The School Without Walls


I’ve got a few BIG ideas, including energy generation using the happiness of dogs however I’m wise enough to now that the ones that might take flight, are those that; are shared passionately with others,  can be realized through communication cheaply and easily; those who support the idea will ultimately provide the organic structure to sustain it and make it better. I don’t need to own it, but I do want to try and lead it forward because I believe in both public education and that technology matters to the future of learning. The big idea can’t be boring, no one wants to support or work for a boring idea.

The very real possibility of creating an Australian Virtual High School – perhaps with a Virtual Learning& Reseach Centre – was the highlight of the #Sictassy symposium last week for me. I added a Twitpoll, to guage opinion – please post your response here.

Visualise a virtual school, modeling 21st Century pedagogy, renewing curricula and engaging students though the passion and enthusiasm of some of Australia’s most influential teachers. Not another bureaucratic ‘experiment’, but a school where the students and teachers co-develop curriculum within existing guidelines – run by a minimal – and transparent – administration. This is not about punching through walls – but getting Australia’s best Web2.0 teachers to model a school for every Australian teacher – and to ensure those Ruddy laptops are used to deliver better public education. At the same time, the project would be rigorously researched and evaluated to publicly report on the outcome – so we will KNOW that this is making a real difference.

School without walls is an idea that I’ve had buzzing around, and Frankie said “why don’t you share that” at the Symposium. I was amazed at how many people came to listen to the idea – and then made it better. I thought it would be the best way to get a table to myself – but I was wrong.

The session delivered the opportunity to do it, with the existing system sooner, not later.  I think it will happen eventually anyway, so to me it makes no sense to further fracture existing schooling. Ultimately students will select both their course, study pattern, mode and their teacher-advisors. I makes sense to do that though and with the DET, as if you know where to look – it’s happening already. I am looking forward to further discussion with DET soon.

If you have a view, comment or want to lend a thumbs up to the idea … leave a comment … love to hear how you’d see it working – because after all, it will not be ‘my’ idea, but everyones I hope. Just maybe I can picture my kids learning in an amazing system, not a deficit one. Told you it was a BIG IDEA.


30 thoughts on “The School Without Walls

  1. Thanks for big ideas and being one of the most inspiring peeps @ SICTASSY 😉 I cant wait to see where the virtual school adventure takes you and the rest of us! Count me in! 😉

  2. Australia needs a virtual high school. Others exist elsewhere. It is intriguing to consider that given Australia’s leadership in the delivery of distance education for over half a century in addition to the forward thinking of a number of tertiary institutions in developing eLearning and performance support tools for their students that a virtual high school does not already exist.

    A virtual high school needs to be established. Ideas can be tested, communities of practice established, connections formed. A virtual high school could not only facilitate a learning environment for full time online students it could also act as a performance support environment for students enrolled in subjects with low numbers. This particularly applies to Stage 6 subjects that traditionally attract low enrollments. A virtual high school may even stave off the extinction of some subjects at Stage 6 level.

    Students in different regions and states need not feel that they are learning in a vacuum. I often wonder how students studying a Stage 6 subject on their own in a school manage to cope and survive at times. Many certainly have the drive and motivation to push on hence their firm decision to enroll in the first place yet a vehicle such as a Virtual High School could connect these students with similarly motivated individuals. They could be part of a community of like minded individuals sharing the highs & lows, successes & failures. They could share strategies and resources thus adding to the overall body of knowledge for that subject. Their community would incorporate subject matter experts, mentors and the like.

    A virtual high school would facilitate experimentation, exchanges between students/teachers (that are not lost) and the evolution and development of a body of knowledge and experience. This body of knowledge and experience can evolve from one cohort to the next. Having had experience with both the delivery of online learning environments as an Instructional Designer/Instructor and the receipt of the same as a distance education student, here and overseas, I believe it is critical that such a Virtual High School is enriched with a team of dedicated educators willing to support the outcomes of the project in all respects. A single focus ~ the Virtual High School.

