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Students are starting school online this week – only to face a Ruddy mess

14 April 2020

5:00 AM

14 April 2020

5:00 AM

Nobody could have predicted the demands of this year’s schooling transformation, but we could — indeed should — have been in better shape for it.

With school closures in over 150 countries, we’re not alone in this, as the virus crisis places unprecedented demand on students, parents, teachers, and administrators. It’s also transforming education in ways that will surely outlast the pandemic.

As OECD Director of Education, Andreas Schleicher, puts it, online learning has been elevated from a “nice-to-have” to “the lifeline for education.”

That’s made schools’ digital-readiness a key marker for the continuity or otherwise of students’ learning in 2020. OECD data shows that while Aussie children are tech-savvy when it comes to their learning, it’s clear that teachers — and policymakers too — have dropped the ball on enabling technology in our schools.

Australian students are the most prolific users of technology and are among the most proficient users too — they are effective online navigators and are among the most disciplined and focussed when it comes to completing online tasks. They also outperform in mathematical tasks using computers for solving problems than in traditional tasks and they outperform in digital, compared to print, reading.

Disadvantaged students also outperform in digital learning activities, but they face serious obstacles in the current crisis. That’s because around 15 per cent of disadvantaged students don’t have access to a device for homework or a quiet place to study at home.


Even more than the gap in access to devices is the disparity in the adequacy of devices — around one-third of disadvantaged students have devices without sufficient computing capacity, and half don’t have sufficient internet bandwidth and speeds.

That means that school systems need to be proactive in plugging this digital divide. But it’s going to take more than just providing the necessary tools — Australian schools already have amongst the best software and learning platforms in the world. However, the problem is that teachers and schools lack the nous to leverage technology for students’ learning.

OECD data shows that while we are among the most integrated in the use of technology for classwork and projects, Australian teachers are underprepared when it comes to enabling technology in their teaching practices. Only around half of Australian teachers explicitly prepare lessons integrating digital devices. And while a majority of countries use incentives for teachers to integrate digital devices into teaching, only around one-third of Australian schools do.

Our teachers are less likely to have had formal training in ICT use and conduct relatively little professional development on it. We unfortunately have among the greatest disparities in teachers’ use of ICT between advantaged and disadvantaged schools too — only half of students in disadvantaged schools have a teacher with necessary technical and pedagogical skills to integrate digital devices into teaching.

Policymakers running our school systems may also have some questions to answer when it comes to digital-readiness. We have to ask why it is that some systems, such as the Korean, French, and Japanese, have been broadly more responsive than ours? Massive public investments over the past decade or so should have put us in prime position for an online transition.

A legacy of the $2 billion Rudd-era Digital Education Revolution is that Australian students have the most digital devices in the world — yet, schools reportedly have struggled with having the necessary hardware to conduct lessons effectively.

Australia has pumped many billions into a National Broadband Network, and, yet, parents and teachers complain that students aren’t able to reliably connect. We’ve had a National Innovation and Science Agenda, yet OECD data shows that Australian schools have gone backwards when it comes to educational innovation.

We have an organisation owned and run by Australia’s education ministers — Education Services Australia — tasked with providing “technology-based services for education” which “can be adapted in response to …. changing needs of the education and training sector.” Yet, there have been delays and patchiness in the rollout of online teaching resources. And rather than embracing NAPLAN Online — a platform that could be put to good use in this environment — Australia’s education ministers put that on ice last year.

These are testing times for Australian children, parents, educators, and policymakers. Our schools may be on the back foot in their readiness, but we mustn’t let the virus lead to a terminal educational diagnosis for our students.

Glenn Fahey is education research fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies. and formerly with the OECD’s Centre for Educational Research and Innovation.

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