This is part three in Which-50’s COVID-19 Disruption Series, which examines how Australia’s digital infrastructure is coping with the society-wide disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Read part one here and part two here. 

Digital tools have found their way into classrooms over recent years, but as COVID-19 renders both school and university classrooms redundant the wholesale shift to online education has provided challenges to both universities and schools.

The Higher education sector has faced particular challenges with bans on overseas travel to Australia in effect and unlikely to be lifted any time soon, and with little or no support provided to international students already in Australia by the government.

Apart from the revenue hit, there is also the long term brand damage to a sector that generally punched above its weight in international markets.

Peter Hurley Policy Fellow, Mitchell Institute, Victoria University says the University sector faces cumulative losses of $19 billion over the next three years from the loss of revenue from international students.

Writing in The Conversation, he notes, “Modelling from the Mitchell Institute shows the next big hit will come mid-year when $2 billion in annual tuition fees is wiped from the sector as international students are unable to travel to Australia to start their courses for the second semester.”

Still, universities, like other service provides are adjusting as well as they can.

At Sydney University all teaching moved online from March 23. 

A spokesperson for the university said they have approximately 700 to 1000 concurrent Zoom meetings and teaching sessions active throughout the day, some with well over 100 participants. 

They have hosted more than 55,000 Zoom sessions in March – almost 1,800 per day. Since the start of semester, they have hosted 378,107 participants in their Zoom sessions, racking up a total of 12,599,834 Zoom minutes – the equivalent of 24 years. 

Last month UNSW ceased all physical classes and moved to 100 per cent virtual learning.

According to Rorden Wilkinson, Pro Vice-Chancellor, Education and Student Experience at UNSW the challenge has been less on the education front and more on the student wellbeing. 

Rorden Wilkinson, Pro Vice-Chancellor, Education and Student Experience at UNSW. Source UNSW.

He said keeping track of the staff and students wellbeing has been their top priority with the move online. 

Another factor that ties in with wellbeing is making sure staff and students have the right desks, technology and workspace to be able to work efficiently. 

“We’ve been trying to help our most vulnerable, as much as possible and that’s where lots of the effort has gone, in particular from our IT division and from our support services,” Wilkinson explains. 

They have also experienced challenges with moving student services online. 

He said, “What I’ve seen with the university is how rapidly they’ve been able to do that in a meaningful way so that our students are getting really exceptional support services delivered at a distance.” 

There have been some silver linings, Wilkinson said the transition from campus to home was easier than expected. 

He said staff members who would be struggling with digital elements have actually been thriving in this environment. Wilkinson said the key is engagement and organisation. 

“As soon as you get yourself organised and are engaged then it can be really quite a good experience.”

Schools go digital

As term two kicks off this month (or maybe next month depending on the jurisdiction) each state and territory has set out new rules for primary and secondary students on whether or not they should attend school. 

According to UNESCO, school closures in 188 countries are impacting more than 91 per cent of the global student population which is close to 1.6 billion students and young adults.

To date, the Northern Territory is the only territory or state where school will resume normally with exemptions to stay home given to some students. 

SA and Tasmania are keeping students at home with the option to attend school if they are unable to learn at home. 

The ACT and Victoria will implement remote learning, NSW students are to head back to school by week three, in QLD the first five weeks will be learning from home and then the state government will re-evaluate its stance. 

In WA an update for term two hasn’t been released so home learning is still implemented.

Cloud computing is imperative for online education with giants like AWS and Microsoft reporting that schools have made a swift move to e-learning. 

While schools and universities have been using online platforms for some time now there has still been some trouble in getting everyone situated online, according to education professionals to whom Which-50 spoke. 

James Merlino, Victorian minister for the coordination of education and training – COVID-19. Source: Parliament of Victoria.

There is also the problem that some students from lower socio-economic backgrounds do not have access to technology as they would in the classroom. In response, but some state governments are stepping in giving laptops and free internet to those students who need it most. 

In Victoria, more than 6,000 students will receive laptops and internet access for term two. 

James Merlino, Victorian minister for the coordination of education and training – COVID-19 said, “Every student will get the support they need, whether they are learning at home or attending school on-site. We will provide a device to every child that needs one and provide thousands more with free internet.”

State governments are taking advantage of this situation to implement new technologies to assist teachers in their curriculums. In South Australia for instance, teachers have been given a platform to build virtual classrooms. 

The service, enabled through the Cisco Webex platform, allows teachers to create their own individual online learning space to deliver live video lessons and learning content for their class.

Challenges for schools

However, access to tools and technology are only part of the solution. The transition to at-home learning is complicated by the fact that programs being conducted online aren’t designed to be taught outside the classroom.

A WA-based primary school teacher who teaches 10- to 12-year-old students said prior to COVID-19 there was very minimal infrastructure and systems in place to support learning from home. 

She said, “All students and teachers have access to a WA Department of Education system called Connect, which is an online portal set up for your class. 

“It is basically a way to upload content for students and a place for students to be able to submit work.”

She said her students are the most familiar with Connect platform and she is confident they can use it proficiently. But she said her colleagues who teach younger students aren’t as confident. 

“In an ideal setting, a child would know how to use Connect and be able to locate their tasks and submit their work back to me. 

“This, however, doesn’t take into account students without internet access or to a device, or who where children sharing a single device, or who don’t have a printer, or somewhere quiet to work.”

Students also have access to educational videos online like the Khan Academy or Eddie Woo to help them understand new content however she believes the teachers will have to video themselves when they start to become more specific with their teaching.

Control

If and when videoing gets implemented, she does have concerns about her own privacy. 

“There was no expectation that we would have to video ourselves, and actually administration is a bit concerned about children and parents having access to videos of us, where they could then post them on other platforms.”

She said in WA, teaching hours have also been slashed from five hours of learning a day to two hours to help with the mental health of both the teachers and students. 

She said this is to “reduce the burden and stress on children and families”.

The Perth-based primary school teacher said she also worries about how much support a parent can provide as often they are also working from home too and she further highlighted the struggles of supporting students who require a teaching assistant. 

“Those students obviously don’t have the support of education assistants when they are learning from home. So we need to work out a way to best support those children and their parents/guardians.”

Data and education

Mohamad Jebara, Founder and CEO of Mathspace says it is an opportunity to expand digital tools into the education sector which he argues has been slow compared to other sectors like retail, utilities, and manufacturing.

Mohamad Jebara, CEO and co-founder of Mathspace. Source: LinkedIn.

However, despite the trying circumstances that have brought about this change, it could be a catalyst for some exciting innovation in education, he says if educators take advantage of this time and start utilising data-driven approaches to learning, he says.

Founded in 2010, Mathspace is an all-in-one learning resource currently used by 25 per cent of Australian high schools. It incorporates learning tools such as video, textbooks and adaptive practice for students. 

According to Jebara, “The fact this has been thrown upon us could be a great opportunity to accelerate the move to data-driven approaches to the classroom with increased student ownership of learning, increased flexibility for teachers to deliver a more personalised curriculum to students supported by the transparency of data for parents.

“We’ve seen a huge increase in usage of our digital curriculum at Mathspace with teachers having 46 per cent more data on student performance than the same time last year.

This is part three in Which-50’s COVID-19 Disruption Series, which examines how Australia’s digital infrastructure is coping with the society-wide disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Read part one here and part two here. 

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