    Online learning can be an isolating and frustrating experience if it is not adequately mentored by the party delivering the teaching and learning. It cannot be via ‘remote control’. It is not point and click. It is real. It needs to be a living, evolving entity populated with highly motivated teachers and learners. The authority overseeing the big picture needs to be completely committed and not just simply performing lip service.

    The School of the Air had its origins in an idea put forward by Miss Adelaide Miethke of the Royal Flying Doctor Service in 1944. She shared her ideas with some eduactors in the Northern Territory. Her idea took root. It grew. at A trial took place in 1950. The School of the Air was launched in 1951. It is possible.

    Push on Dean. Speak. Be heard. You have already been heard. You have already inspired.

  3. We had enormous fun discussing this idea and of course I will be there with you to help with the virtual learning and research centre. It’s strange how some of the most obvious ideas are never thought up by those with the money and the power. Why haven’t we got a virtual school?

    Well I guess it’s innovative – just like the way Tim Berners-Lee once asked why we don’t have the www!! That sort of innovation never comes from the top – but is facilitated by someone at the top. Who’s willing to pick this up and run with it now.

    It’s proposed. We’re ready. Roll on Virtual High School. The time is NOW!

  4. I think you are right, a Virtual High School is something worth looking at. When I think back to when I was at High School (only 10 years ago) some of the VCE/HSC subjects I wanted to take were not available due to the lack of students/or teachers at the school willing to take them and Distance Ed was a second rate option. However, in a Virtual High School this should not be the case. You would enrol in a Virtual Class at a Virtual High School and take you subject that way. Even if you only got 1% of all Australian distance education students enrolled in a Virtual High School, I think you would have a very big school. What about the Virtual Uni, Virtual Staffroom or Virtual PD..?

  5. Wow thanks – with Julian Ridden bringing in the LMS … this could quickly become a very inspiring solution to a very hard problem.

  6. It’s a great idea and one that I hope gets off the ground. My question is, how is it going to be staffed so that people can dedicate the time to these students who will really benefit from this type of learning? If we’re dependent on people giving of their time freely, like most of us do in this online world, where we expand thinking and try and push boundaries in our practice, most often without any monetary incentive for the time we invest, then I wonder if it we can sustain the effort alongside the jobs we have. Govt. Depts, particularly DEEWR, responsible for the rollout of the Digital Revolution, ought to be taking note and pushing through funding to support teachers to be innovative.

    • Excellent question. But we do already give our time freely in many instances, this is both student focused and teacher focused, so in many ways this is professional learning. There are a number of hooks that could be used, but at the National Symposium, we (DET and crowd) saw 100 students in marginalised subject/areas. So we are not talking hundreds of teachers, or even hundreds of hours. All this needs to be flushed out – but its about new ideas – perhaps, kids could work with a teacher-advistor who will connect them to one of the classes you are teaching. We need to re-evaluate the act of teaching itself.

      • I have no doubt it is professional learning and I think it’s a truly worthwhile idea. I just wonder if we are pushing ourselves to the point of burnout. I know how stretched I am trying to do everything right and give all facets of my life the necessary time. I know parts of it miss out, and sometimes that’s family and I know that’s not healthy. I really do believe it’s time that innovation was given time and a pay packet to ensure the life balance we all need was achievable.

      • Agreed – how long can a few do what is needed at systemic levels, and this is something I will certainly want to bring as a focus point. I suspect, from discussions on the day, that greater understanding and appreciation is a capstone issue, but we need to solve it, if we are to build communities of participation that are in anyway sustainable.Thanks Jenny.

  7. School without walls is happening already around the World except for locations where: 1) access to web sites is blocked or is a constant battle and/or 2) students are restricted to walled environments.

    Maybe I’m looking at this differently than other but I would argue many of the global projects are doing exactly this and that is how I would tackle this. But that is just my opinion.

