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					                       THE VIRTUAL BRIDGE:
       An Australian Secondary School Online Orientation Program

                                            AUSTRALIA



PART I: INNOVATION DESCRIPTION

A. Descriptive Background Information

Tasmanian students make the transition from primary school to secondary school at the
end of Year 6, at about 12 years of age. The innovation in this case study is the online
element of a high school orientation program that supplemented a regular Orientation
Day for Year 6 students that is held each year at a district high school.

Three government schools were involved in the innovation, all located in an isolated rural
area of the North Eastern part of Australia's island state, Tasmania:
         St Marys District High School, with about 400 students across the spectrum of
            schooling - Kindergarten to Year 12;
         Fingal Primary School, which has 65 students from Kindergarten to Year 6
            and is in a small township about 20 minutes drive west of St Marys; and
         Bicheno Primary School, which has 103 students from Kindergarten to Year 6
            and is another small township, about 45 minutes drive south east of St Marys.

The region in which these three schools are located is remote from Tasmania's two cities:
Hobart to the south and Launceston to the north. The lush countryside is a mix of
farming land and dense forest, serviced by narrow winding roads through often
mountainous terrain. The communities here rely almost exclusively on farming, fishing,
tourism and mining to support their local economies. The region is reported to be
Tasmania's most socio-economically depressed with a recent study by the University of
Canberra1 revealing that the St Marys district had the highest poverty rating in Tasmania.

In August 2000, forty-five Year 6 students from Fingal and Bicheno Primary Schools,
and from St Marys District High School, attended the annual Orientation Day at St Marys
District High School. Their parents were also invited. For the first time, they saw a
demonstration of the online innovation, the Virtual Bridge. Several weeks after
Orientation Day, the Year 7 coordinator from St Marys District High School visited each
Year 6 student at the three schools to explain the online orientation facility in more detail.
She also gave them a hands-on introduction to the secure web site.

The Year 7 coordinator at St Mary's District High School was the proposer and
coordinator for the innovation, which was essentially a pastoral care program.

1 Worlds Apart: Postcodes with the Highest and Lowest Poverty Rates in Today's Australia'
Lloyd, R., Harding, A. and Greenwell, H. Paper prepared for the National Social Policy Conference 2001
http://www.natsem.canberra.edu.au/pubs/cp01/2001_005/cp2001_005.html
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B. Summary of the Innovation

The impetus for the Virtual Bridge was a concern expressed by teachers at St Marys
District High School that too many Year 6 students from Fingal and Bicheno Primary
Schools were choosing to travel to a high school other than St Marys. Teachers believed
that if their orientation program were more effective, then more students would be
attracted to St Marys. Having students attend additional on-site orientation activities was
not feasible because the cost of buses could not be sustained by the budgets of these small
schools, and the time out of their Year 6 programs would also have been difficult to
justify. An online solution was required to overcome the challenge presented by their
geographic separation.

A major consideration in any primary-high school transition is that primary schools are
traditionally child-centred environments while high schools are characterised by
timetables, subjects, and a variety of teachers. Inevitably, a period of dislocation is
experienced by most Year 7 students, as they learn to deal with this new context. Students
from Fingal and Bicheno face additional adjustment due to the traveling required and the
large number of students.

The purpose of the Virtual Bridge was to make Year 6 students' transition to Year 7 in
2001 at St Marys District High School a more empathetic, seamless process. Staff
believed that if students were happy and confident during a predictably unsettled period
in their lives, then they would get much more out of their early days at high school. The
ICT resources that supported the innovation were PCs in each school, locally networked,
with an ISDN connection to a WAN. WebCT, an online conferencing tool set, was the
principal software used.2

The Virtual Bridge project was conducted in the last three months of the 2000 school
year. Students used a tailor-made and password-protected Orientation website. They
could post messages to bulletin boards, send emails to peers and to the Year 7
coordinator, and visit chat rooms where they might find their peers and/or the Year 7
coordinator. They could ask questions and share concerns about going to high school. In
so doing, they established new friendships, and renewed old associations, with peers who
would be transferring into Year 7 at St Marys in 2001. They learned a lot about their new
school and, at the same time, the Year 7 coordinator gathered important information
about prospective students - their friends, interests, communication skills - that helped
place them into Year 7 home groups.




