A lesson in distance learning from Australia


Distance learning has proven to be a steep learning curve for both students and educators at conventional “face-to-face” schools in Australia but is generally accepted as a reality of schooling in the time of Covid-19 – even if only temporarily.

In late January this year, in the middle of a summer marked by extreme temperatures and intense bushfires, Australia reported its first case of the novel coronavirus in Melbourne. Soon after, more cases were reported – notable among them were passengers from cruise ships docking at the tourist hotspots of Sydney and Fremantle, Western Australia (WA).

By early March, international traffic had been drastically reduced and, around the same time, state governments – rather than the federal government – became the guiding force regulating the do’s and don’ts within each state.

Toward the end of the school term in April, WA schools saw student numbers dwindling, as many parents kept their children at home in response to the uncertainty surrounding the situation with Covid-19. Following state government guidelines, schools adapted as best they could; teachers started preparing for a new reality of online teaching, and their digital-native students were gearing up for online learning.

During this period, teachers in some schools had already started delivering their lessons both online – for students who stayed at home – and in-class, for students who still attended school. With the bulk of WA’s workforce starting to work from home, students still at school were mainly the children of people deemed “essential workers”.

At the time, teachers were also gearing up for a new term ahead of pure distance learning. This meant designing curriculum delivery, ensuring student engagement and planning student assessments in ways that many of them had never done before. It was a time of great uncertainty but also a time for reflection.

Distance learning is not a system many of Australia’s conventional, metropolitan-area teachers are familiar with but has been a long-standing reality for many children living in far-flung parts of the country. Aimed at accommodating eligible school-aged children who, through geographical or other circumstances, are isolated or cannot access schools within their region, distance schools have played an important role in providing the education and social connection needed by some Australian children.

John Ryan, an independent scholar and educator who has spent decades working in distance education in New South Wales and now based in Perth’s WA School of Isolated and Distance Education (SIDE), notes that distance education is one of the avenues keeping these students going with their schooling.

The availability and use of various forms of communications technology is a vital part of distance education. This system, SIDE’s website states, offers “the same education opportunities and support as most primary and secondary schools”, including to students with disabilities, students with learning difficulties and gifted and talented students.

Distance education relies on individual, or small groups of students having access to a high-tech digital set-up, so they can have “synchronous, real-time communication” with SIDE through web-conferencing platforms, as well as “asynchronous, 24/7 access” through web-based learning and collaboration systems.

As the situation surrounding Covid-19 evolved, a shift took place in Australian schools and “distance education” quickly became a thing – schools had to know how to do it, and teachers and school communities had to be involved. In WA, Ryan says, the state government invested in Covid-19 projects that were based on distance education and provided schools across the state some guidelines to be used in online education.

Across the country, teachers came to embrace online schooling, albeit to varying degrees. Unlike the well-established distance education system delivered by institutions like SIDE, regular schools could not expect their students to have equal access to digital technology. For this reason, and in keeping with the principles of fairness and equitability, it was necessary for teachers to also create “paper” or physical packages of schoolwork for students to complete at home.

By the time the two-week term-holidays started in mid-April, many schools across WA had sent their students home with these work packages as well as instructions for online meetings and lessons. Everyone, at the time, was expecting these to be used in full force when the new term started.

Those two weeks of holidays – from mid- to end of April – was a time of anxious waiting and watching as the state government announced daily updates and changes. WA, it turned out, was looking good. In fact things just kept getting better, for even as the pandemic wreaked havoc throughout the rest of the world, it appeared WA was shielded from Covid-19 chaos thanks to its geographical isolation, wide open spaces, tight border and quarantine restrictions, people’s tendency to follow rules and, perhaps, the summer-like weather that endured even as winter was approaching.

A few days before the end of the holidays, the state government announced its decision to open schools in the new term. Schools would operate under much-adjusted physical-distancing and gathering restrictions and apply special cleaning protocols, but parents could ultimately choose whether to send their children to school or have them follow online lessons from home.

On day one of the new term, many WA schools had well above 50 per cent attendance, and in most cases, teachers noted absences as “due to a reasonable cause” – namely Covid-19 risks. Following the government’s edict, teachers applied, to various degrees, some form of dual-teaching format, to ensure students at home were not missing out on face-to-face lessons.

Ryan notes that a well-executed lesson in distance education should have a coherent focus and involve a variety of learning experiences. “An introduction with camera by the teacher, then sharing screens for lesson content – so not all teacher-talk. Students should have opportunities via audio, text chat and annotation tools to engage with the lesson in ways that suit the activity and the students,” he says.

In the first few weeks of term, most teachers in WA’s regular schools would have applied, or aspired to achieve these aspects of distance education as they juggled between delivering lessons online and in class. But as new Covid-19 cases in the state remained near-zero week after week, student attendance rose steadily. By the end of May, most schools had returned to full capacity and online teaching was no longer necessary.

From the uncertainty of Covid-19, the anxiety of learning how to teach remotely, to the return to almost-normal schooling, it has been a roller-coaster of a ride for school communities across the country. For now, things seem to be looking up in all states except Victoria. But whatever the situation, it is safe to say teachers are much more prepared for variations in teaching than ever.

Prapti Widinugraheni, a former journalist at the Jakarta Post, currently works in education in Australia.