Remote learning in pandemic times

Steven Kolber

In education, ‘context is king’ and every response to the issues teachers face in remote learning will be different depending on the circumstances of the school they work in and the students they teach. My aim in this article is to highlight the issues which have arisen from the mass use of remote learning as a response to the COVID-19 crisis. These issues will be drawn from a blend of experience and theory. The element of personal experience is of crucial importance during this time, where clear data and relevant research is difficult to come by.

Education has always struggled with genuine evaluation of programs and initiatives. The current use of the language and practices of business for this purpose has consistently failed to provide relevant information to the ‘wicked problem’ (Cranston, et al. 2016) of education. The higher education sector and its capacity for research has been undermined by the increasing privatisation of its institutions and the increasing casualisation of its workers. For these reasons, education cannot fully rely on localised, institutional research output, or locally produced data (Popham, 2001) both during and following this period. The priority now is to listen to the voices of students and teachers about the realities of teaching and learning in the present climate.

What groups benefit least from remote learning?

Experiencing the COVID-created move from face-to-face to remote learning raises the idea of a society where schooling is no longer compulsory and where students are free to choose between what school they attend and what classes they go to. This might seem fanciful and indeed is almost certainly a bad idea, yet this is the reality of what has occurred. Some students learnt how to be adept ‘digital loafers’, putting forth just enough effort to be marked as ‘present’ whilst practising presenteeism. Whilst some schools may be able to proudly proclaim increased attendance, almost certainly each teacher will be able to present an experience of silent or uninterested, disengaged classrooms or students.

Online learning is difficult to do well, and benefits students who are already privileged, those with the expected tools and the self-motivation and agency to engage fully. PISA 2018 (Schleicher, 2020; Thomson, et al., 2019) revealed that only 88 percent of Australian students have a quiet place to study and this fell to 76.6 percent for low SES students (Lamb et al., 2020). Note the use of the singular and consider just how many ‘quiet places to study’ may have been required during remote learning and working from home modes. In addition, internet penetration is similarly only at 87 percent in Australia. The lack of universal access and the difficulties implicit within many students’ homes mean that any suggestions of a long-term transition to online learning would only further ingrain Australia’s well-documented education inequities.

In 2019, Watterston and O’Connell used statistical modelling and estimates to infer that 50,000 young people of school-age do not attend or are not enrolled in any formal schooling Australia-wide. This number is likely to climb as some students, freed from the habitual nature, and societal expectations of attending school, simply will not return. Further, access to support and teaching aides has been more difficult to achieve for students with a disability and those who have low literacy levels or have English as an Additional Language. Other forms of challenge such as poverty, indigeneity, rurality, or living remotely, will pose manifold additional problems particularly for those students who have intersectional identities across these categories.

Remote learning has the tendency to perpetuate and amplify existing problems within ‘traditional’ schooling through access limitations to quality digital tools. In a ‘normal’ classroom, teacher interactions tend to cluster around certain students from privileged backgrounds. This occurs as much in an online classroom, as in a standard, face-to-face classroom. This is especially important because students who are most privileged are most likely to have functioning video and audio and are therefore significantly ‘easier’ to contact in a video conference.

In the online learning space, the tension between asynchronous and synchronous learning is paramount (Murphy, et al., 2011). Asynchronous learning can be accessed at any point and is therefore more easily accessible for students for whose homes are not the sanctuaries that schools are. Synchronous learning allows for greater engagement, connection and collaboration, so is often preferable, when leveraged to those purposes. At the school level, expecting students to keep the same hours and timetable as during ‘normal school’ makes access for students more difficult. As with many things in life, the key is balance and flexibility, things often lacking within schools and systems where teachers’ voices aren’t dominant.

What are the key challenges of online learning?

While research studies indicate the positive potential of online learning there are three key challenges which need to be addressed:

  1. Engagement (with set work)
  2. Collaboration (with peers)
  3. Connection (with teachers and students)

The implications of these online delivery challenges need to be understood in terms of the ways in which they can be met in an online context and augmented or replaced by face-to-face teaching.

