Inside Story

Inside Australia’s first virtual school

Could a new model of online learning break down the growing divide between Australian schools?

Tom Greenwell 28 September 2017 3950 words

No more tyranny of distance: Billabong High’s Aurora College students. James Wiltshire/Border Mail

“Culcairn? Um… no… I don’t think I know where that is,” I say apologetically, hurriedly typing the name into the search bar. I’m on the phone to Chris Robertson, the principal of Aurora College, a pioneering virtual school. Established in 2015 by the NSW Department of Education, this experiment in providing online classes to country kids has received plenty of positive coverage. But I still find it hard to picture how, in practice, a virtual class actually works. So I have asked Robertson if I can meet Aurora students and teachers and sit in on a class to see for myself.

Since all three — students, teachers and classrooms — are dispersed around the state, this is going to require some coordination. “This year we share students with sixty-four schools,” Robertson explains, “as far north as Kyogle, as far south as Eden, as far west as Broken Hill, and all points in between.” He reckons one of those points, Culcairn — about a three-hour drive along the Hume Highway from where I am in Canberra — could be a good place to visit. He tells me he’ll get in touch with the principal there and get back to me.

First conceived as part of a NSW government blueprint for rural and remote education, virtual secondary schools are intended to provide students with access to specialist subjects that aren’t available in small country schools. Aurora College, as it came to be called, does this in two ways. First, Year 11 and 12 students can enrol in Higher School Certificate classes not offered at their home school. Second, there’s a virtual selective school for bright kids in Years 7 to 10.

New South Wales has around four dozen wholly or partially selective public schools, which enrol students on the basis of academic ability. (Victoria has not much more than a handful, and other states very few between them.) For those gifted country kids who live a prohibitive distance from a bricks-and-mortar selective school, Aurora College provides a virtual option. Each day, these students log in for advanced online classes in English, maths and science while continuing to study history, geography, languages and other electives in their home schools.

“In setting the school up, we made a deliberate choice to share the curriculum delivery with the local school,” Robertson says. “Families in rural and remote areas now have the opportunity of keeping their kids in the local community where their social and emotional needs are best catered for, whilst also being able to access a specialist gifted and talented students program.”

Aurora College is just over two years old, but virtual schools of one variety or another have been around for about two decades. Virtual Schools in the U.S. 2017, a report published by the University of Colorado’s National Education Policy Center, counts over a quarter of a million students in the United States enrolled in 528 full-time virtual schools. Some, like the San Francisco–based AltSchool, established by former Google executive Max Ventilla with capital (and all the accompanying buzz) from Mark Zuckerberg, are funded by private tuition fees. More commonly, they are public charter schools run by for-profit education management outfits, like K12 Inc. (which runs ninety-six full-time virtual schools with around 100,000 students) and Connections Academy (thirty-one schools, 64,000 students).

In the for-profit context, virtual schooling generally entails a teacher–technology swap. To a greater or lesser degree, adaptive online software — incorporating tutorials, exercises and activities — replaces teachers. The National Education Policy Center report found that “while the average student–teacher ratio in the nation’s public schools was sixteen students per teacher, virtual schools reported more than twice as many students per teacher: thirty-four.”

In designing Aurora College, Robertson and others deliberately adopted a quite different approach. If anything, Aurora College classes are smaller than the norm, and — critically — the default mode of learning is in groups, with students and teachers interacting in real time. It’s what’s called synchronous online learning, Robertson explains. Students log in to the class from locations anywhere in the state, but technology is employed to replicate the experience of a group of learners working together with a teacher, in much the same way as they do in a physical classroom.

I’m still curious about how it actually works. How, for instance, can a teacher tell when a student has lost interest or doesn’t understand? Can feedback be provided as quickly and comprehensively as in a physical class? And, I wonder, can the dynamic of students learning together — which is, after all, what makes a class — be reproduced online?

Halfway between Wagga Wagga and Albury–Wodonga, Culcairn is a small service centre supplying the surrounding farms and hamlets of the Eastern Riverina, an area known as Mad Dog Morgan country after the bushranger who terrorised the district in the 1860s (and inspired the 1970s film). The local high school gets its name from the waterway that runs through the district, Billabong Creek.

At Billabong High School I meet Kurt Wawszkowicz, the energetic principal who has driven the adoption of virtual learning at his school. “I very firmly believe that a public school should be able and capable of catering to all students in our community,” he tells me, “whether they’re gifted and talented, whether they fit in the mainstream scene or they need a support class.” He places Aurora College on a continuum of experiences designed to meet students’ learning needs at Billabong High. That continuum includes a transition program designed to identify individual needs when students enter from primary school, small support classes for students with diagnosed learning disabilities, a specialist program to help kids with low literacy make up for lost time and extension study sessions for senior students.

