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Four elements of effective remote learning
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Four elements of effective remote learning

Research 5 minute read

A recent ACER report for AISNSW provides an important overview of insights from research that may help predict the consequences – and minimise the impact – of disrupted schooling during the pandemic.

There is little empirical evidence yet about the impact of Australia’s pivot to remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the absence of much-needed hard data, the Association of Independent Schools NSW (AISNSW) commissioned the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) to review the academic literature for evidence about what works in online and remote teaching. The review synthesised findings from research relevant to the Australian context in education in emergencies, distance education, blended learning, access and equity, and quality teaching and learning using technology.

In an interview with AISNSW, Director of newly established The Evidence Institute Tiffany Roos said: ‘The rapid literature review offers the independent education community a clearer understanding of the challenges and opportunities that lay ahead in terms of the whole eco-system of education from a response, pedagogical, wellbeing and contextual framework.’

The research team led by Professor Pauline Taylor-Guy – head of ACER’s Centre for School and System Improvement and a former teacher – began with the literature on education in emergencies, which looks at a system’s preparedness to cope with disruption and describes good practice principles for re-establishing and continuing education post-crisis.

‘The wellbeing of students and teachers is a major theme here,’ Professor Taylor-Guy said. ‘Students forced to learn remotely during the pandemic are experiencing anxiety about the loss of routine and schedules and feelings of isolation resulting from a lack of contact with friends, while rising stress levels, increased workloads and isolation from their peers are negatively affecting teachers.

‘The research suggests the wellbeing of both groups should be a key priority on the return to traditional schooling.’

Other key findings included:

  • Technology supplements, but does not replace, teaching.
  • Messaging from school leaders and education systems needs to be clear and easy to understand.
  • Parental involvement and strong school-community-family relationships are important.
  • Remote learning is likely to exacerbate existing educational disadvantage, so that already vulnerable children are at even greater risk of slipping behind.
  • The return to traditional schooling should focus on:
    • The wellbeing of students and teachers
    • A strategy of physical and social re-engagement
    • Differentiated teaching to meet the needs of individual students.

Four key themes appeared consistently in the review: the quality of teaching; the role of technology; the importance of context; and the home learning environment.

The quality of teaching matters

The research says that teachers need to be supported to design learning experiences that engage students, regardless of the mode of teaching. Good learning design comes from thoughtful and careful development, yet our teachers’ ability to plan was severely impacted in the rapid shift to remote learning. By designing learning that can be delivered in a variety of modes – informed by best practice in distance, blended and online learning, such as investing in teacher training, the supply of appropriate tools and resources, and cooperation between teachers and parents, for example – systems can be ready to be more flexible in the future, while educators can have greater confidence in their ability to deliver quality teaching across modes.

The role of technology

Technology can be used to supplement quality teaching but several factors affect its likely success. Access to appropriate technology is heavily dependent on equity, with the research acknowledging a substantial and growing ‘digital divide’ in Australia. The readiness and capability of both teachers and students to use that technology is a major consideration. The literature shows that teaching online and remotely requires different skills to teaching face-to-face, so that even very experienced teachers may struggle in an entirely online environment, while students need the basic digital skills required to navigate learning online. The research suggests it is possible to mitigate the impact of these factors by offering low bandwidth and offline learning options, and by strengthening student-teacher interactions and finding a balance of teacher-directed, individual and group work.

Context is important

A key takeaway: one size cannot fit all when it comes to remote learning. Differentiation in the classroom should be responsive to the circumstances of individual students and teaching contexts. This requires valid and reliable data on what a student knows and can do, and teachers must have solid skills in using and interpreting that data in order to target their teaching effectively. Where students have fallen behind, there is evidence to show that targeted support activities such as small group tuition may help.

The home learning environment

The literature says that almost half of all Australian children are at risk of adverse effects on their ‘educational outcomes, nutrition, physical movement and emotional wellbeing by being physically disconnected from school’. Furthermore, already vulnerable students are likely to slip further behind during remote learning due to a lack of conditions considered vital to success, such as access to technology and a quiet place to study, and parents who are able to support learning. On this last point, parental involvement is an influential factor in effective student learning regardless of the mode of delivery, and the literature outlines how parents can help their children develop independent learning skills when properly supported by schools with appropriate practical strategies and resources.

The research details strategies that can minimise educational disadvantage post-pandemic, such as financial support for struggling families, online mental health consultations, emergency accommodation for those seeking refuge and ensuring schools have a targeted strategy of physical re-engagement.

Read the full report:

Cowden, G., Mitchell, P., & Taylor-Guy, P. (2020). Remote learning rapid literature review. Association of Independent Schools NSW & Australian Council for Educational Research.

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