Abbott’s “Better Outcomes” needs long-term vision

Australia may be a leading exporter of educational services, but the use of technology in our classrooms is still light years behind. Fixing that requires action not words.

Recently, the Prime Minister Tony Abbott called for turning “good intentions into better outcomes” with respect to indigenous education and for ending what he rightly labelled “the tyranny of low expectations.”  While his words were a powerful call to action for an important, and historically under-served, portion of our community, the call needs to be broadened.

Put simply, addressing the dire educational and competitive realities faced by  Australia today require bold and comprehensive action driven by a long-term vision.

In the weeks since Abbott’s call to action, Australia continues to find itself in the persistent and paradoxical position of being a wealthy, resource-rich nation, even a leading exporter of educational services, but a tier-two laggard against a range of international measuring sticks. 

The latest results from the Program for International Student Assessment (or PISA), conducted every three-years by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), are particularly sobering.  PISA has again confirmed that Australian students are slipping further behind their regional peers with pronounced math, reading and science deficiencies.  According to Dr. John Ailey from the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER), which conducted the Australian PISA assessment, it is highly unlikely that Australia will reach its goal of joining the “top five by 2025.”

Ultimately, this is not an abstract exercise; it is about a deep and vital review of K-12, tertiary and professional training and certification approaches with an eye toward enhancing performance and fostering the best outcomes, while supporting one of this nation’s most vital assets: our teachers.  In other words, this is about taking smart and sustained action to shape Australia’s educational present so that it will be able to support a prosperous economic future in which employable talent is cultivated on these shores, helping Australia shed its dependence on talent immigration schemes and the like.   

While the details of such a comprehensive approach will take time to develop, certain cornerstones must be agreed on from the outset.  And one of the most important cornerstones is determining the proper place for technology.  Look north and we see Singapore, already an educational outcomes leader, now intent on implementing a unified national e-learning system. 

In our own country, however, too often a reactive, catch-as-catch-can approach has been taken toward the question of technology in the classroom.  As a result, at all levels of education nationwide, we have a patchwork of systems and approaches that are actually limiting what educators can do and increasing, rather than lightening, teacher workload and diminishing student experience.  More critical, though, is the fact that this lack of e-learning planning and integration lags what educators have long known they need to do to enhance curricular development and genuinely support outcomes.  Unfortunately, many teachers believe truly effective e-learning is still a pipe dream.

Take, for example, individual student learning styles.  For years, educators have recognised individual learning styles as an important component of achievement.  Ignore a bright student’s learning style and someone who might have become a high achiever will become a mediocre one, her or his potential will be left unfulfilled.  Yet because of the qualitative nature of learning styles, actually building customisable and effective long-term strategies to harness them is extremely difficult.

How does a primary or secondary school teacher facing a thirty-to-one student-teacher ratio create a personalised learning environment for each student?  How does a university lecturer help a single student out of hundreds understand that a certain course-path is probably not for him?  Without technology this is basically unthinkable; with technology, however, it is well within our reach today.

Predictive analytics systems, for example, can now assist with everything from helping students select courses that fit with their long-term learning journeys while helping teachers predict final course grades before students have even attended their first class, permitting smart curricular decisions, saving time, discouragement and money, promoting effective intervention and improving drop-out rates. 

Such systems work best when there is an institutional commitment to them, and even better a national commitment, that employs them comprehensively and universally.  In this way, you weave the power of digital learning into a student’s entire educational path.  You can imagine it almost like providing a faithful mentor who accompanies the student over the years, giving the student and educators customised choices that are based on extensive data, intelligently analysed and deployed.

Another critical consideration: how is e-learning to be offered?  Today, schools and government are often paying more for less, especially if their patchwork systems aren’t cloud-based.  A move towards true cloud-based models for online learning environments reduces resource and infrastructure requirements, reducing costs.  Also, let’s acknowledge that technology has permitted the ability to learn anytime and anywhere and take action to make it so.  We need a clear strategy around mobile devices.  Such a strategy will not only make e-learning more effective and more readily able to work in a blended environment of on-site and off-site learning, it will establish provisions to ensure disadvantaged groups get equal access.

A unified approach around e-learning is more important than new buildings or merely digitising textbooks.  The gap in outcomes between Australia and global competitors exists, in part, because there are gaps in our process from the primary and secondary classrooms through to enabling and supporting the transition to university e-learning.  A high school student who has never used a learning management system (LMS) can find themselves at sea when they face a university LMS and judging from the 2013 University Experience Survey National Report, our university students need all the support they can possibly get, but they aren’t, with only half of students reporting that they had a sense of belonging to their university.

As a father of two primary students, who sees the reality of this e-learning lack every day, I am particularly passionate about the importance of ensuring that this journey can be supported all the way from kindergarten through university.  I’m also painfully aware that this support isn’t happening and that digital neglect is, in fact, neglect of our children and learners of all ages.  We must take concerted, thoughtful action to weave technology into the way we educate, and aspire to a national framework that will employ technology that will put everyone on an equal footing and our nation on a much stronger one.  

Peter Kokkinos is the APAC director of the e-learning company D2L (formerly Desire2Learn), .

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