2   http://www.webct.com



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PART II: ANALYSIS

A. MESO-LEVEL CONTEXT OF THE INNOVATION

A1. School Background

The three schools involved in the Virtual Bridge initiative are government schools in the
Australian jurisdiction of Tasmania. They are separated by between 40 and 80 kilometres
of narrow, winding country roads in an isolated area of the state. St Marys District High
school is the largest, with 400 students and 25 teachers providing a Kindergarten to Year
12 program. The two other schools are small by comparison, and are dedicated to the
primary years, Kindergarten to Year 6.
         Fingal Primary School N students = 65             N teachers = 3
         Bicheno Primary School          N students = 103          N teachers = 7

Schools buildings vary in age and functionality across the three sites. St Marys District
High School is about 40 years old and has five blocks of traditional 'chalk and talk'
classrooms, usually two or three in each block, as well as a library and an administration
block. The spacious school grounds, with a tree-lined drive and large playing grounds,
overlook a country golf course. Fingal and Bicheno Primary Schools each has one
purpose-built facility for all classes and for administration. They were built about 30
years ago. Fingal also uses the original 120-year old school building (which has been
kept in good condition) near to the current school site as a teaching space. Students at
Fingal look out over rolling countryside while students at Bicheno overlook the sea.

A2. School Culture

The vision of teaching and learning
Teachers in the three innovation schools believe that students learn best in a supportive
environment. They also believe that schools should be places where innovation and
creativity are openly and widely encouraged.

A shared vision is evident for the integration of ICT into all dimensions of the learning
programs. ICT is regularly used in the primary classes of the three innovation schools.
In the high school, four curriculum areas make the greatest use of ICT: Science,
Computing, Studies of Society and the Environment (SOSE), and Music.

The vision for Information Technology was not just a vision for Information Technology.
It was a vision for student learning for the future and I believed that, if we got right out in
front there, we'd be in a very strong position to start not only delivering courses in this
local area but also delivering courses throughout the state and probably in the future
even nationally. (Principal, St Marys District High School)




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History of former innovation in the schools
These schools have a history of innovation, and not solely in the ICT area. For instance,
three years ago, Fingal Primary School introduced a nine-day fortnight, to coincide with
employment conditions for local mine and forestry workers. Students complete an extra
half an hour schooling each day, by cutting back their lunch break from 1 hour to 45
minutes, and by finishing their school day at 3.15pm instead of 3.00pm. Because of this
arrangement, Fingal staff are able to have one (student-free) Friday each month for
professional development activities and to catch up on marking, reporting etc. They take
the alternative (student-free) Friday as an extended weekend. On professional
development Fridays, some Fingal teachers might travel to Launceston (about 90 minutes
drive) for meetings and to take courses. It is probably the only school in Tasmania that
has modified its structure this way.

The effective use of ICT in the schools' teaching/learning programs has been a strong
feature of the innovation schools for several years. This vision is clearly communicated
to the school communities through the allocation of resources and a strong commitment
to teachers' systematic professional development. Even though these schools face the
many resource challenges associated with having small student numbers, they and several
of their teachers have already been individually recognised for their excellence in
classroom ICT. Examples of this recognition include:
         selected to pilot new management network arrangement;
         identified as a Good Practice Network School;
         awarded Inaugural Online Mentor Certificates;
         invited to demonstrate skills at the inaugural State Online conference;
         received Educational Excellence 2001 Award.

Leadership Style of the Principals
The three principals have been in their schools for several years. Each demonstrates a
collaborative, supportive style, and a willingness to learn from others. For example:

This is a strength in our school, working together. I think there is a high evidenced team
approach and everyone offers support to each other, especially with the ICT area. I did
something on Frontpage and I got it all ready but when I got out of Frontpage, I couldn't
find it. It was actually still in the navigation page and I don't know how to get it out of
the navigation page and into the Net. So I thought, this is where your IT people come in.
I'll wait until Thursday and they can show me. So I believe in doing what I can do with
whom I've got and then if I can't do it, ask for help. (Principal, Bicheno)

As I said before, I'm obviously not too well rounded in the IT area. But I have a strong
belief that in a school, it's all about teamwork and not everyone is good at everything so
I'm quite happy at the moment that, say J… and R…are the IT gurus and I might be
strong in the leadership area or the numeracy area. If they weren't, then it would be a
major problem and I would have to react very quickly towards it. (Principal, Fingal)




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Extent of integration of the innovation into the prevailing school culture
The Virtual Bridge extends the generally child-centred view of schooling that is evident
in all three schools. Teachers of the 2000 Year 6 students, while not closely involved in
the delivery of the innovation, actively encouraged students to use it. They are looking
forward to the 2001 phase of the project, when the next cohort of Year 6 students are
prepared for their transition to high school. In their view, the 2000 program was very
effective.

Practices related to Professional Development
A great deal of latitude is available to government schools in Tasmania, under the Self
Managing School policy. This policy allows principals to deploy resources into priority
areas, one of which is currently ICT, in a manner that will support the needs of their
particular school community. The government has also provided six online ICT
professional development modules, carefully staging the acquisition of ICT competencies
for teachers3.

