STEM Education Summit

Nicola O’Brien: Remote learning now and in the future

In Nicola’s role at the Australian Computing Academy, she’s been involved in developing online resource for teachers and students around the country to teach digital technologies and coding.

About this talk

Hear from Nicola about how her team adapted to the news that nearly all Australian school students would be learning at least partially remotely, how they incorporated feedback from teachers and leaders, and how their resources are being used and adapted by an ever-growing number of teachers.

About the Speaker

Computing Education Specialist, Australian Computing Academy

Watch full video below

Click to play


Peter Dalmaris: Hi everyone. And welcome to Nicola O'Brien, who is about to deliver a presentation on how she and her team adapted to the new reality of teaching during the coronavirus pandemic.

Peter Dalmaris: Nicola's talk is part of the STEM Education Summit, a unique one of a kind event where educators from around the world come together to share the best insight on the technologies, methodologies, and philosophies they use to teach and inspire the next generation of amazing humans.

Peter Dalmaris: I'm Peter Dalmaris, an online educator, author of Maker Education Revolution, and co-founder of Tech Explorations.

Peter Dalmaris: Nicola is a computing education specialist at the Australian Computing Academy. She recently published Ready, Set, Code, a hands on book exploring the technology around us with coding projects using Scratch and micro:bit. In her presentation, Nicola will talk about how her team adapted to the news that nearly all Australian school students would be learning at least partially remotely, how they incorporated feedback from teachers and leaders, and how their resources are being used and adopted by a continuously increasing number of teachers. Nicola, thank you for joining me. How are you today?

Nicola O’Brien: Very well. Thank you, Peter.

Peter Dalmaris: It's a very hectic time, isn't it? You got a book. You got, like, all the work you're doing now to move learning to remote, which you can tell us about it. How are you feeling in general?

Nicola O’Brien: Oh, I'm good. I think we've all got used to situation changing day by day. I drove around Sydney yesterday to record something, and I didn't miss the traffic that we used to have. That was a very quick trip across town. So, there are good things. I'm going for a lot more dog walks than I used to. So, it's a very interesting time. I think we're all being adaptable the best we can.

Peter Dalmaris: Yeah. It's an opportunity to reexamine everything, including how we live and how we can make our work better and life quality better as well.

Nicola O’Brien: Absolutely.

Peter Dalmaris: Yeah. Now, I've got to say that I really like the name of your book. I think it's very clever the way that you titled it, then you can tell us a little bit about it later. But I think I wanted to ask actually a question just to kick start your presentation.

Peter Dalmaris: And remind our listeners that, because I'm not sure where everybody's going to be consuming this and watching this presentation, that we're recording this in early May 2020. At this point in time, it seems like social distancing rules around the world are starting to be relaxed so we can go out. And there's even talk about schools opening up again. And many of us may be thinking that things are going to be back to normal soon, like the normal that we are used to in the old good days.

Nicola O’Brien: In your presentation, you'll explain how your team adapted to the social distancing restrictions and enabled teachers to continue teaching online and remotely. Now, I'd like your opinion, what do you think that the new normal in education will be like or might be like? And, especially, how do you think that teachers should prepare for that new normal? What should they expect?

Nicola O’Brien: Such a good question. And there's so much uncertainty. Where I sit today on the 4th of May across Australia, we've got really a political hot potato between the states and the federal government, and also between the different sectors in the education system between private, independent, Catholic, and state system schools. So, I think it's a long time until we're completely back to normal. And by normal, I mean K-12 students at school.

Nicola O’Brien: I think as we start reopening and having children on different timetables and parts of year groups back, we need to be, I guess, really tuned into things changing quickly. So, already in New South Wales, I think one of the schools that hope to open next week is now closed for a deep clean because there has been a confirmed case. So, we have to expect that it's not going to be a linear return to normal. Things will move forward, they'll move back, I think.

Nicola O’Brien: You know, obviously for us in Australia, we're coming into winter, so that will change the profile of how people get sick again. So, I think all you can work from is principals at the moment. And I think teachers have had so much thrown at them recently and had to adapt and change. I really hope there is an opportunity at some point to reflect and to incorporate the good.

Nicola O’Brien: Not everything about remote learning has been great for teachers or students or families, so it's great that schools have this massive digital transformation almost foist upon them and good things come from that. But at the same time, there's a lot about classroom teaching that's absolutely fabulous, which kids are missing at the moment.

Nicola O’Brien: So, I guess my big hope is that the pace of change is sufficiently slow at some point that schools can really sit back and think about what of this new normal can we bring back into the classroom and incorporate? And I think teachers, you know, across their students, they're seeing a different side of a lot of their students. Some students really enjoy it a bit more space and time to do their work. Some kids are more productive at home without distraction of kids sitting next to them.

