Offline distance education (already happening all around Australia) can be highly successful

By Natalie Downes and Philip Roberts

As many of our children continue with their online learning, there is concern that those with limited access to technology will be disadvantaged. Access to online technology is indeed important, however Australia has been schooling children through distance education long before online connectivity was an option. As distance education teachers, we can reassure concerned families, and schools new to distance education, that offline learning can be very successful. In fact some of the best learning occurs in the offline component of distance education.

Getting the offline work out to students, given the sudden transition we are all experiencing, might be a logistical problem to some schools at the moment. However, with every passing day our schools are finding new solutions. In NSW schools are lending computers to students who don’t have them, other schools are arranging mail outs, or delivering paper copies of work and others are sending out USB drives with work uploaded. 

What is offline distance education?

Distance education schools allow children who cannot attend a face-to-face school to stay in their own home while working with a teacher who is located at a physical school elsewhere. Students in these schools communicate with their teacher by post, telephone, and online platforms, and the teacher sends them lessons to complete each week with the assistance of a supervisor, who is usually a parent. This is similar to what happening right now in most of our schools.

While teachers communicate regularly with their students, the majority of learning in distance education schools is completed offline, with students and home supervisors using lesson guides sent by teachers. In the younger years of schooling teachers send scripted lessons so that supervisors can read these to their students.

In the higher years of schooling the students work more independently, relying less on the supervisor. It is important to note that like many parents at the moment, these supervisors are un-trained educators, and they are also managing day-to-day work, life, and childcare responsibilities.

One of the benefits of distance education is the valuable and productive collaboration it encourages between parent supervisors and teachers.

Our research – what works in offline distance education

Our research explored the experiences of parent supervisors of primary school

distance education students. We found the opportunities distance education can bring to schooling are important and should be part of the discussions we have when talking about distance education.

Instead of looking at what students are missing out on, we need to flip the conversation and look at what these children now have access to.

Although distance education schools are usually expected to operate as much like face-to-face schools as possible, supervisors report that the best results occur when they are flexible and make the most of incidental learning opportunities. Children are still able to learn the concepts intended in the lessons set by the teachers, but the supervisors adapt the lessons to meet the students’ contextual needs, building on their life experiences, and fitting in with their families’ life.

For example, one family described how they knew one of the lessons they would need to do involved teaching their children to count, so instead of doing it between 9-3 in the schoolroom they taught their children to count while mustering cattle. Another described teaching her children mathematical concepts while doing housework. In these examples, school and home became integrated, and learning became a part of day to day life of the children. The environment students had access to became a learning advantage, not a disadvantage.

Learning to count while mustering cattle is certainly not the way a face-to-face classroom would normally operate. It is teaching in a manner that is adaptive and responsive to the different needs of students and their families. But the outcome is the same, that is, the children now know how to count.

Those supervisors who reported trying to ‘do’ schooling in a manner similar to face-to-face school experienced problems. It was difficult to organise their children’s schooling between 9-3, around all the other expectations of working on remote properties. Supervisors were then finding they needed to make a choice between their farm/business, or their children’s education, causing large amounts of stress for them. Parents would also describe how their children struggled with the high volume of sedate work, and with content that did not relate to their children’s life experiences at all. The parents reported how their children would then become disheartened and disengage with school because they felt schooling didn’t value or understand their life experiences, and learning became a struggle because they didn’t understand the examples used.

What does this mean for the schooling in the current climate?

In the current circumstance, with schooling in Australia rapidly shifting to learning at home, the insights of distance education suggest that:

  1. The intended outcome of the lesson should be clear to supervisors – that way parents can take incidental opportunities to help their children learn.
  2. We need to think of education more broadly than formal face-to-face schooling.
  3. Parents can restructure the day to fit the child’s rhythm.
  4. We need to make sure we have breaks as well. Pick the opportunities to ‘teach’ and make other times just family time.

While the distance education mode of schooling was at times challenging to the supervisors in our study , they all reported they would choose this mode of schooling over any other option due to the benefits it provided.

Students don’t need to have access to all the things they did in face-to-face schools because of the wide-range of rich educational opportunities in their homes. We can choose to now rethink how we see schooling and embrace the experiences around us. 

Face-to-face schooling in a classroom with a teacher from 9-3 doesn’t work for some children, and it shouldn’t have to. Distance education is a key example of this. It is already working for thousands of students every year.

Yes indeed, as many parents are now finding out, supporting older children to learn some specialist subjects can be daunting. But it’s no less daunting than, with the support and guidance of a teacher who is physically somewhere else, teaching a pre-literate or pre-numerate child to read and count. Parents do this every day in remote areas across Australia.

