Class Without a Room

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When I was at NECC in Washington DC earlier in the year, I sat in on a debate about whether we will need brick and mortar schools in the future or whether schools will be virtual. I didn’t find the arguments from either side particularly helpful, but I’ve thought a lot about the question since then, trying to imagine what a school of the future might be like, what role teachers will play in it, where my teaching is on that journey and what steps I could take to move forward.

I think students will still have a school to go to – but that school will operate very differently to the school they attend now. It will still be a place of social interaction, and identity. It will still be a learning hub. But it won’t operate from 9:00 AM to 3:30 PM, divided into 6 periods that run one into the next, with a 5 minute gap to move from room to room and punctuated by a common lunchtime and recess. I imagine a school where students have much more flexible time arrangements. They will be able to participate in some of their classes from home, online in one way or another. They’ll come to school for prac classes, for sport, and for other special meetings. Some days they may not arrive in the morning until their first meeting.

Other days they may turn up and work in a room where teachers are available on demand to help with things that a student is having difficulty with. I doubt many teachers will be standing in front of the class explaining algebra. Instead that kind of content will be delivered online via any one of a number of vehicles, and the role of many teachers will not be primarily to bring knowledge into the classroom, but wisdom, support and encouragement. (see my earlier post McEducation: Would You Like Teachers With That?

Since 2006, I have encouraged my students to continue interacting with each other and me even outside the classroom, by listening to and producing podcasts and screencasts, asking and answering questions on discussion forums, by SMS and so on.

There have been times when I have been away from school and have left a virtual class, which students have participated in without necessarily being physically in the classroom together. On my return, my students have sometimes told me that i teach better when I am away than I do when I am in the classroom with them!

Likewise, I had one student (Matt) leave the country half way through the year, but by continuing to listen to my podcasts, and by interacting with his classmates on a forum, he performed just as well while absent as he did when he was present in the classroom!

Over the last four years, I have become increasingly convinced that students learn better when they are learning online than they do in the physical classroom. A report from the US Department of Education gives reason to think that my anecdotal bases for thinking this are supported by empirical data that compares the effectiveness of face-to-face learning and online learning.

Yet one thing remains in my teaching. One vestige from the 20th Century that I have clung to like a security blanket: our 4 periods a week of time-tabled face-to-face class time. Its hard to imagine a class operating without it.

Or is it?

Next year, I have been granted permission to teach a biology class without a place in the timetable nor a classroom. Instead, we will meet in the evening, or at lunchtime, online, using Elluminate or something of that ilk. In addition we will make the class available to some students from other schools in the region. I’m hoping that teachers from those other schools might also be involved in some way.

There will be times when we will want to meet together in person, for pracs, for example. There may be other weeks when it’s not necessary to meet at all (even online) and other weeks when we want to double our time.

This class will comprise part of my official teaching allotment, so it also makes my day more flexible. For example, If I am teaching a class in the evening on a Wednesday, I may not turn up to school until recess that morning, or i may go home at lunchtime on Thursday. Likewise students will have flexible-time, being allowed to vary their attendance times at school.

In some ways its not unlike distance education, but the student:teacher ratio will be no larger than for a conventional VCE  face-to-face class, it will be more interactive than typical distance ed. and the class members will know each other in real-life. In many ways it will be more like a normal class, based in a public school, within a country town, but freed from the strictures of a timetable.

The regional director has given us permission to forge ahead with this – as an experiment, and has committed his financial support. So now all that remains is to get students involved, and to figure out how we are going to do… well, everything! This is a new land we are entering!

Any suggestions would be welcome! To tell the truth I’m a bit apprehensive. It’s a risk I’m taking – and I’m not just risking my own reputation, but the learning of my students. That’s a big risk. But if I’m right – those kids will learn better than the students in the conventional classes, and pave the way for more classes to be taught like that.

I’ll be reporting on how it goes throughout the year, here, and on my Twitter feed.


10 thoughts on “Class Without a Room

  1. Goodluck with it Andrew. Remember that David Langford says “Change the system you get a different result”

  2. Andrew I have every faith that you will make this work, look forward to seeing it all progress and would love to help out if it was possible.

  3. Hmmm. I’ll be VERY interested to see how this goes and will follow with interest.

    You are very lucky to have such an accommodating work place. I also agree with mrrobbo, YOU Andrew will undoubtedly make it work, but not all teachers are like you … an inspirational leader!

    PS. You missed a duplicated paragraph in your proofreading. It starts “There have been times when I have been away from school ….”
    Feel free to edit my comment too 🙂

  4. Thanks Mr. Barlow. 🙂 and thanks for pointing out the duplicated paragraph. I have fixed that now.

  5. Hello Andrew, you are obviously going to become a pioneer in Australia in providing this type of virtual learning opportunity. I just wanted to tell you that there is a quite a large group of New Zealand teachers who are doing this very thing through the NZ Virtual Learning Network and we would be very happy to support you through your journey. We are still on our journey and so far it has been full of excitement, challenges and rewards for both ourselves and our students.

    If you want to see what we are doing and perhaps we could provide you with some students to join your virtual class from New Zealand, then visit Feel free to keep in touch.

    • I would very much like to keep in touch, and to know what, specifically your teachers are using and how they are using it.

      • Hello Andrew, if you go on the link I have left above, the vln one, then go into the programmes of learning area and you will get a picture of what we are doing in New Zealand around the delivery of online classes amongst our rural schools. Keep in touch and I will answer any questions you may have from viewing the VLN site.

  6. Risks. Andrew you have come this far by risking & your focus has rewarded you with success. This is just the next step for you.
    We all need to think bigger. Cheers

  7. Pingback: Online Biology Class – Update #1 « Douchy’s Weblog

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