online schooling

The shock of dealing with Covid-19 has made teachers even stronger and better at their craft

Cast your mind back to the end of the first school term for 2020: Australian states and territories were rapidly moving into lockdown because of COVID-19. Political leaders were signaling – often using mixed signals – the likelihood and need to close schools and transition to distance learning. Here in New South Wales schools switched to distance learning for about six weeks, forcing teachers to adapt their programs very rapidly to support students and their parents with learning from home.

Currently around Australia we now have the whole range from fully face-to -face schooling, to partially remote learning, to fully (with some essential worker exceptions) remote learning. Random schools are thrown into immediate lockdown whenever a teacher or student tests positive to the viral infection. Teachers pivot their programs very rapidly between the different ways of delivery depending on the advice from health officials to their education authorities.

My doctoral research explores the way policy is enacted in teacher practice, and I seem to have landed in the middle of a system where policy has flown into flux.

My fieldwork actually started in the midst of one crisis – the Black Summer bushfires – and ended during another – COVID-19. I was fortunately able to modify the shape of my research to allow for interviews with teachers to find out how they experienced the rapidly changing work environment during the virus response.

I’m sure some of the findings are familiar to many teachers and researchers out there, and they aren’t specific to schools. For many people, the switch to working from home was sudden and required quick thinking and adaptation.

The teachers who participated in my research reported a number of interesting, and not all negative, experiences.

Workload increased dramatically

Teachers already faced significant workload demands going into the crisis, an issue plainly described in a partnership study between the NSW Teachers Federation and the University of Sydney. The teachers I interviewed explained how the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated this big time.

Teachers spend a huge amount of time planning and programming a school term, and much of that planning is premised on the physical environment in which they work. Educators take for granted the material contexts of their work – it helps them to improvise when necessary, to draw on a repertoire of skills and capabilities built up through experience.

In the Sydney school where I did my research the staff made a very rapid shift to online learning. This led to late nights preparing lessons, in some cases over-planning work for students in order to compensate for the lack of face-to-face interaction.

Some students felt more comfortable online

A number of teachers reported some students coming out of their shells in the online space. Otherwise shy students felt more empowered to contribute to lessons. Students with strong digital literacy skills were able to support teachers and fellow students in creating dynamic and interesting contributions to online learning.

While there has rightly been some attention paid to students who missed out because of inequitable access, there are also lessons that can be learned about engaging students who are less confident about speaking up in front of a classroom of peers. The digital world is here to stay: being confident learners in digital communities is an important life skill, virus or not.

Professional communities were more important than ever

The staff at the school scheduled an impromptu staff development day focused entirely on delivering learning remotely. Colleagues ran sessions on platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams. Faculty members headed to different classrooms to practice running Zoom lessons with each other. The New South Wales Department of Education also facilitated a ‘virtual staff room’ on Teams, and many teachers reported the value in sharing ideas with their colleagues both within the school and further afield.

When I spoke with the Deputy Principal of this school, he suggested that their quick response to COVID-19 was possible because of the school’s proactive approach to professional learning. The school saw the Professional Development Planning (PDP) process not as a ‘tick-the-box’ exercise, but rather a way to learn about the strengths and opportunities facing the school. He explained:

“What professional learning is about is foreseeing what obstacles might lie ahead, so that you can be properly prepared for when they do happen and you couldn’t get a better case in point than COVID.”

A year-round professional learning calendar helps staff at this school see the connection between their own Professional Development Planning and the whole school plan. Qualitative analysis of Professional Development Planning goals and professional learning needs helps inform the school planning process. And the teachers I interviewed were consistently engaged in improving their classroom practice.

Teachers felt their practice had improved because of the crisis

Each teacher I spoke with said that they had learned something during the crisis and that their practice going forward would improve as a result, sentiment echoed in a survey conducted by researchers Rachel Wilson and William Mude. This included their ability to incorporate Information and Communication Technology (ICT) into their lessons, the different ways they can engage with their students, and their professional knowledge in the domain of online teaching and learning. As one teacher explained:

“I think there will be good development in our skills that will make us better teachers going forward. It’s been a baptism of fire, but I think we’ll all be better practitioners and have a wider repertoire of skills.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has turned a lot of things on their heads: it is a black swan event, something gigantic and unexpected that shifts the way we understand the world. Nassim Taleb, who wrote the book, The Black Swan, followed that with another book, Antifragile. He explains that the opposite of fragility is not resilience, but antifragility: where something responds to a shock by getting stronger.

The teachers I worked with pre and post COVID-19 (as far as we can say that we are ‘post’ this virus) are a perfect example of antifragility. So far, 2020 has delivered some of the biggest shocks imaginable. And out of it the teachers in my study have become even better at their craft thanks to the strength of their professional communities and their school’s meaningful approach to professional learning.

Pat Norman is a doctoral candidate at the University of Sydney, looking at the way politics and political events shape the rationalities of policy and practice. He is particularly interested in the way neoliberalism and globalisation impact professional work. His current research in schools looks at the way teachers experience and enact policy, and how an understanding of good practice is produced in real-world contexts. He tweets as @pat_norman.

Will mass schooling-at-home lead to the death of schools?

