COVID-19 – Online leads to student performance decline

University researchers have warned that Australia’s school students face a decline in their learning and classroom performance as a result of the switch to online learning because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The researchers say the decline will inevitably affect the students’ performance at university. Disadvantaged students face the greatest impact, the study found.

With Australia still under compulsory public lockdowns because of the coronavirus outbreak, state education departments have effectively shut schools down and arranged for students to learn at home via online teaching.

The study was led by Professor Stephen Lamb, director of the Centre for International Research on Education Systems at Victoria University in Melbourne.

Lamb said schools and governments faced a big challenge to ensure already disadvantaged students did not fall further behind as a result of COVID-19 measures adopted in many schools.

“The issues still to be resolved include how the results of year 12 in 2020 are translated into university entry,” he says.

“If there is some relaxation of the usual standards, some flexibility, or the use of proxies in how results and rankings are tabulated, then the flow through in enrolments to universities may not be affected in substantial or major ways.”

Factors that divide

But Lamb questions whether next year’s students enrolling at university from year 12 at school will be as well prepared as those of previous years to meet the demands of university learning.

“Based on available evidence, all year 12 students will be affected to some extent in the amount and quality of learning that takes place. This will vary across disciplines and students, but the disadvantaged will be most at risk,” he said.

“There may well be some carry through to the quality of learning in university, and regional universities particularly may well have to be more supportive and responsive in their approaches.

“But how many are in a position to do that?”

Lamb’s study found that students who missed two terms of classroom teaching could fall six weeks behind in numeracy skills and four weeks behind on reading skills.

Gloomy results

In a paper commissioned by the federal government titled “New research shows impact of online classroom on learning”, the researchers at Victoria investigated the impact of online schooling on student outcomes.

They focused particularly on youngsters from disadvantaged homes, including those from low socio-economic communities, rural and remote areas, indigenous families, and students with a disability.

The research paints a gloomy picture. Students generally face up to a 25% annual decline in mathematics learning and a 10% decline in English language skills when studying remotely, compared with those taught in the classroom.

Modelling by the researchers points to a decline of up to 33% in numeracy learning and up to 22% in reading for children learning online in year five and in year nine, compared with those taught in the classroom.

“Unequal internet access and access to a computer are just the tip of the iceberg of the challenges some students face in doing their schooling online,” Lamb told University World News.

“Our modelling shows that the longer students of all levels are learning remotely, the more likely they will perform below what they would have in the classroom.

“For students from disadvantaged backgrounds, that gap is much wider,” he said.

Among issues still to be resolved are how the results for school students in year 12 are translated into university entry. “However, the issue is not so much just about entry. Will the 2021 university entry cohort from year 12 at school be as well prepared as previous cohorts to meet the demands of university learning, in the same way?

“Also, if there were impacts on the quality of their learning at school, then when students go on to university the institutions may have to be more supportive and responsive in their approaches.” It was questionable whether all universities would be able to do this.

According to the researchers, the issues that schools and state governments confront when it comes to students learning from home include:

• A material divide – the gaps in basic resources between families that are needed to support home learning.

• A digital divide – the gaps in information and communications technology resources and knowhow that families possess.

• A skills and dispositions divide – students are not all equally equipped to cope with home learning.

• A parental support divide – some parents are not well prepared and not able to manage or cope with their children learning at home.

• An adjustments divide – the learning adjustments that schools use to help some students learn are not suited to home learning arrangements.

In addition, say the researchers, many teachers are inexperienced and ill-equipped to cope with a fast transition to online learning.

“There is a simple reality that classroom teachers have never had to teach in an online arrangement on the scale now required,” Lamb said. “And that is particularly the case with online teaching of students with high and additional needs.”

He said research also showed that fewer than two in every five teachers felt well prepared, or very well prepared, for how they used information technology in their teaching.

“There is also an absence of research on how best to deliver classes online to maximise learning,” Lamb said.