Nicola O’Brien: So, I hope that we can really incorporate some of the positives that we've seen out of this, but not sort of jump completely into digital and forget the beautiful things about classroom teaching and face to face engagement. So, we need to be flexible. We need to expect things aren't going in a straight line, they'll be up and down. And we need to cherry pick and take the good things. And there'll be parts about these months and six months, hopefully, we can all forget.

Nicola O’Brien: I think Zoom and its novelty, you know, we were talking before we started, Zoom was a great platform. Where would we be without it? But how good will it be to have meetings that aren't on Zoom at some point, too?

Peter Dalmaris: Great. There's a few good points that I'll summarize, because that's how I understand things, I like to summarize. So, first of all, we often - myself included - forget that education is not one thing. There's so many different players in there, like a single country like Australia, but the same thing everywhere. You've got many different parallel systems working, so you've got the government, you've got Catholic, private, you've got homeschoolers, all sorts of different ways of educating children.

Peter Dalmaris: And all of those are going to be adapting slightly differently, so expect that there's going to be a lot of different ways of doing education in the future. That's one that I take.

Peter Dalmaris: Now, the other one is about change. Like, change is going to continue being quick because we are still trying new ways of adapting to the crisis or during the crisis and then post-crisis, and whatever else comes that we just don't know what it's going to be. So, they just should be ready to continue having to adapt to change for a very long time. The change is going to be faster than it used to be.

Peter Dalmaris: It was taking like a decade to digitize education. We did it, like, in a month. It's extremely fast and we'll continue to do things really fast and adapt to change is really fast. It's going to be flexible.

Peter Dalmaris: Thanks for that. Okay. Get into your presentation. Let's do it.

Nicola O’Brien: Excellent. So, what I'll do, I'll start to share my screen and I'll talk a little bit about the ACA where I work and what our team does. And then, continuing that theme of change, look at what's happened to us in the last couple of months and what we've been working hard on.

Nicola O’Brien: And one other thing I'd like to bring in, actually, is the idea about equity. So, with change, there are winners and losers always. So, how do we keep in mind all kids in the system and all educators and make sure that with all the change, everyone's getting equal access and opportunity. So, that's something else even as I go. So, let me share my screen.

Peter Dalmaris: I'm most particularly interested in your learnings because you've been at the forefront of this implementing change. So, I'll be interested to see what you and your team have learned from all this.

Nicola O’Brien: Okay. So, the topic for today, Remote learning now and in the future. As mentioned, I'm speaking today as part of the team at the Australian Computing Academy. And you'll see my email address there on the screen, if you have any questions, just reach out to me afterwards. I'm happy to answer them.

Nicola O’Brien: So, I thought I'd break today's talk into sort of Then, Now, and What's next. So, Then - March seems like a very long time ago. And this is what I thought the world looked like in March. I really thought the bushfires would be the defining feature of 2020. January was a very traumatic time in Australia for a lot of us, and we were having discussions about work, about disruptions to school and for children, and rural communities around the country. Who knew?

Nicola O’Brien: We also had plans for a lot of big conferences and events and we're planning to deliver a lot of face to face PD, as well as continuing our online learning.

Nicola O’Brien: So, let me step back for a moment. The Australian Computing Academy is a team of around 15 educators, developers, and support staff. We are a center at Sydney University, and we receive our funding in part through the federal government and through some other partnerships. And our mission is to support teachers delivering and teaching digital technologies education.

Nicola O’Brien: So, until this year, what that's look like is that we deliver online courses for students. That's called the DT Challenges Project, and that's part of the federal government's funding dating back to 2016. Those challenges are online courses which are available for students from Year 3 up to Year 8, and they cover the really challenging parts of digital technologies curriculum, including programing.

Nicola O’Brien: Since that program started in 2016, we've taken on some other things. So, our Cyber Challenges are another project of cyber security education for students around Australia in Year 7 to 12. And when I say they're aimed at those year groups, they're freely available for any Australian school kids in those year groups.

Nicola O’Brien: One of the other things we were asked and funded for was delivering face to face professional development for teachers. So, we've been running two day workshops that cover the curriculum in depth around the country, a lot of regional areas. And this year, for the first time, we started to deliver a master's of education program through Sydney University. And 2020, March began Semester 1, our first cohort coming through the master's program.

Nicola O’Brien: So, we had big plans across our face to face programs, conferences, the [inaudible] was very exciting, and the challenges were mostly completed and built, and we were looking forward to seeing students continue to enroll and use those courses.

Nicola O’Brien: Then, things started to change. We became aware, we had our first big cancelation in March. There was a very large conference in Melbourne that we had invested a ton of time and energy into preparing for, and that was called off two or three days before it was due to happen. I think we'd already sent a container of stuff to Melbourne. And I think that's coming back, I should check. I'm not proud of that team.

