Teaching Methods: Blended learning at the School of Now

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Hello, from Teacher magazine I’m Jo Earp and welcome to this episode of Teaching Methods. We’re talking about blended learning. It’s an approach adopted by the School of Now – that’s a program launched in 2019 to broaden subject choice for students from two schools in the Catholic Education Diocese of Parramatta, New South Wales, and connect them with expert teachers. It’s grown since then of course, and it’s fair to say it came into its own during the COVID-19 school shutdown. My guest is Maura Manning, Director of Learning in the diocese. We’ll be talking about how the blended learning model operates at the School of Now, what it means for teachers and teaching, the focus on equity of access, and how students are supported – both online and at their home schools. So, let’s get started.

Jo Earp: Hi Maura, thanks for joining Teacher, it’s great to speak to you. School of Now had a big impact during the COVID-19 pandemic, but it was actually developed for a different reason wasn’t it?

Maura Manning: It was yeah, we had students commence in the School of Now in 2019 and I guess the reason it came to be was that we had two high schools that were moving from being [Year] 7-10 high schools to being 7-12 high schools. When a school is just starting out it’s sometimes hard to get the breadth of subject choice that would be available in an established school. So, we had the idea to start School of Now as a way to support those schools as they added 11 and 12 and to ensure that the kids had the full suite of subject choices.

And I think, as well, what it provided for us was an opportunity for us to share some of the expertise that was already in existence in our more established high schools, and to make sure that those students in the newer high schools had the access to those expert teachers and the years of wisdom in teaching those Stage 6 courses.

JE: So I’m thinking about the access to expert teachers, you mentioned there about setting up new schools and how important that is for students, but one thing actually is having that access to expert teachers for colleagues as well – I guess that’s really important isn’t it?

MM: Definitely, definitely, and I think in some of the more specialised courses at the high level in Stage 6, the expertise required to teach them at the depth that is needed to ensure the kids achieve those great results, it’s pretty hard to find, it’s pretty specialised. And I think you’d find, in our School of Now the subjects tend to be those smaller candidature, very specialised subjects – like the Extension Maths and English courses, Engineering studies, things like Information Processes and Technology – it’s pretty hard to staff those, I can say quite honestly. And I think that, you know, I speak as someone who’s tried to do this in schools myself, that when you get a great teacher who’s teaching one of those specialised subjects you kind of fight tooth and nail to retain that teacher. And the beauty of School of Now is that the home school gets to retain that teacher and benefit from the wisdom that has accumulated there, but we also get that opportunity to be sharing it with new schools, but also with new teachers who can be almost riding along with the students in that way and learning how to teach those high level classes.

JE: Yeah, and as we mentioned, not limiting the subject choice then for the students as well. So the School of Now model, just to explain to listeners, it’s a blended approach to learning isn’t it. So that means in this case there’s a mix of: lessons being delivered online in real time; you’ve got students who can also access those lessons on demand when they need to, when they want to, (and presumably there’s an archive of materials there, and we might want to touch on that); and then there’s a traditional face-to-face teaching element as well. Can you explain a bit more about how this blended learning approach works?

MM: I feel really fortunate because I’ve come into Parramatta and got to be part of this process, but I think the thing that makes School of Now really special is that blended approach. So, we’re using an online platform, or a learning management system called Canvas, where all of the resources and the assessments [are], and it’s really the portal entry way into the courses. And through that we also have links through to Zoom where the expert teachers are working with the kids in real time in Zoom discussions. So, it’s timetabled like another class, and the kids connect together at the same time so they have that opportunity to collaborate and establish relationships. And then there’s also the asynchronous learning that happens, where the students have all of the resources; as you said they’re curated in Canvas and they can access those when needed and revisit them, and every lesson is recorded, so they can also go back and re-listen to anything that’s been explained. So it’s a pretty comprehensive way of organising the learning for the students.

I think the other really great strength of how we’re going about organising the School of Now is that all of the students have the expert teacher who they’re accessing through Canvas, but the way we’ve designed it is that every student also has a mentor teacher at school, who’s working with them to make sure they’re on track, checking in with them, clarifying questions, helping connect them to whatever support they need to really be successful in that class. And I think that’s one of the things that’s the real point of difference for us in School of Now, because everybody knows that there have been online courses for quite some time now, but I think this really thoughtful design that has that mentor teacher at school is what’s the real kind of magic of the School of Now.