Singh and Qi (2012) provide these forms of student interaction:

  • learner - teacher interaction (how learners engage with teachers) 
  • learner - learner interaction (how learners engage with each other)
  • learner - content interaction (how learners engage with content)  

These primary forms of interaction can be augmented by technology, both analogue and digital, by including the following elements:

  • Offline activities (Work packets, textbooks, worksheets and so forth)
  • A Learning Management System (LMS) where documents and instructions are shared
  • Video production skills and tools to allow the production and consumption of Instructional Video
  • A phone or videoconferencing tool to allow for live, face-to-face interactions

While these four elements are not requirements for teaching in this mode, they represent a wide range of possibilities provided by online learning. Overlooking any of the elements means students may experience a less rich teaching and learning environment. However, the learning progress of students is not dependent on every lesson being as ‘whiz-bang’ or ‘innovative’ as possible and for many students being able to learn in a secure and healthy environment is paramount.

Online production of resources involves a significant time commitment (Bennet & Lockyer, 2006; Kearsley, 2000; Schrum, 2000; Weller, 2002), with some contemporary voices in this space suggesting it takes twice as long as the development of traditional classroom resources. For this reason, it is understandable why teachers might prefer live conferencing and posting to an LMS, because they have less impact on their existing workload.

The TPACK model (Schmidt, et al., 2009) pictured below suggests that modern teaching involves a combination of technological, pedagogical and content knowledge in equal proportions. This idea, however, does not fully hold in an online form of teaching and learning. It is more accurate to note that technological prowess can ‘gate’ the complexity and range of pedagogies available to teachers. In online teaching a technology-pedagogy nexus is emphasised and can pinch off some of the options for engagement, collaboration and connection. As the primary means of instruction is technological, students’ options for lesson engagement are limited by the teacher’s prowess with technology, and to a lesser extent, choices made by the school’s administration.

Figure 1: The TPACK model of teacher knowledge

Besides offline activities, the four practices outlined above require entrance into the realm of ‘Big Ed Tech’ as each of these practices involves selecting a ‘platform’ (Srnicek, 2017) and considerations about students and teacher data security and privacy. Platforms such as Microsoft’s Office 365 and Google’s ‘G-suite for education’ tie students into a ‘walled garden’ of online tools that allows for extensive data collection from both teachers and students (Bartlett, 2018; Srnicek, 2017). These platforms also open the levels of teachers’ technological prowess, the ‘T’ in the TPACK model, to closer scrutiny. The familiarity of teachers with a selected platform will have concomitant effects on the types of engaging activities possible. Technology platform choice has an impact on the nature of teaching and learning and decisions to add tools or shift platforms during this period of remote learning may undermine student and teacher confidence.

 The following table outlines the options available for remote teaching and learning and categorises what we know about their strengths and weaknesses.

Figure 2: Options for remote learning and effects on Engagement, Connection and Collaboration













Asynchronous Video




Video Conferencing




It is time now to ‘build back better’ (Winthrop, 2020), with online tools being a consideration for a newly shaped educational process. The above table shows that there are benefits to some means of delivery that have become common during online learning, with asynchronous video being the prime candidate for continued use, and video conferencing as a convenient alternative to be used in certain limited situations. However, we simply were not, and are not, fully able to transition to online learning due to the above limitations and because such a move would further disadvantage those students already significantly challenged by our existing system.

While we may need to lean into educational technology in the short term, what needs to be maintained is a ‘human-centric agenda’ (ILO, 2019) where teacher professionalism and judgement are emphasised. Using educational technology more widely within our system offers greater flexibility, but comes with the warnings from the higher education sector, where flexibility has become code for the increasing casualisation and uberisation of educational delivery. 


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Cranston, N. & Watson, J. & Allen, J. & Wright, S. & Hay, I. & Beswick, K. & Kameniar, B. (2016) Overcoming the challenges of keeping young people in education: A wicked problem with implications for leadership, policy and practice. Leading and Managing, 22(1), 1.

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Schleicher, A. (2020) TALIS 2018: Insights and Interpretations. OECD Publishing.

Schrum, L. (2000) Online teaching and learning: Essential conditions for success. In Distance learning technologies: Issues, trends and opportunities (pp. 91-106). IGI Global.

Singh, M. & Qi, J. (2012) Learner, Teacher and Content Interactions Online: A Research Evaluation of Cross-institutional, Multi-disciplinary Distance Education.

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Steven Kolber is a proud public school teacher who has been teaching English, History and English as an additional language for 10 years. He shares his thinking through the ‘Teachers Educational Review’ podcast and his own YouTube channel ‘Mr Kolber’s Teaching’. He is passionate about teacher collaboration which he supports through organising Teach Meets, running #edureading (an online academic reading group), being part of the #AussieED twitter group and taking groups of teachers to Cambodia to run teacher development workshops with Teachers Across Borders Australia.

This article appears in Professional Voice 13.2 Learning in the shadow of the pandemic.

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