Taking classes, exams online is key to easing COVID-19 disruption

Taking classes, exams online is key to easing COVID-19 disruption

As schools across Australia shift toward online learning in response to COVID-19, many are concerned with the impact such disruption will have on education outcomes.

Despite the upheaval, however, when implemented correctly online learning can greatly improve academic performance.

The most important element of successful remote learning – or any learning for that matter – is the level of student engagement. Educational engagement is widely seen as one of the key factors in improving academic outcomes, and, alarmingly, recent research from Gallup shows engagement declining with each year in school.

According to the poll, 74 per cent of Australian Year Five students were engaged in their education. This figure steadily declines throughout schooling, falling to just 51 per cent of Year 12 students reporting high levels of educational engagement.

A key contributor to declining engagement is the lack of tailored, personalised learning. This type of learning is incredibly difficult to achieve in a classroom where educators are typically forced to teach to the middle of class – leaving top performers bored, while those who need more support are left behind.

This is one of the key advantages of online learning. As all materials are uploaded and available for students to access whenever it’s needed, learners are able to work through the material at their own pace. On-demand access to materials enables those who are behind to catch up, while allowing the students at the top of the class to move ahead.   

Another benefit is the ability to personalise content depending on each student’s preferred learning style. Some students learn better visually, some orally, others textually. Modern learning platforms allow multiple forms of dynamic content to be shared – be it video, audio, image or text – students can find and focus on the media that works best for them.  

As educators across Australia use the coming pupil-free days to develop content and courses before remote learning initiatives begin in earnest, there are a number of lessons that can be learned from schools across Australia who adopted online learning platforms early.

On the Gold Coast, Saint Stephens College has been using online learning platforms to better personalise the learning experience since 2011. With course content available to students whenever suits them, learners can study at their own pace and revisit lessons multiple times.

In one example, a student who was struggling before tutorials were released online was able to achieve a B Grade after repeating lessons until he understood the content. In a traditional classroom, this simply couldn’t take place – the teacher would need to move ahead with the curriculum regardless of those being left behind.

Further, data from the platform showed almost two-thirds of Year 12 students log into the platform on weekends, facilitating learning that previously would not have taken place.

On the NSW-Victorian border, Wodonga Middle Years College is also using online learning management systems to great effect. Teachers are able to collaborate on preparing content together, giving educators more time to focus on the individual needs of their students. Another advantage has been increased interactivity between students and their parents, enabling parents to see what their children are working on and supporting them with their education.

As a result, the school has since seen marked improvements across its student base in grammar, punctuation, spelling, reading and writing due to the more engaging learning experiences provided through the platform. 

On the Gold Coast Hinterland, Silkwood School has used its online learning platform to improve student engagement by personalising learning for each individual student. Combined with dynamic and engaging audio-visual content, personalised feedback keeps learners motivated and maximises engagement levels.       

These examples show that the shift to online learning doesn’t mean academic performance needs to suffer. On the contrary. With a robust learning model, teachers can be empowered to provide their students with dynamic, interactive, and personalised content which reignites their curiosity and thirst for knowledge.

With the right tools in place, academic performance could actually improve through online learning. Governments could also step in to accelerate a strategic roll out of online learning platforms to ensure students are given every chance to succeed.

According to the NSW Education Standards Authority, this year’s HSC is going ahead “no ifs, or buts”. That being the case, we need robust online learning platforms as soon as possible to support Year 12 students in their preparation for final exams – band aid solutions simply won’t cut it. Further, come exam time, if isolation and social distancing measures are still enforced, a system must be in place to deliver exams remotely if required. 

The measures we’re witnessing to combat COVID-19 each day are unprecedented. Rather than jeopardise the education of an entire generation, we should work towards ensuring the best learning outcomes possible.

Jennifer Dewar is senior education consultant at D2L, the education and professional training company