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Vulnerable students left behind by online schools

Young teenage girl looking at laptop

Not all students can participate in online or remote learning.

Despite intense preparations currently underway at schools to roll out online instruction there are real concerns that some students will be left behind.

Teachers and school leaders are working long hours, trying their best to serve their students and their community and in some areas a truly collaborative approach is taking hold.

Many are showing entrepreneurial spirit and creativity, and the social media universe is awash in ideas and resources.

Good online learning needs more than equipment

Some schools may well have the infrastructure and their students and teachers may well be digitally aware. They may have access to the resources to move to online education but a vast array of these groups do not.

A lot of schools, students and teachers, especially those in lower socio-economic areas, are not so well equipped nor do they have access to both the resources and the knowledge of how to use these tools.

Hopefully, in the coming weeks, those schools struggling to support online learning will find workarounds for students without access to technology.

Regardless of the preparation, some schools, some teachers and a lot of students are just not going to be able to participate in online or remote learning.

Research suggests that online schooling has a significant negative impact on both course persistence and achievement.

One study, conducted in the US where some 200,000 students are enrolled in online schools and fully online schools operate in 26 states, found that full-time virtual schools are not a good fit for many children. They found challenges in maintaining student engagement being inherent in online instruction, in part because of the limited student-teacher contact time.

If schools specifically designed to teach coursework online, frequently with huge sums of money and time invested in research and planning can’t make it work, it seems unlikely that parents and teachers googling resources will.

What about our marginalised students?

It is vital that arrangements are made to ensure continuity of learning for vulnerable children and those with additional needs.

Schools will be dealing with students facing traumatic situations, from financial stress, to domestic violence and grieving the loss of loved ones because of the virus.

Marginalised students already find it difficult to access counselling and support, the impact on students’ stress levels if they can’t access school materials like their peers or students at other schools is also something to be considered.

For schools that rolled out online instruction in the final weeks of term one, students and teachers were reinforcing online the concepts they had already learned face-to-face.

The big challenge will come in term two and beyond, when students - who have vastly different levels of access to technology and at home support - will be asked to grasp new concepts and new technologies.

There’s more to school than curriculum

Also, important to remember is that schools are not just factories that mechanically troll through curriculum. Schools support the kinds of relationships and learning opportunities needed to promote children’s well-being, healthy development, and transferable learning. They engage practices that can help educators respond to individual variability, address adversity, and support resilience to enable all children to learn.

During this period of worldwide quarantine, and educators attempts to ensure the continuity of learning for all learners, this interrelationship of developmental processes is even more pronounced.

The goal should not be to try to re-create face-to-face classrooms and schools, which is impossible to do, but instead to maintain the wellbeing of all in our community.

Most schools will discover they need to be adaptive and fast-thinking in order to ensure that learning continues.

Perhaps the question is not so much about the continuity of learning but what the learning should be during this time.

Teachers will do their utmost to ensure equity of education for all but education is a profoundly relational thing - that's the challenge.

Dr Helen Egeberg is Master of Teaching Coordinator (Secondary Education) in Edith Cowan University’s School of Education.


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