VLN Community ready to support schools with distance learning

Issue: Volume 99, Number 6

Posted: 7 May 2020
Reference #: 1HA7Kk

With 25 years’ experience with online learning under its belt, the Virtual Learning Network Community is well positioned to help schools with distance teaching and learning during the Covid-19 response.

Until recently, Jo Wilkinson’s classroom looked a little different from most. Every week, around 11 students from some of the more remote places in New Zealand, including Stewart Island, Mount Cook, Taumaranui, and Gisborne, join Jo’s virtual Zoom lessons on sign language.

As well as teaching at Waitoriki School in rural Taranaki for the past year, Jo has also been a teacher for the Virtual Learning Network (VLN) Primary. 

The VLN Community is a group of school clusters that operate as a collaborative network, using digital technologies to enhance learning outcomes and opportunities. The VLN Community is made up of VLN Primary and the secondary VLN organisations of NetNZ, FarNet, HarbourNet, Volcanics and WelCom.

Well placed for distance learning

Of course, now in this new era of distance learning, teachers all over New Zealand and in many parts of the world are finding themselves doing what Jo and other VLN Community teachers have been doing for some time: leading Zoom sessions with their classes, coordinating chats with their students on Google Hangouts, connecting via online learning platforms. 

With 25 years of experience under its belt, the VLN Community is keen to share this experience with other schools, as they embrace remote learning in response to Covid-19.

“We’ve been doing this for 25 years but all of a sudden we’re all online teachers!” says Rachel Whalley, VLN Primary Principal. 

“We know that schools are feeling overwhelmed; that they’re really stepping up to taking on that role, to connecting with their learners, to focusing on what’s important and doing what they can from a distance. There’s a lot of schools that are doing awesome things and being quite innovative about it. But there is also a bit of stress and anxiety across the board around their changing role.

“It is the space that we’ve been working in for some time and we’re quite comfortable here. And we’re ready and willing and able to support the sector with that. There’s a sound base already working in New Zealand schools; how can we extend that base and experience to enable more schools to participate in what we’re doing?

“We’ve been working with the Ministry of Education into extending what we do to work with schools. This means joining in some of our classes and getting involved with the PLD,” says Rachel.

The Ministry is funding further enrolments to the VLN Community in Term 2 from schools which need external provision. This will give learners the opportunity to access quality programmes that they might not have in their own school, while connecting with schools and teachers who have solid experience in distance learning. 

Rachel says that while it’s potentially a rapid upscale, it is manageable and they are ready to take on more learners and expand the number of classes. 

“It’s really about helping fill in the gaps,” says Rachel. “It’s a really good funded opportunity to access that learning for your students.”

For primary schools, VLN is keen to have teachers involved too. 

“So if a primary school is going to enrol a group of kids, we’d really love to see their teachers there too so we can share that expertise. It’s about growing that capability.

How does the VLN Community work?

The VLN Community caters for both primary(external link) and secondary(external link) students offering online classes across a wide range of different subjects. The programmes are based on The New Zealand Curriculum and use a blend of technologies. They are delivered to small numbers of students at a time. An online hub centralises all learning activity, while video conferencing is used to build connections.” 

It’s a model that works well, according to those who are familiar with it. 

Take Waitoriki School student Eli - this is his first year participating in the Digi Tech extension classes offered by the VLN Primary.

“We log into Zoom same time every Thursday to listen to our teacher teach us about coding – how to use Scratch and Python – and then she sets us work to complete before the next session which we can show the rest of the classroom.

Eli enjoys the chance to tap into learning beyond what he is doing at school.

“I get to learn something that my school isn’t able to offer at the moment and I can complete the homework in my own time.

“It can be a challenge to complete my work on time if I keep putting it off. I have to take responsibility for myself.”

Halfmoon Bay School on Stewart Island is also a member school of the VLN Primary. Student Fionn takes Spanish and extension maths classes with VLN Primary. “I don’t have to go on the ferry when it’s rough to learn things I can’t learn from my teachers at school.”

Halfmoon Bay School principal Kath Johnson was a founding trustee of the VLN Primary and has had students participate in VLN classes since 2012. She was also one of a group of principals who set up the Rural & Remote Kids’ Programme.

There’s a lot involved with online teaching, says Kath. Prompting kids to remember to be at class on time; making sure they have a suitable space and up to date hardware; making sure they have time to complete follow up work; being well prepared; coming up with fun and interactive ways for the students to be engaged during the lesson; marking set work and giving feedback; and facilitating ways for the students to communicate with each other out of class. While things like poor internet quality and timetabling clashes can make the delivery challenging at times, it is ultimately rewarding.

“I like the huge range of opportunities it opens up to our students who live in one of the most remote parts of the country,” says Kath.

The VLN Community also offers professional learning and development for teachers. The NEX Kōtuitui online teachers professional network(external link) delivers fortnightly forum-type workshops on some of the key themes such as engaging students and learning design.

Integrating distance learning into our schooling system

Rachel has been impressed to see teachers and students from VLN Community member schools helping others to gain a better understanding of how online platforms work and how to teach online with confidence. 

“It was really good to hear what a difference the students have been making. They know how things work and they’re getting stuck in and helping their school communities too.”

Rachel hopes that the gains made by many schools in integrating online learning during the Covid-19 crisis will not be lost when schools eventually resume normal operation. 

Leveraging the role of online learning was a key part of the Education Conversation and Tomorrow’s Schools Reform discussions, and the VLN Community and Te Kura (The Correspondence School) were highlighted in these.

“Schools are currently in emergency remote learning and teaching mode, but there’s a whole depth of online learning that goes further than that, where people thrive and there are pedagogies and experiences that are gained.

“I think it’s about working smartly across schools, about teacher workforce supply, about student agency and choice. Rather than ‘let’s just throw some learning opportunities at this’, there’s a whole big picture out there, to which we can be strategically aligned.”

VLN Community best preparation for distance learning

Many schools say their involvement with the VLN Community has put them in a good position to embrace distance learning during the lockdown period.

“Just letting you know that our participation in the VLN Primary has contributed positively to our confidence and readiness to take learning online during this period of school shutdown.”

“It’s also been great having such knowledgeable kids who have been doing VLN for years”

“We have a VLN Primary teacher on our staff and during this lockdown period she has really stepped up and taken on a leadership role getting everyone prepared for online learning. She has run extra Zoom meetings with those staff who were struggling and patiently talked them through the technical side. She has shared her wisdom on what works in an online lesson and what doesn’t.”

“Another positive is that the kids who are in the VLN classes were able to act as experts for the rest of our whānau before lockdown started.”

“Being part of VLN schools and participating as an online teacher as part of the rural schools group really helped our confidence moving to online classes. Our senior students have adapted well and using Google Classroom as part of our daily organisation has as well.”

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero, reporter@edgazette.govt.nz

Posted: 8:31 am, 7 May 2020

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