Online schooling and distance ed? Don’t be afraid, we’ve been doing and improving it for 100 years

By Philip Roberts and Natalie Downes

Amid all the concerns about closing schools and setting up online learning In Australia it is important to note that Australia is actually a world leader in school distance education. Indeed, distance learning is not only achievable for Australian students, but very normal for many students around our large island continent. In rural and remote regions of Australia, students have been learning ‘by distance’ since the inception of ‘school of the air’ in Alice Springs over 100 years ago.

We want to tell you about distance learning in Australia and how our nation’s experiences and development of distance learning can help as we move into closing our schools. We know parents are worried that their children will be disadvantaged, particularly those in the final years of schooling. Many parents worry that they won’t be able to support their children’s learning at home.  Teachers are worried about how to develop and deliver lessons online  

What is distance learning?

Distance learning in Australia usually involves students working remotely with their teacher who leads their class using a combination of ‘synchronous’ and ‘asynchronous’ learning. Synchronous learning is where children are learning in real time, often with other students who join in from their remote locations, and asynchronous learning is where learning is online but without real time interaction. While distance education originally involved communication via post and two-way radio, technological advancement now sees this occurring through more advanced forms of technological communication using laptops or computers, video conferencing and so on.  This technology allows students to interact face-to-face with their teachers and with other students both in their remote school and elsewhere.

At present distance education schools are typically delivered to students who cannot attend the local school. This is usually because students are deemed to live too far away from a school to reasonably attend, have chronic illnesses, are travelling, or to make available subjects a school can’t offer due to lower numbers wanting to take them, for instance languages. School authorities expect these students to work in almost the same manner as children in a face-to-face school do, with set hours for schooling and a designated learning space.  In the early years of schooling, teachers provide lessons that are scripted almost word for word for supervisors to implement with their students, and these are usually given to the supervisors weeks in advance.

The many ways distance learning is used in schools across Australia

Today most states and territories in Australia offer distance education programs. For example in NSW, the Access program offers a shared curriculum for senior secondary students across five clusters of isolated schools across the state. Small cohorts of students interact with each other and their teacher through videoconferencing and collaborative technologies. It has been operating since about 1990.

Within the Access program the Riverina and Northern Borders Access programs began in 1990 and in more remote areas the ‘Wilvandee’ Access program – linking Wilcannia, Ivanhoe and Menindee (initially) began in 1994.  Schools within a vicinity share a teacher in specialist subjects, with the specialist teacher physically situated at one of the network schools. In this way schools are able to provide a breadth of curriculum access in the senior secondary years that would otherwise not be possible due to student and staff numbers.

Schools co-timetable to ensure students have half their lessons as live video conference lessons. The other half comprises of structured learning activities using a learning management system, such as Moodle or the newer Microsoft schools products. Students in Access programs attend their local community school for these lessons, even though they may in practice have no ‘traditional’ lessons at their school.

Also in NSW, in 2015 the Aurora College was established as a virtual selective high school to ensure rural and isolated students in NSW could access selective schooling (where enrolment is based on academic merit) regardless of location.  Here students from all across the state, who have passed the selective schools test, learn in a virtual environment organized in a similar manner to the Access program. The continued success of Aurora College shows that online learning in Australia can extend academically gifted students as well as provide the usual curriculum.

While we have used examples from NSW, similar programs exist around Australia in other states and territories. For instance in large parts of Western Australia education is provided through distance education and school of the air.

It is also important to note that while online learning is an important part of distance education, it is not the only way students undertake lessons. Students also undertake lessons ‘offline’ using learning materials provided by the teachers to guide them.

What can schools and teachers learn from our distance education experience?

We have reviewed research literature about the use of technology to connect students to schooling and found there are five main types of relationships involved. Distance education teachers are working with these relationships, and we think they would be crucial to developing successful online or distance education programs.

  • Learner to teacher relationship

This involves how the learner and teacher are connected.  What is the teacher-student relationship? What are the interpersonal experiences when the student is involved in face to face learning? Is the child engaged and motivated, connected?

  • Learner to learner (peer) relationships 

How are peers connected? How is peer learning encouraged and supported? Is it moderated?

  • Learner’s relationship to the content

How do we link students to the content? Can they work with it outside face to face teaching? What type of content should be used?  How does the content support knowledge building? What is the role of the learner?  

  • Learner to system relationship

Using the right tools to engage the student with the content. How do learners interact with the technology? Is the navigation and pace of learning working? Structured v unstructured.  

  • Vicarious interaction or social presence

What is the social presence of the child? Are they ‘being present’, feeling they belong, able to feel the support and presence of other children in the group from their remote access?  Are they experiencing that ‘being at school’ sense?

While all of this might sound daunting to some, many isolated parents, with Distance Education provision, support  their children to learn literacy and numeracy from kindergarten.  Some parents describe this type of learning as more effective and connected to their students’ needs and interests, because of the flexibility it allows.

Distance learning is also not the panacea. There are many families, particularly in remote and other poorer communities, who don’t have access to the necessary technology or internet service. Others don’t have the experience or prior learning to support their children in online learning.  This is one reason why programs like the NSW Access program that run through schools are valuable and shouldn’t be replaced by distance learning as the only option.

The future of schooling

Overall, these schools remind us that distance learning is possible, as long as we see that ‘school’ doesn’t have to mean numbers of children attending one setting together. In fact there are many advantages of this learning mode. For example, in the Access networks teachers know their students and contexts, which makes for richer learning when thinking back to basic education theory.  Students in distance education or Schools of the Air have access to a rich learning environment in their day to day lives and backyards.

Importantly, having to do school online isn’t so much a revolution or cause for concern, it’s the everyday normal for thousands of children.  The reaction to the closing schools brings into sharp focus the assumption that schooling is face-to-face when it is not for so many students in Australia. More so, it reminds us that rather than rural education constantly being framed as ‘disadvantaged’ it should in fact now be showcased as ‘world leading’.

This provides an opportunity to highlight a key equity issue beneath assumptions. Online learning can be as good as ‘real school’. It is for those communities, students and teachers for whom it is already their everyday reality.

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. 

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.

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

For teachers wanting a little light moment in all of this. Here is Michael Bruening An associate professor of history and political science at Missouri University of Science and Technology, singing his   ‘I will survive coronavirus version‘.

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

4 thoughts on “Online schooling and distance ed? Don’t be afraid, we’ve been doing and improving it for 100 years

  1. Timely article. I was interviewed on ABC Radio Canberra just now about how schools will teach online in Canberra.

  2. CZhang says:

    Your article is timely and encouraging. Hopefully, your message can inspire many teachers to be creative and confident in planing their online teaching in the following months. Thanks!

  3. Alison Beresford says:

    Very interesting article. Here in Ireland the schools closed on March 12th and we adjusting to life as online teachers. A steep learning curve, especially as schools were at different levels of preparedness for this. Of particular interest to me is how we support children in mainstream with Additional Educational Needs in the online space. I would be interested to hear how other educators are rising to this challenge.

  4. Dianne Nesbitt says:

    I appreciated this article as a timely reminder of how well placed
    Australia is to adopt remote learning. The Alice Springs school of the air quite obviously will have evolved and refined the process. I am beginning to wornder how Hattie’s work based upon NZ claims that after remote learning undertaken following the earth quake there that educational outcomes actually improved. I have resolved to look into this further to attempt to understand what the driver of this improvement is.

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