In the three schools, a wide variety of approaches is being used to support professional
development:

           teachers from Fingal and Bicheno Pimary Schools used to travel to St Marys
            District High School where a highly skilled St Marys teachers took them through
            modules 1 and 2 of the online development package in the school's computing
            lab, in after-school sessions;

           the schools now have their own In-School Resource Teacher who attends ICT
            courses in Hobart or Launceston and then passes this knowledge on to other staff,
            and provides support if staff experience problems applying their new skills;

           all other Tasmanian schools are allocated 10 professional development days
            annually by the government for use in ICT-related activities, with only the proviso
            being that they are used in a 12 month timeframe. Staff at Fingal Primary School
            use the days to have 1/2 day staff development sessions, with substitute teachers
            brought in to take over classroom responsibilities. Bicheno Primary School uses
            its allocation of days to send individual teachers to ICT courses on offer in the
            major centres of Hobart and Launceston.

Practices related to teacher collaboration
Teachers from all three schools regularly combine to share professional development
speakers and resources. This practice applies to the ICT dimensions of their work, and
also to a range of other areas of the learning/teaching programs. The example of using a
highly skilled ICT teacher at St Marys to provide professional development to teachers
from Fingal and Bicheno Primary Schools has already been given. Another is the St
Marys teacher who travels to Fingal Primary School once a week to teach Indonesian.
Teachers also encourage their students to take part in joint educational initiatives, both in
the classroom and on the sporting field.
3   http://www.discover.tased.edu.au/ec/




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Other special external relations
An ethos of collegiality prevails between these schools, which may be the consequence of
each recognising the tyranny of distance, and being willing to work hard to overcome the
consequences of educational isolation.

A3. ICT in the Schools and Beyond

Vision of ICT in the schools
The vision in these three schools is to integrate ICT across the curriculum. Teachers
recognise that computing is going to be even more important in the future and that there
will probably be a computer in nearly every household very, very shortly - it will just be a
part of life. For this reason they believe, computing has to have a bigger place in
teaching programs, and in teaching methods.

St Marys District High School was one of the few schools in the state to use their 1998
government grant for computer technology to lease laptops for their teachers, rather than
immediately investing in classroom ICT infrastructure. They recognised that having
teachers as competent users of ICT was a necessary precondition to developing students'
ICT skills in a worthwhile, comprehensive manner.

There is an undeniably strong ICT agenda in these schools. Much of the explanation can
be found in these teachers' recognition that online learning will overcome many of the
learning barriers traditionally experienced by children in remote communities. They have
matched their beliefs with action across professional development, production of online
learning materials, and participation in online classrooms. A fine example of the latter is
Murder Under the Microscope4, a national problem solving competition conducted
over six weeks. A group of St Marys Year 6 students won 57th place out of 1,500 entries
from across Australia.

Use of ICT in teaching in the school as a whole
Since 1998, each of the schools has systematically purchased/leased hardware for
teachers and students, and complemented these purchases with a structured program of
professional development for teachers. In the early years of schooling, ICT is used
regularly for educational games and some word processing. Later, students routinely use
the internet for research and the Typequick application to improve their keyboard skills.

Almost all teachers in the innovation schools are very proficient users of ICT.
Comprehensive online courses and a wide variety of online resources have been prepared
for, or are accessed by, teachers. For example, at St Marys District High School, Year 9
and 10 students receive their IT course entirely online within the school and a tertiary
entry IT course is available for Year 11 and 12 students, provided by a teacher from a
neighbouring high school (about 50 kms away).


4   http://www.microscope.ozeducation.com.au




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All classrooms in the three schools have networked PCs and peripherals for student use.
At St Marys District High School, these resources are supplemented by a computer
laboratory with 30 networked PCs, and a computer bank of 15 PCs in the library. About
half of the students have a computer in their home, although many do not have Internet
access. This statistic is slightly less than the national average for home ownership of
computers5.

A4. ICT Support Structure in the School

Description of the ICT resources
Most teachers in the innovation schools have laptops that attach to the school network,
and all classrooms have several PCs and peripherals. The current student:PC ratio is
about 4:1. Each school has its own Local Area Network, which is linked to Wide Area
Network (WAN) infrastructure. The technical environment is a standard Microsoft
Operating platform, with Windows 2000 in the secondary areas, and Windows 98 in the
primary schools.

The WAN has been provided by the Tasmanian government which also takes
responsibility for the management and maintenance of the WAN. A recent upgrade took
bandwidth from 64k to 128k at all major nodes in the network. All Tasmanian
government schools are connected to this WAN, as are other Tasmanian government
agencies. The WAN is managed remotely from the state capital, Hobart, and bandwidth
remains an issue.

Each school has its own intranet which contain a variety of material, such as School
Handbook, staff information, subject resources and student work displays.

Available technical support staff
At the school level, LANs and desktop ICT are installed and supported by a full time
Managed Network Specialist who is a dedicated resource for seven schools in this region
of Tasmania and funded by the government. All school regions (or clusters) in Tasmania
have a similar resource.

