course pages, and then we moved into things like digital submission of work, and then using rubrics. So, I think one of the reasons why there's been a successful take-up of teachers is that we haven't rushed things – first they can see why we're doing this, but it's been about that slow, strategic implementation, keeping those goals, setting them up for the semester and just building it up slowly.'

Richardson says conversations with parents, teachers and students were a crucial part of the planning process. ‘We spent some time talking to students, looking at what work they were already doing online in other mediums, talking to parents about what they really wanted. … Most parents love being able to see the timetable and when all the assignments and tests are scheduled, but also love seeing the posts of the teachers.

‘We found out what worked and didn't work across other schools. We did look at some university examples, but their model is quite different from what's in high schools. I think Melbourne Girls Grammar has done some pretty amazing work in this area. I love the work (while it's not directly related) that Aurora College does in New South Wales … as well as Open Access College in South Australia. So, they're all quite different models and that's why we looked across the spectrum.'

His advice to others is to think carefully and consider your long-term strategy before making a purchase: analyse what you actually really need, then plan and implement carefully. Immanuel has a taskforce to ensure this remains a rolling activity. The three taskforce priorities for the next 12 months are to increase the use and ease and using video, provide more material for students to work independently, and integrate a new learning analytics system to give a much more individualised map of student progress and performance.

Richardson and Anderson will be sharing further details of the school's approach – including implementation, and what has and hasn't worked – at the 3rd annual Online and e-Learning Summit 2018 in Melbourne this May.

Leaders at Immanuel College spoke to staff, students and parents, and looked at what other schools were doing, as part of the planning process before introducing the online learning system.

When implementing a new system or approach: How do you assess the needs of the school community? How do these differing needs inform your long-term strategy? Do you make use of the expertise and experience of other schools?