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Instructor teaching out of virtual world at home

Gord Holden uses an Immersive Technology  Program to teach elementary and secondary students.  - Scott Stanfield
Gord Holden uses an Immersive Technology Program to teach elementary and secondary students.
— image credit: Scott Stanfield

Gord Holden used to teach in classrooms at Lake Trail Secondary, Courtenay Elementary and at Navigate (powered by NIDES). These days, the Courtenay resident teaches out of a virtual world at home.

Holden is part of a team of teachers trained in the Immersive Technology Program at Heritage Christian Online School, which is taking a 21st century approach to teaching and learning.

The program began about four years ago with one teacher and eight students covering 30 courses. It now consists of 10 teachers — one of whom lives in Quebec — and about 160 students who take more than 600 courses.

“The idea of 21st century education in most people’s mind is taking what normally exists on a piece of paper and putting it on a screen,” Holden said. “To me, that’s really unfortunate. It’s a lack of insight into what’s possible.”

By removing restrictions such as brick and mortar, Holden and the team can immerse home-schooled students in a 3D, interactive, virtual environment. In a program called WolfQuest, for instance, students discover how to access GPS locators for actual wolves. Another resource is Quest Atlantis.

Classes are taped, edited and available for review. Students receive constant feedback, and can retake a quiz as many times as needed in order to master the material.

“Distance learning can be challenging for kids because they don’t have immediate contact with the teacher,” Holden said. “This is what the kids do when they’re not at school, so my thinking was, Why not have them do it for school?”

Holden is not saying every child or youth would “eat this up.” However, he notes some students’ ideal learning situation is to curl up under a tree with a good book.

“There are kids who would love to curl up inside of that book and be a part of it, and that’s what we do with Quest Atlantis. The kids are part of the story. They’re trying to save a world called Atlantis, and they have problems that need to be sorted out. These problems all work into our curriculum. Usually there’s a moral, ethical dilemma that’s involved. There are no black and white answers.”

Kamloops resident Carol Thiessen began homeschooling her son Ben at age 13 through Heritage Christian. With two of his core subjects included in the IMT format, she said Ben was able to easily learn.

“He was also encouraged to do his best. Not only has Ben learned language arts and social studies, and how to write good reports, but his self-esteem has improved as well,” said Thiessen, who praised Holden for his “dedication to our special students.”

Compared to the province-wide Foundation Skills Assessment of academic skills, Holden says students in the IMT program scored 19 per cent higher in literacy.

Another positive, he notes, is the savings that would come with adopting the methodology.

“If we had a virtual campus, it wouldn’t cost $10 million. They wouldn’t have to raise student fees. They wouldn’t have to borrow money.”

Virtual learning also provides a safe environment for students to interact and develop social skills.

“We find there’s an amazing response from kids on the autism spectrum,” Holden said. “We have kids who typically start off where, if a stranger comes into the room, they would dive under the nearest table. But before long, they’re actually doing public speaking. It’s just amazing the transformation that takes place.”

He recalls a pair of First Nation girls who at first would not speak to anyone but who became “greeters” in the IMT environment.

“The one came running up to me and said, ‘Mr. Holden. I have friends,’ which is three of the most beautiful words a teacher can hear.”

The girl had made 300 friends — in Australia.

“My experience has been that when kids are engaged and motivated, 90 per cent of the struggle is gone. Children are wired to learn, they want to learn. But how do they learn best? They learn best through play.”

Holden was named 2014 ‘Edovator of the Year’ by the Virtual Education Journal. The IMT program has been nominated for a prestigious iNACOL award (International Association for K-12 Online Learning).

Through the Independent School Act, B.C. allows religious education to receive partial funding (half of public school funding).

“In principle, we support virtual learning in all its forms,” says a statement from the Education Ministry. “We tend to do this through raising teacher awareness and supporting professional learning opportunities associated with educational technology.”

 

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