Wawszkowicz’s commitment to extending opportunities to academically bright children in the country seems personal. As a high-achieving student growing up in the Hunter Valley, he was too far away to attend the nearest selective school, in Newcastle. Now, as a school principal with two very young boys, he thinks about the opportunities available to them when he is posted to different schools — especially if, like him, they turn out to be academically gifted. “If the facility is available to my kids that is available here at Billabong,” he says, “I’ll be very, very happy.”

He takes me to an open, light-filled computer lab in the back corner of the school’s library. This, in effect, is Aurora College’s Culcairn campus. Soon, three bubbly Year 8 students, Robbie, Charlie and Joely, appear. As they log in to their computers for this morning’s science class, their classmates’ faces start appearing on their screens. They say hello to friends as far away as Nowra, on the south coast, and Broken Hill, in the state’s west. “Nice haircut,” a kid in Dubbo says to Charlie.

If this business of slipping through the back corner of the school library into another school entirely has a Narnia-like quality about it, the magic seems a little lost on the children, for whom it seems to be just another lesson. To imagine what it’s like for them, picture rows of faces peering back at you from across the top quarter of the screen: your teacher’s, your classmates’ and your own. (The audio and video connection for Aurora classes is established through Adobe Connect web-conferencing software.) Down the right-hand side is a “chat pod”: a constant stream of comments, questions and replies. The remainder of the screen is occupied by the lesson content. Microsoft OneNote allows students to alternate between the material the teacher is delivering to the whole class, generally via a slide show, and the virtual equivalent of an exercise book.

Teacher Christine Black is in Sydney. She has just returned from leave, and she tells the class about a cruise she went on with a group of scientists, wildlife-watching off the coast of Western Australia. One student keys in, “Cool,” and another types, “That sounds like fun.” “Seriously cool,” Black agrees, as she continues her account of her travels. Throughout the lesson, I watch with admiration as she seamlessly incorporates responses to the questions and comments popping up in the chat pod into her presentation to the class. A third student writes, “So, you didn’t just ditch us.” Charlie, who I’m sitting next to, jumps into the chat, “No offence but it’s hard to miss a teacher.” Black chuckles and replies, “Thanks Charlie.”

Today’s lesson is a review of the structure of an atom. “Electrons are not evenly spread but exist in layers or shells,” Black explains. She puts a diagram of an atom on the screen and asks the class to correctly label the configuration of electrons they can see. I’m quickly becoming aware of the very real limitations of my disappointing high school science career. Stuart Campbell, Billabong High’s Aurora coordinator and a science teacher himself, tells me it’s work he’d normally cover in Year 10 or 11.

As the class begins working individually, messages keep flying to and fro. “Wait, so the atomic number is different to the atomic weight?” one student asks; another quickly replies in the affirmative. The lesson exhibits all the easy back-and-forth and knowledge-sharing found in a physical class working at its best. Seeing it unfold calls to mind the case Chris Robertson makes for synchronous online provision. Students and teachers working together in real time, he told me, allows a sense of community and camaraderie to develop, as well as fostering peer-to-peer learning and immediacy of communication. “That is why the school was set up in the way it is.”

Aurora’s design also evinces a sensitivity to the limitations of online interactions. As well as remaining in home schools like Billabong High, Aurora kids get together twice a year for intensive week-long residential courses. When I catch up with Joely’s mum, Cindy Scott, at lunchtime she explains to me how important they are. Until Joely attended the first residential course, Scott says, her classmates “were just these little faces on the screen. After the residential school she was able to put names to faces and they were even texting each other about assignments.” Likewise, when I ask Charlie and Robbie who their friends are in their virtual class, they tell me about two boys they got to know when they shared a dorm at the last residential course.

At the end of the science lesson, Christine Black explains to the class that they will each be required to conduct an independent research task over the course of the semester. The students will need to pose a question, advance a hypothesis and test it by collecting data, and measuring and recording changes. “Think of MythBusters but we’re not going to blow anything up,” she jokes. “If only,” Charlie chimes in. The class will present the findings of their investigations at the next residential meet-up in Bathurst.

While Chris Robertson and others continue to monitor the progress of this experiment in virtual learning, for Joely, Robbie and Charlie the benefits of Aurora College are readily apparent. Grouped together with similarly able students, they are consistently being challenged and extended. It would be very difficult to provide these kinds of opportunities within a mainstream class, and it’s impossible for them to attend a bricks-and-mortar selective school (short of living away from home or their families moving). Virtual classes remove the tyranny of distance.

