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Never let a good crisis go to waste – improving equity in schooling

As Winston Churchill once famously said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste”. While the COVID-19 pandemic is far from over, as school students return to their classrooms, there is an opportunity to capitalise on the gains from the period students and teachers have had to spend online.

This is not to belittle the losses and the hardships of many. On the contrary, the intent is to help minimise losses in a pessimistic future scenario where online learning needs to resume in the wake of a second wave of the pandemic. Ideally, in a more optimistic future, where learning can continue in the classroom for most, it would be wasteful not to integrate the gains for the benefit of all. This article considers the equity implications of on-line learning in a lockdown.

An important benefit of schools is that they can be great equalisers. Schools can reduce inequities that arise due to differences in resources, support and encouragement in the home. Therefore, if school gates shut, and if nothing is done, this equalising effect is lost.

Online learning is better than no learning

The implicit assumption of much media and expert commentaries that fast followed the closing of school gates across Australia was that the counterfactual to learning online in the home was that the gates remained open. That was not a realistic option in many parts of the country.

The counterfactual is “what if there was no online option to continue formal learning?”

Australia is a ‘lucky country’ in the sense that it was one of the ‘rich’ countries able to swiftly put in place some form of distance learning in response to the pandemic, whereas this has not been an option for three out of four ‘poor’ countries.

However imperfect the solutions implemented in Australia, they are generally better than nothing for most, but not all, students. Unfortunately, the loss of learning has been acute for some already vulnerable students.

Those with few resources in the home to support their health and wellbeing let alone their education, with parents lacking either the capacity and/or the capability to support the continuation of learning, have been separated by a widened digital divide.

The crisis has highlighted inequities and prioritised their redress

The crisis has highlighted existing inequities and prioritised their redress. For instance, the Commonwealth Government commissioned a suite of new research pieces from education and academic experts. While they vary in emphasis and coverage, the key message is consistent: if nothing is done, vulnerable student cohorts are likely to suffer from a greater loss of learning in an online environment than their peers.

When learning is moving online, ‘vulnerable students’ are students whose learning outcomes are at greatest risk of being compromised due to location, family characteristics or stage of learning.

While this article focuses more on the first two delineators, it is important not to lose sight of the third. That is, young children, who have not mastered the art of reading, if not well supported by parents, are also at risk. And, at the other end of the spectrum, are senior secondary school students who are at risk of faring less well in their final exams than previous school leavers due to disruptions to their learning.

Distinguished education researcher Professor Stephen Lamb hypothesises that vulnerable students are likely to suffer from a greater loss of learning in an online environment largely because of differences in home and digital resources, digital competencies and parental support.

The Australian Digital Inclusion Index (ADII) measures digital inclusion across three vital dimensions: affordability, access, and ability. Relating these dimensions to the learning environment, relevant is whether students: come from households that can afford sufficient digital resources so that they do not have to compete with mum, dad and their siblings for their use as each attempt to work and learn from home; have sufficient internet connectivity or data necessary to access learning online; and have the ability or support to make best use of the platforms and other technological tools used to facilitate learning online.

As is apparent from the table below, digital inclusion is worse on all fronts in rural locations, for poor families and in Indigenous households.

Professor Lamb estimates what differences in home and digital resources, digital competencies and parental support could mean for learning outcomes. He finds that if online learning were to persist for a term, Year 9 students from low socio-economic backgrounds would fall behind in their learning by 2.3 weeks in Reading and 3.3 weeks in Numeracy. And losses would continue to grow the longer online learning persists.

While these are not great numbers, bear in mind: most students have or will return to school soon; some steps were taken to bridge the digital divide; and more steps should follow provided this crisis is not wasted.

On the second point, initiatives included providing broadband connections, routers, dongles and loaning chromebooks or other digital devices to students with no or few devices in their household. In other words, while initiatives varied by system or school, they typically addressed issues of affordability and access. And, in a state of crisis, could only go so far. Connectivity continued to be an issue in the remote corners of Australia. And there is no such thing as a quick fix where it is digital abilities that are found wanting.