Unique to these three innovation schools however is the further technical support that has
been provided from the schools' own budgets:
    two full-time individuals who are studying for their Diploma in IT and whose
       salaries are paid by the seven schools in the region on a proportional basis; and
    two Year 11 students who are VET In Schools trainees (IT Certificate Level 2),
       and paid for 20 hours work per week by St Marys District High School.

VET in Schools is a national curriculum initiative, and available to all Australian students
in Years 11 and 12. It involves a package of classroom learning and workplace training
in employment-related fields, but within a school's regular suite of curricular offerings.
At St Marys District High School, these two VET in Schools trainees completed the


5   http://www.abs.gov.au


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classroom components of their IT Certificate during normal school hours, and then
remained on-site to undertake the workplace components.

Teachers in the innovation schools are very satisfied with the level of technical support
available to them. Principals have an informal agreement that if an urgent request for
assistance is sent, then one or more of these support staff will immediately respond,
regardless of where their roster says they should be. This does not include the two VET
In Schools trainees who remain in their scheduled Year 11 classes and work only on-site
at St Marys District High School during their 'trainee hours'.

ICT training and professional development
ICT training and professional development at the three schools is extensive and sustained.
On many occasions, professional development time is made available during the working
day, an approach much valued by all teachers, and preferred to out-of-school hours
programs. In broad terms, a cascade of ICT training is provided in the three innovation
schools:

   1. The Tasmanian government makes available an online package of six
      competency-based modules for self-paced ICT learning for all teachers in
      Tasmanian government schools. Successful completion of all six modules leads
      to a Graduate Certificate in Computing, which is accredited by the University of
      Tasmania. At the innovation schools, all teachers have completed module 3, and
      the majority has completed module 4.

   2. Each year, each innovation school nominates an In-School Resource Teacher for
      ICT, on a rotating basis. Their role is to assist individual teachers with their ICT
      professional development program

   3. A peer tutoring / mentoring program has been implemented, for both students and
      teachers, whereby an individual is nominated to acquire particular ICT skills and
      then required to pass those skills on to others, that is student to students, and
      teacher to teachers.

Schools have two ICT-related policies:
        Internet Use Guidelines for staff
        Internet User Agreements signed by students & their parents which cover
          general use of computers, email, publishing of student work, photographs and
          use of the internet.


B. MACRO-LEVEL CONTEXT OF THE INNOVATION

B1. National and State Policies

In 1998, initial funding for ICT hardware and associated software and peripherals was
provided to all government schools by the Tasmanian state government. The government



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continues to provide comprehensive ICT resource support, within a policy framework
that facilitates interoperability through technical standards and protocols and encourages
localised decision-making about the development of staff.

Infrastructure:
       an ISDN Wide Area Network available to all government schools has been
         installed, and is managed and maintained by the Tasmanian government;
       policies on desktop and network standards have been defined for all ICT
         attached to the WAN6; and
       a full time Managed Network Specialist is provided by the government on a
         regional (or school cluster) basis to all government schools. The number of
         schools will vary from region to region.

Staff development:
        online professional development in ICT is provided through a package of six
         self-paced competency-based modules; and
        ten professional development days are provided annually to each Tasmanian
         government school to be used for teacher release to undertake ICT training.

Other resources:
      the Centre for Online Excellence7 identifies and publicises exemplar schools,
        and initiates hands-on projects that serve as models for developing teachers' ICT
        skills. It has also created a portal that makes available a wide range of online
        curriculum resources to all teachers in government schools. Content in the
        portal includes:
          ∙ E-staffroom: a best practice site;
          ∙ Teacher Forums: discussions;
          ∙ Online Conference: presentations and tutorials; and
          ∙ E-learning exchange: curriculum resources which are available globally
               over the Internet.

The Tasmanian government's online agenda is much broader than its support for ICT in
schools. It is committed to the use of ICT for both service delivery to the many isolated
communities on the island state, and for economic sustainability. The townships of St
Marys, Fingal and Bicheno each has an Online Access Centre which is the result of a
government initiative to establish these Centres in all Tasmanian communities. Several
students who were part of the Virtual Bridge program report using the Centres, which
offer Internet access at very low cost:
        free membership; first 10 minutes use is free;
        $1 per hour internet access (members); $ 5 per half hour internet access (non-
          members).

6 http://info.tased.edu.au/imb/schoolsupport/tech/tech.htm
http://info.tased.edu.au/imb/schoolsupport/tech/Technology_Summary_for_Schools_summary.htm
7   http://www.discover.tased.edu.au/ec/




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In time, the Online Access Centres will become one-stop-shops for all government
services in Tasmania.

