• Kathleen Donohoe

Is educational policy constraining a renaissance in education?

BUT, how much of our current behaviour and practice, focused on the continuation of the provision of learning opportunities for students flies in the face of current policy?

Althaus, Bridgman & Davis (2007) pose the question based on Simeon’s model of policy cycles “Which contemporary policies, apparently now so natural and logical, will in the future prove to be just as obviously a product of their times, unacceptable to future generation?”. Could we rephrase this question, reflecting our current context, to ask:

‘Which contemporary policies, last month so natural and logical, now prove to be just as obviously a product of their time, unacceptable to current practice?’

Adversity breeds innovation

This crisis is showing us that when necessity calls, we can and will reimagine our educational constructs. Whilst some have previously dragged their feet when it comes to implementing real educational change, arguing that we cannot cope with drastic change, we are currently demonstrating the opposite is true!

Teachers are demonstrating creativity, problem solving and innovation, whilst remaining resilient, retaining equity and ensuring the safety and wellbeing of students. In a short period of time, the behaviours of teachers and parents are undergoing drastic changes and transforming the concept of education, due to the outbreak of the coronavirus (COVID-19).

While the exact timeline of recovery is unclear, this crisis will eventually pass. At some point, students and teachers will return to schools – will they be schools as we knew them? Or will they reflect the current transformation and experience that this crisis has encouraged?

We need to embrace our education ecosystems as a new reality, post-COVID-19. Online educational providers will continue to develop solutions and vie for the hearts and minds of students, teachers and parents. How do we ensure that these solutions become elements of a whole eLearning ecosystem (LMS, ePortfolios, plagiarism, apps, etc), with each a part of the seamless learning experience?

The new normal will encompass aspects that have been emerging prior to and from this crisis: the minutiae of sanitation practices in learning spaces (indoor and outdoor), parental demands for ubiquitous oversight of their children’s learning, student management of some or all elements of their learning, access to sources of information and tools for learning, social elements of learning (e.g. distancing in playgrounds), flexible work opportunities for school leadership, teaching and support staff, embracing new ways of collaborating, a change in the mindsets and perception of educators and their role in society and seizing emerging opportunities from innovation, society and industry.

Resolution of the above will lead to improved perception of, and respect for schools, for teachers and for learning – their collective courage, expertise and dedication, something lacking in Australian society, to varying degrees. While benefits in the often-delicate relationship between parents and teachers will shift even further, not all change will be smooth. As parents gain a better understanding of their child’s academic program and its effectiveness, the collective voice of parents will be stronger, their expectations higher – and causes to question will increase. The coronavirus crisis is having a massive impact on education as we have traditionally perceived it, reshaping the future landscape of learning and teaching and testing the bonds of trust between educators, students, parents and governments.

What should we be doing today (from a learning perspective)?

The truth is no one knows for sure; we’re all figuring this out together.

However, a business-as-usual approach is not the answer – there is nothing “usual” about the unprecedented situation in which we find ourselves, nor the expectations of educators to support this new ‘now’.

Hypothetically, if students are attaining learning goals in a non-traditional environment that isn’t dependent on school attendance, is this a good argument for the implementation of a more flexible learning culture going forward? If the evidence tells us that learning is not, in fact, fully dependent on the traditional school approach, will we finally sunset the traditional industrial age “bums on seats” in “classrooms” discussion? Can we place an emphasis on supporting and embracing the alternatives?

The detrimental effects of COVID-19 are a terrible price to pay, but this crisis is forcing rethinking: is learning dependent on seat time – quality or quantity? If quality learning is occurring, should the focus be on where learners are physically located or when, or how they choose to engage with the learning. In a current COVID-19 world, learning outside of traditional times and spaces is being embraced, initialized and acknowledged.

We are all fully aware of the difficulties and uncertainty our parents and students are bravely facing right now, particularly in relation to distance and online education. Each educator, student and parent will feel anxious in their own way about the different aspects of new learning scenarios, evolving digital ecosystems and teaching online. Our world touts itself on being part of a digital age, and this crisis is exponentially expediting the requirements for us to rework our instructional identities and rethink our teaching practices as we transition from physical to virtual environments, retaining the valuable social elements.

