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The threat posed by COVID-19 has meant that teachers in Australia and around the world are looking for the best ways to continue to support student learning outside the traditional school or early childhood setting. This has meant many are looking towards solutions like virtual / online learning or home-schooling at scale. There are now innumerable new resources and guides and ‘top 10’ best practice lists on how to deliver online education, including a focus on what students and parents should do to make the most of learning virtually. Many of these guides are helpful, however, some resources are based on little more than opinions.

This Spotlight identifies best practice evidence to guide teachers on setting up online learning and advice teachers can give to parents during this process. Key consideration is given to principles demonstrated to benefit student outcomes and wellbeing. As such, this Spotlight is written from the perspective of teachers.

The expertise of teachers is not going to be matched by parents, no matter how well-intentioned. Teachers are professional experts with motivational skills to engage reluctant learners, in individual, small group and whole class settings. Many parents will not have these attributes, nor will they have access to the student’s peer group that is often leveraged by teachers. Similarly, school culture is characterised by routine for students (e.g. a specific time each day to start, take breaks, and complete certain activities). Unfortunately, there is a risk that student achievement gaps may widen during this period if home-based learning is poorly executed. Therefore, it is critical that both teachers and parents work together to implement practical and evidence-based solutions to the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Distance learning is a complex balance of online content and physical interaction with content that is not delivered on a computer screen. Further, Australia is a vast country with many local communities who have unstable internet access, therefore resources for offline learning-based opportunities need to be considered.

It is also important to remember that there are positives to home-based education - quality education is not always structured, academic or scholastic, and learning occurs in many different contexts. Home life can provide opportunities for students to engage with nature, bond with family, learn civic responsibility, and focus on social health. While barriers to online learning include a lack in social activity, and a lack in student readiness to be a self-regulated learner (Acquaro, 2020), there are still a raft of measures teachers, school leaders, students and parents can undertake to support effective learning.

It is important to ensure the transition from school to home based learning is grounded in evidence, as much as possible. Though much of the evidence regarding best practice comes from the higher education sector, the evidence-based principles provided here offer useful insights for teachers to consider, particularly regarding what aspects of online learning are most critical for maximising student outcomes and learning experiences.

Within the broad fields of distance education, remote learning and online education (for example, massive open online courses (MOOCs), there are numerous theoretical frameworks and corresponding suggested approaches to teaching students remotely. There are commonalities across frameworks and emerging evidence that supports the efficacy of specific components of online/distance education. Evidence about both what works in achieving student outcomes and what students/teachers report as successful in online/distance learning can help guide teachers facing the challenges of transitioning their classrooms from business as usual, face-to-face learning to online or remote education.

Principles for quality online/distance teaching

Evidence suggests that online/distance education operates best as a system of dynamic, interrelated components, which may vary in terms of implementation by context (Holmberg, 2005; Picciano, 2017). Together, these components (Figure 1) foster a learning community that is driven by pedagogy and incorporates a range of activities, which enables flexible delivery (Picciano, 2017). Constituent components can be adapted, combined or excluded as required, for example in some cases self-paced learning may not be used, or reflection activities may be combined with some form of collaboration between learners (Picciano, 2017). Using this model allows teachers to customise their content delivery to achieve their specific curriculum goals (Acquaro, 2020).

Figure 1: Integrated Model of online/distance education (Adapted from Picciano, 2017, p182)

learning community

Critically, within the field of distance education there are three forms of interaction widely recognised as crucial to program development and delivery – student-content, student-student, student-teacher (Simonson, Schlosser, & Orellana, 2011). These forms of interaction should be considered at each stage of planning for online/distance learning and are incorporated in each component outlined in Picciano’s model. For example, online content may be delivered as a collaborative exercise that engages small groups of students in an activity designed to generate group discussion, reflection as well as social interaction. In this way, teachers can use the model provided at Figure 1 as a guide for considering how the constituent elements of online learning can function together.