Nicola O’Brien: But, obviously, things change very quickly and we realized that most children were being sent home from school, and we needed to be there for them and for their teachers. One of the things, I think, focusing on digital technologies as we do is that we sit in a curriculum that's crowded with English, Math, Science, Music, Geography, PDHPE, there are a lot of subjects there.

Nicola O’Brien: And one thing we saw quickly was that schools were telling parents, you know, focus on the literacy and numeracy. And that is very important learning, particularly in the primary school level. But we wanted to make sure that schools could continue teaching digital technologies, and that didn't fall by the wayside, and that teachers could offer a full curriculum to students whether they were on site or at home.

Nicola O’Brien: So, we rapidly changed our plans. Obviously, our face to face PD was stopped, but we did want to keep supporting teachers. One of the big issues that we talked about a lot at this point was what happens for the kids that don't have computers. And it's been really unclear to us across the country how students are supported when either their parents or themselves are being sent emails saying, "Join Microsoft Teams. We have a Google Hangout. Come into a Zoom meeting and check with your teacher." That's the reality for many kids, but not all.

Nicola O’Brien: And different states have taken different approaches to supporting learning for students who don't have access to a computer, and that was a very large consideration for us. We wanted to make digital technology accessible. One of the nice things about teaching digital technologies is that unplugged learning has always been a part of what we do, especially for teachers at primary and secondary level. A lot of learning in depth about computers and technology can be done away from a computer.

Nicola O’Brien: We hadn't focused on that at the ACA. We recommended things from time to time, and our face to face PD certainly included some unplugged learning, but we didn't have actual classroom ready resources. So, we thought, "Okay. We need to make sure all Australian children can access digital technologies learning."

Nicola O’Brien: And we started working on a project called DT @ Home. These are printable PDF files. We had design constraints on them. They couldn't be too long. We couldn't use too much color so that they printed well in grayscale. We wanted them to be quite short. We wanted them to be understandable by parents. So, we literally have a paragraph in them that says "Read this with your child," and explains what the children are doing and why. And we also didn't want a burden on teachers, particularly in terms of marketing and feedback and so on. So, they're designed to be simple activities to do at home, which makes sense to whoever picks them up, and we'll have a look at one of those shortly.

Nicola O’Brien: The other challenge throughout April, I think, was understanding how teachers wanted to hear from us. And the biggest thing we were hearing is that teachers are absolutely being deluged. Every single platform provider globally is saying, "Hey, it's great. We've got free stuff," and teachers were being just snowed under. So, we thought pretty carefully about how we communicated with teachers, how we could let them know what our plans were without hammering them with too much information.

Nicola O’Brien: Finally, in terms of the equity piece and making sure that everything was available to as many children as possible, our activities had previously been free for Years 3 to 8 for our programing courses, and 7 to 12 for our cyber courses. And we partnered with Grok Learning, who also have programing courses available, which have a fee associated with them. So, we made a decision together with Grok Learning that until mid-July, everything on the platform would be free and free globally.

Nicola O’Brien: So, if you're watching this from another country, until July, you can check out what we're doing here in Australia and access all of the resources free.

Nicola O’Brien: There were discussions along the way about, you know, how we would balance things, what we would do. But in the end, we just said, let's make it all free until early July and then we'll see where things are up to. So, Term 2 is really a time for schools to experiment, to look at the whole suite of what we have. Now, we've seen in terms of kids accessing it and having to pay subscriptions. So, it's always been free. But now if you're a Year 10 teacher and you want to teach the Year 8 programing, you can just jump into that.

Nicola O’Brien: We also had to think pretty carefully about our professional development because we didn't want teachers to have nothing, but we recognized they can't come to our workshops. So, we have started working on webinars. And, in fact, we had our first webinar last night for teachers, which is sort of short one hour sessions to give them bite sized pieces of what they need when they need it. Again, being as careful as we can about not overwhelming teachers.

Nicola O’Brien: So, there's a list on the slide, what I'd like to do now is actually jump across and start to show you some of these features instead of just talking about them so that we can see what we're talking about. And for those who haven't seen the ACA's work before, just give you a little flavor.

Peter Dalmaris: Great. So, this is content that you have created that is available to all teachers in Australia to use in the classrooms and online, of course.

Nicola O’Brien: Correct. So, what I'll do is start on the Australian Computing Academy's website. I'll have the link at the end of the presentation. And the resources page is where you find everything that we offer, all of our content. And we are a very busy team. We're a team of makers, we get excited by making things. So, you can see we make a lot. That's not always the best if you're a teacher, so you need to find the good stuff.

Nicola O’Brien: So, I mentioned DT @ Home, which is our worksheets and principals for teachers. There's a filter on the website here, DT @ Home. And you can also filter by band. So, if I'm a Year 3 and 4 teacher and I'm looking for some of these stay at home activities, here are the ones that you want. If we think the Pirate Treasure Hunt might be a nice one to look at, we can click across and see that this is a 30 minute activity. The students follow a set of steps to reach the treasure. It introduces 3 to 4 and 5 to 6 students to, if-else statements and some Boolean logic.