C. THEMATIC ANALYSIS OF THE INNOVATION

C1. Curriculum Content, Goals and Assessment

Subject matter and topics addressed in the innovation
Forty-five Year 6 students from Fingal and Bicheno Primary Schools, and from St Marys
District High School regularly used the Virtual Bridge between September and
December, 2000. The intent of the innovation was to enhance the pastoral care
dimensions of the Year 6 students who are moving to Year 7 in St Marys District High
School in 2001. One of the reasons that pastoral care was a critical issue to teachers at St
Marys is that two of the schools are some distance from St Marys and so students were
unfamiliar with either the high school itself or with the Year 6 students in the other two
primary schools. Even for the Year 6 students at St Marys District High School, the
transition to high school was a major change in the way their schooling had been
conducted in the primary setting.

The topics covered in the Virtual Bridge were many and varied, but were usually of a
personal nature. Students' main area of concern about high school was the discipline
regime - "What happens if …….. (eg. I leave my homework on the bus)?"

There is no record of the nature of communications between students for these were
private and never accessed by anyone except the senders and receivers.

Organisation of the innovation
The Year 7 coordinator at St Marys District High School set up and managed the Virtual
Bridge. She demonstrated the facility to students and their parents at the regular Year 6
Orientation Day in August, 2000 and subsequently visited each school to give students an
individualised hands-on introduction to the innovation. After the introduction, she acted
as the main catalyst for student involvement by, for example:
     sending emails to individual students eg. "Hello K.., good message you posted.
       Where do your sister & brothers go to school and are they older or younger?"
      always responding immediately to emails from students;
      posting messages on the Bulletin Board;
      visiting the chat room with selected students.

In this way, she gave Year 6 students practice in the various communications facilities
available on the Virtual Bridge, and encouraged them to remain involved. She also put
each student in touch with a peer in one of the other primary schools and they began
emailing each other. By this time, the bridge was being well and truly crossed.

Curriculum goals
The Virtual Bridge was a pastoral care project, focussing on the emotional well-being of
Year 6 students in three primary schools in the lead-up to their transition to Year 7 at St



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Marys District High School. For many, this meant leaving their small isolated township
and travelling to St Marys each day. Transition to high school is usually an unsettled
time for children and this uncertainty can be exacerbated by leaving one's home town to
attend a high school some distance away, where personal networks have not yet been
established. In this particular instance, students from Fingal and Bicheno Primary
Schools were also leaving their small student body to become members of a 400-strong
student group.

The purpose of the Virtual Bridge was to give Year 6 students the opportunity to meet
their new classmates online, and to communicate with their Year 7 coordinator, over a
sustained period. The very nature of the innovation however encouraged students' use of
literacy skills and developed technology expertise while it was helping boost student self
esteem through their online activities. The Year 7 coordinator observed,

It (Virtual Bridge) really aids communication skill development and awakens awareness
of others being in different situations and having different experiences. It promotes self-
directed learning and encourages self-motivation.

Changes to the curriculum that took place
This was not fundamentally a curriculum-based initiative. Nevertheless, the students'
early acquisition of WebCT capabilities is a significant addition to their learning
repertoire. This is an important consideration since the online courses already provided
at St Marys District High School are based on this application. As a consequence,
growing student facility with WebCT will be a significant driver for the provision of
more online courses from within the school's resources, as well as their incorporation into
the school's curriculum from outside organisations.

Characteristics which best describe the assessment strategies of the innovation
The Year 7 coordinator regularly reviewed her email volume. This way she would soon
discover if individual children had dropped out of the communications loop with her.
She would send them a message and try to reengage them. To one student who had been
silent for some time, she emailed, "Hi L…, I hear that you played well at the carnival in
Smithon, well done. Where did you stay up there?"

The Year 7 coordinator also used some of the information she received in her responses
from students to make judgements about which friendship groups children belonged to
for the purposes of making up Year 7 home groups. It is noteworthy that, after the 2001
school year had begun, not one change needed to be made from the original home group
allocations.

At the end of 2000, the Year 6 students completed a quiz that had been posted on the
Virtual Bridge Bulletin Board asking them about their use of the site. All of them
indicated that they had found the initiative a lot of fun. They liked having an adult to talk
to and who talked back to them about things they were interested in; they also enjoyed
getting to know the Year 6 students in the other schools.

C2. Teacher Practices and Outcomes


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Description and illustration of teacher activities in the innovation
The main role of Year 6 teachers in the three innovation schools was to encourage their
students to visit the Virtual Bridge on a regular basis. The Year 7 coordinator prompted
online communication with each of the Year 6 students, emailing friendly questions to
them individually, eg. " How was your athletics carnival?" "Did you enjoy the social?"
and suggesting the names of e-pals that students might correspond with.

At Fingal Primary School, a Virtual Bridge roster was compiled to prompt students'
ongoing involvement. These students were in a combined Year 4/5/6 class, and
competition for the PCs was fierce. Once a student had used the Bridge during the week,
they ticked their name off the roster so their teacher could encourage those who had not
logged on during the week to do so. However, there was no compulsion.