The importance of teacher presence in online learning

Evidence from a study investigating outcomes in MOOCs demonstrated that "The teachers’ presence during the course, his or her interactions with students and the quality of the videos presented are significant determinants of course completion" (Gregori, Zhang, Galván-Fernández, & De Asís Fernández-Navarro, 2018). Many guides for online/distance education describe the importance of ongoing and meaningful teacher presence and support for students. As online learning can include both synchronous and asynchronous activities, it is vital for students to know when and how to access support from their teacher. This may involve (California Department of Education, 2020; Reis, n.d.):

  1. Setting expectations around when the teacher is available and how/why they can be contacted
  2. Timetabling student activities
  3. Scheduling ‘office hours’ and regular check-ins with students, either online or via phone
  4. Posting to online discussion boards (questions for students to respond to etc.)
  5. Posting update videos or lectures
  6. Using frequent formative assessments to stay up to date with student progress.

Creating a supportive, online community for collaborative learning

Evidence indicates collaborative learning in online environments enhances student learning more so than individual learning (Means et al., 2010 cited in Cherney, Fetherston, & Johnsen, 2018), and that interaction is essential (Simonson et al., 2011).  However, the quality of the interaction is crucial as evidence indicates that student interaction (with each other or with the teacher) is not a panacea, rather a tool to be used appropriately and as the specific learning activity dictates. That is, forced or overuse of interaction in an online/distance format can be perceived negatively by students and therefore, interactive activities and teamwork/collaboration should be well integrated into the delivery of learning content (Simonson et al., 2011). Though there are many technological options for fostering collaboration and promoting interaction among learners (and with the teacher), it is important to utilise technological options that are best suited to the needs and capabilities of teachers and students (Simonson et al., 2011) and to consider what is already available and in place within a school community (NSW Government, 2020).

Screen time – quality vs. quantity

In recent years, debates about screen time have shifted from a focus on quantity to quality. Previously, the dominant assumption guiding advice to parents and professionals who work with children revolved around the potential harm technology poses to children. Recent research has demonstrated that this focus on risk and harm is outdated (Blum-Ross & Livingstone, 2016; Livingstone & Blum-Ross, 2017). Instead, it is more appropriate to consider the quality of both the content and interactions children are consuming/participating in online. This shift in focus allows for more nuanced guidance to be given to both parents and education professionals, guidance that has been lacking due to the narrow focus on risk mitigation. Both teachers and parents should ask the following questions when considering what their children/learners are doing online (synthesised from Blum-Ross & Livingstone, 2016):

  1. What’s the context? Where, when and how is digital content being accessed?
  2. What’s the content? Is the content age or skill level appropriate?
  3. What connections are being facilitated? How is this online experience facilitating (or impeding) positive social connections?
  4. What’s the impact? Is the child physically healthy with a healthy sleeping routine? Is the child enjoying their digital experiences and continuing to engage in hobbies and social interactions with friends and family?

These questions offer parents and teachers a framework for differentiating between problematic and normal use of technology during this period of significant change in schooling. Importantly, these considerations are built into the principles of online learning outlined above. That is, by building an online community that privileges authentic, interactive experiences (between: students, students and the teacher, students and the content), teachers can have confidence that the time their students spend online at home will positively contribute to their learning and wellbeing.

During this period of transition to home-based learning, the role of teachers in communicating to parents to support students’ learning is more critical than ever. There is a multitude of evidence relating to this topic, particularly on the role of parents in their child’s education and how to build positive engagements between parents and school staff.

Parents/carers, along with teachers, school leaders, school staff, peers and the wider community, interact in ways that influence a child’s learning process. Research suggests that parental engagement (broader learning support outside school) has a bigger impact on academic outcomes than parental involvement (participation in formal and informal activities at the school; ARACY, 2015a). Parental engagement in a child’s learning consists of attitudes, behaviours and actions that provide learning opportunities outside the school and link what children learn at school with what happens in their community and society more broadly (Emerson et al., 2012). Evidence indicates that parents/carers who are engaged in learning outcomes at home can facilitate positive change in children’s academic achievement, as well as their development and wellbeing (Emerson et al., 2012).

