This article first appeared in Education Technology Solutions Magazine in February 2015.
The question of how to deliver flexible professional learning about student mental health and wellbeing is addressed by a blended learning model. In its early development, the model is being used by school leaders and staff across Australia to support primary school students to increase their wellbeing and resilience, and support their families to better understand mental health.
Blended learning and professional learning in schools
While it is difficult to define blended learning, there is agreement, particularly in the world of education, that it combines face-to-face delivery with eLearning and collaborative Web 2.0 tools. Many teachers will recall professional learning with a face-to-face presenter imparting content and facilitating group discussions to capture themes and ideas. This often prompted humorous reactions about the ever-present appearance of butcher's paper! With the development of eLearning it is possible for schools and other organisations to offer professional learning to their staff through a combination of face-to-face training and different forms of technological delivery.
What is the 'right' blend? This has been one of the big questions for organisations interested in designing professional learning that integrates face-to-face learning with technology. It is a question of particular interest in the context of adult learning in the workplace, and specifically addressing challenging issues such as the mental health of primary school students.
The school as a site to promote mental health
The school is one of the most significant locations in the community for supporting children and families in the context of mental health. The concern about the mental health of Australian primary school students was highlighted in the 2000 study, the Child and Adolescent Component of the National Survey of Mental Health and Well-Being. Findings showed that 14% of Australian primary school children experienced mental health difficulties. In 2006 Principals Australia Institute began working with school leaders to deliver a prevention and early intervention model, KidsMatter Primary. It uses a flexible, whole-school approach that assists staff to understand mental health, support students and link with families and health agencies. The focus is on cultural change in the school community and supporting children to become resilient and confident.
Principals Australia Institute works with school leaders to deliver KidsMatter Primary in collaboration with the Australian Government Department of Health, beyondblue and the Australian Psychological Society. The professional learning framework consists of four discrete components and typically involves a two-year commitment from schools. Since it was established as a pilot project in 2006, over 2,300 schools have adopted the mental health and wellbeing initiative.
The challenges of developing a blended learning model
Apart from establishing the 'right' blend, other issues had to be addressed in the development of the blended learning model to equip staff in schools to understand what constitutes mental health and wellbeing. Staff needed to learn and develop skills to work with students to improve their mental health and increase their resilience. It was essential to provide flexibility for staff to learn in a safe space with colleagues and opportunities to review and work together to address difficult concepts beyond the presentation. It was also important to offer a range of learning activities that were appropriate, respectful and that created insight into the subject of mental health.
It has taken more than two years to make the shift towards blended professional learning from a face-to-face delivery model. Following research of best practice and a scoping study, Principals Australia Institute developed a blended model of professional learning using the KidsMatter Primary Portal. It also focused on a change process to introduce the new approach.
Key features of the model
The key features of the blended learning model were tested during a pilot conducted between March and June 2014. In the professional leaning sessions, the face-to-face learning involves staff building rapport with the facilitator, a peer teacher, who facilitates a series of structured four professional learning components as a member of a school Action Team. Supported by Institute project officers, the facilitator provides the safe space for staff to ask questions, test out ideas and learn strategies to support the wellbeing of students.
A number of innovative features in the online Portal provide the structure for promoting and supporting whole-school change about children's mental health and wellbeing. Staff can access content about mental health; watch videos; take electronic notes; collaborate with other schools; track their progress with the framework and retrieve a wide range of learning resources and research.
One of the aspects of the Portal that continues to surprise participants is the on-screen iMentor who guides staff through the mental health content, and introduces videos and activities. The iMentor 'invites' the facilitator to host group discussions that deepen participants' understanding of the concept of mental health and what schools can do to focus on building a sense of wellbeing in their community. The collaboration and messaging functions enable schools to network, and share resources and strategies to support student wellbeing.
Some advantages of this blended learning in school professional learning
Over 90% of Action Teams involved in the trial approved its use. More than 80% reported having a better understanding of KidsMatter Primary, and over 75% stated that they would recommend the Portal to other schools. Comments from participating schools demonstrated a generalised positive reception towards the Portal. For example, teacher-facilitators spoke about the benefits of the on-screen facilitator. The participants highlighted that the iMentor guided the sequence of content and introduced generous opportunities for in-depth discussions which made the learning relevant and informative because it contextualised the school circumstances. A number of participants also reported favourably on the electronic note-taking feature that allowed them to record important themes and ideas and save for future planning. No more butcher's paper!
Questions about blended learning
While many schools in the trial found that the Portal and blended learning approach was flexible and adaptable for the needs of their communities, some identified challenges and these are being addressed by the Institute. Challenges included the compatibility of technology which would need to be improved for some schools and the imperative for the school facilitators to prepare for the sessions. It was clear that facilitators needed to familiarise themselves with the objectives and content by previewing the Portal screen-by-screen, and checking the functionality of the embedded videos and electronic note-taking facility. It was interesting to note that some schools exceeded the estimated time of sessions because the staff discussions were expansive. Yet, there was also agreement that the discussion sessions were a very important means of learning and sharing understanding about mental health at a whole-staff level. Another important lesson learned in the Portal trial was the need to adapt some of the content for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander schools and their communities.
Engagement with blended learning model
At the end of November 2014, around one in three schools in the KidsMatter Primary network were actively using the Portal. Nearly 100% of these schools had been in recent contact with Principals Australia Institute staff which suggests the continuing need for the relationship and opportunities to interact and access assistance. Evidence has emerged already that schools are using the online resources to develop networks through the collaborative tools. Schools are accessing the Portal Help Desk during business hours - again an indication that the combination of online learning with some kind of other interaction expands the potential of the Portal.
And the future?
The professional learning approach applied in the KidsMatter Primary Portal appears to have created an effective solution mixing an appropriate blend of face-to-face and online elements for school communities. It offers school leaders and their staff the opportunity to develop a shared framework for supporting 'good' mental health and wellbeing for primary school students.
Because we know that around one in seven children will experience some mental health difficulty, it is essential that staff are as well-equipped as possible to support the wellbeing of students in the primary school years. Although in its early development, there are strong indications that the efficacy and longevity of this blended professional learning approach will positively impact on the quality of mental health and wellbeing in school communities across Australia.
Madeleine Regan is a writer in the Communications Team at Principals Australia Institute. She is an educator with more than 20 year’s experience including as a Deputy Principal of a middle school. She was part of the team that wrote resources for the KidsMatter PrimaryPortal.