And I think that also one of the things that we’re just starting to learn the power of really is that Canvas as a tool enables terrific sort of line of sight and tracking and ways for the teachers – the expert teacher as well as the mentor teacher – as well as the student and, potentially, the student’s parents, to wrap around and see how the student is travelling. So, it’s not a set and forget sort of model where you just think ‘oh, it’s up there online, the kids can access it when they want to’, it’s very much a proactive, transparent model that assists the kids really to be successful in that learning.

One of the great things about School of Now is that it enables equity of access for students. It shouldn’t matter where a kid goes to school, in terms of what opportunities are available to them, or the level of expertise that their teachers have. So School of Now levels the playing field, it makes access equitable and it makes opportunities to engage with teachers with proven results and expertise available to those kids.

JE: I was reading that the online lessons, there are those that are delivered at fixed times throughout the week and then there are learning activities in between. So, like you say, it’s something that isn’t just done and then forgotten about, there are learning activities in between these sessions, so there’s ongoing feedback and there’s support from expert teachers, you’ve got the mentor teachers checking that they’re on track as well. So, that sounds like a really complete model there. I’m just wondering, the expert teachers you mentioned, they’re able to stay at their home school (for want of a better phrase). So, just picturing how it works, would they teach in front of a normal class at their home school then, and then is that also connected to students online? How does that work?

MM: Well, they would be teaching in front of a class in their home school, but not for their School of Now class – it’s actually timetabled like a separate class. So, even if they had students at their school who were engaging in that learning, they would be engaging by way of Canvas to keep that kind of equity of access for all of them. And I guess that’s the thing is that these expert teachers, even if they might be teaching one class in School of Now, they’d still have the rest of their teaching load in their regular school; so they don’t exclusively teach in School of Now.

I think one of things too, I forgot to say before in terms of the structure, is that we also have opportunities throughout the term for the students to come together for day-long discussions, or day-long interactions, practical elements of the courses where they come together with the expert teacher across the schools in a central place – usually at CathWest Innovation College – where they get that opportunity to have the face-to-face learning, as well as the experience they have through Canvas.

JE: We’ve mentioned there that the online aspect means that Stage 6 expert teachers at different schools can reach more students, so you can use that knowledge and make more of an impact. How did you go about selecting the teachers then to take part? Did you start with subject areas you knew that you wanted to broaden access to? Did you start with the teachers?

MM: That’s a great question. It’s actually a very rigorous process that my colleague Gavin Hays [Learning Leader] embarks on each time. So, the starting point really was: What were the courses that the students at those two high schools I first mentioned, what would that school not be able to run? So, they’re small candidature courses. What Gavin then did is he looked down across all of our other high schools and looked for patterns where we had sustained high performance in those small candidature courses. And from there he then made an approach to those principals of those schools to say ‘look, you’ve got a sustained high performance in this particular subject, we’re hoping to offer it in School of Now, might you be willing to have your teacher (who’s already sustained these results) teach within the School of Now?’. And in most instances, in fact I think in all instances, our principals were honoured, felt quite chuffed to be asked, that they were being recognised for this high performance.

From there, once the principal said yes, Gavin makes the approach to the individual teacher, explains the proposition, invites them to participate in the course. Again, generally, it’s met warmly by the teachers because again it’s a bit of a pat on the back to say ‘look, we see you and we know that you’re getting great results and we want to make your expertise available to more students’. And from there we then negotiate with the school to give the teacher certain allocation that enables them to design the learning for the course and then to deliver the course. So it’s a little bit in excess of what a teacher would get for a regular face-to-face class that they have in their own school, because we recognise that it’s complex to get the course up onto Canvas and to do the thinking and the learning that’s involved to move what they’ve done for years, in most instances, online.

And so we’ve been really careful and systematic about how it is we’ve invited those teachers in and really wrapped around them with professional learning to make sure that as they move their course online it is rigorous and abides by, or represents the very best that is known about online learning.

JE: You mentioned the professional learning there, we’ll talk about that more after this quick message from our sponsor.

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JE: Welcome back, I’m talking about blended learning with Maura Manning. Maura, we discussed the process of expert teacher selection for School of Now before the break and you mentioned the wrap-around professional learning support they receive. With the technology that’s involved, I’m just guessing but I should imagine that some teachers may be a little bit hesitant in taking on this role because of that side of things. We’ve discussed the equity aspect of all students logging on, even if they’re at the host school. Teaching online is a completely different skill isn’t it. Do the teachers take part in professional development to prepare them for School of Now?