Staff were surveyed at the end of the initiative, both in person and through email, about
their perceptions of the Virtual Bridge. All of them replied that they believed the project
had been an excellent means for improving students' confidence about moving to high
school, and they also reported their belief that the Year 7 coordinator had got to know the
incoming Year 6 students quite well.

Required key teacher competencies for carrying out the innovation
The Year 7 coordinator used WebCT as the software platform for the Virtual Bridge.
Other teachers did not need to know how to use the software for the initiative to be
effective. Early in the implementation phase, they occasionally gave students help with
logging on, and screen navigation.

Teacher-student interaction
Interactions between teachers and students were largely informal. Year 6 teachers
encouraged students to use the Virtual Bridge on a regular basis but did not compel them.
They were always ready to hear about the messages their students had received, but did
not initiate conversations about the detail of these messages since privacy was an
important element of the initiative.

Relevant background experience of the teachers
The Year 7 coordinator has taught in both primary and secondary school settings, with
some time spent in the special needs areas of schooling. She has used ICT in classroom
teaching for the past seven years, and has been preparing online course materials for the
past 18 months. During the current year, she has also been conducting twice weekly staff
training programs in ICT.

The Year 6 teachers and the principals in the three schools nearly all described
themselves as having been "computer illiterate" until five years ago. Their current ICT
skills were developed via structured and broadly based professional development courses
notably (a) the six online professional development modules, (b) projects conducted by
the Centre for Online Learning, and (c) their school's growing pool of ICT expertise.




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Surprisingly, the majority of those involved in the innovation, including the Year 7
coordinator, had trained originally as early childhood teachers.

Problems, barriers with ICT use for teachers
The most significant barrier for teachers using ICT in their learning/teaching programs is
the amount of time it takes to prepare lessons, rather than teaching time per se. Teachers
reported their concerns that the time taken to discover appropriate online resources,
prepare suitable online learning programs, assess students' online achievements, and track
student performance was a major challenge. They went so far as to suggest that the time
factor probably inhibited greater use of online teaching techniques at this time.


Teachers collaborating with each other
The Year 7 coordinator maintained informal contact with the Year 6 teachers throughout
the project. The purpose was to reinforce the importance of students' use of the Virtual
Bridge as an integral part of their preparation for transition to high school. The content
of individual student communications within the Bridge was never discussed.


C3. Student Practices and Outcomes

Description of the student activities in the innovation
All Year 6 students in the three innovation schools regularly logged on to the Virtual
Bridge, to send emails to their e-pals at the other schools and to participate in chat rooms
with other Year 6 students. They also emailed their Year 7 coordinator, asking questions
and responding to questions from the coordinator.

1. Coordinator to R (student)   Hi R, are you looking forward to grade 7?
2. R (student) to coordinator   I suppose I am looking forward to grade 7 in some ways but in
                                some other ways I'm not.

Impact of the innovation on student outcomes
Students' social and emotional well-being is vitally important to the teachers in these
three schools and, through the Virtual Bridge, individual Year 6 children found
reassurance that they weren't the only ones who had concerns about their approaching
transition to high school. Because these communications were private and from a
distance, the widely-held view of teachers and parents is that Year 6 students were frank
in their exchanges with the Year 7 coordinator, sharing uncertainties that they were
reluctant to air in a more public face-to-face forum. All students said that they had
enjoyed the experience and were keenly looking forward to secondary school. It was also
evident that new friendships had been forged through participation in the Virtual Bridge,
and thus incoming group felt comfortable about their class arrangements for 2001
because their class mates were now known to them.

Teachers reported that the Year 6 students seemed to have improved attitudes towards
high school, probably because the concept had been demystified by their correspondence
with the Year 7 coordinator. It was easier for them to share their concerns privately and


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to get answers using the Virtual Bridge. Moreover, this sustained correspondence made
them realise that they were cared for. The Principal of St Marys District High School
observed that in their first week of high school, the new Year 7 students behaved more
like students in their sixth week.

Being assigned e-pals by their Year 7 coordinator also encouraged these students to
interact with a wider student population than their own school mates. This strategy
advanced their appreciation of individual differences and helped them to relate positively
to a broader peer group, many of whom came from communities different from their
own. Teachers observed that a particular strength of the Virtual Bridge was its capacity
to remove some of the barriers that are sometimes evident because of a student's personal
characteristics.

Participating in the Virtual Bridge also gave students practice with their literacy skills
whilst reading and responding to bulletin board and email messages, and their
keyboarding skills were generally enhanced by participation in the innovation. At no
stage during the project however, did the Year 7 coordinator attempt to correct students'
spelling or grammar in their communications to her. She wanted them to engage
spontaneously with this electronic medium and believed that intervention would thwart
this goal.

