Monaro High School battles bushfires, asbestos, now COVID-19 with digital allies

When asbestos was found in Monaro High School buildings in early 2020 it forced the closure of 15 classrooms and office spaces overnight. If there was any sort of silver lining it was that this unexpected obstacle accelerated the digital transformation planned for the school, a decision which would later allow the school to respond rapidly to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Based in southern NSW, the school serves the Monaro district of NSW with close to 500 students coming from Cooma and seven surrounding towns and villages. Monaro High is mid-way through a major upgrade that will turn it into a futures-based learning environment, infused with technology.

Besides new flexible learning spaces for art, performance and technology in a dedicated innovation hub, the redevelopment will establish a new two storey performing arts centre with 350—person capacity.

It was during the redevelopment that the asbestos was found, and classes were required to relocate urgently.

As Monaro Principal James Armitage, explains; “We had the impact of the bushfires, then asbestos, and now COVID-19 – it’s been an interesting year.”

Armitage had already committed to an overhaul of the technology platforms used across the school and had invested in Surface Pro devices for all staff. While there had been plans to roll these out gradually following formal professional development programs the discovery of asbestos demanded faster action.

To support necessary immediate and ongoing professional development Armitage asked for staff volunteers to act as “ninjas” who would provide informal professional development and support to their peers, helping them come to terms with the new devices and also with Microsoft Teams allowing them to leverage technology both in and out of the classroom.

It meant that by the time that COVID-19 and the related health advice regarding student attendance from the NSW Government took hold, Monaro’s teaching staff were already reasonably familiar with the new technology.

In the lead up to the Easter school holidays fewer and fewer students were actually attending classes at the school with the majority being taught remotely.

“Without the decision to buy the Surface Pros last year we would have been in all sorts of pain,” says Armitage.

“It has been a real pleasure to witness the resilience of staff who were thrown into this really complicated environment just with a basic introduction to Teams and their Surfaces.

“We have a couple of maths teachers conducting synchronous learning with Surface with a couple of kids in classroom and casting lesson into the cloud and on the board in the classroom.”

One of those teachers is Alix Coffa, a newly accredited maths teacher and one of Armitage’s team of ninjas. Working with a group of her peers Coffa has supported other teachers by showing them how to use the Surface Pro and work with Teams. The ninjas have also set up Teams channels for all the key learning areas in Years 7-10 and developed support materials to help parents and guardians navigate the challenges of getting their children online from home. Teachers of Years 11 and 12 students have meanwhile created their own Teams channels with an immediate focus on connection with students through individual classes.

Armitage explains that not all students can access lessons remotely as the demographics of the school mean that not all have access to technology or the internet at home, sometimes because they live on properties with little connectivity, or for other reasons. Where possible the school has made older Department of Education provided equipment available to students – but longer-term Armitage is hoping to implement a bring your own device (BYOD) program in the school.

Teachers have worked hard to ensure that the lesson plans delivered online can also be printed and collected from school for the foreseeable future.


Ninja impact

In order to support her fellow teachers Alix Coffa shared her own knowledge and accessed Microsoft community resources to work out how to best use the Surface Pro, interact with classroom interactive panels, with OneNote, how to use digital inking to engage with students, how to record videos in PowerPoint. Where she found useful materials or videos on the Microsoft site she forwarded the link to colleagues.

“Everyone is thinking about next term – one staff member in our faculty is keen to do something live or using videos to explain concepts – but is a little worried how the students might handle the more complex things in Teams.

“I’m trying those with the senior classes. I have a class for years 11 and 12; I record the whole lesson then upload it to OneNote – and the video is there for them to use. When I’m finished teaching I will sign off and they can send the questions they need help with.”

Coffa says that students are then able to use Teams to stay in touch with one another, even though they may be working from home and not able to socialise with classmates as they usually would.

Armitage says that the school community – students, parents and teachers – seems to be coping well, and he is particularly impressed by Monaro High’s teachers who he acknowledges were “thrust into Teams which is now the primary tool from a communications perspective. That was always was going to be the case because I’m an advocate for the product – but we were thrust into it.”

His enthusiasm for Teams was provoked by reading about the experience of the University of NSW which has used Teams to facilitate student-lecturer communications and collaboration, leading to a significant improvement in both learner outcomes and engagement, and as a result of the high level of support I have received from Microsoft Educator Megan Townes.

He hopes Monaro’s teachers will be able to drive similar benefits by increasingly focusing on developing greater learner engagement through Teams instead of just using it as a funnel for content. He expects that teachers will learn rapidly from one another about how to use the platform to engage students and drive learning outcomes. Armitage says that teachers have also benefitted from access to the high-quality professional development materials available through Microsoft, which had by Easter; “pushed us well down the path of developing the digital skillset which will support the pedagogy required at Monaro High post the current upgrade – from here the focus will be on refinement and personalised support around professional development.”

From a strategic vantage point he believes that the rapid rollout of Teams has left the school well placed to offer more flexible based learning to enhance the curriculum in the future which he believes will be a significant advantage.

“My long-term aim is to ensure we are preparing kids for a future that is unknown – with the current uncertainty we don’t know where we are going today let alone tomorrow. When COVID-19 settles down there will be a lot of appetite for doing things differently.”


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