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Episode nineteen

The Virtual Staffroom Podcast

Episode 19 – The Evidence – What works when teaching online - AITSL

Joachim Cohen:

Welcome to The Virtual Staff Room, a podcast made for teachers by teachers, all with a dash of educational technology thrown in. My name is Joachim Cohen. And today, like every day, I am joined by two rather awesome members of our Technology 4 Learning team, Linda Lazenby and Yvette Poshoglian. Welcome, team.

Yvette Poshoglian:

Hello.

Linda Lazenby:

Hello, Joe.

Joachim Cohen:

Well, like most of our listeners based in and around Sydney, we are currently in lockdown and recording this podcast from our home offices, doing our bit to keep everyone safe, but we have it easy. So for all of you, our listeners out there, we wanted to dedicate a series of short podcasts to help you get through remote learning and provide you with inspiration and escape, and also some insights to power your online classroom journey. And rural teachers, you might find these podcasts pretty darn insightful as well. But listeners, we are not the first and likely won't be the last school system to transition briefly to learning from home. So what were the experiences? What does the evidence say? What really works? And what can you do? Now, in this episode, we are lucky enough to be able to speak with Zhi Soon, General Manager, Evidence and Impact at AITSL, the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership. And last year, Zhi and the AITSL team completed a research spotlight into what works in distance learning. Welcome, Zhi.

Zhi Soon:

Hi, Joe. It's great to be here. Thanks for having me.

Yvette Poshoglian:

Zhi, to begin with, why don't you just tell us a little bit about your role at AITSL and what sparked your interest in educational research?

Zhi Soon:

Brilliant. Thanks for that question, Yvette. So, first of all, I work for an organisation called the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, which is a national body that exists to promote and support excellence in teaching and school leadership. And as you mentioned, Joe, I'm the General Manager for Evidence and Impact at AITSL, which as the name suggests means I work with an excellent team to ensure that AITSL work is guided by good evidence and data. And that we also set up ourselves to really understand the impact of our work. So I look after research and evaluation team, but also a team that leads a national project called the Australian Teacher Workforce Data project.

Joachim Cohen:

Wow. Gosh. It's really exciting, Zhi. You've got an awesome job. And I guess the question that everyone probably is asking after they're hearing this is what does the evidence say about teaching and learning from home? What works?

Zhi Soon:

Yeah. Well, I think that is a question that's definitely on everybody's mind given the situation across Australia and across the world. So what you've mentioned before earlier, Joe, was that AITSL released a couple of products last year around, well, around I guess the situation they're in. So one was called What Works in Online Distance Teaching and Learning. And the second was The Role of School Leadership in Challenging Times. So we had hoped those releases really helped in the situations that people found themselves in, in schools across the country last year. But obviously, in the situation that we find ourselves in a couple of states and territories, hopefully they're equally as useful in the current situation.

Zhi Soon:

Particularly that first piece I mentioned, What Works in Online Distance Teaching and Learning, really goes into, well, some of the points that you just sort of raised in your question. So it outlines the importance of having a really strong and clear teacher presence in online learning, as well as really setting clear expectations between students, teachers, and parents about that learning experience. It also goes into some detail about how important it is to create a supportive online community that really promotes collaborative learning, in some ways mimicking what happens in the classroom. Again, inevitably, it comes a little bit tougher when people aren't sitting in the same room together, but given where we are with technology, there's all sorts of opportunities in order to kind of facilitate that interaction and that collaborative working experience.

Zhi Soon:

But there is some trade-offs as well. So I think screen time is a real challenge. How you manage the quantity of screen time whilst ensuring quality. Because I think teachers out there really need to find the right balance between ensuring that students continue to have that kind of face-to-face virtual interaction with ensuring they do have time away from the screen as well to have their own kind of reflective learning practices. And what the Spotlight does, it does go into some details about some questions you should ask yourself when designing your instruction, designing lesson plan, but how you balance that quality versus quantity.

Zhi Soon:

But I guess moving from that direct engagement, there's also stuff around how important in this kind of virtual learning environment parental engagement is and making clear lines of communication between teachers, schools, and the parents. And as I was saying before, establishing that clear set of expectations, that clear set a follow-up and allowing parents to understand what their role is in that learning, in virtual learning environment. And part of that, which again, I'm sure we'll go into a little bit more detail later on in our conversation, is about how they can set up that home learning environment, as well as how both teachers, schools, and parents in this kind of digital, virtual learning environment can look after well-being of students as well.

