Melbourne startup Born to Soar is a virtual classroom for gifted & talented students neglected by the system

- December 17, 2015 5 MIN READ

The many problems facing Australia’s public education systems are, for the most part, well documented, from crowded classrooms to old facilities and time-poor teachers. But while news stories often focus on the lack of attention given to students with learning difficulties, a Victorian Government inquiry into the education of gifted and talented students in Victorian schools found that up to 85,000 students are neglected by an education system that does not have the time or resources to adequately focus on them. The inquiry found that, as a result, gifted students, who “represent our state’s future visionaries and innovators” are “frequently frustrated and disengaged”.

Melbourne pair Carolyn and Angus Giles have launched Born to Soar, a platform they hope can lessen the burden on the system. In a bit of a throwback to farm kids going into school by sitting down at the kitchen table with the radio, Born to Soar is an online platform that essentially acts as a virtual classroom through video conferencing and online modules. It’s aimed at students who are identified as gifted and talented, allowing them to meet with a facilitator and interact with similar students so that their learning needs are adequately addressed.

“Traditionally, gifted education has been poorly resourced, and there’s a belief that gifted children learn anyway because they’re bright and they will actually learn. But unfortunately, the research into gifted education shows that’s not true. Gifted children need to be taught and to be taught in a way that makes them reach their potential. So I decided that I wanted to address that need,” Carolyn Giles said.

“What we have traditionally found is that some schools physically can’t afford the resources that they have to have to get a specialist gifted teacher on staff, and therefore it falls into the traditional class teachers to differentiate the learning for the students and many teachers are able to do that and others like to have support, and financially those resources are very strained. We can fill in that gap for schools; instead of the school having to employ a full time or even part time gifted teacher, they can enrol their student into courses where the needs arise.”

Giles, herself an educator, began developing a framework for the platform through a pilot study with homeschooled students. Born to Soar currently offers five courses, which are aligned with the Australian curriculum, which means students from various states can take a class online together.

Parents or schools can choose to enrol students into a course; for example, a school might identify a number of gifted students who are at a higher level in maths than the rest of their class and decide to put them into a Born to Soar course. A school could choose to book out an entire class space on Born to Soar and so pick the time for students to hook into the platform, or else students in classes with others around the country will log on at a time specified by Born to Soar.

The students receive an invitation before their class with a link to log into the classroom, where they’re greeted by their teacher. The teacher works with them for 40 to 60 minutes, after which the students can go into breakout classrooms, where they can work with each other. The platform records and stores each class for later access, while all work both completed and to be done is also stored in folders. Work is evaluated by the teacher each week, with a report sent out to each student’s parents and classroom teachers at the end of a program.

As well as Giles, there are three other teachers currently guiding courses. The teachers are trained to work in the online, virtual environment, with Giles herself currently back at university.

“One of the things that I’ve looked into is what sort of needs does a teacher have to address that would be very dissimilar to a normal classroom, and whether or not the students are actually able to respond in a virtual learning environment as they do in a face to face classroom. We try to look at the slight nuances we might need to address. The teachers might need to be retrained in working in this environment, but, to be honest with you, it’s more about having teachers that really understand giftedness,” Giles said.

Course costs vary, with Giles explaining that Born to Soar can take into account the financial situation of individual schools or parents. A potential costing for a four week course for four students is $160 per student.

The startup has just signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Le Page Primary School in Melbourne, giving access to the Born to Soar platform to the school and its wider local community. However, Angus Giles said approaching other schools an easy sell.

“To be quite frank, as Caroline said, the gifted children seem to be part of a school class and because they can do the work, there’s not a lot of focus on them. It’s only through recent studies and educationalists like Caroline that concerns are being raised that we’re missing an opportunity to help these students reach their capabilities. So when we’re going to school, we’re actually saying to them, ‘we’re looking to complement what they’re currently doing’. Some schools already cater for gifted children and that’s fantastic and what we’re looking to do is say, this is an opportunity for you to enhance what you’re doing with us for those children to evolve further,” he said.

Born to Soar is also looking to position itself as a product that can help schools differentiate themselves from other schools in their area, and in turn attract new parents and students.

“I think that’s helpful from the school’s point of view, and obviously from the parent’s point of view, they can see that the school is investing in the kids’ education, whether it’s state or private. Therefore that then translates into better recognition from the state school’s point of view, which then translates no doubt to results and other things that come about from it,” Giles said.

To build on this, Born to Soar is creating a free database in partnership with Swinburne University which will track the gifted and talented efforts of primary schools around the country to help parents better research potential schools for their children. The startup also offers an assessment to help parents properly determine whether their child is gifted in order to help them make decisions about their education.

“We’re trying to offer a point of difference where, if you aren’t able as a parent put a child in a school that is doing something about the learning needs, whether it’s differentiating them or whatever it is, we can support those families who don’t have either a school geographically close enough or are unable to move. Some parents will move states to fit their child’s needs, but if they don’t have that ability then many students will travel anyway to do things like day programs. But what we’re trying to provide a service where you don’t have to be anywhere else,” Giles said.

The startup is currently focused on the Victorian market, but will be looking to expand to NSW and Queensland over the next few months.

Image: Carolyn Giles. Source: Supplied.