Strategies for engaging parents/carers are more likely to be successful “when teachers know how to communicate effectively with parents, where dedicated school staff work with parents, and where there is strong support from the principal for this work” (Emerson et al., p12). Ongoing, respectful and relevant communications, and constructive, meaningful feedback are important in building trust and shared learning goals, whether they occur online or in person (Emerson et al., 2012). There are multiple ways to facilitate ongoing communication and relationship building beyond face-to-face meetings, such as through email, websites, blogs, podcasts and social networking sites (Bouffard, 2008; Hohfeld, Ritzhaupt and Barron, 2010; as cited in Emerson et al., 2012, p41). An added advantage is these online platforms allow information to be shared both more efficiently and widely.

The Education Endowment Foundation in the UK provides guidance on ways schools can work with parents/carers to improve children’s learning. Evidence for Learning also has a range of useful advice for educators in working with parents/carers to support student learning.

The School Learning Support Program (NSW Department of Education and Training, 2010) outlines considerations for effective parent/carer engagement through a website, which can be broadly applied to all forms of communication (electronic, mail, phone call, videoconferencing etc.) that support distance learning:

  • Promote key messages to parents and carers about the school and its aims
  • Promote home-based materials and websites
  • Provide interactive workshops using programs such as Moodle and chat rooms for parents
  • Provide products and resources that the parent may work through on their own or with their child
  • Link parents to existing resources and publications
  • Link parents with other organisations that have the capacity to provide support (online and/or in their community)
  • Have an area for parents on the site (or direct parents to resources in your jurisdiction; see links in Resource 1) on specific information about how they can support their child.

The following sections provide evidence-based content on effective strategies for family-led learning at home. Through tailored communication and targeted advice, including practical strategies to support learning at home, teachers can encourage and enable parental engagement in their child’s distance education.

Principles for online/distance learning for parents

For parents of children and young people, research shows the most effective strategies for family-led learning at home, which may vary by age group, include (ARACY, 2015a, p6):

  • Believing in children’s potential
  • Reading together
  • Talking with children
  • Supporting children to develop positive relationships, including responding appropriately to negative experiences they may encounter
  • Learning together, including engagement in everyday activities such as cooking and spending time learning as a family
  • Creating a positive homework environment, that is, providing the child a dedicated space and time for homework, having the same rules as the school about homework, and ensuring parent-child interactions around homework are positive.

For parents of adolescents, research has shown that “family-led, home-based aspects of parent engagement, including providing a general environment that supports and encourages learning, have more impact than parents having direct involvement in the content of what young people are learning at school” (ARACY, 2015b, p3). Findings from the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth's (ARACY) investigation between 2013-15 into parental engagement in ACT high schools identified some key principles, many of which can be extrapolated for home-based learning (ARACY, 2015b, p4-5):

  • Being sensitive to increasing autonomy and independence of adolescents, while retaining a supportive structure
  • Demonstrating aspirations and expectations for learning
  • Aiming to provide a stimulating and supportive home learning environment
  • Maintaining child-parent interaction relevant to learning
  • Keeping connections and communication open with school
  • Providing support for homework appropriate to adolescence.

The ARACY parent fact sheet provides examples of what parents can do based on the above principles.