Yvette Poshoglian:

Zhi, you've just hit the nail on the head. It's really about understanding those expectations, and the support and the collaboration that's needed behind the scenes at home, but also for the teachers to really grapple with. It's a real balance. You sort of alluded to it, but the idea of using the tech in the right way, and you getting us some kind of a balance is really important. What does purposeful and strategic use of tech look like when you're learning from home? Is there a magic recipe or maybe some top line thoughts you have on this?

Zhi Soon:

I don't think there's necessarily a magic recipe, but as you were saying, I think it is, the key things are being purposeful and strategic. And what I mean by purposeful is that really being thoughtful about how were you using the technology? Are you maximising the use of that technology? Are you ensuring that it both facilitates that kind of direct instruction as well as that collaborative learning experience? And in terms of strategic, that goes to that point about quantity and quality as well. Are you ensuring that you're getting that balance right between instruction, as well as providing feedback, as well as creating different ways of engaging with that learner? And look, I think there's, again, speaking to some teachers about their reflections during the previous lockdown periods in a couple of states and territories, it was really interesting to hear some of the different examples of the way they've adopted technology in really purposeful ways and what they've learned from it and what they think they'll continue to adopt moving forward.

Zhi Soon:

And so, look, I think there's... one great example was a great teacher I was talking to in Tasmania who taught both maths and science. And he found that recording and kind of like pre-recording lessons was really helpful in being able to have differential learning within his classrooms as well, so that he could both cater for students who were really excelling through the material, as well as those that required a little bit more support. He was able to pre-record different sorts of materials to the varying levels of growth and development and progress within his classroom.

Joachim Cohen:

Oh, wow, Zhi. That sounds like a really creative way to make the most of this experience and perhaps something that teacher may adopt once they go back to the face-to-face classroom, which I think would be really exciting. And I just wonder that idea of quantity versus quality, are you able to expand on that a little bit for us?

Zhi Soon:

Yeah, definitely, Joe. So as I alluded to before, that's one of the things that we go into in a little bit of depth within that Spotlight that we released last year. That's what that refers to, a couple of resources, but also a set of questions from the literature that was released a few years ago. And one of the questions is around what the context that you're using the technology for in that kind of screen time? Where and when and how is that digital content being accessed so that you can understand well what experiences of the student through that screen time? Also, what's the content that's involved with it? Is the content at the right age or skill level? Is it appropriate for that learner? And also, what are the connections being facilitated in that online experience? Is it just an individual experience or is it a positive sort of social connection alongside it?

Zhi Soon:

And I guess also when you're thinking about it more broadly, what's the impact that we're expecting that engagement the screen time to have? If you're having the student have long hours in front of the screen, how does that affect the physical well-being as well as the health and well-being as well in and around it? So getting that balance right, as I was saying before, and asking yourself some of these key questions is what the literature says is really important into navigating that quality versus quantity of screen time element.

Yvette Poshoglian:

Zhi, look, schools are hubs of learning, but how different does this look online? In terms of an online school community, what does it involve, who's involved, and maybe from a leadership perspective, what are some of the things to consider?

Zhi Soon:

Yeah. Look, how you mimic that physical school environment, that school community where teachers are engaging with parents, parents are engaging with school leaders, school leaders with teachers and students right at the centre of all of this is something to really pause and reflect on in terms of the online environment. And I think one big part of that is around first understanding the online capability and facilities of your school community, what your students have access to, what they feel comfortable with, and what their parents and families in and around the student feel comfortable working with as well.

Zhi Soon:

And once you have that baseline, you can start to understand and use and employ the right tools and around it. So look, we've been through, across Australia, a couple of rounds of lockdown, depending on which state or territory you're in. A lot of this has already been established in many sorts of ways, but it's important to then understand, well, are there particular groups that are accessing it more than others? Are there particular students who have more needs than others in these kinds of virtual learning environment? And being able to then adapt and shift the focus of that online community to ensure that it's as inclusive and supportive to all students and families as much as possible.

Joachim Cohen:

It's really amazing as I'm listening to you, Zhi. It's the same challenges we face with the face-to-face and a normal type of school environment we do face in the online world, but perhaps, I suppose they're not the same but the same considerations. And I guess that brings me to a point about parents. Are there some tips that our teachers would actually be able to pass on to parents for this period?

