Covid-19 has impacted all areas of society, but it particularly highlights gaps in the NSW education system. Below we will explore some of these gaps and what they look like on the ground. Particularly concerning has been the experiences of teachers and the complications we have seen caused by the underlying digital divide between communities. We will also share some of our education providers experiences who have been overlooked. But we hope to show through their adaptation that we can learn and rebound better in the pandemic recovery to close the gaps.
Since 2008 the rhetoric of ‘closing the gap’ has shown the race for life-long learning has been uneven from the start. These gaps are increasingly complex when comparing Aboriginal to non-Indigenous Australians, remote to urban, migrant to Australian-born, East to West, beaches to cities and on and on the gaps show. Even in the 2018 State of Education in NSW Report it’s clear for low-SES, Indigenous and rural students gaining ground has been stagnant or slow. The report reveals some gains in attendance, HSC attainment and university entry. But these were often slow or plateauing for these ‘equity groups’. One of the most important in these Covid-19 times is known as the ‘digital divide’.
Closing the Gaps and the Digital Divide
Access to an equal level of education depends evermore on the affordability and access to internet, tech devices and IT skills. Covid-19’s impact has made this digital equity gap more glaring. According to the ABS in 2018, major cities of Australia were more likely (88%) than regional or remote areas (77%) to have internet access. Similarly, gaps arise within NSW between regional areas (73.1%) and the rest of NSW (78.2%). However, this doesn’t show the nuance of the digital divide. For this one can find it in perhaps our most reliable research – the Australian Digital Inclusion Index.
The Australian Digital Inclusion Index – Before the Covid-19 Impact
The Australian Digital Inclusion Index (ADII) measures 3 broad indicators of the digital divide: Access, Affordability and Digital Ability. Within these 3 categories are sub-indicators that help to gain a deeper understanding of different areas of the divide. For many in the equity groups they can perform well or poorly in any range of indicators. Table 3 shows the ranges of how digitally included a region or group is in Australia. The higher the score, the more included you are digitally in the Australian community. (All the ADII graphs and statistics we have included in this blog come from the 2019 report conducted in March each year).
As you can see across all the states and territories in Australia, we have a medium score for digital inclusivity (55-65). The ACT has the highest inclusivity and Tasmania the lowest. NSW as a state is third nationally, but we will see there can be large gaps between regions within a state.
While the NBN does get regularly criticised in NSW, it deserves credit for closing gaps for states and within regions. Tasmania has improved its digital inclusivity in recent years largely because of its rollout (see Figure 3).
The NBN also announced late last year it’s working on projects to close the gap between rural and urban communities. You can see in Figure 4 the uptake of the NBN has been highest among rural communities. This is helping to close the access gap between urban and rural regions in NSW. When we look at NSW in more detail below we can see the impact of this on divides between regions.
Digital Divides in NSW
The complexity of the digital divide in NSW becomes glaringly obvious in the table below. Access for students can depend not only on NBN, but also on devices or the amount of data available to them. Affordability depends on the cost of access relative to the households income. It also measures affordability by the value, based on data speeds relative to internet plan costs. Digital ability raises an area often brought up in schools, but not well addressed – digital literacy. It adds another layer of complexity seen in the distinct gaps across regions. Now remember, this data is before the Covid-19 impact so adapting under a pandemic is more difficult than just access.
In our blog on the 3 Best Tools for Virtual Excursions and Online Learning we recommended using the Learning Management Systems (LMS) and video conferencing apps that most schools are using. A big part of why we said this was to remove the barriers for entry. Since digital ability adds to the gaps, students will most likely be familiar with these LMSs and apps for during this crisis. It will also help providers reach students and schools after the pandemic. So while access is improving with the NBN, managing digital literacy and reducing cost for individuals is critical for supporting communities. Ultimately, schools can reduce these costs and may be our most reliable space after Covid-19 to close the gaps.
Covid-19 Pushes Government to close some Digital Gaps
Fast forward to Covid-19 and in response the NSW Department of Education scrambled to fill the digital divide among students. Well known to many teachers in disadvantaged communities, schools began using RAM (Resource Allocation Model) equity funding to provide students with devices and internet access. How long this support will remain is yet to be seen, but the use of the word ‘loan’ should raise concerns.
It begs the question: why has it taken a pandemic to push government to better support wider online learning? If the digital divide has been a key part of impacting education gaps before Covid-19, should it really have taken a pandemic for funding to close the gaps?
One part of starting EduLinx was to close the digital divide and help education providers bridge gaps with low-SES, rural and remote communities. Even if the digital divide isn’t closed in homes, school environments can improve access, affordability and digital literacy. They also offer education providers from the community ways to bridge the equity divide through easier collaboration and adding quality learning programs.
