With Australian schools now dealing with an effective shutdown in response to the coronavirus pandemic, state and territory education departments are rushing to scale up existing online learning environments.
Officially, public schools, at least in NSW are still open; yet the advice on offer realistically means children for the most part are being kept home. Household broadband is now the primary connector as the nation shuts down.
So how well-placed are schools to deal with a surge in demand, particularly in light of the technical glitches with NAPLAN online platform last year?
Well, like the dreaded virus, it's a moveable feast. And it varies state by state.
From Tuesday, public schools in Victoria will effectively close to prevent the spread of COVID-19, with others surely to follow as the number of infections continues to climb.
The state has the second largest number of primary and secondary school students after NSW (800,000), at approximately 630,000 pupils.
The shutdown, front-ended as an extension to the school holidays, will allow schools to plan for “flexible and remote learning” in the event that students don't return after the holidays. And that's now a real prospect,
Victoria's Department of Education and Training has already developed a dedicated website in response to COVID-19 to support teachers continue teaching during a closure.
A spokesperson told iTnews the website, dubbed Learning from Home, complements a number of existing online resources available through the department’s FUSE website.
A number of other digital platforms and applications are also available to schools, including Cisco WebEx, Microsoft Office 365, Google G Suite, Clickview and Stile.
“Many schools are already equipped to support student learning online, which includes ensuring devices are available for students who don’t have their own,” the spokesperson said.
“The department is supporting schools in preparing both online and offline education materials that can be completed by students at home.
“Teachers will also be able to run structured online teaching sessions with students, and students and parents will also be able to contact teachers online.”
Victorian education minister James Merlino also revealed last week that the department was working with ISPs to give students without a home internet connection access to 4G.
“We are preparing for every possible scenario during this outbreak to ensure Victorian students in government, independent and Catholic schools continue to learn,” he said.
Over the border in NSW, with school attendance already down 74 percent due to COVID-19, parents are now being encouraged to keep their children at home for “practical reasons”.
However, premier Gladys Berejiklian on Monday said schools would remain open for the time being to allow parents with limited childcare options to continue working.
While it is not clear whether schools are already delivering lessons, the NSW Department of Education is preparing for the possibility beyond the April school holidays.
A spokesperson told iTnews that the department was “developing innovative strategies to deal with the spread of COVID-19, should it further impact schools”.
Schools already have access to cloud-based platforms like Google G Suite, Microsoft Teams and Adobe Connect for online learning, which would be ramped up in the case of a shutdown.
Some of these platforms are used on a daily basis by NSW’s virtual high Aurora College, which was established in 2015 to cater to students in rural or remote areas.
“The department has access to several platforms that are capable of creating virtual classrooms for teachers and students to interact in real-time during core teaching hours,” the spokesperson said.
“The technology also allows the department to create virtual assemblies and excursions to supplement the curriculum and connect students to galleries, museums, research institutes, science events and zoos.
“The department is currently exploring a number of ways students can continue to access learning from home.”
Catholic schools are also looking to leverage the department’s “infrastructure and resources for online learning” in the event of a shutdown.
The peak body, Catholic Schools NSW, wrote to NSW education minister Sarah Mitchell on Monday seeking clarity about whether “full access” would be granted.
In Queensland, schools are also expected to remain open to more than 560,000 students until school holidays start at the end of next week.
However, should a shutdown occur due to the pandemic, the Queensland Department of Education said “virtual classroom capability” would be made available to schools.
“Continuity of learning is an important consideration in response planning for COVID-19, as it is in other disaster and emergency management events,” a spokesperson told iTnews.
“If schools need to close to students as part of the pandemic response, the department’s online learning materials and virtual classroom capability will be available to schools to support sustained curriculum delivery.”
The spokesperson also said the department was “progressively” making two-week units of work for “prep to year 10” available through its secure online learning website, dubbed the ‘Learning Place’.
“Schools are able to access two-week units of work for Prep to Year 10 across English, Mathematics, Science, Digital Technologies, Design and Technologies and the HASS subjects of History and Geography,” the spokesperson said.
“These are being progressively made available through the department’s Learning Place website.”
Planning vs execution
While planning is one thing, the school is still out on whether the infrastructure will hold up to what has the potential to be the biggest shakeup of the learning experience in decades.
As the technical glitches with NAPLAN online platform last year showed, even the best plans can come unstuck, despite extensive testing.
This could become particularly apparent in states or territories with a large geographical area such as Western Australia, with the experience of students vastly different in rural and regional areas.
In the case of NAPLAN online, the connectivity disruptions were down to an incorrectly configured firewall that identified some content as a threat and slowing web traffic.
“Parts of the technical infrastructure inadvertently flagged some content as a threat to the NAPLAN Online platform,” state and territory education ministers were told in September.
“The platform protected itself from this perceived threat. This slowed web traffic and led to the issue which degraded the overall experience for some students during NAPLAN Online 2019 testing.”
The full review of NAPLAN Online 2019 Connectivity details, however, remains unreleased more than six months after ministers were informed of the issues.