Eighteen months into the pandemic, each shift to remote schooling still seems to take many of us by surprise. It shouldn’t. By now, it should be clear that stints of remote schooling are likely to occur well into 2022.

Once we face up to this reality, we can start to grapple with another: there is significant variation in the quality of remote schooling currently offered. This raises serious concerns about whether some students are taking more of a hit to their learning than others. Governments need to do more to even the playing field.

When Australia first entered lockdowns last year, schools were sent scrambling. They were in crisis mode, with no project plan, no beta testing, no soft launch.

What’s worse, there was scant research on the best approaches to remote schooling. Beyond providing students with a mix of ‘live’ online and offline learning, the research offered limited guidance. Much focused on higher education students with a solid academic foundation and the maturity to self-regulate. But many schoolchildren don’t have these skills, particularly in the first few years of primary school.

Transforming regular schooling into remote schooling has been a tremendous challenge. Yet some schools − including some primary schools − have found ways to deliver quality teaching online, including ‘live’ teaching each day in virtual classrooms, and opportunities for children to work together in small groups. Those schools continue to provide new content, and regular assessment and feedback. But not every child has this type of experience.

Some schools have had a harder time making this transition. To make matters worse, some children face greater barriers to learning at home. The challenges appear to be particularly acute for children in prep and grade 1 and 2.

The Victorian government has acted on this, distributing Wi-Fi dongles and providing professional learning to teachers. But the fact that significant differences in remote schooling persist 18 months into the pandemic shows that more needs to be done.

There are better ways to share the load. For example, with support from the UK government and philanthropists, the UK’s Oak National Academy developed a huge library of engaging, well-sequenced online lessons and resources during the 2020 lockdowns. These lessons closely follow the national curriculum across a wide range of subjects, can be accessed on hand-held devices, and require minimal support from parents. Created by experienced teachers, these resources are now freely available. This effort is likely to pay dividends for teachers and children even into the post-pandemic future.

We need to accept that remote schooling may be required in Australia for some time yet.

Given this, governments should take a more systematic approach to raising the quality of remote schooling. This means working out what works best for different cohorts, setting clearer expectations, and providing more support for schools.

If we fail to act, children will emerge from this pandemic bearing the consequences of starkly different remote schooling experiences − and the learning gap between disadvantaged students and the rest will have widened even further.

Jordana Hunter

Education Program Director
Dr Jordana Hunter is the Education Program Director at Grattan Institute. She has an extensive background in public policy design and implementation, with expertise in school education reform as well as economic policy.

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