Setting up a home learning environment

The ‘home learning environment’ (HLE) is a reflection of the home environment and refers to the interactions in and around the home with the family (Smees & Sammons, 2018). The following studies in England and Australia show that the HLE, especially in the early years, has a positive association with children’s academic achievement, and that students across all year levels value family behaviours and attitudes supportive of their learning:

  • A longitudinal study, the Effective Preschool, Primary and Secondary Education Project (EPPSE 3-16), tracked over 3,000 children in England from preschool entry to age 16 and investigated the impact of the HLE on child outcomes across childhood. After controlling for family influences, early years HLE (during preschool period) was positively related to attainment throughout primary and secondary education, with some apparent impact in late adolescence, and children were also better adjusted in terms of behaviour and wellbeing throughout their K-12 schooling (Melhuish et al., 2008; Sammons et al., 2015, 2009; Sylva et al,. 2004).
  • A 2015 Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC) found associations between children’s early home learning environment at age 2-3 and their Year 3 learning outcomes at age 8-9. Children who engaged in home activities and whose parents/carers read to them frequently at age 2-3 tended to have higher NAPLAN reading and numeracy scores in Year 3 (AIFS, 2015).
  • A 2016 study on the views of Year 3 to Year 12 students enrolled in government, Catholic and independent schools across Western Australia showed that, across all year levels, students valued family members who showed an active interest in their learning, such as spending quality time talking and listening, encouraging learning progress, and communicating with the school regarding their learning (Commissioner for Children and Young People, 2018).

Early Primary School

Support for a positive home learning environment is critical in the early years. The 2015 Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC) identified four broad dimensions of a child’s home learning environment that affect both reading ability and numeracy levels as measured in Grade 3 (AIFS, 2015):

  • home activities, including teaching the child a song, playing games, and doing arts and crafts
  • number of days per week the primary carer or an adult in the family read to the child
  • number of children’s books in the child’s home
  • out-of-home activities (where possible), such as going on picnics.

Evidence suggests that parents who engage in the following activities at home encourage thinking and talking, and support their child’s development (National Children’s Bureau, 2019, p.2):

  • reading and sharing books
  • playing with print (letters and numbers)
  • singing songs and nursery rhymes
  • drawing and painting (making meaningful marks)

Late Primary school and Secondary School

For parents of adolescent students, the following are things to do to stimulate and support a home learning environment (ARACY, 2015b, p4):

  • have books and other learning resources available in the home, where possible
  • model behaviours that promote learning and demonstrate education is valued (e.g. parents reading in the home, conversations between parent and child about learning)
  • engage the child in out-of-school learning activities, such as gardening
  • provide a supportive environment for child health and wellbeing more generally. For adolescents, this may include managing fatigue and ensuring adequate sleep (between 9-10 hours), supporting stress and emotional anxiety, providing adequate nutrition to support brain and body development, and help with time and resource management.

There also considerations in the physical space when setting up a home environment conducive to virtual learning. Virtual learning involves not just integrating with software tools, but also physical tools that can be found in the learning environment, such as books, educational materials and toys, whiteboards, and physical artefacts that connect with computers (Dillenbourg et al., 2007).

Several education theorists emphasise the importance of physical and social environments in supporting children’s learning (Child Australia, 2012, p10). Indoor/outdoor spaces are meant to encourage exploration and curiosity and questioning and discussion. Examples include having natural resources such as wood and beeswax crayons to encourage exploration and displays and photos of children’s work to make the space more engaging (Child Australia, 2012).

On a practical level, the NSW Government provides a learning environment checklist to guide parents/carers in setting up a home learning environment, which includes creating a quiet and comfortable learning space suitable for extended learning.

Ensuring student wellbeing during home-based learning

The transition from school-based to home-based learning may be a difficult time for students, particularly since they will be unable to access the kinds of social interaction they are used to. This transition could negatively impact their wellbeing. Parents are also under considerable stress, particularly as their role in their child’s education has increased to become more direct, hands-on and time-intensive, so their own wellbeing may also be tested.

The shift to home-based learning means parents and teachers may need to set more structured time for checking in with children about their wellbeing. When communicating about these topics, it is beneficial if parents use statements that show pride, unconditional support and acceptance without judgement (ARACY, 2017). Practical support, such as provision of materials and resources, a focus on exercise and good nutrition, discussions about learning experience, as well as general encouragement can also enable positive coping approaches in children (Sollis,K., 2019). Families can make the most of this situation by taking the time to strengthen relationships and bonds, discuss and practice reading, learning, and communicate about the transition to home study (ARACY, 2017). During this time, as schooling transitions to the home environment, it will be important to monitor the mental health of children as well as their physical wellbeing.

