Remote in the Regions: what we’ve learned

It’s been less than 12 months since regional Victorian schools were last in lockdown. Although it might seem like a hazy memory, there was still a great deal of uncertainty around the return to face to face during the T2/3 holidays this time last year. By the 5th of August, all Vic schools returned to remote learning. Regional schools emerged first (partially), with prep, grade 2, and year 12s coming back to face to face on September 10th 2021. The remainder of Term 3 and Term 4 was a time of uncertainty, localised closures, staggered returns, and general confusion. 

Last week I had the opportunity to go to a face to face event at Google’s Melbourne HQ, an Energiser for Google for Education Trainers, Innovators, Coaches and Reference Schools. While there I had the chance to speak with the group about the experience of RL in regional Western Victoria, and it forced me to pause and reflect on what we’ve learned since. 

Talking about remote learning in the regions at Melbourne’s Google HQ

A moment’s reflection was much needed. Term two, only 9 weeks long for us, was one of the most frantic I’ve known in over fifteen years’ teaching. Like many schools we have faced staff shortages, shuffling teachers and students around on the timetable to compensate. We have been hit by absences, blown out our CRT budget, and used up teachers’ extras for almost the whole year. But we’ve also learned a lot from the uncertainty of remote learning, and I’m hopeful that we’ll come out of the other side stronger than before.

00:00 March 31st 2020

Midnight of March 31st 2020 marked the beginning of the first stage 3 restrictions lockdown in Victoria. This meant that there were only four reasons to leave home: education was one of them, but only for essential workers. As a system – state, Catholic and Independent alike – schools closed their doors. But around that time an incredible amount of work went into the transition. Teachers like myself – often the actual or de facto heads of IT, digital, or e-learning – scrambled around frantically trying to find the best ways to use our existing LMS or edtech platforms, or identify new ones. Every school I’ve spoken to had a different experience. For us, we moved from having a single ‘test user’ in each faculty trialling Google Classroom to every member of staff having to set up all of their classes on the platform. It required a tremendous effort from faculty leaders, classroom teachers, and administrative staff, but we got there. Professional Learning was delivered face to face, remotely via Meet, and in recordings, YouTube videos, and anything else we could get our hands on.

And then we went home.

The first lockdowns had a feeling of novelty, taking the edge off the uncertainty and even engaging the students for many of whom this was the first experience of distance learning. My own ‘lockdown office’ was in the porch in our cottage on the farm. I even made a special effort to tidy my desk.

Lockdown Office V1.0: The desk is cleaner than the iPad screen, and every charger has its place

During those first lockdowns, we learned through trial and error. Some teachers raced on ahead, creating Google Sites, publishing their own YouTube channels for students and other teachers, and running both synchronous and asynchronous classes. Others found the transition more difficult, with barriers to running practical classes, difficulties engaging students via video, and issues with the technology.

Lockdown 2… and 3… and 4…

As 2020 faded into 2021 and the lockdowns continued, moving between postcode lockdowns and full State lockdowns, stage 3 and 4, and splits between regional and metro areas, the scant novelty that we had at the start had well and truly worn off. Each time a lockdown was announced, schools and sectors published their own marginally updated RL documents to send home. By the time we were up to our ‘Remote Learning Guidelines Version 3.2b’, the only thing we were changing was the date.

Many teachers by this point had become battle hardened, displaying a similar kind of resignation to the students – particularly the senior students who had already seen the 2020 cohort get university placements and jobs without the same ATAR requirements as previous years. My own lockdown office, which began looking like an idyllic writer’s desk from the late 1800s (plus MacBook and iPad), now looked like a hybrid of something from War of the Worlds and the backroom of an indie recording studio.

Lockdown Office V5.0: The lamp survived, but only just. The iPad screen never got cleaned.

Throughout all of the lockdowns, one thing remained constant: issues with the technology. Out here in Regional Victoria, there are many cellular and internet black spots. Our farm, like many of my students’, is in one such blackhole, with even 3G unaccessible. Disconnected from the NBN services available in town, most farms rely on satellite broadband, with even fixed wireless out of range. That meant that for all of our efforts in transitioning into online learning, we were frequently at the mercy of the weather, “freak meteorological events”, and data caps. I personally made hours of video footage for both staff and students, but I had to drive into town and use the school’s internet to upload them, often remaining parked outside so I wouldn’t have to go through all of the check-in processes, never leaving my car.

In fact, I spent almost as much time in my car as I did at my much-loved cedar writing desk. Giving up on satellite broadband, I taught many lessons from the closest point of 4G reception: a fifteen minute drive away up the nearest hill.

Lockdown Office VW.TF: the remotely remote regional office. Music courtesy of the Incredible Wes Montgomery. Also pictured: the rain which shut down satellite broadband access that morning

What we learned

So, what did we learn, in a regional area of Australia’s most locked-down state? Well, like everywhere else, we learned that when pushed teachers can do incredible things with technology. We also learned that the use of these technologies can open up pathways through education that advantage some students in ways that a traditional face-to-face education cannot. We learned that the ATAR isn’t as important as it thinks it is: something which we’ve known for a long time, and which universities across the country are now validating by exploring alternate entry methods.

Personally, I learned a great deal. I learned how much I enjoy the flexibility of remote work, and the barriers to that flexibility in a system designed around fixed hours and bell times. I learned that if students can learn whenever, wherever, and from whomever they wish, then schools need to adapt and embrace that change or be left behind. I also learned exactly how long it takes for a Nissan Qashqai to reach a flat battery when you inadvertently turn off the engine but leave on the lights while you’re perched atop a hill with great cellular connection.

Faced with growing teacher attrition, schools in the regions will need to adopt some form of technology solution: hybrid learning is inevitable. More than anything else, we learned that despite the problems with the infrastructure, students in regional areas in Victoria and across Australia can benefit greatly from hybrid learning and digital technologies. While the rest of the world debates the various merits and pitfalls of hybrid work, the education system cannot afford to simply dig in and revert to the ‘pre-COVID’ model. Even out here, with our dodgy satellite broadband and patchy cellular networks, we owe it to our students to explore the possibilities these technologies have afforded us.

I write and present regularly about education, digital technologies, and literacy. If you like what you’ve read, join the list for exclusive articles, resources, and events:

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