In the world of education, it is easy for teachers or students to feel disconnected or removed from others, or from the real world. This thinking is growing, with dwindling numbers preferring the traditional classroom kingdom mentality. In line with current world happenings, this disconnect can be addressed, whilst also ensuring the wellbeing safety and security of students – does COVID-19 provide us with an opportunity as we move from urgency?

This crisis has led to a reinforcement of our common goals and aspirations, and hopefully a more compassionate and globally aware society. It has also brought to the fore the simple question:

What is the role of schools and education providers in the online age?

As the current crisis is enveloping citizens worldwide, teachers across the planet are increasingly coordinating, collaborating, problem solving, innovating and rising together, whilst also undertaking their usual classes and duties and dealing with the personal repercussions of this pandemic. As distance and online education continues to morph our perspectives on learning and teaching, we are adopting a mindset embracing a collective, mutually beneficial and coordinated approach. This collaboration incorporates (to various scales) all aspects of their community and society, reinforcing the belief that “It takes a village to raise a child” (African proverb).

From a learner or an innovator’s perspective, the world of opportunity is now being unlocked – never to be locked again. Students are learning new languages and skills (extra-curricular), embracing genuine ownership of their learning from their own teacher as well as: subject matter experts, industry experts, other students and exemplar teachers, nationally and internationally. Does this provide a solution to Australia’s greatest educational issue – equity of excellence?

A rising tide lifts all boats.

Both on a large and personal scale, learners, post COVID-19 will have increasing access to learning opportunities, data and real time feedback on their previous and future learning – providing additional opportunities for many students.

Age old traditions such as school times, compulsory hours, the definition of attendance, recognition, reporting and feedback on learning and the definition of student engagement are following the fate of blackboards and chalk, requiring the reimagination of policy, process and procurement.

Already, in many NSW schools, reporting mechanisms and best practice is stretching and surpassing the policy architecture. NSW schools, teachers and principals are using software such as See Saw, Class Dojo, Google Classroom and Edmodo (to name a few) to provide real time updates on student learning, to students and parents. Due to the ease of scalability of these digital resources, schools have a greater, sustainable potential to provide real time personalised assessment and feedback for learning.

Parents can plot in real time, learning progress as it occurs, instead of waiting for an ineffective grade, twice a year. Ultimately, the ideal would be for the integration of assessment and online reporting, into real time learning environments. New software that allows students and teachers to access documents from anywhere supports parental awareness of and involvement in what their children are learning. Capabilities are already available that support formative assessment and immediate feedback, through banks of questions enhancing personalised experiences and immediate feedback (where relevant), with minimal increased workload for teachers. Parents will develop a heightened sense of confidence about the power of their school involvement and a greater appreciation of the importance of their role in their child’s education.

COVID-19 and its aftermath will challenge the progress, policies, traditions, and thinking of educational jurisdictions and industrial bodies in a way that our leaders may not be ready to address – a stance that will no longer be justifiable.

Covid-19 is escalating the need for creativity and innovative mindsets in policy design and review.

Over time, crises have played defining roles in the creation and strengthening of education policy. History is littered with examples as a catalyst for quantum reform, such as The Social Security Act – a response to the Great Depression.

Predictably, the COVID-19 emergency raises new policy challenges and makes the necessity of structural reforms more apparent. Governments can capitalise on this as an opportunity in the longer term and nations can reimagine and implement policies aimed at enhancing quality and inclusiveness, with learning at the centre.

History suggests that the reform of education policy is necessary during and after a major crisis like Covid-19, to support and embrace:

  1. Collaboration across classes, schools, jurisdictions and systems.

  2. Physical, virtual and social considerations for planning, transition and decision making.

  3. Crisis as an instigator for the adoption and effective use of new technologies and education models:

The SARS outbreak is often credited with the adoption of online shopping among Chinese consumers, accelerating Alibaba’s rise. As schools nationally and internationally are closing, could eLearning and the learning ecosystem become an improvement and opportunity story? Have digital efforts in Wuhan to contain the crisis via smart-phone trackers effectively demonstrated a powerful new data set supporting public health and education?