Aurora College has created new opportunities for kids in places like Culcairn. It seems natural to explore whether, internet connection allowing, the model could be used to provide distance education to young people who aren’t able to physically attend any school, let alone a selective one. But Chris Robertson also thinks city kids could benefit from a virtual offering. “What we have shown is that the technology exists to provide opportunities for groups of schools to work together, to share resources and to share expertise,” he told SBS. “And those schools could be geographically remote from each other, as is the case with Aurora College, or it could be that two or three neighbouring Sydney schools could share a timetable and share a classroom teacher in this way using the same technology that we’re using.”

Why would you run a class virtually, unless it’s impossible for students and teacher to gather in one spot? A place like Culcairn can only sustain a relatively small secondary school — in Billabong High’s case, around 400 students. That number of students, spread across six year levels, places very real constraints on the range and diversity of classes that can be offered. It would be financially difficult for Billabong High to offer a special class for Year 8 gifted and talented students on its own — it couldn’t fund a teacher for a class of just three students. But it is possible to constitute such a class when pooling students from all of rural and remote New South Wales. And that’s what a virtual school can do. So the problem solved by Aurora College is one of scale as much as distance.

Schools everywhere are constrained by scale. A handful of students may want to study Italian, Arabic, robotics, an advanced level of science or medieval history — or they might need remedial literacy support. Schools strain to cater to their students’ interests. There might be only ten students in a grade who want to do Indonesian but the school thinks it’s important that it is encouraged. It’s the Asian century, after all. Either the class runs — and it’s costly — or the budget doesn’t allow it, and students miss out. Virtual learning could make it possible for all schools to offer all subjects, at all levels, at a lower cost. And rather than trying to replace teachers with technology — as some American charter schools are attempting — efficiencies could be achieved through the immensely greater scale that technology makes possible.

Those aren’t the only features of the Aurora model that seem worthy of imitation, irrespective of location. “Once a week, on average, we have a masterclass operating in our school,” Robertson says. “Our masters — the people delivering them — come from a range of organisations from across the world.” He describes an experimental physicist delivering a masterclass from CERN in Switzerland and a human rights lawyer delivering a lecture to kids from nearby Geneva.

A virtual learning component could enhance all schools, but schools with small and declining populations would stand to benefit most. They experience the most acute constraints on the curriculum they can offer, and their declining enrolments can start a vicious cycle. Having fewer students reduces the capacity to deliver a rich curriculum and attractive programs. These factors, in turn, make it harder to recruit and retain teachers. So enrolments keep declining.

Would virtual learning be suitable for all students? Aurora College enrols a very distinct subset of young people at present. They are secondary students who are either gifted and talented or in their final two years of school, or both. So they are likely to be more mature and motivated than many of their peers. I watch the Billabong kids with much admiration as they nimbly toggle between applications and deftly find workarounds for the inevitable technical glitches they encounter. They want to learn and they make it happen. But, as a teacher myself, I can’t help thinking of other students, on other occasions, for whom as minor a problem as a forgotten password necessitated downing tools and suspending the pursuit of knowledge until further notice. How would those students respond to a virtual learning environment?

After lunch, Joely, Robbie and Charlie filter back into the lab and log in for maths. The lesson is on inverse operations and their teacher, Kathy Howard, wants them to pay particular attention to setting out their mathematical reasoning correctly. “Quite often students will tell me the answer and I’ll ask, ‘How did you get that?’ and they’ll say, ‘I don’t know,’” Howard explains to the class. “We need to be perfect at process.” She takes them through an example before the kids start working on more complicated problems individually. “Lots of good communication going on in the chat pod,” she reflects to the class.

I catch up with Howard later to talk about the experience of teaching a virtual class. At the start of the lesson she’d had to ask a couple of students to turn their camera on and I ask her about this. “Some of them are reticent about it. Some of them need a reminder every lesson,” she explains. But it’s important. After all, there is no teacher physically present with students. The supervising teacher is the one in the virtual classroom, somewhere else around the state, possibly hundreds of kilometres away. (At one point, Kathy Howard had reminded students, some of whom are in libraries or similar shared spaces, “The people outside our Adobe room are not there. They’re figments of our imagination.”)

For the students, having the camera on is much like being on a Skype call with twenty people, with that slightly unnerving sensation of having your own face on the screen. It’s a powerful form of accountability. On one occasion, when a student’s head is bobbing around and he seems to be peering stage left, the teacher calls on him to answer a question and he duly responds. “I can see from the way they’re behaving that they’re doing something other than what they should be,” Howard tells me.