Nicola O’Brien: We've even met this one to the curriculum, so you can see if you want to teach your students about following algorithms. This is the resource for you. We have some follow on activities once you've done the main one that you might like to think about.

Nicola O’Brien: And then, let's have a look at this PDF. You can see, we begin with an introduction about what the activity teaches, and this one teaches a little bit of data representation, algorithms, decision making, and loops. Then, we have a section to read with your child. And we set up a story about a pirate losing his treasure and having to follow instructions. And then, here's our puzzle. So, the students have to understand the symbol of drips, what the numbers on the mean, and with a pen and paper track through this maze like challenge to get to the end, and on we go. So, that's just one example.

Nicola O’Brien: We provide the answer key. You can choose whether you share that. We have a more advanced version. And we also ask the students to have a go at creating their own activity.

Nicola O’Brien: So, in terms of being a busy team, we've made, I think, at last count, 26 of these activities in the last month, which have been conceptualized, written, graphically designed, had answer keys that's been mapped to the curriculum. So, it's been a massive effort, but we're really happy that they've all come together and been useful for teachers.

Peter Dalmaris: So, Nicola, just a quick question here, how do kids eventually get the hands on these printouts because they're meant to be used as a printout. It's like the parents will print it out or do you send them through the mail?

Nicola O’Brien: There's no paywall or anything on the website, so if parents are interested, they can come and browse these and print off anything they're interested in. Otherwise, for teachers, they might print them off as a class and distribute them with workbooks at the beginning of term for students that don't have access to computers.

Peter Dalmaris: Do you know if students, say, around Australia, or elsewhere even, where they don't have access to computers and teachers then have to put it in the mail or just drop it off at the driveway or something like that happening?

Nicola O’Brien: Yeah. We have heard of that happening. And across Australia and some of the territories, the centralized Department of Education is looking at collating materials that can get out to schools. So, they'll send a recommended pack of activities and include some of these in it.

Peter Dalmaris: Yeah. I've heard of that happening in other places like the U.S., for example, the drop offs at the driveway every day, the lesson. It's just like the newspaper comes, but now it's a pack of paper for today's lesson.

Nicola O’Brien: Yeah. I mean, there's so many ways of doing it, isn't there? It's interesting times. So, those are the unplugged resources. What I was going to show you now is one of the DT Challenges and show that live in action. So, I'll show you a mini challenge today. Again, I recommend that you filter so you don't get overwhelmed with choice. These are now the online learn to code courses, and I'll show it to you quickly. Talk about what's changed in the last couple of months to support teachers a little better, and then hopefully you'll be inspired to go off and have a look at them yourself.

Nicola O’Brien: So, we have a number of courses here for Year 3 and 4. The one I'll have a look at is called the Blockly Wombot. So, again, I can click on this More info page and I will see a little bit of information about what the course does. And then, I can jump into it. Now, this has taken me to the Grok Learning website. This is our partner who hosts our software and gives us all the metrics and analytics as well. So, here's the course. And before I go into it, let me show you what teachers see, and I'll talk about that briefly.

Nicola O’Brien: So, if you're a teacher and you're listening to this webinar, many of you will already be signed up. If you're not signed up, it's free to create an account. And if you are a teacher and you get verified as a teacher, you can access your student data. So, I have a class set here called Student Workshops. You can incorporate your classes by either uploading CSV files or we're integrated with Google Classroom. You get all your students onto the platform.

Nicola O’Brien: One of the new features is this one here, View Live. So, I can see in real time what my students are working on. Now, luckily, my team in the office briefed them and told them to get busy. So, you can see here this is real data. There's nothing engineered about this at all. I can see Student Workshop 17 five minutes ago was looking at. And I can click and literally go and see what slide and which course they were looking at. So, here we are. This was the activity they were doing.

Peter Dalmaris: This is like Big Brother watching.

Nicola O’Brien: It really is, especially with remote learning. So, you say to your students between 10:00 a.m. and 11:00 a.m., we're working on this course together. If it's useful for you, you can dive in here and see exactly what's happening.

Peter Dalmaris: Nicola, do you find that setting, I guess, time slots for your students to do work is beneficial from a learning point of view? I guess, through providing structure as if you were in the classroom where you would have class hours and subjects allocated through the day replicating that online.

Nicola O’Brien: Look, I think it's good to provide that structure because a group of families will appreciate that. I think it's good to make it clear that, I think, at primary school level, a lot of schools are saying here's a suggested timetable. But the students don't necessarily need to follow that. And students and families can work the way they need to. At high school, it's a bit different. I mean, there's obviously a much greater learning load there and more directive time needed on curriculum outcomes.

