Distance education students create new worlds through drama

A partnership between the Virtual School Victoria (VSV) and the Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC) brought distance education students together online and in person.

Digital Learning Leader, Teaching and Learning Coach Martin Jorgensen says making friends during school is a 'critical part of the school experience' and underpins learning.

'We learn to work together, learn from each other's experience and over time, develop an appreciation for diversity and how much stronger we are when we collaborate,' Mr Jorgensen says.

There are about 4,000 students studying at the VSV for a variety of reasons. Some young people are unable to attend school for professional sports or creative commitments; family travel; distance, and physical or mental health challenges.

Breaking down the barriers

VSV has been providing flexible schooling for over 100 years, and today digital technology is providing more learning opportunities than ever.

'As digital communication tools have developed, the possibility of developing the same rich and authentic classroom relationships has become a reality,' Mr Jorgensen says.

Mr Jorgensen says that some barriers have been more difficult to break down, particularly in a subject area such as Drama where communication plays a key role.

Through the Virtual Creative professionals in Schools pilot program, VSV and the Melbourne Theatre Company formed a partnership. They set out to explore new ways to encourage meaningful connects between students through drama – no matter where they were located.

Near, far, wherever you are

Theatre professional Emma Valente guided VSV drama teachers Rachel Clarke, Catherine Mayer and Jennifer Cameron to design and teach a drama program to Year 8 students. Students could attend in person or access the program online.

MTC Head of Education and Families Jeremy Rice says that theatre practitioners often talk confidently about the 'transformative power' of the arts.

'Over the course of this project, we witnessed this ideal in action, as lead artist Emma Valente used arts practice to facilitate a positive transformation in the lives of participants,' Mr Rice says.

Mr Jorgensen roamed the workshop space with a portable online classroom that hosted upwards of a dozen students attending from home. The students could see streaming video of the workshop, and were able to put forward ideas and participate remotely in activities.

Not only did the students have a chance to work together and provide feedback to each other, they got to know the other students in their class. 'Our intent was to make them feel involved and connected to discussions and activity in the room,' Mr Jorgensen says.

'We did not simply want these students to participate in activities together - we wanted them to develop empathy and a real connection with their peers.'

Over time, Mr Jorgensen noticed something 'remarkable' – some of the virtual students were coming to the in-person classes.

'The virtual attendance appeared to be the hook go draw them into physically participating,' Mr Jorgensen.

Opening night and more

The drama program culminated in an interactive performance, installation and video experience called 'In and Out of Worlds', where students explored themes of belonging, transformation, family and acceptance.

The Melbourne Theatre Company hosted 'In and Out of Worlds' at their headquarters in South Melbourne, which students and parents attended.

'I was thrilled at the feedback from one of my colleagues on the final installation-performance,' Mr Rice says.

His MTC colleagues said the final performance 'was such a beautiful, if not heartbreaking, experience.'

The pilot program was so successful that the VSV and MTC are continuing the drama program this year, this time to Grade 7-9 students.

VSV teachers have learned a lot from the partnership too. 'The new classroom streaming techniques piloted in an Arts subject at VSV are being employed in a range of other learning areas in 2018, from Biology and Chemistry pracs at VCE, to Psychology and English seminar discussions in Year 10,' Mr Jorgensen says.

Celebrating the arts

This year, Education Week is all about celebrating the arts and is an opportunity for all primary and secondary schools, and early childhood services to showcase the work they are doing for students in arts subjects including dance, drama, music, visual arts and media arts.   

Schools can join the Education Week celebrations by participating in an arts activity in the week of 20-26 May.

See: Education Week