MM: We have, again I’ll say we have a great team who’ve been the genius behind School of Now. My colleague Gavin Hays, who I’ve mentioned, Steven Bauer [Teaching Educator – School of Now] and another colleague David Sheil [Teaching Educator eLearning]. Each of them has a key role to play in how it is we support our teachers to bring their courses online.

Gavin is really a pedagogical expert who has put an enormous amount of thought into how a course should be structured online and he’s really worked … we in Parramatta have quite a robust pedagogy around experiential inquiry, which in first thinking could be a little bit hard to transfer online, but I think between Steven and Gavin they’ve really put so much thinking into how it is we can ensure an authentic inquiry approach online. So what we’ve actually done with that is that we’ve, Steven has made a Canvas course about establishing a Canvas course! Which seems a little bit of a ‘meta’ sort of thing, but it’s actually exactly what the teachers need because they may not have ever engaged in a Canvas course themselves. So they get that immersive experience of what it feels like to be learning online through Canvas, and they get to reflect on their own practice – we have some great protocols and structures that assist them to really think about how it is they can translate their quality content into that new environment.

And then we had David, who’s our Canvas guy, and he really is the expert in terms of every bell and whistle that Canvas has. David helps us maximise, really, what Canvas can do to bring about that pedagogical approach that we’re hoping for, for the students. And those three, really they accompany [all] of the teachers who work in School of Now all along the way. Steven is actually teaching courses within School of Now and so he’s our hands-on expert. He knows exactly what it is, what it feels like to bring kids across different schools, work with them online. He’s always testing, thinking, reflecting, working with those teachers to make sure they are feeling really confident and we’re addressing any of the concerns that they might have moving forward.

JE: So, the next thing I guess is the tech side of things for the school and students. Apart from the learning management system, what’s needed in terms of software and hardware?

MM: I think for us, Canvas is an online learning platform that’s a cloud-based sort of thing, we have a license for it. Kids need internet access and they need to be able to log on, they have their log on to Canvas. I don’t think it requires anything that wouldn’t be readily available to most students. And then we’re using Zoom, which has been ubiquitous throughout this COVID period.

So, really, for us, it’s probably less the actual technological infrastructure than it is the infrastructure that we have around just the staffing to make sure that teachers have enough release, to make sure the professional learning is there to support, making sure that the timetables accommodate and support the type of … or I guess ‘honour’ the intensity of the work for those teachers who are designing in School of Now. Because, we know that it is a new thing for the teachers, so we know that we need to accommodate that with the timetabling infrastructure to make sure that they have the release they need to do what they’re doing.

JE: We said at the beginning that this all started with just the two schools – it’s grown since then of course. How many schools are involved now, and how many students and teachers?

MM: Yeah, good question. We have nine expert teachers and 59 students – that’s the current numbers, and we’re anticipating that in fact the numbers are going to double in 2021. We’ve limited our courses to 12, just because we’re really trying to stabilise and ensure that the courses that we’re offering are as high a quality as we possibly can do, and so our thinking has really been to consolidate in 2021, make sure we have the model right, make sure the teachers are feeling really confident in that space before we go on to expand to more subjects.

JE: So, I read a quote from one of the teachers involved, and we’ve mentioned him already today Steven Bauer. His expertise is in Information Processes and Technology. And Steven had this to say, he says: ‘This terrific program is a chance to personalise pace, place and participation for students.’ So, that aspect of students accessing learning at their own pace then – what impact has this had on that?

MM: I think that’s been the greatest learning from [education during] COVID really, not just in our Parramatta schools but in all schools. We’ve talked about for years, that we want kids to be able to have that agency in their learning, to make their decisions, to have choice, to be able to make decisions about how they learn, when they learn, with whom they learn. And I think it’s not been really until we’ve had to engage with the technology and bring courses into that blended space as ‘the norm’ rather than a special occasion that we’ve really come to understand how liberating the technology is.

I think School of Now in many ways, even though COVID struck, it was business as usual for them because they already had their course content online, the kids already were able to access, they already had great protocols in place in terms of how they learned online. So I think one of the great sort of hidden benefits, or below the line benefits I guess – if you think about the iceberg, it’s fabulous to have School of Now as the tip of the iceberg but below the waterline we have this behemoth piece where those few teachers who are working in School of Now have the expertise in Canvas, they’ve had a great deal of PL (professional learning) in terms of how to design online, and what we’re seeing is those individual teachers are coming back into their high schools and they’re actually saying ‘this is great, let me show you how you can do this, how you can bring your work online, how you can make sure that the kids are engaging really meaningfully in that space’.