Evidence shows exercise is a proven treatment for stress and depression, with a recommended 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity for 5-17 year olds. However, the challenge for children is not a lack of guidance, but motivation as the driver of physical activity (Trost, 2005). Motivation to exercise stems from attitudes and beliefs, which take time to form. Self-esteem plays a key role, as perceived competency, social support and enjoyment shape motivation (Owen, 2015). To help motivate children to exercise, which will be particularly important during this period of home-based learning, teachers and parents can create challenges for students to participate in, have motivational discussions, design physical activities so that they are fun and help children learn about their own growth (Weiss, 2000). With online digital media resources readily available, parents can also make use of home exercise equipment and/or green space in backyards.

In addition to making sure the physical wellbeing of students is considered during this period, parents and teachers will need to monitor student wellbeing online even more so than usual. Transitions from school to home will increase reliance on online learning platforms and social networks, yet, a sizeable percentage (33%) of parents do not feel confident about their ability to manage cyberbullying (eSafety Commissioner, July 2018). For parents, their child’s school is the most reported source (56%) for cyberbullying guidance, highlighting the role of teachers and school leaders in advising parents on this issue (Katz et al., June 2014). This indicates that parents need support in differentiating between potentially problematic use of digital media, versus normal use. Problematic use may be characterised by changes in mood after online activity, changes in overall personality, stress, issues with schoolwork, changes in sleep, avoidance, decline in physical health and secretive online behaviour (eSafety Commissioner, 2020). By using the framework provided in section 2 regarding quality of screen time, parents and teachers can monitor student wellbeing regarding online experiences. Helping children to build digital resilience by having conversations about online content/experiences (such as what to do after coming across a distressing news article, for example), and modelling appropriate digital behaviour and values, is a potentially positive effect of the increasing reliance on online platforms during the COVID-19 pandemic (Livingstone & Blum-Ross, 2017).

Acquaro, P. (2020). Structuring and Scaffolding the Online Course. International Journal of Online Graduate Education, 3(1), 1–16.

ARACY (2015a). Education capital: Progressing parental engagement. Retrieved from: http://www.det.act.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0010/686548/52741-DET-Parental-Engagement-A4-Booklet_FA3_ACC.pdf

ARACY (2015b). Progressing parental engagement parent fact sheet: Parental engagement in high school. Retrieved from: https://www.aracy.org.au/documents/item/599

ARACY (2019). Perspectives of Young People on Parent Engagement and Doing Well in School. Retrieved from: https://www.aracy.org.au/publications-resources/command/download_file/id/389/filename/Please_Just_Say_You're_Proud_of_Me_-_Parent_Engagement_and_Doing_Well_at_School_-_ARACY.pdf

AIFS (2015). How does the home environment influence children’s learning? Retrieved from: https://aifs.gov.au/cfca/2015/09/23/how-does-home-environment-influence-children-s-learning

Blum-Ross, A. and S. Livingstone (2016). Families and screen time: Current advice and emerging research. Media Policy Brief 17. London: Media Policy Project, London School.

Child Australia (2012). Create the perfect play space: Learning environments for young children. Retrieved from: https://www.ecrh.edu.au/docs/default-source/resources/ipsp/Create-the-perfect-play-space-learning-environments-for-young-children.pdf?sfvrsn=12

California Department of Education. (2020, March 17). Lessons from the Field: Remote Learning Guidance. Retrieved March 20, 2020, Retrieved from: https://www.cde.ca.gov/ls/he/hn/appendix2.asp

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Commissioner for Children and Young People (2018). Speaking out about school and learning: The views of WA children and young people on factors that support their engagement in school and learning. Commissioner for Children and Young People WA, Perth. Retrieved from https://www.ccyp.wa.gov.au/media/2763/speaking-out-about-school-and-learning.pdf

Dillenbourg, P., Schneider, D., & Synteta, P. (2007). Virtual Learning Environments. 3rd Hellenic Conference “Information & Communication Technologies in Education”, 2002, Rhodes, Greece. pp.3-18.