    • @sue, I agree, there are numerous ventures globally, and also that we have overt filtering and ineffective, counter productive policy. In trying this, do we not have an opportunity to address these things – using factual evidence and research, not fear and lack of empathy with today’s learners? Im not sure if you see it as worth exploring?

      • I’m not saying that it isn’t worth exploring rather that sometimes the best approach if you want to make change happen is to be part of that change and just do it.

        Projects like the Flat Classroom projects make a difference and are part of the shift. But it takes strong, well organised and committed individuals to make them happen.

      • Flat Classroom for sure – there are numerous examples of doing things well, and I’ve run classes with teachers ‘dropped’ into the local online classroom from wide and far, but as a community – the connections are already there, the exemplars in place, thanks for your support! – You’re the exact dynamo-teacher that kids need on their side.

  8. It wouldn’t have to just be Australian students and teachers either. Perhaps it could be more global…Maybe let in a Montanan teacher and his two sons. I am concerned about my kids education…Are they really getting what they need in our schools. I imagine that our educational systems are somewhat similar, not sure, but its what I imagine. Is what they are doing each day in their classroom really preparing them for their future? There are no walls between Australia and Montana. May my two sons enroll in your virtual high school?

  9. A very cool idea, and not without some challenges should you choose to pursue it… about 15 years ago we tried to get a school running that operated in an uncompromising student-centred paradigm. You’ve never heard of it because the bureaucracy proved too much for us.

    Some key fundamentals – who would accredit the school? Which state in Australia has an Education Act that would have the flexibility to accommodate such an undertaking? Is there a body in Australia like the George Lucas Foundation in the US to financial underwrite the exercise? Perhaps Apple would look at such a role – assuming they could operate in a hands off mode.

    A big idea, and a noble one…

    But it will need more than just good teachers… even online schools will need Student Services, Administration, library resources (albeit in the form ebooks, online databases and information systems), extra-curricular paths, etc…

    Count me in if its going to happen….

  10. I think its a great idea and would love to see you leave it open to those of us a half a world away. There are a group of independent school educators exploring some online classes to support the regular school experience. There might be a hybrid model that allows a transition to a real virtual school or allows participation in some capacity. It’d be great to see some electives team taught and offered in a virtual space to a global set of kids. IT’d be fun to offer a set of seminars given by teachers all over the world to students all over the world for a global issues credit.
    Your idea is a good one and I suspect you are just the one to bring it to fruition. Best of luck!

  11. Nice work Dean! I love your thinking and am certainly keen to participate… wish I’d been at the workshop too but then a great idea and conversation will continue and grow (and change the world).

    I’m thinking some of the principles that you have shared are similar to those that I’ve been mulling over in my head for rethinking primary schooling too… so my question is ‘why just for high school students?’ but you have to start somewhere right and high school could be a more logical starting point.

    This presents a great opportunity for building and modeling ‘connected pedagogies’ to inspire connected learners and I find that a very exciting premise. You’re inviting people into an understanding of pedagogy and what it means to be a learner and creating an action plan to make it happen – and let’s make it happen! The transparency in process and implementation will make the whole experience a professional learning context and a vehicle for challenging societal understandings about education – no pressure 😉

    The no walls (even beyond the virtual school) and rethink of the standard structures and policy are very important! If these structures are such a barrier and such a big ‘yeah but’ than let’s make them a non-issue. With an Australian context too the national curriculum agenda could also help to enable this (and would be a great bargaining position with the pollies too)as it could provide a common framework to explore… and perhaps we are still even at a position in it’s development to radically influence the principles of that too…

    I’m thinking I need to now blog and converse 2 topics further…
    – connected pedagogy
    – interpreting national curriculum and Melbourne declaration within a virtual school context..


    BTW – happiness of dogs could be interesting too as long as the process doesn’t make them sad… at least they’re renewable!