Nicola O’Brien: So, I think a stricter timetable seems to work at high school. But for primary school, I think flexibility is a good option. For some people that structure is helpful. For others, they can do the work they need to when they need to get it done.

Peter Dalmaris: Because there's the parents involved as well in helping out the kids, you have to fit with their schedule. So, that's where the flexibility is important.

Nicola O’Brien: I think so. You know, for students who can rise through the content easily - you know, a school day is not just 100 percent learning time. There's a lot of other things that happen in schools which are not happening at home. We're not lining up to visit the bathroom, we're not having assemblies, all of these things - for a student that wants to cover the work in a short period of time, I don't think we should hold them back from that. And there's a lot of great learning happening at home that's not school related, whether it's cooking, helping with your housework, going out and exploring the neighborhood. You know, we don't want to fill the day unnecessarily

Peter Dalmaris: Setting a veggie patch, which is what a lot of people are doing these days or home improvement.

Nicola O’Brien: Indeed. Before I go back into the course, a couple of things to show you. This orange one here, this orange style let's me know that the student is struggling. So, I can see here the most recent thing they did, they didn't get it right. The green, yes, the most recent thing they did they've successfully marked it. And so, that's really helpful for a quick snapshot. And this is changing by the moment. I can see someone's in it right now. And this will change and update. But it looks like Student Workshop 10 might need some help. They've been 45 minutes now on that slide, and nothing's happened. So, that's useful information.

Peter Dalmaris: It could be like the student is distracted with something and hasn't completed the task. But it tells you as a teacher that you need to focus on the student as it was happening. Can you contact them and say, "Hey, can I help with something"?

Nicola O’Brien: You can. Through the platform? Not through the platform directly. That's a feature that's coming soon. Not yet. So, this is a real time tool. Now, that might be more than you need. That's great if you want to watch students. That's an improvement. That's one of the pivots we've done in the last few weeks is to activate that.

Nicola O’Brien: The traditional way is through this teacher dashboard, Course Progress. These are all of the courses that we have. So, let me find the one we're looking at, the Wombot. This is more permanent data. So, it's still updating in real time, but what I can see for every student who's been assigned that course, what their progress is cumulatively. So, I can see Student Workshop 12 is about two-thirds of the way through the course. It seems to be doing okay. Student Workshop 18 has just done a lot of work.

Nicola O’Brien: And I can come in again if I click on this, I'm going straight into the student screen to see what the most recent work was and what they might be stuck on. So, I can have a look. We'll have a look.

Peter Dalmaris: So, this is the code that the student has submitted as solving this problem. So, the left is a problem, then the solution on the right side. And you can comment, I guess, and inspect.

Nicola O’Brien: Yeah. I'll leave the student alone and I'll go into the course myself. So, we can see what the courses look like. So, now I'm going to go from being a teacher to a student and find that Wombot course. Here we are, the Wombot. So, I find the student and I want to impress my teacher and solve my problems quickly. The little circles are the narrative slides that tell you what to do and the diamonds are those problems to solve. So, if I jump straight into a problem, on the left, I get my instruction.

Nicola O’Brien: So, it says, "Wombots are always hungry. More carrots please." This is a course for 3 and 4 students. "Look, there's a carrot 150 steps away. Grab it." So then, I get my instructions, click on this, and pull out the move forward. Now, this is one of the first problems, so it's a really prescriptive instruction. The scaffolding gets less as the course goes on. You can see these go green as I answer the questions. Click Run, and here we go.

Nicola O’Brien: Here's my little Wombot following my instruction. He's got to the carrot, I'm pleased with that, and then I can say Mark and submit my answer. And when this wheel stops spinning, it tells me I got it right. So, that's what the students are working through question by question.

Nicola O’Brien: And the other thing that we can show you in here, because I'm logged in as a teacher, I have notes. So, here's the solution I need and here's an explanation. Now, the other big change that we made in April - I feel like I'm sort of showing you everything - we set up tutoring. So, for students working remotely if they get stuck, if you see that orange diamond sitting there for 45 minutes, students can reach out to our tutors who are online and say, "Hello. I'm stuck here. What do I do?"

Nicola O’Brien: Now, they'll get an automatic response back from the robot, but there are real people working business hours, basically, Monday to Friday here in Australia who will see those messages and, hopefully, within sort of 10,15 minutes come back and say, "What's the problem?" Now, they're not going to give students answers. They've been coached in our style tutoring, which is to ask more questions and encourage the students to do some problem solving on their own.

Nicola O’Brien: So, this is a new feature which we have switched on in response to remote learning so that if the teachers are sitting work and then not looking at it for another day, so the students have another place to go for help and support while they work through the challenges. So, we'll check back there soon. With that, I think I'll leave the Grok platform for a little while and return to the slides.

Nicola O’Brien: So, I've mentioned the freeness of everything. The tutoring, we just had a look at. The Live View, we had a look at briefly. Narration is another feature that we're adding. So, again, how can we make things easier for students?

