Branksome Hall, the independent school for girls in Toronto, had already been experiencing and understanding how virtual spaces would be integrated in the future of learning, so when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down physical classrooms, the school was well placed to accelerate the model and implement a virtual campus.
From using the VirBELA platform to host the 2020 graduation celebration that featured students' avatars toasting one another and showing off their moves to ABBA’s Dancing Queen on a virtual stage, the technology evolved over the summer into a private campus, Open U[niverse].
The platform complements other technology such as Zoom, says Michael Ianni-Palarchio, director, technology and innovation at Branksome Hall, adding VirBELA creates the opportunity for spontaneous and ad hoc interactions where students and teachers can move about and ‘bump’ into one another in the Open U.
“Virtual spaces come quite naturally to young people – they have grown up with the concept of creating virtual versions of themselves through playing video games like Minecraft and Animal Crossing, and these paradigms are very much like those the VirBELA platform embraces,” says Mr. Ianni-Palarchio.
VirBELA is an example of the International Baccalaureate school’s investment in real-world technology equipment enabling the girls to use the same tools that are used in industry by engineers and scientists, he adds.
Along with the tools and exposure to a science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics (STEAM) curriculum, one of the most important goals for the school is developing a STEAM-related mindset.
“The tools change quickly, so developing a STEAM mindset and the confidence and ability to resiliently pivot in the future as they engage in STEAM-related post-secondary education, or once they are out in the work world, they will always have the ability to approach problem-solving quite naturally,” says Mr. Ianni-Palarchio.
The use of advanced technology combined with the school’s catchphrase, “be your authentic self,” encourages every girl to find her comfort level, her level of interest and passion, and then to leverage a STEAM-mindset to pursue who she wants to be now and in the future, he says.
As change has accelerated, particularly over the last decade, Branksome Hall is educating girls for jobs that don’t yet exist as many industries experience disruption, says Mr. Ianni-Palarchio.
“This year, through the lens of COVID-19, the level of global disruption is at an extreme level, but we should anticipate that in the future we will continue to experience disruption. Technological change will continue, and we should be looking at ways to embrace, leverage and benefit from that disruption as opposed to disruption that causes strife and negativity in the world,” he says.
But Mr. Ianni-Palarchio notes that it is also the school’s responsibility not just to teach girls how to use STEAM-related tools from a practical perspective but also how to use technology keeping in mind ethics and values.
He points out that technology itself is neutral, but how it is used and integrated it into daily life is part of the school’s focus on inquiry-based education that instills critical thinking.
Whether Branksome Hall’s graduates enter a STEAM-related field or not, a STEAM mindset will play an advantageous role in whatever they choose because technology touches every part of our lives, he says.
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