It is fair to say that the global pandemic has been unlike anything we have experienced collectively as teachers before. It has created pressure in the mass adoption of remote learning, and exposed new challenges to address when it comes to teacher education.
Pre-service teachers were suddenly thrust into this new world where they were having to navigate situations where they were beaming into students’ homes in ways that they were not prepared for. They had to navigate not only the students on a screen but disconnected black boxes where few students turned on their camera or who were not ‘allowed’ to turn on their camera in an attempt to protect everyone’s privacy.
Also, pre-service teachers are required to be supervised at all times with students so there were new dimensions to teaching that had not featured in their training. Pre-service teachers initially were not fully prepared to navigate COVID-19 but it would be fair to say that no-one including teachers and teacher educators were well prepared. This was an unprecedented event that needed everyone to come together to navigate properly.
Interestingly, teaching in rural and regional areas has always presented unique opportunities and challenges even before COVID added even more complexities. I’d go as far to say that due to knowing their students and community in highly visible ways, these areas were perhaps a little more prepared to navigate the idea of remote learning.
In fact, when you take into consideration School of the Air – a program which sees children in remote areas connect with technology to undertake their education – Australia has a long history of using technology to help students connect and learn from wherever they are.
Teachers who work in rural and regional areas are also used to being creative and resourceful to deliver quality teaching and student outcomes.
Sure, an important part of initial teacher education is to ensure that pre-service teachers work with and learn digital technologies as it is part of the APST (Australian Professional Standards) but the mix of face to face (for essential workers’ children) and remote learning which we’ve seen for the better part of two years was unheard of.
This was not the case for rural and regional areas where it was already quite common for a group of schools to get together and connect remotely around a subject that some students wanted to study but too few for a class in each school. The answer was to get together and share a teacher.
It wasn’t just the technical aspects of preparing for schooling at home that took some navigation, but the ethics and privacy issues that came up as part of this. Not to mention, the equity issues of access and connectivity remain in sharp focus. Gaps in rural communities’ access to high quality appropriate internet were highlighted when schools were closed shut and remote learning became the norm. The same goes for metro areas.
Interestingly, a lot of the feedback I received from rural and regional educators was that their difficulties weren’t necessarily in adopting online learning full-time (although significant) – instead their greatest challenge was in navigating between public and private spaces. Suddenly parents were watching really closely and supporting their children’s learning whilst the teacher was beaming into their homes. The access to understanding children’s lives in this usually ‘hidden’ private space became very public as did the teacher themselves. The scrutiny blurred the roles and boundaries of both.
Because of the pandemic, metropolitan teachers have experienced the challenges that regional and rural communities navigate daily. For our pre-service teachers, they learned first-hand that context matters and that being prepared to use technology to deliver learning outcomes is a very real skill that has created a scaffold for learning in COVID times.
We’ve all been reminded that good pedagogy, is good pedagogy, regardless of the context – something that rural and regional teachers know very well.
We have been teaching and thinking about online learning for well over 20 years. The pandemic has forced schools and teacher educators to come to grips with this in ways they may not have been able to in the past. There is much we can learn from the teachers in rural and remote communities to ensure that into the future we will all be better prepared moving forward.
Professor Bernadette Walker-Gibbs is the Associate Head of Learning and Teaching, School of Education, at La Trobe University.
This article first appeared in The Education Review.