Zhi Soon:

Oh, okay. As you say, Joe, a lot of the challenges and opportunities in the school learning environment translate straight across to the virtual learning environment as well. Perhaps the solutions are a bit different and how you approach them are different, but the challenges and opportunities still exist. And in terms of that point around parental engagement, it becomes particularly important in this kind of virtual learning environment. And so things like really supporting the child's understanding of their potential, working directly with them, particularly in the early years around things like reading and talking and engaging with them about their learning, what they're learning and how they're progressing is really important. And so establishing a really positive schooling and educational relationship is really fundamental to that.

Zhi Soon:

And I think a big part of that is learning together, right? So that includes engagement in not only the schooling activities that are set out by the child's teachers, but also the everyday activities that come alongside schooling, whether it's preparing meals, whether it's learning in terms of discussions about what the family members are up to, and then creating a really positive, supportive homework environment as well, so the child feels that homework is important and that there is support and a space and time for that homework to be completed as well. And so how you create those same sorts of rules in what is a bit more of a grey environment where the schooling is happening in the same environment as homework and the rest of life can be a bit challenging, but creating different spaces in both physical and mental are really quite important.

Zhi Soon:

And I guess particularly for students on the older end of the spectrum and adolescence, it's also really important to be sensitive to, I guess, the need for autonomy and independence in among an environment where it's a lot tougher to have that autonomy and separation when you're not actually leaving the premises in order to go to school. But then also for those sorts of students talking about their aspirations, expectations and then creating that really supportive environment as they progress through adolescence, not only through the education but socially as well.

Yvette Poshoglian:

Yes, Zhi. I think you've touched on that idea, the holistic education experience. Some of which can be mirrored online and some of it, we're still, I guess, working that out. And I guess it comes down to maybe thinking about what kind of tools the students might be using at home increasingly like AI tools and AI based learning systems that might be really great in the short term. But I suppose we're always having this conversation about the idea of the continued importance of the teacher in the classroom, whether it's online or on campus. Is the teacher role even more important when you're learning online? And what does your research suggest about this idea of teacher presence? What should it look like ideally in the virtual classroom hinted at that balance that's needed, but what do your findings saying?

Zhi Soon:

Yeah. Thanks, Yvette. And I think that's a great point. I think with the advancement with technology, it provides lots of opportunities. But at the core of this, teacher expertise is still of paramount importance. And that, being able to be facilitated by technology, whether it's different apps or different kinds of platforms, is the key. How you make sure that expertise is conveyed or facilitated to maximum effect is the key to making sure that virtual learning and teaching is happening. I guess what really needs to happen in that virtual environment, from what we've seen from the research, there's actually a great list that we outlined in the Spotlight from the California Department of Education in the U.S., where they kind of outline a couple of things that what that teacher presence should be mindful of. And as we covered earlier in our conversation, setting that expectation between the student and the teacher about that presence and what that looks like, and the availability of the teacher is quite key.

Zhi Soon:

And in some ways, it mimics the in-person school experience where when you have class with that particular subject, with that particular teacher, for example, in secondary school, you know that's their availability for you. Similarly with access at lunch times or outside that experience, you know what those are. So being able to somewhat mimic that expectation in the virtual world or virtual environment is really important as well. And that kind of links to that timetabling aspects to make sure that students know when to be able to access the expertise that they require and when they're able to kind of check in with the teacher. And similarly, when the teacher can check in with the student as well, so that there is those clear lines of communication when that assistance is required.

Zhi Soon:

But I guess beyond that, looking at the more social element of learning, it's about creating spaces for online discussion between students as well, and they can provide a really great avenue for students to learn off each other in a situation where you might have group work or whole class activities in the classroom itself. These kind of online discussions provide an opportunity for shared experiences and as well as teachers being able to contribute and kind of steer the discussion with the right kinds of way. I think it's being able to establish that kind of presence and that rhythm is quite important. And I think whether that's through words or through videos or other kinds of material or content, that's really quite important to understand for the student what sort of material is coming their way, how they can interact with it, and subsequently how they can reflect back on their own learning and progress through different types of formative assessment so they can work with the teacher to understand how they're going and how they're developing.