Which is not the same as saying there is no fix. These are not new issues. The Isolated Children’s Parents Association, for instance, sees that the silver lining of the current crisis is that issues of students in remote Australia are now on the agenda. In remote Australia issues of connectivity are the norm, as are associated issues of isolation and mental wellbeing.

When it comes to digital abilities, a good place to start is with teachers. Teachers not only have to be technically adept with the digital tools they are deploying, they need to know how to use them to best pedagogical effect and, importantly, guide students and parents in their use. No small task. Particularly when thrown into the deep end during a crisis situation.

The good news is that it is what teachers do that matters, not the medium for doing it. This is the finding of two separate syntheses of many studies – one close to home (refer advice of eminent education researcher, Professor John Hattie) and another from abroad (notably a recent evidence assessment rapidly pulled together by the United Kingdom’s Education Endowment Foundation). That is, the focus of any professional development is less about being technically adept and more about using the technology for best pedagogical effect.

Indeed, in a survey of teachers across Australia and New Zealand conducted mid-crisis most teachers rated themselves as confident or very confident users of digital technologies. Teachers’ open-ended survey responses indicate that they are struggling to do well online the things they already do well in the classroom, and to support the digital abilities of students. With respect to the former, this includes being clear, scaffolding learnings, providing feedback, prompting reflection, supporting independent learning, and enabling interaction.

The wrong thing to do now that students are returning to the classroom would be to ignore these challenges. It may take just one infected student to close a school and a second wave to close many.

Now is the time to invest in the professional development of teachers. Now is the time for teachers to apply their learnings in the classroom and better prepare their students for an online environment.

This is particularly important for supporting vulnerable students on three fronts:

  1. Proportionally more vulnerable students need support in becoming digitally competent

  2. Vulnerable students are more likely to benefit from explicit support to work independently, such as through the provision of checklists or daily plans

  3. The crisis has brought into sharp relief the critical role of teachers in supporting vulnerable students’ connectivity with them and each other, as a counter to isolation, and as a means of supporting their wellbeing.

Crisis-induced creative destruction of learning can benefit all

Acclaimed educator, edtech pioneer and author, Gary Stager, urges that this is our moment. That out of a crisis comes opportunity to remake schooling in a way that is more humane, creative, meaningful, and learner-centred. To this we would add: more equitable.

Take, for example, just one category of the vulnerable learners we have just been discussing: those located in regional and remote Australia. A significant 1.1 million or 38% of Australia’s 3.9 million school students fall into this category.

Some schools located in the remotest parts of Australia are, out of necessity, well ahead of the COVID curve, and have been engaged in distance learning for years. Others have struggled to do the best by their students within the confines of the resources and the teachers they manage to attract. And students have paid the price as they have slipped behind their city peers.

The table below shares the results for last year’s NAPLAN testing for Year 9 students for Reading and Numeracy. The key message is clear: the further students are distanced from the major centres, the larger the share of students failing to achieve minimum national standards. In very remote locations, for Reading it is less than half. It is a little better for Numeracy, at two thirds. But that still means that the current approach is failing a large third of students in the remote corners of Australia.

Now imagine the possibilities if teachers and students at those schools mastered the art of teaching and learning online. Imagine if the gaps in the offerings at those schools could be met by virtual classes. Or if existing course offerings could be enriched through online access to experts across Australia or the globe. Imagine if students in year levels with few peers could engage and interact with peers in other classrooms across Australia.

This is not just a dream. Aspects of this are happening already. For instance, at Virtual Schools Victoria eligible students can do all their schooling online, or undertake selected subjects while continuing to be enrolled at their mainstream school. Now is the time to reimagine schooling on a larger scale for the benefit of more.



About the author

Mary Clarke is the founder and principal of DXP Consulting, and the lead author of the 2018/19 Parents Report Card. She has headed the education policy function for a professional body, and executive and senior public service economic and policy roles. Mary holds an Executive Masters in Public Administration and an Honours degree in Economics.


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