5 reasons for doing online learning for school students well
13 April 2020
On 7 April 2020, the Premier of Victoria and the Victorian Minister for Education jointly announced that all government school students will not be returning to the physical classroom after the Easter break. They will be learning online. The big unanswered question at the time of announcement, for students and parents alike, is what will online learning look like?
Cards on the table: I am a mother of a primary school aged child who attends a government school in Victoria. I am also a small business owner keen to emerge out of this pandemic with my business intact. I am a government policy specialist, with a particular focus on, and passion for, education policy. So, this is not an unbiased article. But that does not mean it is any less important.
My concern as a parent and an education policy specialist is that the current pandemic is used as an excuse for not doing online learning well. There is even a term for it emerging in the literature – ‘Emergency Remote Teaching’ or ERT. It is used by those who have coined it to deliberately distinguish the pandemic-induced rush online, from best practice online learning. See, for example, this article. While the focus is on higher education, the messages are transferable.
My strong view is that there is no room for excuses for not doing it well. Five reasons why are that:
we are talking about the learnings and wellbeing of too many students not to;
it can be and is being done well by some;
teachers are the best teachers;
it can lead to sustainable gains in the equity of access to a quality education; and
recovery depends on parents’ capacity to work.
1. We are talking about the learnings and wellbeing of too many students not to
There are approaching one million school students in Victoria. Almost two thirds attend government schools. The rest go to non-government (Catholic and Independent) schools.
While non-government systems and schools will make their own decisions, the Commonwealth Government, as their major source of public funding, is encouraging decisions in favour of students returning to the physical classroom. The Education Minister has made remaining open a condition of funding.
State governments own and are the major funder of government schools. The Victorian State Government’s decision that government school students (other than the children of essential workers) are not to return to the physical classroom until further notice affects over 600,000 students across the State. Three out of every five government school students attend primary school. The majority of the rest are in junior secondary. In other words, large numbers of Victoria’s young will be required to learn online. When the learnings and wellbeing of so many of Victoria’s young are at stake, it is important to do it well.
Source: ACARA, data portal.
2. It can be and is being done well by some
The good news is that online learning is not new and ‘edtech’ is advancing at pace, meaning that online learning can be an engaging and beneficial experience. The post-secondary sector has been experimenting with different models of online learning since the mid-1990s, particularly so over the last decade. The even better news is that there is no shortage of quality online tools and applications available for low or no cost. The challenge is to use them well to create positive online learning experiences.
For school aged students, positive online experiences provide structure, which is particularly important in the absence of the school bell. Structure, not rigidity. Structures can and should flex depending on circumstances and the pace of individual students’ learning.
Positive online experiences provide virtual face-to-face opportunities. This includes teachers with their classes, and students with each other, say in discussion groups. It should facilitate collaboration and not exacerbate isolation. This is important not only for learning but because social engagement is vital for the mental health and wellbeing of all, both young and old.
Finally, positive online learning experiences should integrate feedback. Online tools and applications can pinpoint where students are struggling and provide relevant elaboration and examples to support mastery. That said, tools and applications should supplement and not replace teacher feedback. The secret of positive online experiences is communication. In the absence of being able to physically interact with their students, teachers need to use online mediums to check in regularly and engage with their students.
The Australian Financial Review recently shared the experiences of a school in New South Wales that is doing it well. It describes a typical day of a teacher who is greeted by a computer screen filled with the faces of her class at 8.50am every Monday to Friday. She calls the roll by getting each student to fill in their name in the caption field under their image. She switches between this screen and shared screens to show her students what she is doing, play short videos, or share other online content. She has one-on-ones and monitors student discussion groups. And, even though this teacher categorises herself as belonging to the older generation, she has experienced no major difficulties adapting to the available technologies.
There are 1,535 primary, secondary, combined and special government schools in Victoria. Each and every one will have been working over the school holidays and Easter break to move learning online. This is an unprecedented opportunity to work together and share learnings for the benefit of all students. And for the State to drive this.