  12. Was fun catching up at The National Symposium (#sictassy) and feeling part of a think tank that can/will actually lead to change. The concept of ‘Learning Without Walls’ isn’t new – examples abound, a couple mentioned above. The concept of a ‘School without Walls’ has been tried with varying degrees of success before however I see a couple of differences here. This can be gleaned from your twtpoll Dean – It’s public and can (needs to be?) be part of existing systems and departments. This necessitates support of DEEWR ( plus state departments. This would also explain why ‘Australian’perhaps. The limitations of ‘High School’ is less easily explained although some boundaries/foci would need to be in place in order for trials to take place … in order to enable and add to factually based research/evidence … that will help attain the necessary approval and support.

    Your twtpoll also states a ‘plausible pedagogical approach’ which suggests some/much/all approaches we currently adopt are questionable and raise doubt. Who reading your post would disagree?

    Any proposed ‘renewal of learning’, in my opinion, needs to be seen in the perspective of what is accessible to all students remembering lifelong, relevant and meaningful learning. It would be erroneous to pursue such a worthwhile venture without addressing the needs (known and unknown) of those just entering the digital/virtual world. Don’t forget the little kids and those yet to be born. Seriously get it right from the get go. Too many big ideas start small (for testing purposes) and that sets the parameters for the concept’s ongoing existence. The system so often works that way. To do the same and confine the initial idea would be hypocritical. A federal government once supplied lots of laptops but no support only to high school students. What messages and understanding of learning does this convey?

    A trial of renewed learning that crosses boundaries needs;

    to be integrated into what already exists,
    funding and support from existing structures within existing systems,
    to allow ‘instead of rather than extra’ time and money to explore the concept and evolve,
    to identify barriers/challenges and overcome them eg inappropriate and exclusive filtering, media nurtured fears, risk aversion as opposed to risk tolerance …,
    to acknowledge and trial all (a strong representation of) learners including primary/elementary students,
    to cater for varying learning styles needs,
    mustn’t assume or limit anything including ‘online/digital/virtual learning is the answer’,
    must put people first.

    I suggest drop the ‘Australian Virtual High School’ label, it is too limiting although we do need to work within Australian systems if the concept is to become systemic. ‘Virtual Learning and Reseach Centre’ is more encompassing and I believe will be acceptable by those with whom we need to liaise.

    I still have a passion for learning, always have my hand up as a primary educator and representative of younger learners plus I still have a years worth of Educampus (up to 100 blogs) from the Edublogs awards. If this can be of use let’s see how and do it. Count me in!

    • Thanks Al, personally, I have little doubt that this could pilot/run – be evaluated and operated within current foci of the various educational sectors. I don’t see as having pedagogical leaders – not teachers – as this is NOT about the internet or technology for me – it is about so much more – empathy, communication, communication, realism, relevance … to name a few. It is not about dumping content in a learning system either – so I don’t see why students would not only have ‘advistors’ but also ‘mentors’ – and in that regard – I see this as not having the traditional K-6/7-12 differentiations.

      I really like the idea you have around risk, and agree the label is wrong – however – it is cognitive with current language. I liked ‘school without walls’ – as it is more emotive – a little like the ‘school of the air’ in the 50s.

      Thanks for your support – I have no doubt, that your input and insight will strengthen the idea.

  13. Sustainable communities of practice can be established outside of the normal ‘high school’ models. If Australia was to lead the way in this I would suggest moving away from the ‘traditional’ virtual high school model by embracing new pedagogical ideas using emerging technologies. Dean, your motivation and ideas are inspiring, but I would encourage true innovation, something Australia can be good at, and think well outside the box. Thanks to Sue Waters for mentioning our Flat Classroom projects where we are already leading the way in global collaborative structures using Web 2.0 and virtual worlds.
    Don’t limit any ideas you have to a national model, this needs to be global and all-embracing and provide scope for action-based, challenge-based learning at it’s most exciting level.

  14. ‘Australia needs a virtual high school’ says John Larkin and he would be correct.

    When you mentioned this idea the other night Dean, I could tell that you would be prepared to travel any hard road to achieve this Big Idea.