All over the country families are trying to cope with the consequences of helping educate their children at home. The immediate short-term problems are trying to keep children engaged in learning activities provided by teachers, but already medium-term challenges are casting terrifying shadows. Centre-stage is the inequality around digital access which affects all of us but especially children in remote and/or indigenous communities who don’t have access to the screens and broadband which might allow them to participate in the range of education on offer.

Then there is the problem of examination results, completion of courses and the consequences for graduation for this particular generation with of course a concomitant knock on affect for enrolment at University. There are indeed too many problems to list from teacher recruitment and education for “next year”, whenever that is, regulating the conduct of adults and children online, back to the consequences of such a huge break in everyday school routines. Family life is yet another story!

I have characterised the consequences “after the pandemic” as medium-term in the sense that they are currently being formulated as a detour which will eventually lead back to the norm. However, this piece really wants to lay out some discussion of the longer term because the pandemic could have an extraordinary effect on the current institution of schooling.

Distance learning and teaching

Let’s start with distance learning. Teachers and lecturers are scrambling not just to become fluent across different platforms and programs, but with the pedagogical ramifications of impersonal delivery, changes in debate, discussion, feedback, encouragement, support and discipline.

Every element of the teaching and learning process is up for renegotiation and evaluation. Some will find this process challenging, others are going to find it an interesting way of questioning core principles and theories of learning. The effects will not be uniform. How teachers are supported, how they can work together, how different subjects and curriculum areas develop and how students of different ages respond are all going to be part of the matrix of change processes on offer.

Different technologies, differential cultural capital in homes supporting distance learning will be crucial parts of this equation. The reliance on digital technology will also raise two fundamental questions about: commercialisation and commodification of the curriculum; and the relationship of individualisation to theories of learning.

Legitimisation of commercial materials and tech company platforms

One immediate popular response to the current crisis has been a call for central government institutions, like the ABC, to provide high standard, common curriculum materials. These are imagined as temporary replacement for teacher-led and teacher designed classroom materials.

At the same time teachers and parents have drawn on the huge range of commercial materials available online. The economics of scale dictate that these are rarely going to be nationally appropriate and so form part of a global ‘universal’ curriculum. The maths “Khan Academy” is a good example of this. On the whole, the curriculum and pedagogy design of these kinds of materials involves relatively self-contained measurable exercises that allow students to mark progress.

In many ways both the idea of an ABC or a commercially provided curriculum mimic peoples’ expectations of how schools work, how curriculum is designed and how assessment is a stepped process of progression.

The crisis has framed parental responsibilities in terms of the ways that many people see school – as the imposition of discipline – but with the additional problem of it being the parent who has to act as the teacher but taking place in isolation in the home. Being online, it is also assumed is a new kind of isolation.

The question here is whether this model of curriculum delivery – of a set of self-contained packages that be can be consumed individually by a compliant student is a model of education that, it will now be assumed, could replace schools across society. In other words, has the crisis legitimated the new technology companies to disseminate more and more online platform-based learning experiences to replace teacher expertise, classrooms, and school as a learning experience?

Home as the new conduit

As I have already implied, the model of learning at the heart of the <platform – screen – child – feedback – progression> scenario is profoundly individualised. Not only is the child addressed in isolation, but collaborative and collective activities, (much more difficult to devise and implement) are set aside in favour of the fundamental principle of measuring progress to the next level. Such processes are central to this kind of platform pedagogy. Here, the crisis induced home-schooling or more accurately school-at-home has only taken to its logical conclusion the total centralisation of schools away from teachers, principals, State and local autonomy.

Whereas it could be argued that the school is the conduit for the national curriculum and national standards, now the home will simply be the new conduit for the school thus enabling all children to exist in an entirely individualised relationship with the state. That is a very particular and culturally specific definition of what we want education to do and certainly we need to ask whether that is an appropriate model for a post pandemic society.

Effect on curriculum and academic attainment

Indeed, this question will become only the more urgent in the face of what looks like a likely severe and painful economic downturn. This will be a new experience for Australia. The model of schooling with its emphasis on competitive achievement will also be exposed by the post pandemic world. What will opportunities for employment look like?

The emphasis on academic attainment as a route to social mobility will surely come under stress and require different kinds of curriculum policy, different kinds of ethical behaviours and different kinds of social imaginings – as indeed we have witnessed both with the fires and the best of community support over recent months.

Women and the home

One of the most frightening aspects to the home-schooling phenomenon has been the questions it has asked of women in the home, as school’s role in allowing women into the labour market has been thrown the spotlight. When families are struggling with their children’s education at home, it has been the working mothers who have been at the pointy end of conflicts and compromise.

In a future of contracting employment opportunities, will the home now be a viable “conduit” for centralised curriculum and individualised testing? Will parents become experts in ensuring that their children follow a range of Silicon Valley inspired platform-based learning programs? And why? Some families are discovering other forms of learning, other forms of social engagement, and other ways of relating. It will be interesting to see whether these become the basis for new versions for schooling in the future.

Julian Sefton-Green is Professor of New Media Education in the Faculty of Arts and Education at Deakin University. Julian has led research projects exploring learning in the home and out of school, focusing on the role of digital technology and changing pedagogies. He is interested in all things digital from a critical perspective. He has studied: classroom interactions, school life, curriculum change, creative media practices, youth community centres and out-of-school digital cultures over the last 30 years. He is particularly interested in forms of learning outside school, both in non-formal learning institutions and in everyday social activities; and how these might play a part in wider political projects of educational reform.