Nicola O’Brien: And one of the things we hear is that reading age is quite variable in primary students, many people have English as a second language, so we have recorded narrations. One of our beautiful team members, Penny, has sat there and literally read the slides into files, uploaded them into the course, so that students can click the little speaker icon and have the course spoken to them rather than reading it.

Peter Dalmaris: For kids with special needs as well, dyslexia, for example, is a problem.

Nicola O’Brien: Correct. So, DT @ Home, those are the worksheets that I mentioned. And the other thing I'll show you, the Scratch Courses - I'm happy for that reminder - a lot of primary schools use the Scratch programing language. It's one of my favorites. It's also quite hard for teachers to use sometimes because it's a real playground environment, and everyone gets a bit lost and goes off and makes great looking animations, and it can be hard to know what learning the students are doing.

Nicola O’Brien: So, we have built courses that teach you and give you classroom support to introduce Scratch coding in your class. I'll show you what they look like. So, again, it's the same structure. We have narrative sort of instructions and then we have problems. The problem slides, however - the first slide often takes a little while to load. Okay - so we have brought the Scratch platform into our platform. So, you can see if I hide that instruction, we have Scratch, as you would see it anywhere else. You can pull out all the blocks. You have all the functionality. You can save Scratch projects to and from your desktop.

Nicola O’Brien: Oh, I got a message from the tutor. We'll come to that in a moment.

Nicola O’Brien: But then, we have overlaid the environment with these instructions. So, step by step instructions, guiding students in what to do. Very simple language. This is a Year 3, 4 course. Narrations included. And then, we have teacher notes that provide curriculum examples and also things to discuss with your students and model solutions. So, that just puts a whole structure around Scratch.

Nicola O’Brien: We had this in the pipeline, and, again, in response to a big disruption like we're seeing at the moment with remote learning, we decided to push this out as soon as we could. So, we're now in that stage of having something out there, which we're really happy with, but also having to respond very quickly to teacher feedback.

Nicola O’Brien: So, one of the first bits of feedback we had was that because we're hosting the Scratch platform, we can't mark code in the same way that we're doing on other courses. So, how does a teacher see on the dashboard where the students are up to and where they might be stuck? We wanted to get the Scratch course out there, but it didn't have that same functionality.

Nicola O’Brien: So, what we've done very quickly in response to that for now is to include the multi-choice checkpoint questions where we ask the students to look at code and make sure that they understand what they're looking at, and they're not just following those step by step instructions.

Peter Dalmaris: So, Nicola, one thing that I am observing here is that whenever you push new content out, you always provide some way the ability for the teacher to know how the student is progressing. You don't just push content out without the ability for feedback, either in the form of a simple quiz just like this one here, or by actually seeing what the student is seeing and getting a screen grab.

Nicola O’Brien: Yeah. Absolutely. So, we obviously want it to be a back and forth system for the teachers. And we want them to get meaningful sort of formative assessment and feedback on what the students are doing. Absolutely.

Nicola O’Brien: So, where are we at now? Here we are in May, and I think the initial crazy iterative making new things phase has probably moved on a little bit. We have a newfound appreciation for teachers. And when I say we, the ACA team, parents, the whole community, I think. The speed with which they are having to adapt and change is nothing short of astonishing.

Nicola O’Brien: And for a state like Western Australia, where they had a month of doing everything they could to get to remote learning and then to have the premier sort of just before school returned from Term 1 holidays, they actually were aiming to have them back in the classroom very soon. Let's take all of that and sort of undo it and come back to face to face. It's been an extraordinary process. The logistics are all going, again, for timetabling, how do you bring back some students and not others. It's a really challenging time. And we remain pretty true to our values that we want to make sure that all students can access DT learning.

Nicola O’Brien: Now, that used to mean sort of regardless of the school's ICSEA score or the socioeconomic status of the kids. It also means no matter where that student's located, we want them to be able to access our materials plugged or unplugged. We want teachers to be able to use it and not be held up by having to get subscriptions and so on.

Nicola O’Brien: And, now, we're into a stage of product development, if you like. So, we've produced a lot of stuff very quickly, and we're now also reviewing all of our existing courses in the light of COVID to see, is this the best experience it could be for students and teachers? And given that we think a lot of the time they're not in the same room anymore, how can we go back and add features like narration, tutoring, so that it's easier for teachers to confidently say to their students, "You can do this from home and there's enough support for you to be able to get through," rather than hitting an obstacle and feeling like they can't continue the course.

Peter Dalmaris: So, even though you have a lot of content, like the process of refining it and improving how it's delivered never ends, really. The list of features also depends on the circumstances and where restrictions, for example, what's opening up, what isn't opening up, and the feedback that you're receiving from teachers and students that prompt you to refine further.

