Susan Mann is the former CEO of Education Services Australia and its predecessor, the Curriculum Corporation, owned by Australian Education Ministers. She has played a key role in conceptualising and implementing Australian schools curriculum and technology education policy over the last three decades. She has also represented Australia on the Global Education Leaders Partnership and held executive positions at the Victorian Department of Education. She currently chairs the National Copyright Committee for Australian Education Ministers and the Innovation Unit, ANZ (Australia and New Zealand). – Ed
As of June 2020, approximately 1.7 billion learners in over 100 countries have been impacted by school closures, as a result of COVID 19.
In Australia, like many countries, we are in the midst of dealing with this crisis. In my state, Victoria, we are in a second lockdown and most students are back working from home.
While it is more like emergency remote teaching rather than planned online learning, teachers have shown impressive urgency in responding to the crisis. They are preparing resources, delivering supplies and equipment to homes, connecting with students and their parents to support their well-being and also providing tuition for those students who can't stay home. Their level of digital literacy varies. Some are experienced technology users, others are learning as they go. Many are planning together, sharing resources and finding that online learning is a very effective medium, especially for upper primary and secondary level students.
In Australia, the pandemic has exposed a widening digital divide, especially for students who are indigenous, have special needs, from rural and remote areas and low-income families. Many of these students do not have Internet access or digital devices at home and substantial disparities exist between families’ capacity to help their children learn. COVID 19 has exacerbated long-standing inequalities in Australian education and also reinforced how crucial home-school partnerships are for supporting students’ learning.
Creating a 'new normal' will be a slow process. Now is an excellent opportunity to reflect on what we have experienced. In Australia, there will be a strong impulse by many students, parents, teachers and politicians to return to the pre-COVID traditional classroom with the teacher at the centre working relentlessly towards ensuring students complete the year's curriculum and assessment requirements. Education policy is not likely to be top of the list for government in the reconstruction period, so it will be up to schools themselves to consider what opportunities arise for positive change.
COVID 19 provides time to reassess the purpose of schooling and the important role education plays in society. It has highlighted how essential schools are to the economy; they look after children to enable parents to work outside the home and train our future workforce. They also provide a safe place for vulnerable young people and bring communities together. Schools provide far more than just learning.
Schools have had a chance to see what can be achieved online. It is likely that Australian schools will continue to increase their use of online content and begin to address the inequalities in Internet connectivity and technical devices. Ideally this will also lead to support for more shareable open content across the globe.
COVID 19 has reminded us of the social value of schools as communities. It will be important to reconsider use of the valuable time teachers and students spend together. We can't underestimate schools' role in supporting student wellbeing through daily, purposeful human interactions via such activities as performances, physical pursuits and team sports, interpersonal and community relationships and joint endeavours and challenges.
In Australia, we are aware of the overcrowded curriculum and the lack of deep learning that results from this. We need to rethink what learning is now essential and examine the relevance of entrenched practices, for example, whether university entrance scores at the final year of schooling are the fairest and best indicator of future success and whether the time and money spent on national testing programs, currently suspended due to the crisis, could be used more effectively.
Our challenge will be to not proceed exactly as before. COVID 19 has emphasised the important role schools play in the lives of students and the community and it is now up to us to reimagine our future schools by asking, 'What do we truly value in education?' 'What are we doing well?' and 'How can we do it better and grow?'