3. Teachers are the best teachers
I am in constant awe of teachers. They do what I cannot: teach.
Moving learning online should neither remove the role of teachers nor transfer it to parents. Worst case is that ERT comprises periodically posting tasks on a platform and leaving it to students to battle through them, potentially with the help of their parents. Past experience of attempting to explain decimal places to my daughter who was struggling with her homework is a textbook example of how not to teach. And why I am not, and will never be, a teacher. My failed attempts of using number lines and slices of pie analogies resulted in much crying and gnashing of teeth. And that was just me. I lack both the ability and the temperament to be a good teacher.
Positive online learning experiences necessitate that teachers play enhanced not reduced roles. They need to be guides, familiarising students with the various online tools and applications. They need to be motivators, maintaining the morale of their students and providing constructive feedback. As argued above, they need to be effective communicators. Communication in an online learning environment needs to be deliberate and strategic to bring out the best version of every student. And, just as teachers are role models in the physical classroom, they need to model positive online behaviours.
4. It can lead to sustainable gains in the equity of access to a quality education
While most of Victoria’s government school students attend schools in the major cities and inner regional areas, a significant 27,717 students live in outer regional and remote areas.
Source: ABS, Schools Australia, 2019.
Analysis of NAPLAN results finds that Victoria’s Year 9 regional students lag an average of 12 months behind their city peers in maths, and 10 months behind in reading. Furthermore, over half of the State’s regional and rural schools have recorded a slump in their VCE results over the past decade.
In other words, there is a gap between the performance of Victoria’s city and country students, and it is widening. This observation, plus acute teacher and principal shortages in outer regional and remote areas, motivated the Victorian Government last year to make provision in its Budget for financial enticements to attract teachers and principals to these areas.
Now imagine the possibilities if government schools mastered the art of teaching online. The beauty of an online classroom is that it is indifferent to where you live. Provided households have access to devices and the internet, something the Victorian Government has moved rapidly to address over the past couple of weeks, then geography need not be a dictator of educational outcomes.
5. Recovery depends on parents’ capacity to work
The national and state economies are being impacted by the coronavirus. Large parts have shut down. And there has been an unprecedented transfer of activity and the labour force from the workplace to the home. While the size of the fall in economic activity has yet to be reflected in the official national accounts and labour force data, leading indicators, such as the record slump in consumer confidence, suggest that it will be hard hitting.
It is essential, therefore, that all jurisdictions, including Victoria, position themselves now to best weather the storm and bounce back once it is over. That means protecting the productive capacity of states and the nation.
Of the 1.5 million families in Victoria, 31 percent are couples with children under 15 and another seven percent are single parent families with children under 15. In other words, almost two in every five families in Victoria have young children.
Source: ABS, Census of Population and Housing, 2016, TableBuilder.
If online learning is done poorly, diverting the parents of those families who are attempting to work from home, away from their work to the daily tasks posted on their children’s online platforms, then the productive capacity of states and the nation will suffer. The slump will deepen. And recovery will be slow. It also risks undoing years of progress on gender equity in employment and business, if it is mums who feel they need to put their aspirations on hold for the sake of their children.
The importance of high expectations
A final point I want to leave you with before signing off relates to the importance of self-fulfilling expectations. Educators understand this well. Teacher expectations tops the list of effects on student achievements examined by esteemed education researcher John Hattie in his landmark publication Visible Learning. If educators have low expectations of their students they will fail to challenge and stretch them. Worse still, they will influence the confidence students place in their own abilities. If they have high expectations, the opposite is true.
The same self-fulfilling expectations will likely hold true for our educators. If the expectations of governments and parents are high – that they can create positive and engaging learning experiences for their students in the online space – then they most likely will. If the pandemic is allowed to become an excuse for ERT, then students, parents and the economy will be the worse off for it.
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