In this post, teacher and Head of Department Ms Frances Constantine and Dr Prue Miles from The Centre for Inclusive Education reflect on COVID-19 online learning, and what teachers can take from this experience, to build innovative and engaging curriculum delivery.
There is no doubt that COVID-19 introduced unique challenges and constraints in secondary schools. Fortitude Valley State Secondary College (FVSSC), in the inner-north of Brisbane, opened on the 28th of January 2020 for Year 7 students. Queensland University of Technology (QUT) academics, including members of The Centre for Inclusive Education (C4IE), have a unique collaboration with this new school. All stakeholders have enjoyed working collaboratively to discuss innovative teaching and learning ideas.
FVSSC’s approach of doing things differently and a vision of ‘creating a community of agile learners who are bold, resilient and kind’ aligns with the research that is being undertaken by members of C4IE. Members of the QUT team enjoyed working closely with students from the FVSSC Foundation cohort when they visited the Peter Coaldrake Education Precinct at QUT for their Year 6 Transition Day. At this time we collaborated with students and teachers to co-create engaging and innovative digital works for QUT’s The Sphere.
FVSSC’s best-laid plans for their foundation year were interrupted before the end of their first term, and new teaching teams were required to pivot to an online model and find innovative ways of supporting and engaging 140 students from a distance.
What did we do to engage students in online learning?
Here, Frances outlines FVSSC’s approach to online /distance learning during COVID-19. The ‘satellite’ program highlights the FVSSC curriculum approach of interdisciplinary learning supported by innovative pedagogy and use of technology.
An interdisciplinary unit came about as our teachers amalgamated a Media Arts unit with a study of Young Adolescence (YA) novel Wonder by R. J. Palacio. Faced with delivering content in an engaging way without face-to-face contact, our teachers collaborated to script, record and edit a weekly TV show for children, “Satellite TV”. Teachers performed as comedic characters aboard the Starship Fortitude, a fictional, green-screened spaceship, where we would read and discuss the novel, conduct app demonstrations, and showcase student work.
What began as a fun distraction for students in isolation developed into a complex production, as students and parents alike started to tune in faithfully for the next instalment. We built in additional storylines, guest appearances from the Principal as a ‘Space Bandit’ intruder, and other interactive elements. Another teaching team even created a Survivor-esque TV show on the strength of ours, evicting a teacher every week using an interactive online voting system.
Story has the power to bring us together and allow us to share in common experiences. Students are still asking questions about Starship Fortitude storylines and requesting appearances from their favourite characters. Introducing a narrative element to our unit delivery not only increased engagement in learning: it showcased the dedication, personalities and human side of our teachers to our students (and parents). For us, seeing the impact of embedding narrative in our unit has us committed to continuing.
Our teaching teams joined forces and ran combined, interdisciplinary units with the goal of reducing the cognitive load for our learners. For instance, skills in humanities, maths, science and business were taught through a single interdisciplinary unit focusing on the timely topic of Pandemics. What we achieved was more than what we had imagined: students demonstrated a significant depth of understanding, as well as a greater appreciation of the links between their learning and real-world applications. Efficiency is also important in online learning. Using a single task to make judgements across a number of learning areas gave time back to teaching teams as well as students and parents, too often overwhelmed by the workload demands of junior secondary.
One of the great inequities in our system is physical access: there is simply no substitute for being there in the room. Students who are absent fall behind because a worksheet or set of slides cannot capture the discussion or explanation in class. COVID-19 distance learning meant that all curriculum planning and delivery suddenly had to be custom-made for absent students. For us, it meant using video across a range of applications: recording tutorials, capturing audio as we led on-screen demonstrations, screen casting as we evaluated student work. Creating a bank of resources for download meant that students could replay the lesson as many times as required. Many of our students returned to school expressing their preference for learning via video tutorials. We had underestimated the opportunity for students to revisit learning, and the importance of capturing those conversations in a re-playable format.
Our school’s approach
These are examples of how the teachers were inspired by The Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL)’s Spotlight guide. Our distance learning program embedded components such as collaboration, reflection, self-paced independent study, and social-emotional learning. Our school’s approach included:
- Curriculum content delivered through Microsoft online platform OneNote, with course plans and resources available for students and parents
- Scheduled online curriculum ‘drop-ins’ for courses with the teacher
- A wellbeing program with flexible activities for Mind Time, Me Time and Move Time
- Twice-daily ‘huddles’ – online, video-chat sessions facilitated by a teacher with a group of 12 students
- Teacher aides contacting families weekly for a wellbeing check-in
A number of frank conversations occurred as we prepared for distance learning. We had never run any of our units before, we had only just started working in our teaching teams, and had only just met our students a couple of weeks prior to online learning. As a school still establishing processes and embedding new curriculum, the unique challenges we faced in distance learning also opened up a world of possibilities. Our teaching teams have reflected on our learning and our experiences have shaped a number of elements of our practice as we continue to build our curriculum. We hope by sharing these reflections with teachers, we may inspire ongoing conversations about student engagement and curriculum innovation post-COVID-19.
The way forward
The constraints of COVID-19 required FVSSC to reconsider their pedagogy, with new learnings about engagement, student access and use of technology providing opportunities for innovation. This mutual interest in innovation underpins QUT’s collaboration with FVSSC.
Throughout 2019 and 2020, QUT’s Faculty of Education worked closely with FVSSC to share ideas and knowledge about learning and teaching. Recently, QUT academics visited FVSCC for a tour oft heir new building and an update on their 2020 curriculum and pedagogy. We discussed ways to integrate our research, pedagogy ideas and students with FVSSC teaching and learning.
QUT and The Centre for Inclusive Education members look forward to working collaboratively with FVSSC teachers and students for their 2020 Transition Day. We are planning some engaging digital learning experiences to welcome the incoming 2021 Year 7 cohort to both QUT and FVSSC. You can find out more about QUT’s collaboration with FVSSC here.
Frances Constantine is a Senior Teacher and Head of Department at Fortitude Valley State Secondary College (FVSSC). Her background is in leadership in junior secondary, and designing programs and pathways to meet the unique needs of students at this developmental phase. She completed the Masters of Education (Research) at QUT in 2017, focusing her research on how early-career teachers manage their expectations of their own performance. You can read more about Frances’ research here.
Dr Prue Miles is the QUT Relationship Manager, a Senior Lecturer within Faculty of Education at QUT, and a member of C4IE. Prue’s key role is working with FVSSC, all QUT faculties and external stakeholders to support collaboration and explore opportunities. She also coordinates and teaches digital technologies units in the Faculty of Education’s undergraduate and postgraduate courses. Her research strengths are in digital pedagogies, education partnerships, student engagement, innovative curriculum design, and online learning and teaching resources.