COVID-19 lockdowns have meant that students, carers and teachers across all levels of education have had to rapidly transition to remote learning online. In a matter of days, schools across NSW have had to stop face-to-face teaching and apply new virtual alternatives. But in this unique moment, it’s not as simple as flipping straight to online learning.
We sat down (virtually!) with Mark Greentree, Director, Technology For Learning, Michelle Michael, Director, Educational Support and Rural Initiatives, School Improvement and Adam Wollins, Director, ICT and Infrastructure Coordination from the NSW Department of Education (DoE) to discuss the challenges and opportunities of remote learning online, as well as the tools and innovative technology they are harnessing to support and empower educators, students and carers during this not so normal time.
What has DoE done to get schools ready?
We have been working hard to support schools with the provision of technology devices and internet connectivity devices such as dongles. These devices are allocated on a priority basis. Priority has been given to specific communities as they have moved to learning from home settings, and within those groups we are prioritising HSC students, students with a disability or in need of specialised equipment, young people in out-of-home care, and students from low socioeconomic backgrounds.
Since the start of this lockdown, there more than 8000 dongles and over 7500 technology devices have been delivered to students across NSW.
We are also regularly updating our Learning from home website, which is a one-stop shop for online learning materials to support teachers, parents, and students in engaging with learning from home. And from that, we provide learning resources within our online support materials to really enable students to maintain a high level of continuity for their education. Since the beginning of the current COVID lockdowns, the site has had 1.6 million page views and supported more than 340 000 users. Last week alone (Aug 9 -15) the Learning from Home site had 93,000 users and 375,000 page views.
The department already provides a suite of online learning platforms for students to use and teachers to engage with, such as Microsoft Teams, the Google G Suite of applications and some Adobe packages that are covered under enterprise agreements. These platforms are further supported through webinars and teaching learning and materials to help teachers to engage with students and get the best out of these tools.
What was the product team’s design thinking behind choosing solutions?
We've had a lot of our solutions in place for a long period of time, because if we were to try to introduce new products and materials, we’d have the additional challenge of having to introduce them to staff and then rapidly and effectively upskill teachers and students in how they use them, whilst in a remote learning environment.
The tools that we do provide through Microsoft Teams and Google G Suite have been tested to make sure they're fit for purpose and can effectively engage students in a teaching and learning environment. We have also looked at user case studies around the world while working with our Microsoft and Google partners to make sure we're applying those tools in the best way possible.
A great example is the recent work we did on the HSC trials. We are supporting schools to engage at an individual level within their own school environment and to use some of the tools that we currently have available – such as the Assignments application on Google Classroom and Microsoft Teams to set tasks that have a specific start time and a specific close time so online assessments can occur in a student's house.
What are some of the main lessons that you’ve learned since last year and what would you do differently?
The way in which we've rolled out and distributed technology devices and dongles has evolved since last year. Last year was the first time that we took learning out of the classroom and onto to an online remote learning environment across the state. This time round, we were able to apply valuable lessons learned last year. For example, we knew the best way to connect with schools for ordering devices for students and developed a more streamlined process that enables us to efficiently and effectively deliver them in a far more expedient way that is equitable and provides greater access for students across the state. We’ve also been able to track the devices and identify the type of devices being used, so we can target them to users’ needs and prioritise them that way.
We have reviewed a lot of our online learning tasks from last year and removed old content that we felt was no longer needed, replacing it with new content.
We have also refined our communication to make them more targeted and consistent, to help ensure schools are all singing from the same songbook. And on that, we release a situation report every day so that schools are aware of the cadence for communication, with information and updates presented in a very standardised and easy to read format.
What are some educational technology trends or opportunities for innovation that you are exploring because of remote learning?
We are really harnessing our social media platforms. For example, we facilitated a Facebook Live panel last week to engage with high school students. The Chief Executive Officer for NESA, along with many key figures in the department, were responding to questions live from high school students, parents and teachers on supporting students during the trial HSC period. These events are now running weekly and provide a platform for people to interact with us, ask questions and provide feedback, which helps guide our thinking and how we’re delivering initiatives.
Some of the other areas are the updates that have been made to the packages through Microsoft and Google that weren't available during lockdown in 2020. And those things have enabled even more functionality.
What are some of the biggest customer outcomes you have seen, and looking forward, what is the focus?
The biggest customer outcome is that we have successfully enabled the effective continuation of education in New South Wales.
Another is that we are providing opportunities that have never been afforded before and have opened a lot of new doors, especially with technology. A great example is Virtual Excursions, which is a new initiative offered by Distance and Rural Technologies (DART) Learning. Virtual Excursions run Live, By Request and On-Demand learning experiences offered by museums, galleries, research institutes, artists, musicians, zoos and more.
As for the future, we will continue to iterate and reiterate our resources for as long as this challenge lasts to make sure that we are meeting the needs of our students.