By Derek Welsh
One of the most pervasive and significant ways that the coronavirus pandemic has touched millions of Australian families is through its impact on our schools and universities. In many parts of the country, these institutions effectively shut down for a period because they could not easily and safely continue to teach and assess students outside the institution’s walls.
This challenge is forcing the country to examine its education system and accelerate a decade’s worth of technology adoption and pedagogical transformation into fewer than six months. What is happening now is that these same educational institutions are rethinking how they will continue to teach and assess students beyond the current crisis.
These institutions know that we may have intermittent lockdown periods in the upcoming months as we continue the battle with COVID-19 and its ongoing impact internationally. Even if Australia were lucky enough to win that battle in a matter of weeks, institutions have learned lessons the hard way. But there is a clear opportunity for some of this change to be embraced.
Our schools and universities have been a source of pride for Australians, with university education a cornerstone of Australian achievement – it has become our third-largest export in recent decades. Our response to this crisis will shape the future of our country’s education and its contribution to society.
So where to now?
It’s hard to generalise when you talk about the different stages of digitisation in Australian schools and universities. Still, it is uncontroversial to say that one of the areas which is lagging most is our assessment of students’ skills and capabilities. For the most part, these measurements are conducted via pen-and-paper exams, despite a radical shift to more interactive digital content for teaching.
One example of this has been the lack of remotely delivered digital assessments, which has caused students significant delays, in high-stakes scenarios such as university admissions, final school exams, not to mention the disruption of high-risk students who may be falling behind. Students may have to wait six months to take these assessments, and the disruption will mean that certain students may have a gap not only in their education but potentially the next stage of their academic careers.
The technologies to solve these problems are readily available, and there is still time to save 2020. Rather than delay these critical exams, schools and assessors can lean into technology to ensure they get delivered with the same levels of academic integrity.
Digitisation of our schools and universities will not only help us through the current crisis but will bring many benefits for the future of education internationally. Whether it is international university students who will remain in their own countries or Australia’s regional communities, both will get better access to in-home education delivery. This will go some way to bridging the educational divide already experienced by these socioeconomic and dispersed groups.
Others will benefit from adaptive assessments that can be personalised and tailored to students’ specific needs. For some, the thought of entering an exam hall can cause such anxiety that their performance is affected and we never see their true potential. Digital assessments can help to ensure that students aren’t left behind by a system that is tailored to only one type of modality. Nevermind the thought of writing out responses to a three-hour exam with pen and paper.
The value in an evidence-based approach
Where there’s technology, there’s data. Measurement and, in turn, improvement is infinitely more difficult and inefficient when attempting to glean complex analytics from paper-delivered exams. By moving assessments online, we can improve assessment practice far quicker by providing almost immediate access to extensive analysis of the test data. Improving the speed with which we can perform these analytics will provide invaluable information for decision-making at regional, institutional and, most importantly, student level.
Remote learning can unlock significant economic opportunities, as well. Today, international students contribute around $40bn per year to the local economy, and while some of that contribution will come from on-the-ground discretionary spending, a large portion of it will be made up by fees.
By providing international students with the choice of whether to travel to Australia or access Australian education from wherever they are in the world, we are breaking down barriers for some international students who cannot travel for whatever reason but also making the most of the economic opportunity.
Fast-tracking digitisation in all elements of the education system will allow Australia to bolster its position as an education leader. If we do it the right way, 2020 could prove to be a groundbreaking year for radically modernising our global education system and cement our place as an innovator in this sector.
Derek Welsh is Chief Operating Officer at Janison