Joachim Cohen:

Wow, Zhi. It's amazing how insightful what you're saying is, and how I can start to relate it back to the idea that school is a big part of a routine. It's a big part of students' lives and something that they can always rely upon. And transferring that to the digital space is so important, I imagine, for their well-being as well. I can really hear what you're saying. And I guess this gets us to our next point about getting really practical. What are some of the top tips you have uncovered when teaching and learning online?

Zhi Soon:

Look, I think there's all sorts of innovations that are happening all across Australia and all across the world in terms of this online learning space. I refer to one example from a teacher I spoke to in Tasmania at the beginning of our conversation where what he did with pre recording some videos in order to help differentiate between the learning levels within his class itself. But I've heard many others, which I think really embrace that sense of technology. So we all know the importance of high quality feedback to supporting students' learning and development.

Zhi Soon:

I spoke to one teacher who was located in Victoria. So they obviously went through long periods of lockdown and virtual teaching and learning. One of the things they found really useful was rather than the more traditional written feedback, which they would do in the in-person schooling, they were able to provide almost kind of voice notes or video notes back to the students about a feedback on their work. And they felt that conveyed tone a lot better. They could be a lot more effective in terms of conveying the type of expectations that they wanted to see in their work and articulating what could be done to improve it. And I guess from the teacher's point of view, it was also a lot quicker to do, and made marking and providing feedback and substantive feedback a lot more of an expedited process.

Zhi Soon:

And again, we talked about parental engagement before as well. Many of the teachers I spoke to have also found the more virtual and digital channels have meant that they are able to access parents in ways they hadn't before. And we know from the literature how important that parental engagement is. And so having these new channels to both provide materials to parents, but then also communicate with parents when otherwise a lot of parents aren't able to either make it into the school or need to be accessed in different kinds of hours. These new kinds of technologies and platforms opened the door for a richer kind of parental engagements for some students and some teachers.

Yvette Poshoglian:

We are singing from the same song sheet, Zhi. We are all about that personalised feedback. Love that idea about dropping in audio into work of students. So loving that idea. In terms of resources, does your team at AITSL have a go-to site or a page that you want to give a shout out to that our teachers, no doubt, will be really looking forward to seeing these resources? Can you let us know where to find them?

Zhi Soon:

Of course. Thanks, Yvette. And thanks for the opportunity to share this. So look, if you jump on www.aitsl.edu.au, that's the AITSL website, we've got the two spotlights I mentioned before. One on what works on online distant teaching and learning, but also one on that role of school leadership in challenging times, which COVID definitely presents, but not only COVID. But on the website as well, we've got the hub and a Facebook group that you can track down. And that Facebook group has about 7,000 members and provides a great conversation spot for many teachers to discuss questions that they may have in terms of teaching more broadly. But then also, particularly in this kind of virtual teaching environment, perhaps share some of the experiences and discuss some of the innovations that they've come up with. They can really learn from each other.

Zhi Soon:

And I would encourage all the teachers and practitioners out there to sign up to the AITSL mail on the website as well so you can make sure that you get the latest information about the publications, like Spotlight, that we're already seeing, as well as any of the other materials that we do release out there, so you can get them first as well.

Joachim Cohen:

Oh. Now, Zhi, they are great resources, that's for sure. We'll make sure we include those in our show notes so people can click to access those. You're speaking to the whole state of New South Wales, teachers across Australia, and of course the globe, but especially our Sydney metro colleagues at the moment. What piece of wisdom would you like to pass onto them?

Zhi Soon:

Thanks, Joe. Well, I guess before I share anything from the wisdom, I just wanted to say a huge thank you for your efforts across New South Wales, across Australia, across the world about the work that goes in by teachers and schools and the lengths you go to support students during these particularly challenging times. Because again, it's incredibly important and profound work. And I just wanted to say thank you.

Zhi Soon:

But I guess the message I would send out is to continue to innovate and understand what is working for you and your students. And hopefully, the materials and the resources I've just mentioned, if you have access, it has provided a really strong foundation for what you're doing. And hopefully, they can help guide you through in terms of what you design your activities as well. Again, a lot of the materials in there also contain references to the kinds of work and resources that different jurisdictions across the country are producing. So it's not only AITSL work that we've got up there, it's the work that's happening across the country. So hopefully, they can be really helpful resources and materials as you look to navigate this virtual learning period.