Nicola O’Brien: Yes, absolutely. And I don't know if you're seeing this, but one of the nice things about a big disruption like that, a lot of things that maybe were, I don't know, internal roadblocks or things where people wanted more time or to consider things, the urgency that we're in now, a lot of those obstacles have fallen by the wayside and people have really come together to just get out the right thing.

Peter Dalmaris: Yeah. Actually, you're right. Like, the things that were not important a month ago are now important, and vice versa. Of course, we have reevaluated a lot of problems, opportunities in the past and got a different hierarchy of things.

Nicola O’Brien: Absolutely. With that said, though, we want to be agile and get things out when they're useful and helpful, but it's also got to be good quality. We don't want to just experiment too much on teachers because they are already feeling like guinea pigs for a number of other reasons. So, we want to make sure that what we get out is helpful and good, and they don't need to feel cautious about using it in the classroom. That's where we're at now.

Nicola O’Brien: Next, I think I've foreshadowed this, but we're continuing to look at how we can address feedback and make things better. We're running short from webinars for teachers. Giving them as much help and support as they can, trying to be very, very practical. And then, how will things look in six months? We're trying to reach a point where whatever it is that we produce is good for the classroom and good for home and captures the best of what we're learning through these few months.

Nicola O’Brien: So, I don't have a crystal ball, but I think we can all try and do our best at the moment so that whatever we have is useful and helpful for teachers going forward.

Peter Dalmaris: Yeah. You don't know the future. You have to be flexible, as you said in the beginning. I wonder, just to focus on professional development for a few moments, because webinars is how you deliver the professional development. Could you tell us a couple of things about the topics of those webinars and how do they work and what kind of training do you offer through those?

Nicola O’Brien: That's a good question. So, previously, we ran workshops over two days, and what they would do is cover the curriculum fairly closely, the digital technologies curriculum. So, there are big themes in that curriculum. One big theme is data representation, for example. There's a lot in the curriculum about students understanding how things are represented digitally and how we use digital systems to represent data, interpret data, and collect data. That's one of the big things. So, our two day workshop, we'd spend a two or three hour chunk going into that and what it means in the classroom.

Nicola O’Brien: What we're doing now is pulling out those topics from the two day workshops and turning them into one hour webinars. So, we might have previously had an after lunch one hour hands-on session on cyber security, that's now a standalone webinar for one hour.

Nicola O’Brien: I've got contact details on the next slide, so anyone who's interested, we have a tab on the website with all the details. They're all free. We don't have a cap on the number of people participating.

Nicola O’Brien: The first ones we ran yesterday were useful and we'll put them up on YouTube as well, the recordings after the fact. Just, I guess, trying to give the same quality and depth in terms of curriculum, but chunking it down into smaller pieces so that teachers can fit them and when they can. And either attend it live and have the opportunity to chat with us and ask questions or come up to a delayed one and get the same content out of it. So, we run those on Monday afternoons, 4:00 until 5:00 p.m. for the next few months.

Peter Dalmaris: Perfect. So, these are opportunities for teachers to get up to speed with the content that you're creating so they can teach it onto the students

Nicola O’Brien: Yeah. And, also, to sort of look more broadly at the curriculum. So, most of our online coding courses are really focused on the programing aspect of the curriculum. The webinars step back from that and look at the curriculum as a whole. So, it's not all about programing, it's about other topics as well.

Nicola O’Brien: And here we are, one of the other things we did was try and think about where we can find teachers and offer the best support. So, I think previously we were on Twitter and Facebook. We now have a Facebook Group where we encourage people to jump in and ask questions. And we're always available by email as well. We have people manning our help desk during business hours Monday to Friday, and we always get to them. If you ask a really good, interesting question, you'll be amazed how many of the team will answer it at 11:00 or 12:00 at night because they're just interested.

Peter Dalmaris: So, that's one of the problems of working from home.

Nicola O’Brien: It is. It is.

Peter Dalmaris: Always online.

Nicola O’Brien: Yeah. And there's quite a few technical people on the team. So, throw us a hard question, probably the harder the question, the sooner you'll get the answer in a funny way. But, yeah, we're very approachable and happy to help in any way that we can the questions that support teachers in these interesting times.

Peter Dalmaris: Thank you, Nicola. That was excellent. Like, it really gave me and our entire audience a really good understanding of the work that you've been doing to support teachers, especially how this was done in the space of just a few weeks. You built on existing work, of course, but it was amazing to see what your original plan was back in March for the rest of the year and what it ended up being. So, you've got to be flexible and you shown us how.

Peter Dalmaris: So, I wanted to ask you to generalize your learnings from the last couple of months or, say, four to six weeks, maybe. Generalize your learnings about your experience in creating educational content. I'd like your advice that would be useful to teachers and content creators from around the world from things that you've learned, maybe, you know, bits of wisdom that you have gained,

Nicola O’Brien: The pressure of wisdom.

