16 April 2020

No alternative, but remote learning comes with risks

| Ian Bushnell
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Home learning

Home learning may exacerbate the advantages the wealthy and capable already have. Photo: File.

There is another big curve the Australian state and territory governments have to deal with besides COVID-19, although it’s a direct consequence of the virus that’s shutting down our economy and lifestyle.

It’s the steep learning curve our public schools and teachers are climbing to keep up a quality education to children stuck at home or, if their parents are essential workers or there are other reasons why home can’t become a classroom, to those re-directed to the still to be determined learning hubs.

Despite all the reassurances that schools were safe, parents have voted with their feet, forcing education departments to come up with an alternative.

For example, in the last week before the Easter holidays, only 2.5 per cent of public school students turned up for face-to-face classes in the ACT, according to ACT Education Minister Yvette Berry, who admitted the move to remote schooling next term was a learning opportunity for everyone.

The research on digital learning is far from conclusive about its benefits and disadvantages, but this is the hand we have been dealt.

Big, well-resourced private schools were already heading down the path to remote learning, confident that its well-heeled, well-equipped and tech-savvy clientele was capable of making the adjustment.

Public schools – both students and teachers – face bigger challenges than their private school cousins.

Public schools serve the broad population, including the not so well-off and the outright disadvantaged, and play a vital role in providing equality of opportunity and binding the community in general together.

Equity is at the heart of the ACT and NSW Education systems and it’s considerably harder to achieve when the disadvantages of the home environment can play a greater role in educational outcomes.

The disorganised, dislocated and distracted will find learning tougher away from the watchful eye of the classroom teacher.

Government and even teacher goodwill can’t fix individual family living circumstances, fractured relationships, and ambivalent or time-poor carers.

For many children, school provides structure, safety and solidarity that for whatever reasons may be missing elsewhere, and their teachers are mentors and role models as much as anything.

One cannot help wondering if the brave new world of remote learning will only exacerbate the advantages that the wealthy, the confident and already capable will have.

In some ways, it may well suit the quiet, introspective and socially awkward, but at the cost of other aspects of their education.

And a teacher in the classroom can observe the whole group, identifying their different personalities and individual needs to ensure none are overlooked.

It’s not as if they won’t be communicating – phone, email, chat rooms, video, Zoom – and teachers will still be central to the process.

But it won’t be the same oversight, physical and emotional interaction or hands-on teaching that is at the core of real communication and education, and what defines us as human beings.

Children will be left behind. It’s inevitable. Learning gaps will appear, and for some parents the choice next year will be whether their child should move up or repeat the year, particularly for the young.

The well-known Matthew Effect describes how small differences in the early years become large ones later in a child’s education and parents may not want to take the chance.

Low-tech, hands-on education philosophies such as Montessori and Steiner will face their own particular challenges.

For all that, we should be grateful that in this time of coronavirus, there is an alternative learning model, that technology and the internet can actually deliver remote schooling, that so much information can be at our fingertips.

Whether that amounts to the acquisition of knowledge for all is another matter.

The curve will be steep, and the endeavour will be a massive social experiment from which we will learn much. No doubt the lessons will be applied to communities in actual remote situations.

But this much we do know: teachers and the face-to-face learning experience they provide are irreplaceable.

Original Article published by Ian Bushnell on The RiotACT.

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