Role of students
Students were encouraged to log onto the Virtual Bridge whenever they wanted to. This
they did to send emails, respond to emails, and to participate in chat room exchanges.
The Year 7 coordinator hoped that they would do so regularly but, apart from occasional
prompting emails to students she had not heard from for some time, she did not intervene
to increase participation. The Virtual Bridge became self-sustaining.

Responsibilities of students
Students were encouraged to respond to all their emails.

Student collaborations
Students used the Virtual Bridge at their own behest. This meant that sometimes they
would prepare their messages alone while at other times they would informally share the
messages with friends as they gathered around the PC. Virtual Bridge activity tended to
be a loose coalition of students at any one point in time.

Relevant student competencies required for the innovation
Students need to have some basic keyboard skills, and screen navigation capabilities.

Problems, barriers with ICT use for students
Students forgetting their passwords was the only problem encountered.


C4. Kinds of Technology and Ways They are Used




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ICT resources for the innovation
WebCT software was fundamental to the Virtual Bridge innovation, installed on PCs
which were networked using Windows NT, and connected to the government's WAN.
All schools have a standard Microsoft platform, the secondary area with Windows 2000
and the primary schools with Windows 98 because of some interoperability problems
associated with primary school software and Windows 2000.

The 2000 Year 6 cohort has now completed Year 7. With the benefit of 12 months
reflection, they suggest that they could be useful additions to the Virtual Bridge program
in 2001, as e-pals to the current Year 6 group. They also propose several additions to the
technology available:
       digital camera to photograph all participants so Year 6 students can "put a face"
         to the person they're talking to
       video conferencing equipment to support small group interactions and virtual
         tours of St Marys District High School
       competitive games such as online chess so participants can do more than send
         email and post messages to the bulletin board

Adequacy and use of the ICT resources
The ICT in this innovation was very simple, and readily available to all schools. The
fundamental purpose of the Virtual Bridge was communication over distances and the
government's Virtual Private Network (or WAN) was an integral element of the project's
ICT. Most schools elsewhere in the world, would not be connected to a VPN but the
Internet can be readily substituted. The benefit of the Tasmanian government's VPN
however, is the added security which gives much greater protection from hackers than
does the Internet and this is protection for children that cannot be underestimated.

Support capabilities of the ICT resources for the innovation
This project would not have been possible without the use of ICT. Through the
application of Internet-like communication, harnessing private LAN and WAN
technologies, students in three isolated locations were able to have immediate access to
each other and to their Year 7 coordinator.

The model on which the Virtual Bridge is based is elegantly simple. It is relevant to a
spectrum of remote teaching programs when students are separated (a) from each other,
and/or (b) from their teacher. As an orientation program, the Virtual Bridge has
relevance to a range of transition points in the schooling sequence. Not only can the
approach be adopted by other high schools to support the Year 6-7 transition, but also
those jurisdictions that have Year 11 and 12 secondary schools could use the process at
the Year 10-11 transition point. International students coming to Australian schools
would also benefit from the Virtual Bridge concept. One teacher plans to apply the
model - emailing, bulletin board, chat rooms - to her online Indonesian classes.




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C5. Problems and Solutions Related to the innovation

Few problems were encountered during the implementation of the Virtual Bridge. It had
the wholehearted endorsement of all teachers, including the schools' principals. Parents
also strongly supported the initiative. Indeed, they indicated that they too would like to
have online access - probably email - to St Marys District High School, particularly to the
Year 7 coordinator, to establish lines of communication about their children. However,
they acknowledged the need for students' privacy and were not suggesting a shared
Virtual Bridge project.

Resources
Apart from occasional technical hiccups such as the WAN going down, the main problem
encountered was students forgetting their passwords. Students' passwords were changed
to be their full name.

Support from administrators
The Senior Executive administrator who commented on the project was very supportive,
and is keen to see the Virtual Bridge documented as a best practice initiative.


C6. Sustainability

Acceptance of the goals of the innovation
Clear support for the 2000 Virtual Bridge program was expressed by parents, students
and teachers:
    Year 6 teachers believed that the personal knowledge about their ex-students,
       beyond test data information, had helped the St Marys teachers to prepare more
       comprehensively for the new Year 7s in 2001.
    Parents said that they were confident that their children had been able to find out
       much more about St Marys District High School, and that the teachers knew more
       about their children at a personal level, because of the online orientation program.
    Students talked about making new friends and said that high school wasn't 'scary'
       for them because they had been able to ask the Year 7 coordinator the questions
       they had (and she replied straight away).

The Virtual Bridge innovation was recently introduced to the 2001 Year 6 cohort at each
of the three innovation schools. The enthusiasm of the 2000 Year 6 students for their
online orientation experience is clear, and they are offering themselves as online guides
to the current participants in the Virtual Bridge.

