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Australian Financial Review: What the COVID-19 crisis means for students

Almost 4 million school pupils across the country have had their lives turned upside down. What impact will a year of disrupted learning have on Australia?

Article originally published via the Australian Financial Review.

Written by Robert Bolton.
With comment from Monash Education Futures, Professor Neil Selwyn.

It's the quick chats with her teacher after class that Grace Wright misses the most. Those informal exchanges that help to answer lingering questions. Now her interactions are more formulaic as queries are cleared up over email and classes are conducted online. The teacher talks while the students' cameras are turned off, their microphones muted.

This is what Year 12 looks like in the time of COVID-19. There are no more physical classes at Lake Ginninderra College in Canberra. But while Wright is nervous about her assessment, she is still optimistic.

"I'm confident in my teachers," the 17-year-old tells AFR Weekend. "I know the education system has my back."

Education Minister Dan Tehan cleared the air on Tuesday when he said all Year 12 students will get an ATAR university entrance rank and not have to repeat the school year. But now educators are scrambling to get final-year students ready, as they prepare for exams from their home offices or bedrooms.

Wright is just one of 3.9 million students across the country who have had their lives turned upside down in the past six weeks. Schools are upgrading their online teaching and parents are swotting up on how to help their kids, many of them working from home.

Most schools are not yet equipped to deal with this type of disruption. Software is still being trialled, classes are being rescheduled, final-year exams and classroom assessment will have to be re-weighted. Schools are asking if universities can share the load by pushing back starting dates for incoming first years in 2021 and giving bridging courses to students who have missed out on too much in year 12.

Peter Shergold says 2020 is going to be a learning exercise for everyone in school education. However, he sees it as an opportunity to overhaul the way we think about teaching.

The chancellor of Western Sydney University and chair of the NSW Education Standards Authority tells AFR Weekend universities are a good model for schools to follow.

"My hope is school will never be the same again," says the former head of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. "We are blending online teaching with face to face. I think we can make a genuine improvement in what we do."

One of the big unknowns is how effective online teaching is compared with what happens in a classroom. A study done for Stanford University in California and published in 2015 showed teaching maths online had very poor outcomes for students.

This is particularly relevant to Australia, which is already lagging behind in maths. In the latest Program for International Student Assessment, Australia was outperformed by 23 other countries and since 2003 the maths performance of students in every state has been declining

Zoom's limits

Neil Selwyn – a professor of education at Monash University, who recently wrote a book called Should Robots Replace Teachers? – says online teaching is good at facts and linear concepts such as timelines. But classroom teaching is about sensing when complex concepts are not getting through to students. It relies on conversation, body language, eye contact, student posture and other non-verbal prompts.

"We'll muddle through the current crisis and hopefully learn some strategies for the future which will involve not pushing school resources to excessive online teaching," he says.

Zoom has become a widely used verb in the past few weeks, in a similar way to Google. Teachers use the meeting software to replicate the classroom by putting 30 students onto a screen. But it lacks all the subtleties a good teacher has to offer, says Selwyn.

Teachers and students will come back from term two exhausted.

— Neil Selwyn, Monash University

Nothing beats being in a situation where everyone is learning at the same time. It's good for students to see other people don't understand a concept and hear other students' questions, which reveal the limits of knowledge shared by everyone in the group.

Teachers are knowledgeable and it's good for students to see that a person is an expert and has layers of insight that can be unpacked. A strong teacher shows a student how the teacher's own understanding of a subject has come together. Selwyn calls it the cognitive-empathy role of the teacher.

In a physical classroom, the teacher, as opposed to the technology, is the co-ordinator. But it's not only their knowledge that matters – it's their role in manipulating the emotional and social aspects of learning that adds to the classroom experience.

Then there are "the tiny things". The small interactions going on the whole time in a physical classroom: tacit knowledge is assessed and adjusted for, gestures demonstrate off-handedness or looking a student directly in the eye reinforces an instruction.

Dr Michael Phillips is more optimistic about online teaching. He's a former school principal and a colleague of Selwyn's at Monash University.

Everyone is talking about Zoom or Microsoft Teams but online teaching is more complex than a single platform, he says. Technology gives teachers the opportunity to engage students one to one in a more focused way. It lets them target weak students and tailor instruction in a personal way.

Online education is not about which button to press, he says. It's about the way technology merges with different subjects, and how teachers find out what works best for individuals.

Feedback on an essay is good when given privately, says Dr Phillips. A voicemail means a teacher can be candid without embarrassing a student in front of peers and gives them something to refer back to.

Class of 2020 'fundamental to recovery'

Some students work best when they are not being scrutinised. Writing software lets lots of students work on the same documents without necessarily identifying who they are. It gives voice to quiet students and makes a classroom more democratic.

But putting teachers in front of a computer instead of 25 students at desks requires a change in education, which is not going to happen overnight, says Dr Phillips. It will involve changes to the way teachers themselves are taught, but right now educators are focused on the short term.

"Teachers and students will come back from term two exhausted," says Selwyn. "After this experiment with the virtual classroom, everyone will be keen to welcome back normal processes.

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Australian Financial Review: What the COVID-19 crisis means for students

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