schooling during the lockdown

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.