Peter Dalmaris: The do's or don'ts, like things that you tried that didn't work. Like, what not to do very often is just as good as advice on what to do. And another thing that I find very useful to reexamine after a crisis is my assumptions of going into a project. It could be a response to a crisis, the assumptions that I had. And then, at the end, reexamining those assumptions and determining whether they were valid or not.

Nicola O’Brien: Yeah. Look, certainly, assumptions play a big part in terms of stepping aside from them. I think given that all of our work today has mostly been online, course creation, when we decided to make all these PDFs, that was, you know, quite a different thing for us to make. But, I guess, we checked is it true to the core of what we want to do as an organization, and it certainly was. You know, we've always been focused on equity for students. So, it made sense for us to make these PDF files.

Nicola O’Brien: It also was a great chance for us to be experimenters. So, we almost went into startup mode and thought, "We think it's a good idea, let's make one or two." And then, we were looking on our website at the downloads and seeing how they were being shared and used and we went, "Okay. That's popular, let's keep going."

Nicola O’Brien: And when we did our initial team sort of brain dump of what are all the things we can do right now to support teachers, webinars was right up there as well. But, in fact, we waited a little while until we did that because we thought everyone's hosting webinars at the moment. We can create these immediately useful PDFs that the teacher could look at tonight and decide tomorrow, "Okay. I'm going to include that in the pack for next week for my students."

Nicola O’Brien: And so, we made something that was immediately useful and took our time in terms of coming up with webinars when we felt a lot of organizations were holding webinars already.

Nicola O’Brien: So, I guess staying true to what we wanted to do, looking for a niche where we felt we could really deliver something, and starting small in kind of testing. You know, we asked teachers what they thought of the worksheets and when we thought that looked like a useful thing, then we made more. So, it's trying to gauge whatever we have of hearing from teachers and colleagues and the people who you ultimately want to use it. Is this useful to you now? How can we make it better, not operating in a vacuum?

Nicola O’Brien: And, also, as a team, just coming together really constructively. So, as we mentioned, trying to let go of as many of those obstacles and things that might hold us up and being able to shift priorities really quickly. And that's been too much time mourning those canceled conferences. We still have boxes and boxes of merch we need to work out what to do with if you have any ideas.

Peter Dalmaris: There's no time to mourn what could have been.

Nicola O’Brien: Indeed. Indeed.

Peter Dalmaris: Thank you. Yeah. That's great. A lot of useful bits and pieces here that you put together in such a short notice. Like, the idea to go low tech with just printable PDFs, I think that was brilliant. When we built online education, it's the assumption, we assume that kids have got access to computers, and maybe that's true, maybe that's definitely not true for everyone.

Peter Dalmaris: I also think that unlike other organizations that build products for online consumers, I guess in education, you don't want to leave anyone behind. It's part of your mandate. So, you need to think about who is able to take advantage of the amazing tools we're providing and provide the equivalent tool for them.

Nicola O’Brien: I find with my kids as well, getting them unplugged - that's another word that you used. It's actually very, very useful getting them off the computer. The computer is just full of distractions, disruptions - maybe distractions, but definitely disruptions. So, getting them away from the computer and still programing but on a piece of paper just allows them to focus. I thought it was a brilliant idea.

Peter Dalmaris: And I'm not forgetting about teacher education as well. I find that a lot of teachers, obviously for them, a lot of what is happening now is new. So, through your webinars, you continue to connect with them and help them learn all these new tricks.

Nicola O’Brien: And simplification - I think you spoke quite a bit about that - you know, you've got a lot of content and you've got the filters on the side, so you can't just simplify very quickly what you're seeing and deal with overwhelm. So, yeah, a lot of really good advice, so thank you for that.

Nicola O’Brien: My pleasure.

Peter Dalmaris: And all the best for the next few months - I don't know, should I say years? Let's say, for a long time.

Nicola O’Brien: Well, I'll see you before then.

Peter Dalmaris: Yeah. I'm going to check in with you in a while to see what is happening with all this amazing work. And, again, I want to thank you for taking the time to show us what you've done.

Nicola O’Brien: Thank you, Peter. It's been a pleasure. Thank you. I hope it's useful for other people.

Get life time access to all STEM EDUCATION Summit masterclasses

Watch each masterclass and learn how to deal with change in a world of increasing complexity and uncertainty, and how to use new education technologies and approaches so that your students can learn the right skills, with the right mindset.

The Tech Explorations STEM Education Summit is a one-of-a-kind event
where Educators from around the world come together
to share their best insights on the technologies, methodologies, and philosophies
they use to teach and inspire the next generation of amazing humans.

We publish fresh content each week. Read how-to's on Arduino, ESP32, KiCad, Node-RED, drones and more. Listen to interviews. Learn about new tech with our comprehensive reviews. Get discount offers for our courses and books. Interact with our community. One email per week, no spam; unsubscribe at any time

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}