The global COVID-19 pandemic triggered an unprecedented disruption to Australia’s system of classroom-based learning, forcing teachers to rapidly adapt to new methods of digital pedagogy, almost overnight, writes Andrew Smith, Chief Executive Officer of Education Services.
It is important to understand how the legacy of COVID-19 will continue to affect education in this country and to identify opportunities to build a more resilient education system, and one that is prepared to meet the challenges the future.
To capture the valuable lessons learnt throughout this period, in late 2020 Education Services Australia surveyed stakeholders and interviewed educators from across the country.
The ESA Voice of Education Research Report 2020 illuminates some of the unique challenges experienced by systems, sectors and classroom teachers as they were forced to adapt to new ways of teaching and learning. It reveals new opportunities for innovation and more flexible methods of learning.
COVID-19 has shown the education sector to be more agile than previously thought and has served as a catalyst to encourage many in the teaching profession who were later adopters of technology to embrace digital learning tools. While necessity precipitated this transition, there is a real opportunity to capitalise on this paradigm shift.
Confidence and capabilities vary
One of the most significant findings was a wide variation in the capability and digital literacy of teachers and their confidence in deploying digital technologies to complement their teaching. It was observed that while many teachers transitioned well, others struggled, and continued to apply “analogue thinking in a digital world”.
Impactful digital pedagogy requires more than simply applying traditional “analogue” methods of teaching to digital learning products. Rather, for Australia’s teaching workforce to develop the skills necessary to use technology in effective and meaningful ways, deeper consideration needs to be given to how technology can augment learning and seamlessly integrate into effective teaching practice.
Importantly, stakeholders noted that even in jurisdictions where there was only a short disruption to classroom learning, the experience of COVID-19 helped some teachers overcome their reluctance to embrace new technologies, and there is now “a growing appetite and willingness to use technology in the delivery of education”.
Keeping apace with changing technology is key
Keeping the skills of the workforce “current” emerged as a key priority for stakeholders, with 68 per cent declaring it “extremely important” to build workforce capability and confidence around effectively selecting and integrating education technology into their teaching practice.
The pandemic has highlighted the need for teachers to be supported through targeted professional learning that enhances their ability to integrate education technology into their teaching practice in ways that support student engagement and learning.
Remote learning highlights equity gaps
Another theme emerging from the research is the systemic inequity in access to technology, fast broadband and digital literacy skills which meant the experience of COVID-19 differed considerably across age-cohorts and socio-economic bands.
The transition to online and remote learning further exacerbated inequities for many students in remote areas and those from educationally disadvantaged backgrounds. Maintaining continuity and consistency in their learning environment was particularly challenging for these students.
Stakeholders voiced concerns about the possibility of COVID-19 causing a “tail-effect” that could be seen for some time, as the COVID-19 learning gap continues to reveal itself. This will likely be more pronounced in jurisdictions which experienced longer periods of online learning.
But it can also help to bridge those gaps
One of the valuable lessons emerging from COVID-19, was confirmation that online and remote learning had advantages for students who do not work at pace within the traditional classroom environment.
For some students with learning difficulties, the experience of COVID-19 proved successful in facilitating a learning environment more tailored to their needs. Positive feedback from this cohort of students indicates there are opportunities to explore how digital pedagogy might provide education solutions tailored to closing equity gaps.
There is an opportunity to learn from this experience and consider innovative uses of technology as a means to engage students who may not be successfully engaged in a more traditional learning environment.
Disruption is a catalyst for innovation and flexibility
While issues around access and equity were front of mind for many stakeholders, the research has also shown many in the educator sector believe COVID-19 played a role as a catalyst to drive broader acceptance of the need for more flexible methods of teaching and learning. Deployed effectively, well-designed digital technologies have the potential to overcome limitations arising from education and social disadvantage and inequity of access, as well increasing the range of opportunities available to students.
Safety and security is paramount
The experience of COVID-19 has placed a heightened focus on online safety and security for students. The level of urgency driving the transition to online learning also removed a level of diligence from normal decision-making processes around programming choices.
When asked about the post-COVID classroom over the next three to five years, stakeholders cited ‘online safety and security for students’ as the most important issue the sector would have to manage. Three quarters of those surveyed rated it as “extremely important”, placing it on a par with quality professional learning for teachers, quality curriculum resources, and accessible technology solutions.
There is a strong demand for information and awareness resources for students, teachers and parents to assist them in selecting education technology products that are safe and secure for young people.
Ensuring Australia’s education system is well-placed to weather the next challenge to business-as-usual will require an up-skilling of the workforce, so all classroom teachers have the confidence to migrate to effective online learning when necessary.
Despite the relatively short-lived nature of lockdowns across many Australian jurisdictions, it is clear from the ESA Voice of Education Research Report 2020 that the impact of COVID-19 on the country’s education sector will continue to play out over the coming years.
Issues of equity and access, teacher capabilities and the importance of online security and data governance – already fundamentally important concepts for the sector – took on new significance.
Their solutions are also now more urgent than ever.