There has been another very important - and entirely unanticipated - outcome of the
Virtual Bridge 2000 project. A Senior Executive of the Tasmanian Department of
Education suggests that this project has demonstrated to the local community that while
the region might be regarded as a low socio-economic area, the learning opportunities at
the schools are rich indeed.




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C7. Transferability

Are the benefits of the innovation agreed upon?
Staff at St Marys believed that they knew a great deal more about the incoming Year 7
students than the intake groups of previous years. This confidence arose because of the
breadth of information that flowed from the sustained online engagement of the Year 6
students with their Year 7 coordinator in the Virtual Bridge.

All participants agreed that the Year 6 students involved in the initiative were more
confident about going to high school. Students had had the opportunity to ask whatever
questions they wished whenever they wished about any aspects of high school in the
months leading up to their transition. They had also 'met' many of their future
classmates. These outcomes were made possible by the use of remote learning
technologies in the Virtual Bridge.

Efforts necessary to involve other teachers
Beyond their encouragement of students to visit the Virtual Bridge web site regularly,
teachers are not asked to commit time to the initiative.

Sufficient level of ICT resources and support
This innovation operates in a supported and standard technical environment, using the
WebCT application. WebCT software can be used to deliver an infinitely wide variety of
online learning experiences beyond those offered in the Virtual Bridge. In St Marys
District High School, WebCT is used in a range of distance or self-paced education
courses, including the Year11/12 VET program in Business Administration, and the Year
11/12 Computing Studies course provided by a neighbouring high school.

School policies and practice
All schools have an Internet User Agreement which was signed by students and their
parents. The Agreement covers general use of computers, email, publishing of student
work, photographs and use of the internet.

National/state practices/policies
The standards and protocols set by the Tasmanian government for all ICT in schools, and
for the WAN ensured the interoperability of the various components that underpinned the
Virtual Bridge which was, at its most fundamental, an exercise in communication.

The competency-based package of online teacher development in ICT gave teachers the
skills and confidence to assist students as required, during their engagement with the
Virtual                                                                        Bridge.




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CONCLUSION

The Virtual Bridge innovation in 2000 was a success, according to students, their parents
and their teachers. The 2001 actors are all looking forward to its repeat appearance as
part of the high school orientation program for the 2001 Year 6 students in the three
schools. The key message is that ICT satisfied a need that was difficult to resolve any
other way.

The structure and process of the Virtual Bridge also serves as a model for many other
transition points in schooling, as well as having relevance to other teaching programs. In
essence, the Virtual Bridge has demonstrated that purposeful online engagement can be
an effective means of overcoming the tyranny of distance.

The success of the project can be attributed in large part to the Year 7 coordinator who
was the key adult involved, and also to the Year 6 teachers and principals in these three
schools who gave their wholehearted support to their students' involvement. However,
other contextual elements also played their part and it is worth noting what they were:

      some years ago, these schools had made the decision to acquire laptops for all
       teachers in the belief that developing teachers' ICT skills was a necessary
       precursor to widespread introduction of online learning pedagogies in classrooms.

      the specific technology in the Virtual Bridge was straightforward, easy to use,
       and easy to support yet it was extremely effective in supporting an important
       learning experience

      the standard technical platform of the schools' ICT infrastructure meant that
       communication over distances was seamless, trouble free, and instantaneous. The
       ICT standards and protocols mandated by the Tasmanian government promotes an
       interoperable technical environment within and between all government agencies,
       including schools. They also establish a set of well-understood technical
       parameters that make support and problem solving a fairly straightforward
       process.

      the ICT skills of the teachers in these schools had already been enhanced
       systematically over a sustained period of time, through (inter alia) a competency-
       based online development package. This package has been made available by the
       government to all Tasmanian teachers, and leads to a University-recognised
       Graduate Diploma which may also be used as the foundation for further
       University studies.

      in a major program of change, the Tasmanian government has targetted all
       teachers through a broad range of projects and initiatives in order that their ICT
       skills be quickly and effectively developed. This program is unequivocally based
       on incentives not compulsion.



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                                GLOSSARY

        Centre for Online A Tasmanian government initiative to escalate teachers'
        Excellence        use of ICT in the classroom by acting as a 'hub' for
                          enhancing teacher competence and providing online
                          curriculum resources

        ISDN               I S Digital Network:

        LAN                Local Area Network:

        VET                Vocational Education & Training
                           the attainment of knowledge and skills relevant to
                           employment
                           (This is a national Australian initiative)

        VET in Schools     All Year 11 and 12 students in VET in Schools programs
                           undertake Structured Workplace Learning and complete
                           National Training Modules (or Units of Competence).
                           This means that they study the curriculum content (NTM)
                           as part of their regular in-class program and spend time in
                           the relevant the workplace as well.
                           (This is a national Australian initiative)

        VPN                Virtual Private Network:

        WAN                Wide Area Network:

        WebCT              Online conferencing software




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