Yvette Poshoglian:

Oh, that's fabulous. Now, look, it wouldn't be our podcast without asking you one last curly question, Zhi. So we're putting you on the spot here for our final question. And we play a game called rocket ship robots. And what this is, it's modeled off the BBC's Desert Island Discs, where we ask people, what's your favorite album that you would take to listen to for the rest of time. We switched it up a bit. We want to know what piece of technology you would take if you were heading into outer space, or maybe the edge of space just like Richard Branson. What would it be?

Zhi Soon:

So I think one of the technologies I would definitely take up there is the access to different kinds of music. Again, I know there's different sorts of platforms up there, but I find music very good in terms of supporting my thinking and helping to facilitate my own learning. So look, I would definitely take something music based in order to help me focus during these kind of challenging times, but also to inspire me and hopefully inspire others as they continue their learning journey.

Yvette Poshoglian:

Are you willing to name a band or a playlist, what's getting you up and out of the door or out of the bed at the moment?

Zhi Soon:

So look, so I'm listening to a range of things at the moment. I'm a big fan of The National, which is a band that's been around for a little while now, but I also love myself a bit of Johnny Cash.

Yvette Poshoglian:

That is fantastic. Thank you so much, Zhi, for joining us today. Your advice and info will go a long way to help out our teachers at the moment who are learning from home and teaching from home. Thanks so much.

Joachim Cohen:

Well we've heard from our expert, but our podcast would not be complete without some extra gems from the team. Linda and Yvette, what have you found to make learning from home gain a smile on the dial?

Linda Lazenby:

Well, not only will you get a smile, but you might even learn a few things. We have the Australian Museum 360 degree tour that was created just earlier this year. A really great tool for students to go through and look at, a particular focus on paleontology through the newly renovated Australian Museum.

Joachim Cohen:

Really love that resource because students can actually go and explore that on their own, really meet the paleontologists go inside all of those really exciting parts of the exhibit. And it's interactive. It's not just a 2D page. It's a 360 tour.

Linda Lazenby:

Yeah. And any of the students that might have handheld VR goggles at home, they can use those as well. So a really great tool. What about you, Yvette.

Yvette Poshoglian:

Yeah, I love that one. I've also got Taronga resources, which is a fantastic bunch of lockdown lessons available for students. And it also includes Taronga TV. So they're covering things in the next little while like desert dwellers, predators and prey, exotic encounters, and Australian animals. And I know that these lessons are super popular. So it's really essential that you register as soon as you can. Great for a class or great for students at home. So check it out. And what have you found, Joe?

Joachim Cohen:

Well I’ve chosen something a little bit different, instead of a resource for students I’ve got one for teachers and what we’ve created here at T4L is a series of learning pathways that will help build your skills in the digital classroom with articles to read, things to listen to and professional learning to watch. We’ve got three pathways, one for Google Workspace, one for Office 365 and one for Apple tools, so make sure you go and check them out, they are accessible to everyone and they’re linked in the show notes like everything else we have talked about today.

Yvette Poshoglian:

Love that. I'll check that out.

Joachim Cohen:

So we've unpacked the evidence, provided some really implementable examples, and hopefully given you some key questions to ask to get the balance into your digital classroom. We here, the T4L team, are so inspired by the game changing work you have done to take your classroom to the cloud. If you could see us right now, we would be giving you a virtual high five and also secretly hoping you might maintain a few of these tools and techniques and of course your digital classroom when face-to-face schooling resumes. You are all in our thoughts. And make sure you check out our other online learning special additions to further support your journey.

Yvette Poshoglian:

Just a little note, please be aware that all views expressed by the podcast presenters, that's us, are our personal opinions and not representative of the New South Wales Department of Education. Discussions aren't endorsements of third party products, services or events. And please note that as much as we sound like it, we are not experts in legalese, tech speak, or anything in between. We're just passionate people keen to boost technology for learning in the classroom and to help build the skills in your students and for you to solve the problems of tomorrow. Do your due diligence. Read further. And if we've got something wrong, let us know. We too are always learning and always improving.

Joachim Cohen:

This podcast has been produced by the masterful Jacob Druce with the assistance and supreme coordination of many more awesome members of the T4L team. Before we go, please make sure you send us through your comments, your words of techno wizardry wisdom, your learning from home tips, and your thoughts for new guests and segments. And if you liked the podcast, give us a rating, so more and more educators find us and be inspired to get a little techie in the classroom. Stay awesome. Stay compassionate. Stay safe, everyone. And thanks for joining us.