Hands-on learning at a distance: one school's story

Peter Lalor Vocational College
By Marco Nicolazzo, VCAL Teacher
Thursday, 01 October, 2020

Hands-on learning at a distance: one school's story

Victoria's Peter Lalor Vocational College (PLVC) is a modern technical school specialising in hands-on, applied learning focused solely on preparing students for the world of work — in apprenticeships, traineeships and general employment — or further TAFE training. The college is unique in exclusively offering the Victorian Certificate of Applied Learning (VCAL) and Vocational Education and Training (VET) courses at Year 9, 10, 11 and 12 levels.  

VCAL was developed to accommodate students who learn best in an environment that promotes hands-on learning. The philosophy behind an effective VCAL program is to ensure students learn in environments that best replicate real-world experiences, which means programs that offer students the greatest growth are those that require students to ‘use their hands and make’.

Students in VCAL programs typically work in teams, problem-solving via debate and using tools to construct, as well as celebrating success. That means a VCAL classroom is rarely quiet — in fact, you can generally conclude that a lack of noise means there is limited applied learning occurring. 

That focus on connection and collaboration meant that remote learning presented real challenges for VCAL and applied learning facilitators when COVID-19 forced the issue. Fortunately PLVC had some basic IT strategies well in place, enabling students to continue their hands-on learning experience in a remote setting.

ICT strategy driven by real-world requirement

The college's remote learning preparation began a year earlier. With a focus on ensuring students were developing employability skills that replicated real-world environments, PLVC developed a strategy to promote ICT competency — an absolute skill requirement in today's world. 

To facilitate this goal, VCAL lesson plans were stored and presented in digital format, with all lesson plans and learning activities available online using cloud technology. Rather than completely replace printed lessons and activity books, the ICT strategy was to ensure a digital version of every learning outcome and lesson material was available for all students and facilitators to access from anywhere at any time.

While in the classroom, students use computers to access learning materials and a virtual classroom, which details all the day's tasks and required outcomes. Tasks are completed online, with peers and teaching staff accessing and collaborating on live documents. Completed work is automatically saved to the cloud, allowing continuation of the task at a later date. Facilitators also assess submitted and working documents remotely. The adoption of a cloud-based strategy to maintain digital copies of learning outcomes offers students a single avenue to access and satisfy VCAL outcomes.  

A solid foundation for a move to remote learning

The strategies adopted to improve content delivery to students smoothed the transition to remote learning. Lesson plans and outcomes were published and presented as they were at school, the only difference being the face-to-face learning experience. The move to remote learning was carried out using the same online portal, plus a videoconferencing platform. 

Remote classroom lessons were no different to in-school classes, with students attending sessions and being instructed on the outcomes being addressed. Lessons were still hands-on, though using resources that were readily available at home. ICT became a fundamental tool in recording evidence and oracy outcomes were satisfied through recording and publishing of tasks. Practical purpose outcomes were met with students engaging in various presentation tools. The challenge for students to learn and adapt to changing environments was itself a personal development skill. Chat functions and screen sharing enabled students to also complete tasks requiring collaboration and teamwork. 

No student disadvantaged

PLVC's ability to quickly adapt to remote learning was not the result of preparation for this specific set of circumstances. Rather, it was the result of ensuring that students develop employability skills — the importance of sound ICT knowledge in everyday life. The ability to mirror face-to-face learning via a virtual platform ensured the students received a learning experience equal to in-school. 

All programs and applications adopted during remote learning were available from government department sites. There was no need for students to download software, as the initiative to ensure all material and applications were cloud-based ensured that every student could access the same information, irrespective of their operating system.  Maintaining an equitable and accessible content delivery system promoted a culture where no student was disadvantaged.

As we prepare for the return to face-to-face teaching, it's worth noting that there is no secret formula for creating an effective remote learning environment. For PLVC, our transition was made possible not because we were in the face of adversity, but because the groundwork was inherently in place, thanks to ICT strategy initiatives driven by other goals. 

Image credit: ©stock.adobe.com/au/alexacel

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