A little over 12 months ago I was asked whether it would be possible to teach VCE Drama through video conferencing. It took me all of 3 seconds to realise that this was an opportunity to combine two areas I am passionate about as a teacher, Drama and Technology. So with great enthusiasm and my mind racing with possibilities and ideas, my answer was a resounding YES!
The immediate challenge was how to take a very practical VCE subject and teach my own class and three other schools at the same time, without disadvantaging anyone. I worried about the lack of face to face contact and how this would affect my relationship with my ‘virtual’ students. The success of a senior Drama class will often be influenced by the dynamics of the group. What would combining four schools together do to the dynamics? It would also mean that ALL of my resources and teaching methods would need to be electronic. What about the technophobe student who prefers to use paper and pen? What about the student didn’t even have the internet at home? I couldn’t disadvantage those students either. Taking all of these aspects into consideration, Virtual VCE Drama was born.
Connecting the schools
I was put in touch with three interested schools covering a distance of 700kms between them. The three rural schools involved were unable to deliver VCE Drama due to low numbers or lack of qualified staff. The remote students joined my classroom in Ballarat ‘virtually’ for each lesson. Each of the three schools had Polycom units and a dedicated classroom for the students to go to each lesson. I did not have a Polycom unit at my school so I used MS Lync to provide the video conferencing component from my end.
Each week I conducted my VCE Drama classes LIVE and I flipped one of my lessons to cater for timetable clashes (I had several virtual students who couldn’t attend Thursday class so I ran it on Wednesday). Many hours were spent scheduling, planning and organising my lessons. However I soon started to realise that the time spent making electronic teaching resources would not go to waste as I would have an incredible amount of resources to use for future classes. I also found that the students were much more engaged in the ‘new and improved’ approach compared to previous classes.
One of the biggest challenges with teaching VCE Drama (units 3&4) in this way was the Unit 3 task, the Ensemble Performance. This required the students to work in groups for an extended period of time and write and perform an Ensemble Performance. Establishing an environment to create meaningful group work when your students are 700kms apart was one of the biggest obstacles I struck initially. To overcome this I created several MS Lync meeting rooms and had students sign in to a room with their group. I would then ‘jump’ in and out of each room and observe the students collaborating, rehearsing and answer questions when required. It was quite amazing at how quickly the students adapted to this unorthodox approach and it took very little time for relationships to develop between the students. Also watching the ways in which the students interacted with the screen/computer as they rehearsed and performed was incredible. They didn't see it as a barrier, but rather used it as a component of their performance work.
Throughout the year I used a variety of technologies and ICT resources to teach my Virtual VCE Drama class. I created a website which became the main point of reference for my students to check every week and where I uploaded links and resources on a weekly basis. I also used Google Drive, Facebook, Gmail, YouTube, Powtoon, Padlet, Quizlet, forums, surveys, polls and many other ICT tools to communicate, teach, engage and inspire my students.
Occasionally technology failed us and we had to resort to plan b, plan c and even plan d. The first time we experienced technical issues it was the students who quick to problem solve and came up with a variety of ways to keep the lines of communication open so I could continue teaching the class. When our video conferencing links weren’t working we opened a Google doc and used the chat feature to keep the conversations and brainstorming happening. We had skype and Google hangouts on standby. Worst case scenario we resorted to the ‘old school’ approach of phoning and teaching via speaker phone. We worked as a team all year reflecting and evaluation our journey constantly as we went.
My 21st Century classroom
Virtual VCE Drama certainly 'ticked a lot of boxes' when it came to 21CLD. The following examples of some of the ways it was evident:-
-Collaboration: Working in groups to create an ensemble performance on the theme of technology
-Communication: Students communicated both electronically and verbally in workshops and class discussions
-Building knowledge & critical thinking: Students explored the themes and ideas and interpreted their ideas into a performance
-ICT for learning: The students ICT skills improved quickly and consistently
-Problem solving & innovation (creativity): We worked as a class to problem solve the challenges having half the students in the class ‘virtual’
-Student self-assessment and reflection: As this style of learning was new to the students and myself, I constantly sought feedback and reflections from the students
The journey continues
Teaching Virtual VCE Drama has been an enormous challenge for me as a professional and one which I have thoroughly enjoyed. To my knowledge, I am the first teacher to attempt to teach VCE Drama ‘virtually’ which is an incredibly exciting experience and a great learning curve. This year has also lead me to several other wonderful opportunities. Due to my Virtual VCE Drama class, I was selected as a Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert. This means for the next 12 months I will be part of a global network of educators who are recognised for being innovative in the way they use Microsoft technologies. We will share collaborate and be ambassadors for Microsoft education. Already being part of this network I have learnt SO many amazing things. I can’t wait to try out all the new resources I have discovered through my MIE expert role in my Virtual VCE Theatre Studies class in 2015.