Philip Roberts is an Associate Professor (Curriculum Inquiry / Rural Education) at the University of Canberra and Research Leader of the Rural Education and Communities Research Group and ARC DECRA fellow at the University of Canberra, where he convenes units across the fields of Educational Sociology and Curriculum Inquiry. His major ongoing research focuses on place, the sustainability of rural communities, and the interests of the least powerful in our society. Philip’s work is situated within rural sociology, the sociology of knowledge, educational sociology and social justice and is informed by the spatial turn in social theory and sustainability.  He leads the  University of Canberra’s Rural Education & Communities Research Group. Philip is on Twitter @DrPhilRob

Natalie Downes is a research assistant  in the Rural Education & Communities Research Group in the Faculty of Education, University of Canberra. Her research interests include rural distance education, rural-regional sustainability and the ethical working impact of working with rural people and communities. Natalie also works with the University of Canberra Widening Participation unit assisting with program evaluation and reporting and has previously worked as a Research Officer at the university. She has been an executive member of the Society of the Provision of Education in Rural Australia and editor of the Board of the International Journal of Rural Education. She has worked on projects with the Rural Education Research Student’ Network which focuses on supporting students, early career researchers and community members interested in rural education. Natalie is on Twitter @NatDownes10

We would like to acknowledge the knowledge and experiences shared with us by teachers and parents for whom this mode of learning is the day to day norm

Republish this article for free, online or in print, under Creative Commons licence.

7 thoughts on “Offline distance education (already happening all around Australia) can be highly successful

  1. Jacqueline Hicks says:

    Would love to know what part the Distance Education Units (ie the Correspondence School as was) are being asked to play in this. They have had it nailed for over a century.

  2. me too. I would love to hear from Distance Education here in Victoria. They seemed to have solved many of the problems we all face and it appears we are “re-inventing the wheel.”

  3. Cathy Stone says:

    Thanks for this great article. It is frustrating that in all the debate about kids (and uni students) learning remotely there seems to be little mention (particularly by our governments) of the fact that distance education is happening all the time, and can be extremely successfully done. I have often wondered why we are not hearing more from those who teach and learn remotely in the K-12 school sector, including the teachers, parents and students, as they would have so much to offer at the moment, yet the mainstream media doesn’t seem to seeking these out. So it is great to read this very positive article.

  4. Philip Roberts says:

    Thanks for the replies both – Alas we can’t name participants I’m afraid. But yes, we have been a bit taken aback that the long developed expertise of these teachers and communities has been overlooked, and even devalued, in the current climate. Sadly we have tried to get experts to join us on interviews and webinars but have been blocked by the departments.

    So many kids study this way everyday as an ‘equity’ provision and now it’s being said that it doesn’t work and they will be disadvantaged – even though for rural kids it has been promoted as an equity provision! We are a bit perplexed. Lets promote the great work these families, and schools, do.

    As the Halsey review noted 29.3 per cent of Australian students are in schools in rural, regional or remote contexts; however, schools in these contexts make up 47 per cent of all schools. They have great expertise.

  5. Philip Roberts says:

    We are doing a Webinar with ICPA experience and International DE expert late this month – details follow

    Curriculum in a Crisis 5 – Lessons in Equity and Access in Distance Learning

    Thursday 28 May 2020 time 7pm

    The recent experience of mass online schooling has highlighted a number of important equity issues in Australian education. However, for many students and their families accessing schooling online has been their normal, everyday, experience. This is particularly the case for students in rural, remote and isolated areas and those unable to attend school due to health. Similarly, many teachers in schools serving rural, remote and isolated communities deliver lessons online as an everyday part of their work.

    In this session we gain insights into effective practices from the experiences of families and teachers for whom education has primarily been delivered via online medium. The session will then examine the equity implications of online learning, particularly where ‘online’ has previously been actively promoted as a desirable means of access for students in rural, remote and isolated areas. Strategies for overcoming these equity issues will be explored.

  6. One good outcome of the current crisis could be that parents will appreciate what a difficult job teaching is. Perhaps this is an opportunity for teachers to be acknowledged as professionals, rather than just state subsidized child minders, and get parents more actively involved in their children’s education, in the long term.

    ps: I find the use of the term “offline distance education” amusing, as I can remember when we had to use “online” as a qualifier for distance education: using a computer was a new thing. 😉

  7. Mandy Daws says:

    Having worked in Distance Education both as a teacher based at the school and as a tutor on properties I can attest to the advantages of the system. It is easy to tailor lessons to meet the needs, interests and learning pace of each individual. It is also easy to move seamlessly between inside and outside learning. No lining up the class, worrying about the child who will run off or the administrator who has decreed this is “The Literacy block”. The disadvantages are more obvious; lack of social interaction with peers and the exchange of ideas and learning from one another that takes place naturally in a mainstream classroom.

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