If she continues to be concerned, she will try privately messaging a student. If that doesn’t elicit the desired response, then she might take them into a “breakout room” and talk with them there — roughly equivalent to taking a student out into the corridor for a tête-à-tête. I’d seen the use of a breakout room earlier in the day when additional faces appeared at the top of the screen some way into the morning’s science lesson. Christine Black suggested to the late arrivals that she would “pop them in another room” and catch them up while the rest of the class continued working on an exercise. She and the late arrivals moved into a separate space — where they could chat with each other while not being heard by the rest of the class — and Charlie, Robbie and Joely had kept beavering away on the periodic table.

Virtual learning of this nature won’t work for all students. At the very least, the degree of computer proficiency required would likely exclude young children. But it’s also clear that Aurora has created an array of tools for supporting student engagement and managing behaviour that are similar to those available in more conventional settings.

Expanding virtual education could enable schools to provide a richer, more diverse curriculum at lower cost. It could also be less divisive than our present methods of catering to students’ differing needs.

Bricks-and-mortar selective schools are criticised for drawing gifted students away from comprehensive local schools, sending some schools into a downward spiral. Consider, for example, two schools, two minutes’ drive from each other, in Western Sydney. One is a partially selective public school with over 1000 students. Overall, as MySchool reveals, its students are doing slightly better in terms of socioeconomic status than other young Australians (58 per cent are from the top half of the distribution). The other school is a comprehensive public school with barely 300 students. Seventy-six per cent of the children who attend this school are from the most disadvantaged quarter of Australian families. Only 1 per cent are from the most privileged quarter.

It looks like competition with the selective school is making it harder for the comprehensive school to enrol and retain students. That will make it harder (and more expensive) to provide a rich offering to the students left behind.

It also appears that the two schools’ differing enrolment obligations are contributing to the social divide between them. If so, it would be in keeping with a larger pattern. A researcher at the University of Technology Sydney, Christina Ho, has found that three-quarters of students in Sydney’s selective schools come from the most advantaged quarter of the population (and just 2 per cent from the most disadvantaged quarter). In other words, she found, selective schools tend to cater only to “the wealthy, gifted and talented.” Local comprehensive schools are more likely, meanwhile, to be characterised by high concentrations of disadvantage. And we know this further stacks the odds against kids, over and above any challenges associated with their own personal background.

In a thought-provoking article, education writer and former principal Chris Bonnor argues that the Aurora College model of selective schooling has the potential to change the equation. Under the virtual model, the selective program comes to the local school — a school like Billabong High — instead of the gifted student departing for a selective one. In Culcairn, that’s a matter of necessity. But expanding virtual learning holds out the possibility of providing educational experiences that are precisely tailored to individual student needs in a way that doesn’t create a zero-sum game between schools — and doesn’t separate students on the basis of their social background. As Bonnor wrote:

The benefits of serving gifted and talented students in this way are substantial… [T]he power and social benefits of comprehensive and inclusive schooling can sit easily with the advancement of students who benefit from additional opportunities. In effect, the often conflicting views of education as a collective good or a private and positional good can be reconciled.

Rather than separating young people into different schools to give them additional opportunities, Aurora provides those opportunities by bringing students from dozens of schools together. Instead of cannibalising local comprehensive schools, Aurora strengthens them — differentiating the curriculum without exacerbating social division. And precisely because the program is provided virtually, the specialist offerings are not a feature of one school but of all schools.

As Cindy Scott and I are wrapping up our conversation, she says with emphasis, “Kudos goes to Billabong High School for creating the opportunity, because if it weren’t for Billabong and Kurt [Wawszkowicz] actually driving this, it wouldn’t have happened.” She’s right. And the comment reflects the fact that Aurora College is an organisational achievement as much as a technological one. The whiz-bang technology is indispensable, but so too is the syncing of school timetables across New South Wales so students can log in to their virtual classes at the same time. That kind of coordination is required every day to work with partner schools to support students, liaise with parents, manage relationships and keep everyone, across dozens of locations, on the same page.

Policy-makers tend to think of schools as independent units. Schools compete with each other. Parents shop between them. Thus, over the years, measures to increase choice and competition — more funding for private schools, independent public schools, MySchool — have been introduced and implemented. All the while, educational outcomes have continued to decline. Aurora College is an exciting illustration of what can occur when digital tools are harnessed to boost coordination rather than competition between schools. •

The assistance of the Copyright Agency Limited’s Cultural Fund in providing funding for this article is gratefully acknowledged.