Continuity of quality education
The most critical responsibility for the department under the Pandemic Plan is the continuity of education.
The Pandemic Plan acknowledges the possibility that this learning may need to take place outside of schools through alternative education options such as work sent home. The value of face-to-face learning was clear throughout the response and cannot be replaced. The connection between teachers and their students is essential.
The work to ensure the continuity of learning was not able to replicate the in classroom experience for all students, however the Education System response sought to ensure that students were provided with opportunities to continue to engage with learning either at home or at school. Through innovative practices at the system and local school level an opportunity has been created to look at ways in which to provide similar flexibility into the future.
What was done?
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, schools across NSW remained open to any student needing to attend. However, from 24 March parents and carers were encouraged to keep their children at home wherever possible. From this time until the full return to face-to-face learning on 25 May 2020, teachers were teaching from virtual and physical classrooms often with a mixed mode of delivery to students who were either learning from a classroom or from home. ‘Single units of work’ were delivered to ensure equity and consistency in curriculum. Delivery during this time was through a variety of channels, including online lesson delivery, printed learning packs and face-to-face delivery. This highlighted how essential the connection between teachers and their students is to our students’ learning.
Key steps put in place across the Education System to ensure for the continuity of quality education during COVID-19 included:
- standing up a centralised online system (single source of truth) with information and resources to support school communities
- rapid mobilisation to develop teaching and learning resources (digital and printed) to ensure inclusivity of all students to continue learning progressions.
- professional learning to develop new skills and support teachers on the use and integration of technology into curriculum delivery across each of the learning stages (Early Stage 1 through to Stage 6)
- rapid procurement of digital learning devices and digital learning tools to complement and enable the delivery of online learning
- a connectedness across the whole NSW Education System and other jurisdictions working in collaboration to ensure the focus remained on the outcomes for students and teachers during this time
In order to effectively deliver continuity of education through the above mechanisms, the department stood up an expert, multidisciplinary team who were able to rapidly understand the challenge of remote learning and quickly respond. The COVID-19 environment caused a heightened focus on delivery, with teaching and educational expertise guiding its design.
Centralised online system
To support those learning remotely the department, AISNSW and CSNSW all rapidly mobilised a program of remote learning with the launch of the Learning from Home hub (or similar) providing school leaders, teaching staff, students, parents and carers with information, learning resources, emotional wellbeing support mechanisms and operational advice. Access to and sharing of resources across sectors was reciprocated to support all NSW students and teachers responding to the changing teaching and learning landscape.
The hub included a wide variety of resources across key learning areas and catered to a broad range of student needs. The department was able to get the hub online within 10 days by initially leveraging content from the Distance Education Support Unit who have delivered remote learning to distance education students for over 25 years. Both the system and individual teachers were able to pivot to developing digital curriculum content resources to support students and ensure inclusiveness for those students with a range of disabilities and learning support needs.
By late June 2020 there were over 400 teaching and learning resources in one location. This innovative response has resulted in one of the largest single online digital repositories of materials of this nature.
The resources on the Learning from Home hub were shared with CSNSW and AISNSW as well as other education jurisdictions across Australia under a Memorandum of Understanding. Both CSNSW and AISNSW acknowledged and thanked the department for providing access to their resources and ensuring return to schools advice was inclusive of all sectors, particularly around legislated requirements for all school sectors such as attendance.
From a department perspective, it is important to know that the information and resources published and made available on the Learning from Home hub were there as supplementary materials to support what schools were publishing through their own school website service or other parent/carer communication and engagement tools. The hub was specifically intended to suggest or guide practice rather than to direct schools. This supported the work of schools, while empowering school principals to cater to the particular needs of their school community.
Learning in action: HSC Hub
The online capabilities developed through the remote learning period are already being leveraged by the department to provide further support to NSW students. On 18 June 2020, the HSC Hub was launched. The platform includes high-quality on-demand support modules that teachers can provide to their students to help them prepare for their exams.
Rapid mobilisation of teaching and learning resources
Schools carefully planned their learning from home packages, taking into account what access students had to digital learning devices and internet at home. It was a deliberate strategy across the Education System to allow each school to be responsible for determining the methods of delivering learning as they are in the best position to understand what will best meet their student’s needs at a local level. Options included online and digital learning, provision of printed packages, and a range of mixed/hybrid approaches.
One of the challenges the NSW Education System faced, along with every Education System globally, was the limited access to digital learning devices and internet access for teachers and students. These challenges can be attributed to a multitude of factors causing a digital divide within our communities as has been widely reported through the media and Think Tank research papers. COVID-19 has highlighted the challenges of the digital divide which have long been impacting on NSW families prior to COVID-19.
The department understood the priority of ensuring continuity of learning for those students who did not have access to a device or the internet. In order to support schools to reach these students, the department produced a range of hardcopy packs that could be adapted by individual schools and teachers in line with their students. Whilst schools often edited and adapted the material before printing, these hardcopy packs provided a backstop to ensure continuity of learning with schools printing and mailing these to students weekly or even daily.
In addition, the department partnered with ABC Education to provide over 5 hours of education content per school day and the creation of the learning support resources by department curriculum experts. This included an innovative co-production relationship with ABC Education to produce mini-lessons in literacy, numeracy and science. The ABC leveraged learning materials developed by the department’s curriculum team and six of the department’s expert teachers delivered the material, resulting in highly positive feedback and plans to continue this form of delivery in the future.