    I think we need space(s) where one can take formal options (IB/HSC etc.) as well as less formal paths.

    Not sure how this would work but it would be a lotta fun to (virtually) find out.

    When James Burke talks about children/adults who are not suited to formal learning he has a point that few would disagree with.

    Who needs to be on this journey for it to end in a destination – and a beginning?

  15. The one thing that is missing here is this: hyper-personalization. Not everyone learns the same way (tactile, visual, emotional, audible etc) or at the same rate, especially in the same areas. Schooling is increasingly an outmoded model as it stands today. This idea of a virtualization of schooling will take precedence as our lives become more and more saturated with information and stressed for time. With the internet being ever-present in many people’s lives, most are already used to being able to choose what they want to digest. This concept will reach to schooling as well as students growing up with the internet start tuning out because they can’t get it the way they want it. Make it relevant and timely to the person and it will work.

    • Thanks – I’ve purposely not but down criteria – in the hope that I’ll get comments just like this – I have been pushing realism and relevance leads to retention for a while. I see classes being 15 mins! so all conventions need evaluating IMO.
      Thanks for the input Damien!

  16. Pingback: School Without Walls #2 «

  17. Wow! This an amazing idea which you are proposing, for a student like me (trust me when I say this)- It will be like a dream come true. With this sort of learning there will be so much room to move around (freedom), when we will be able to choose our subject, tutors and other things. Alongside education will be provided accompanied with skills many individuals in today’s society lack, this may include- effective use of internet and various computer softwares. This sort of school or centre can certainly become Australia’s backbone in providing with vital elements, which are needed, for the sake of excelling in technology and learning. In my opinion this sort of system will certainly form a centre where words such motivation and excitement would live, also it will provide with solid foundation for younger generations to compete globally.

    However, I guess there will be few problems, which of course would include finances and collecting a group of teachers and training them to fit into such a scenario. Moreover providing teachers with the skill of influencing and motivating their pupils, side by side giving the content which essential to be learnt.

    This is a brilliant idea. Tomorrow-I have been invited to a breakfast with few politicians, and other hotshots (it’s a chamber of a small group of students from this district). They will be giving speeches based upon education being on a turning point, I will certainly try my best to get this idea across to them.

    Love the idea…

  18. YES! And that would be the beautiful thing, it is not restricted by borders or governments, it can go beyond traditional forms of control of subject matter.

    ‘I think we need space(s) where one can take formal options (IB/HSC etc.) as well as less formal paths.’ I think we should take a less formal path in middle school.

    The DET’s ideal of life long learning fits exactly into the void missing: learning doesn’t just occur with a teacher out the front within the walls of a school or from within a text book or according to standardised tests across the country…

  19. although u havent explained the idea thorouly. im not sure how the actual teaching part works because it is a lot harder to understand a text then have some1 xplain it to you and show you how things are done.. the other problm is the loss of educational jobs especially the non teacher staff, suspecting the teachers are included in this idea.

    if a major clearer idea was shown i could understand better.. but apart from these prblems it is a far cheaper, easier and more efficient way of learning =]

    student (sutherland shire)

    • thanks for the reply! – the idea is that there are teachers to advise you, help you understand etc., but not by standing in the front of the class, giving you work then checking the answers. The global financial crisis is changing employment as you say. If a text is hard to understand, perhaps there is a better way of doing it using all sorts of media. As a student – you are the expert in your daily experience, what could having an online teacher-advisor do that would help you out? Great to get your input.

  20. It is neat to see that this is concept that people other than myself have. I manage a website to encourage teachers to think differently about education. I want to inspire and give them ideas to make them better teachers. You can check it out at I have a tech blog where I talk about different pieces of technology that can be used in the classroom. One of those piece of technology is Skype. This would allow for students to not be in the school but still participate in class. Students from all over can participate in a class with having to sit within the four walls of a classroom. I am encouraged by your perspective, and I look forward to seeing where technology takes education.

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