Covid-19 Impact highlights Social Capital and Education Gaps
Covid-19 has revealed how socio-economic gaps impact on one another, particularly in education. Students that didn’t have access to internet or electronic devices compete with schools whose students work on Macbooks with the best wifi. The differences in social capital that Bourdieu defined are also playing out during the pandemic. Some parents have passed down the skills and cultural knowledge to give their child a head start to access the system. Professional parents that still maintain guaranteed liveable wages can monitor their children’s learning more than parents still needed to physically appear at work. Transitioning to online learning is not hard for them. But Australians want to believe this is the norm for all children.
Schools also must compete for capital given funding gaps. We’ve seen stories from teachers on Instagram lacking ventilation in rooms with broken windows. Some spend days sanitising desks for students who have nowhere else to go. Other schools have their own LMS with students learning from home with no parent monitoring. Some LMSs can do a better job of taking attendance and maintaining a similar level of content for home learning. Schools without funding for these systems have had to change teaching significantly to meet NESA and department policies. It’s likely there is a ‘stress divide’ given this inequity. For many teachers we have always known these gaps in education are the reality.
Providing access to quality learning opportunities is key to close these kinds of gaps. This was one reason for starting EduLinx. By linking educators from museums, national parks, theatre groups, musicians and more, we can make learning more equitable across NSW. Ideally across all of Australia. Covid-19 should reveal to us the value of collaboration ever more clearly. Sharing expertise and acting communally has lowered our Covid-19 cases and deaths significantly compared to other Western nations.
However, this pandemic has hit some of our providers more than others, just as it has Australian teachers and students. But it has also given them time to self-reflect, evaluate and innovate for teaching during and after the pandemic.
The Covid-19 Impact on Education Providers
The Covid-19 impact for most of our education providers led to their busiest terms dropping to ‘literally nothing overnight’. It is particularly difficult for providers who rely on and supply equipment to run their programs in schools. Part of some providers support, like Digi Ed and Heaps Decent, comes from bringing the technology to students so to teach animation and music production. Theatre groups and companies are also struggling with their spaces closed because of social distancing. Shows that were in production for months and even years have seen complete cancellations as all community centres – like Riverside Theatres and the Seymour Centre – were quickly shutdown. Museums have similarly been hit hard by the public gathering restrictions. While live-streaming and virtual tours are great ideas, some have to grapple with copyright because pieces and artefacts have been donated.
Sadly this has meant that many providers have had to lay off staff. Casual employees are particularly vulnerable given JobKeeper does not pay for casuals employed for less than 12 months. Cancellation fees are unlikely to be paid adding another likely lost source of income. This also doesn’t make up for thousands of dollars providers may have spent on marketing for 2020. While some providers have teaching qualifications, because of low student numbers finding casual work has become harder in schools.
Innovating to Teach, Support and Learn
Despite these challenges, there are many ways that community educators are helping students, teachers and parents. Heaps Decent, who do fantastic work with vulnerable students and teenagers in youth justice centres to produce music, are keeping contact through pre recorded track tutorials and industry interviews. Elsewhere they are running music production sessions online. Brainstorm Productions resident psychologist, Dr. Ameika Johnson, is doing her best to give parents and students access to mental health blogs and resources. West Words is running interviews with authors on their YouTube channels.
The Australian Shakespeare Company is using Zoom to adapt their shows and use resident actors to give students access to their expertise. Bell Shakespeare had already collaborated with ABC Splash in the past to uploaded scenes of their Shakespeare shows. It has also launched a short film festival that both schools and households can participate in and are delivering workshops and seminars for primary and secondary students by Zoom. Its John Bell Scholarship auditions will be live, online auditions enabling students from more locations to take part. The Sydney Jewish Museum is running online HSC excursions with webinars if teachers want to register. The NSW State Library has also put up audio, digital and source material online for supporting classrooms.
Possibilities to Close Education Gaps in Recovery
The Covid-19 impact on education providers and systems has clearly been wide-reaching and complex. The pandemic has caused immeasurable stress and loss for many across the education community. But humanity continues to be the most adaptable species on the planet. The knowledge of people above, on our platform and in our schools shows this. We can be stronger, better and more connected than ever after this ends. Technology, creativity and collaboration drove us all to continue teaching and learning during this crisis. These must be qualities and privileges we keep with us beyond it to continue to innovate in order to support one another. Government funding and infrastructure has played a critical role in closing gaps between regions evident in the map below. So if communities use this time to collaborate we have a real chance to close gaps in the recovery.