As the time progressed, new information and resources were constantly updated on the Learning from Home hub including assessment frameworks to inform and track learning progress. The Assessment and Reporting templates and information were within the top 3 page views as at 19 June 2020. Consultation regarding ways to assess students was undertaken at a sector and national level to inform the published materials.
Professional learning to develop new skills and support teachers
There is a significant variation of digital skills, capacity and capabilities across school based staff. During the initial stages of COVID-19 it was quickly identified that to enable teachers who were used to teaching in a classroom to quickly pivot to delivering an online or digital lesson, appropriate on-demand professional learning would be required.
On-demand professional learning webinars provided staff with a large range of easy-access learning to be completed at their own pace and within their own timeframes. This was a consistent response across the Education System with AISNSW, CSNSW and the department all independently delivering Professional Learning to teaching staff online.
Teachers were further supported in their professional networking with the creation of over twenty virtual staffrooms where sharing of digital resources occurred, many of which were subsequently included on the Learning from Home hub. This was complemented by the seven livestream meetings to provide ongoing and timely advice to school leaders from key department Senior Executive.
The success of the virtual staffrooms was driven by the individual teachers engaging with them. This typifies the response to COVID-19 where the department used appropriate expertise to centrally design and deliver effective platforms, which were then made successful by their use and contextualisation by teachers and principals.
Rapid procurement of online learning tools
To ensure that all schools were able to access online learning programs, the department made several collaboration platforms available to schools, such as Google Classroom, Microsoft Teams and Zoom. Many schools were able to utilise the digital collaboration platforms as a method of delivery to varying degree with some schools making a conscious decision to stick with printed learning materials.
In addition to these collaboration platforms, the department also committed to providing extra support and functionality to staff through a range of other third party tools. The department rapidly identified and procured a selection of appropriate third party tools and products to increase equitable access to learning for NSW students.
The expedited procurement process incorporated a level of rigour to ensure resources met the quality standards for the NSW Curriculum along with targeted cyber security, data privacy and integration aspects with our IT eco-system.
What was the impact?
While the Education System has now returned to full time face-to-face learning, many teachers continue to incorporate the use of online learning with digital learning tools as part of their teaching. There has been a shift in perceptions of technology towards an increasing willingness to incorporate digital learning tools in delivering education.
Remote learning allowed schools to identify the particular assistance and support needs of their students when learning remotely. While students had many different ways of staying connected with their teacher, whether that be in person, via telephone, through a letter, email or on camera in a live virtual classroom, the impact on students learning progressions are still yet to be determined.
The department also developed new assessments, particularly focused on literacy, numeracy and science, which schools began to use as soon as the transitional return to face-to-face learning began. This will help teachers to understand their students’ progress, identify learning gaps and adjust the curriculum and supports accordingly as they returned to school. Within the department, aggregated and anonymised information from these assessments will be instructive in our own diagnostics as we look more deeply at what we did well and what we have learned for the future.
The department has been approached on numerous occasions to share our practice, our experience and our learnings with other jurisdictions, including internationally with meetings taking place as the department was still responding.
As highlighted by all parts of the Education System, we were able to generate a centralised resource with the department’s Learning from Home hub utilised by government, Catholic and independent school communities throughout the time where students were asked to remain home if possible.
The department has hosted a series of Teach Meets run by principals, for principals across the state highlighting models of best practice in areas such as assessment, student wellbeing and graduated return to face-to-face teaching. Close to 200 principals joined the livestreams over the 3 events. Those unable to join were able to access recorded vision.
Where schools opted in for the third party online learning tools, they were able to supplement their own resources with these additional resources for their students including being able to include resources in the printed learning packs.
Learning in action: Shared collaboration and alignment across the education sector, keeping teachers and students at the forefront
COVID-19 was indiscriminate and while leaving educational leaders vulnerable to a loss of control it enabled an alignment that saw unprecedented collaboration of resources and engagement. To continue providing a world class educational service to all NSW students regardless of education sector this opportunity needs to be further explored along with the collaboration with other educational jurisdictions.
What should be kept or changed as a result?
The learnings identified through this chapter could have applicability across a range of department initiatives. Most significantly, these ‘ways of learning and working’ should be leveraged in line with the NSW Curriculum Review. That review recommends ways to streamline what is taught in schools. Importantly, these learnings allow further consider of how teaching and learning occurs.
There are a number of other projects underway to further identify possible improvements to education, and these should be considered in taking forward the recommended actions. In particular, the Education for a Changing World “Learning from COVID” project identifies further opportunities for learning from the student perspective.
There are opportunities to re-imagine the way learning is delivered to meet the contextual and individual needs of student and staff.
The department rapidly responded to the shift to remote and hybrid learning. Online resources developed by the department proved popular. There are opportunities to leverage the Learning from Home hub as a more permanent resource, driving innovation in practice and housing new content for use by staff, students and parents.
Virtual staffrooms helped teachers adjust to remote teaching, facilitated collaboration and provided a space to access evidence based expertise in key learning areas. There may be opportunities to continue and improve this platform.
Schools and teachers continued to have flexibility to adapt central resources to their school communities, but they had varied capacity and capability to respond to the challenge. There are opportunities to improve accountability frameworks to ensure the capacity for local decisions at the school level is balanced with appropriate support measures for schools, leaders and teachers.
Continuity of learning was supported by readily available online and on-demand professional learning. These online and blended models for professional learning should be considered moving forward.
Many parents contributed significantly to the learning of children during this period, continued parent engagement should be leveraged to continue to support student outcomes.