By Dani Sharp
Families around the Sunshine Coast are quickly realising the struggle of home-schooling and online learning since being driven into isolation to fight the spread of COVID-19.
Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk announced on Monday schools would be closed to students of all non-essential workers for at least the first five weeks of term two.
With this prolonged move to online learning, parents are becoming aware of the potential for absences and the uncertainties for senior students.
A group of virtual reality (VR) educators has also taken notice, and instead offered their services to secondary-school students.
Redmako Learning director Anthony Rice said VR learning was appealing even before the implications of today’s pandemic.
“Kids can do it from anywhere in the country, anywhere in the state, anywhere in the Sunshine Coast,” Mr Rice said.
“It’s far better than online and even before COVID-19, that’s why everyone was enrolling, because it was immersive, it was engaging and we got far better completion rates than normal face-to-face or even online training because you’re fully immersed in the environment.”
One of the leading companies within the industry, Redmako Learning has been a registered training organisation since 2010 and offers a range of certificates and training courses through their VR programs.
There are already eight Sunshine Coast schools facilitating VR for their students through Redmako, including Caloundra State High School, Unity College, Pacific Lutheran College, Suncoast Christian College, Sienna Catholic College, Immanuel Lutheran College, St John’s College Nambour and Coolum Beach Christian College.
Mr Rice also said VR learning, which is typically an expensive form of education, can assist in a range of areas, particularly since the implications of coronavirus.
“This will solve a lot of problems, too, because they’re level five units, they allow credits to be mapped across to university, they’ll get their ATAR and everything they need to from high school,” he said.
“We’ve probably had about 300 parents ringing in over the past couple of weeks just simply because they’re paranoid that Year 11’s and Year 12’s are in a lot of trouble.
“We have the solution and we’ve put heaps of extra classes on and all of our trainers are standing by to be redeployed to have parents and children enrolled.”
Mr Rice said VR classrooms can take on a variety of appearances depending on both the course and students involved, and student avatars can interact with each other as well as their trainers.
“You’ll see on our videos we can teleport people and we do as part of the qualifications,” Mr Rice said.
“There is a tourism qualification where they’ll be teleported to Paris, in social media we teleport them and they’re physically there, their body is standing in the middle of the Facebook lobby, Zuckerberg’s lobby in San Fran.
“You know, so we use all teleporting and holograms to really immerse the kids.”
Calvary Christian College student Hannah Cookson is a user of Redmako’s VR program and has high praise, saying it is like being in the classroom while maintaining the comfort of your own home.
“Virtual reality learning is an engaging, effective and easy way to learn away from school,” Miss Cookson said.
“The headset is easy to use and is a very versatile piece of technology that has a lot potential for assisting in learning in isolation.
“It got me very excited for learning and I found myself looking forward to the lessons I had scheduled.”
Miss Cookson said she has high hopes for the potential of VR learning during pandemic restrictions.
“Using the VR headset as a means to contain the COVID-19 virus could save lives while keeping as many students educated as possible,” she said.
Currently, most Sunshine Coast schools are using forms of group video-chat programs to convey course material and teaching to students, such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams.
Immanuel Lutheran College senior English teacher Rita Rainnie said she has some concerns about the medium.
“I don’t think the information and lessons would be the problem, I think it’s just making sure kids do the work, submit the work and have established regular school days, like you would but at home,” she said.
Mrs Rainnie said she does have concerns for other aspects of student development, and prefers the more genuine teacher-learner basis that comes with face-to-face lessons.
“I think the hardest part for a teacher and, you know, someone like me, is not seeing their faces, not seeing non-verbals is really difficult,” Mrs Rainnie said.
“It’s hard to know from a behavioural point of view, are they listening to me or are they multitasking?”
Mrs Rainnie said parents will have to play a vital role in online learning as well.
“My biggest concern is that we can monitor and we can relay to parents, but it would kind of have to be parents relaying to us more,” she said.
“Parents have to establish lesson time and enforce that they should be doing their school work, that they should be attending meetings.
“If the parents don’t get on board, how do I ensure I get [their student] to join the meeting?”
As all aspects of online learning are group forums, including virtual reality classrooms, Mrs Rainnie said she does not see how teachers or trainers would be able to individually or privately engage with everyone to ensure an understanding of course content.
“I don’t think they are going to be forthcoming and saying they don’t understand because they have to admit that for everyone to hear so I think that could be a concern,” Mrs Rainnie said.
“They’re still teenagers and they’re self-conscious and you’re not going to pull them out in front of everyone to say something.
“I don’t believe you’re going to get an honest response in a team where everybody can hear.”
The senior teacher said the virtual learning pathway would not be her ideal choice because it was difficult to pick up students’ moods.
However, Mr Rice said the challenge of everyone being heard has instead become a strength for Redmako students.
“What we’ve actually found is it improves it, and the reason for that is because it is live and interactive,” Mr Rice said.
“Their avatars do ‘head-track’ so they can look around, they can look at the teachers, they can respond, it isn’t offline, it is fully live.
“Students talk and interact with each other as they normally would.
“And what we’ve actually found is the quieter students, or students with learning difficulties, or students that are more shy, they actually come out of their shell because they get to, you know, verbally communicate and give their opinion and feel a bit more protected because they’re in their library or in their home.”
Mr Rice said the VR classes also have applications that can support students with learning difficulties.
“People who might be on the spectrum or have attention deficit disorder issues, they’re not as affected because they don’t have the distractions of classmates, birds flying around the window, people tapping on their shoulder, noises, they’re just completely and fully immersed so it makes them focus.”