Digital equity needed for success

Fiona Mueller

26 March 2020 | Ideas@TheCentre

For millions of young Australians, it’s home schooling from now on. As well as getting their heads around months of staying inside – often in small apartments with no easy access to big, green spaces – families urgently need to work out how to carry on with learning.

The Prime Minister and other leaders rightly point to the risks facing the educational progress of young Australians as the nation locks down. Given the data showing that many students are already up to three years behind their international peers in reading, mathematics and science, they cannot afford to miss a beat as they watch a very strange school year unfold.

The first of Australia’s two national goals for schooling refers to ‘excellence and equity’.  Excellence in education is already the subject of much debate, but the Covid-19 emergency will exacerbate equity issues, with no guarantee that all young learners can simply switch to high-quality online learning.

And school closures are happening at the same time as most businesses and organisations ramp up their technological capability to keep things going. This is potentially the greatest test of the $50+ billion national broadband network. Our average speeds have improved, but other countries are doing better, and this was probably a major factor for Japan and Hong Kong in their early decision to close all schools.

Ideally, for at least some part of each day, Australian students should be able to see and hear their teachers as well as their classmates. Schools will want to keep students connected and maintain a sense of belonging, otherwise motivation and achievement will go out the window.

But some schools are advising parents that live streaming of lessons cannot occur because of the variation in household internet services and devices.

Every child will need the right device and the necessary software. As in some universities, this might mean offering financial support to students who would otherwise depend on school computers, who cannot afford internet connection or who have a disability.

Enabling equitable access to smart digital technology would be an encouraging sign of the effectiveness of state and territory policies and funding strategies

Australia’s education ministers own Education Services Australia, a national company that claims a “unique combination of education and technology expertise to create and deliver solutions that can be used to improve student outcomes and enhance performance across all education sectors.” ESA built the Australian Curriculum website, among many other projects.

Never has there been a better time for that organisation to show what it can do.

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