Emerson, L., Fear. J., Fox, S., and Sanders, E. (2012). Parental engagement in learning and schooling: Lessons from research. A report by the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth (ARACY) for the Family-School and Community Partnerships Bureau: Canberra. Retrieved from https://www.aracy.org.au/publications-resources/command/download_file/id/7/filename/Parental_engagement_in_learning_and_schooling_Lessons_from_research_BUREAU_ARACY_August_2012.pdf

eSafety Commissioner (2020). Cyberbullying, A Guide to Online Bullying for Parents and Carers. Retrieved from: https://www.esafety.gov.au/parents/big-issues/cyberbullying

Gregori, E. B., Zhang, J., Galván-Fernández, C., & De Asís Fernández-Navarro, F. (2018). Learner support in MOOCs: Identifying variables linked to completion. Computers & Education, 122, 153–168. Retrieved from: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2018.03.014

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Katz, I., Keeley, M., Spears, B., Taddeo, C., Swirski, T., & Bates, S (2014). Research on youth exposure to, and management of, cyberbullying incidents in Australia: Synthesis report (SPRC Report 16/2014). Sydney: Social Policy Research Centre, UNSW Australia.

Livingstone, S., & Blum-Ross, A. (2017). Quality is key. Digital Parenting, 26. Retrieved from: https://parentzone.org.uk/system/files/attachments/Digital Parenting 6 NEW.pdf

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National Children’s Bureau (2019). Home matters: making the most of the home learning environment. Guidance for schools, nurseries, local authorities and public health partners. Retrieved from: https://www.ncb.org.uk/sites/default/files/field/attachment/HLE_doc.pdf

NSW Government. (2020). Learning from Home - School planning. Retrieved March 20, 2020, from https://education.nsw.gov.au/teaching-and-learning/curriculum/learning-from-home/school-planning

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Owen, Katherine B., et al (2014). Self-determined motivation and physical activity in children and adolescents: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Retrieved https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0091743514002746

Picciano, A. G. (2017). Theories and frameworks for online education: Seeking an integrated model. Online Learning Journal, 21(3), 166–190. https://doi.org/10.24059/olj.v21i3.1225

Reis, R. (n.d.). Ten best practices for teaching online: Tomorrow’s teaching and learning. Retrieved March 20, 2020, from Standford - tomorrow’s professor postings website: https://tomprof.stanford.edu/posting/1091

Simonson, M., Schlosser, C., & Orellana, A. (2011). Distance education research: A review of the literature. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 23(2–3), 124–142. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12528-011-9045-8

Smees, R. & Sammons, P. (2018). How Action for Children works: what role does the home learning environment play in supporting good child development in the early years and positive outcomes later in life? Retrieved from: https://www.actionforchildren.org.uk/media/9370/hle-think-piece.pdf

Sollis,K. (2019) Measuring Child Deprivation and Opportunity in Australia: Applying the Nest Framework to Develop a Masure of Deprivation and Opportunity for Children Using the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children. Canberra: ARACY.

Trost, Stewart, et al (2005) Discussion paper for the development of recommendations for children’s and youths’ participation in health promoting physical activity. Retrieved from: https://www1.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/Content/ADC7120D750619E1CA257BF0001DE90A/$File/physical_discussion.pdf

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Research has found that reading to children is beneficial in improving vocabulary, reading ability and encouraging positive attitudes towards reading (Niklas & Schneider, 2013; Rodriguez & Tarnis-LeMonda, 2011; Westerlund & Lagerberg, 2008). Furthermore, home activities such as playing games with numbers can predict better numeracy ability and attitudes (Skwarchuk et al., 2014; Anders et al., 2012; LeFevre et al., 2009; Sammons et al., 2015).