So, even though we initially intended to serve those students with the greater variety of subjects and the equity piece, we’ve ended up with this wonderful kind of momentum where the teachers who aren’t necessarily teaching directly in School of Now are seeing the benefits of being able to have that flexibility of the blended space in Canvas.

So, I think, in terms of kids being able to make those choices, it’s only going to grow from here. Because we’re, as teachers, getting better at understanding how it is we can position our kids by providing that content online and providing the flexibility about when and how they engage through that blended environment.

You know, School of Now was not affected at all by COVID, all it did was just make the case more strongly for why it is that we need to have opportunities like this, and it shouldn’t be just for a few courses, it needs to be there in the background for all courses.

JE: I read that some of the most popular subjects have been tech-focused disciplines – so, things like Information Processes and Technology (IPT), Software Design and Development. So I can see how this delivery model would lend itself to those subject areas. What about the more practical subjects, have you been able to provide those?

MM: I guess, in terms of practical subjects, it’s a funny sort of question in the sense that I’m an English teacher, I will confess, and I would think of the IPT subjects as being probably more the practical subjects. So, you know, those students have had those opportunities. We’ve had the VET Information and Digital Technologies as well, which again I would class as a practical subject. But in terms of having something like Chemistry or having Visual Arts or something like that online, we’ve not yet gone to that space. But I don’t think that there’s any reason why we couldn’t do that in the future, it’s just been that the subjects we’ve done so far have tended to be I guess some of the more … in addition to those IPT or the technologies subjects (which I do regard as practical) it’s been the English Extension 1 or the Maths Extension 1, Economics, which I guess you could say are more theoretical subjects.

JE: And as we discussed earlier, it goes from that point of student need first rather than saying ‘well, next year we’ll target this particular subject’ you really do have to look at what the need is within your own community I guess.

MM: Yeah, and I guess our mission is to make sure the kids have all of the opportunities that they might desire. We’ve not fully achieved that yet because there are still subjects that we’re not running, but I think there are subjects there that they do. In an individual school they might attract maybe two or three students and so it’s just financially not viable for schools to run those subjects with such a small candidature. But when we collect those kids across our schools we make a nice class of, you know, 10, 15, 20 kids and it becomes then very viable and it’s a better experience for the kids because they have more people to be bouncing ideas off, they make connections across schools.

I have a hunch in fact that these kids who might be engaging with only one subject through School of Now, anecdotally they’ve built such strong relationships with the kids from the other schools, I have a hunch that it’s going to have a carry-over effect into their other subjects. Because, they’re going to then be able to be collaborating [with each other] in English or in History and other things, [and] they might not have had that opportunity if they hadn’t met through School of Now.

It’s a gorgeous model of like minds coming together around something that they love. These subjects that we’re offering are the subjects that are often, you know, the real shining light for kids in the Stage 6 experience. So it’s great to see them coming together across schools and getting to meet other people who have similar interests and are motivated to study these subjects, as they are.

That’s all for this episode. If you want to keep listening, there are more than 170 podcasts in our archive, including more episodes from our Teaching Methods series. They include this one on co-teaching: Here’s a short snippet of Rosebery Primary School Principal Gail Smith talking about the difference between co-teaching and team teaching at the Northern Territory school.

The power of two is a presentation that was done by some of our staff at a conference once, and we called it The Power of Two: Co-teaching at Rosebery Primary School. And, to me, the power of two is really important when you are looking at making a learning environment interesting, engaging and collaborative. You’ve got to do it with more than one teacher, otherwise it’s not really collaborative in terms of adult collaboration. The kids see that and the kids actually step up as well. But, you do have to have the structures in place. I think co-teaching is fantastic. Team teaching is one part of co-teaching, but a lot of people get them confused. Co-teaching, for me, is definitely the way to go. This might not be entirely how everyone views it, but for me, co-teaching is that you co-collaborate, you co-work through everything so it’s done together. And you know what each other is going to be doing, and you know where you’re at with your lessons, you know what you need to be doing next. If you are a team teacher, you still have your class, you still have your own planning, you just do some things together. It’s quite different in the sense that co-teaching is you’re responsible for all of these students, and this is how we work as two, as a pair.

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