When you speak with Peter West, Director of eLearning at Saint Stephen’s College on Australia’s Gold Coast, you immediately feel his passion for what he does. He’s spent the last 20 years empowering schools by fusing technology into their teaching and making sure that students have the resources they need to learn. His responsibility at the Preparatory to Year 12 school isn’t something that he takes lightly, or for granted.
In 2010, Peter identified a challenge with Saint Stephen’s Computer Studies course. The course content itself wasn’t the issue, but rather that some teachers understood it at a broad level, but didn’t fully understand the specifics of the course they were teaching.
To help, Peter built tutorials for each aspect of the course, helping the teachers better understand what the course had to offer.
But in building out these tutorials, Peter realized that this resource wasn’t just for teachers—it was also useful for students. Students who knew what they were doing could work ahead. Students who were struggling could use it if they were falling behind.
What Peter had built out for the school was a blended learning environment: a mix of offline and online learning with the goal of creating education that’s always available.
Fine tuning the instrument
Peter says that a traditional classroom works, but it’s a blunt instrument. You end up teaching to the middle of the class: those that are falling behind are often left behind, and those that are ahead end up bored and unengaged.
Peter describes one struggling student who, after the tutorials were released, achieved a B grade. In a meeting with the child’s parents, Peter discovered that the student re-watched the video tutorials repeatedly until he understood the lesson.
In a traditional classroom, this student wanted to progress, but couldn’t revisit the topics when he wanted to, or more importantly, needed to. Now, the student was hooked. He still had the teachers there to support him, but also had the material at his disposal. Peter realized that he was on to something, and started building more courses this way.
But with this change in how courses were being taught, Saint Stephen’s needed a learning management system (LMS) that could keep up. The school’s LMS at the time wasn’t cutting it. Not only was it not helping the school’s new mission, but with its lack of flexibility, Peter goes as far as to say that it was “getting in the way.”
“If I wake up at four o’clock in the morning, in a sweat thinking about something, it is never about Brightspace.”
Peter West, Director of eLearning at Saint Stephen’s College
Powering the future
After searching for the right LMS that could power the school’s new blended learning initiative, Saint Stephen’s landed on the Brightspace platform in 2011. The school hasn’t looked back.
“It’s easy to use,” explains Peter. “It’s got depth and power that’ll keep us going for many years.”
Peter says that Brightspace has so many features, that the school needed to slowly roll out tools over time. For example, the school plans to roll out Brightspace’s mobile app Pulse in 2017.
Peter credits Headmaster Jamie Dorrington with creating the conditions for the blended learning vision to grow. Peter notes that for real organization wide change to occur, leadership, commitment, and support needs to come from the top.
With a blended learning approach, it’s about using the LMS to create an experience for students where they can learn on their own schedule and at a pace that works for them. It’s learning that isn’t restricted to regular school hours.
Armed with the proper learning resources and an LMS that can keep up with the school’s vision, students are responding.
When Peter checked to see students’ usage on Brightspace on a Sunday afternoon, he found that 65% of Year 12 students and half of the rest of the school had logged in that day. That’s learning that otherwise might not have been able to take place.
Peter also found that logins occurred both around the clock, but were also spaced out, suggesting that students used Brightspace when it worked in their schedule.
Making learning more human
For parents who have concerns about how technology might change the way their kids are being taught, Peter points out that the computer isn’t teaching their child, it’s only enhancing the student’s experience. If anything, Peter argues, the technology helps to make the experience more human.
Brightspace is what helps teachers personalize the learning experience for the students, which leaves more time for deeper, individualized discussion between teacher and student.
When asked about what Brightspace has meant for Saint Stephen’s, he answers that it’s about peace of mind. “If I wake up at four o’clock in the morning, in a sweat thinking about something, it is never about Brightspace.”
Peter is quick to note that it’s going to take time to fully realize the impact of what Saint Stephen’s has been doing, but the initial results have been more than promising.
Peter says, “Our core business is education, not technology.” And it’s that technology that allows the school to focus on what matters: blurring the line between offline learning and online learning into just learning.