Sarah O’Shea

More help needed for vulnerable learners in the age of COVID-19 school closures

During lockdowns due to the COVID-19 virus outbreak, school closures were hotly debated. Complete school closures were perceived by some as being a way to protect both students and teaching staff. Although initially children appeared to be at low risk for contracting the virus, many families were deeply concerned about the health implications of sending their children to school. Many families made their own decision to keep their children out of school even before the regulatory bodies made the call to close schools and some were slow to return their children when schools reopened.

While a vaccination for the COVID-19 virus may well be available soon, it is possible future outbreaks of the virus will continue to force school closures or partial closures across Australia well into 2021 at least.

We were interested in the educational, psychosocial and emotional repercussions of school closures, in particular the long-term ramifications for vulnerable or disadvantaged children.

Educationally at-risk children in Australia

Data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show that as of 2019 there were 3,948,811 students enrolled in 9503 schools in Australia, with 2,263,207 primary students and 1,680,504 secondary students. Mass school closures thus have the potential to impact nearly four million students.

A significant proportion of the Australian student population experience disadvantage in some form, with 20% of the school student population, approximately 800 000 students, being in the lowest quintile for family income.

Students come from vulnerable backgrounds for a number of equity reasons, such as the household economic situation (low income or jobless households, financial stress), lack of social support (e.g. social networks), personal characteristics (poor household health, low educational attainment), and race/ethnicity. Many students don’t just fit into one category but rather multiple categories of disadvantage. For these students who are already at an educational disadvantage, the educational gap widens by not attending school.

Over 2020, the Australian schooling sector experienced varying levels of lockdown, with the recent outbreak in Victoria resulting in up to two terms of school closures and a state-wide move to online learning. Until recently there were school closures in South Australia. Such a move to online learning foregrounds educational inequalities that exist within a multi-tiered educational system.

Each state or territory differs in their educational governance, as well as their diverse regional, rural and remote schooling opportunities, across states and within states educational participation may not occur on an equal playing field.

Implications of school closures

We undertook a deep dive into the emerging literature and existing knowledge to consider what implications there might be for long-term school closures for students in more vulnerable contexts.

Whilst remote learning can be challenging for many learners, those from materially disadvantaged backgrounds face a number of additional barriers to learning from home. These additional difficulties include, but are not limited to

  • digital exclusion,
  • poor technology access,
  • increased psychosocial challenges, and
  • educational disengagement.

There are inherent issues around the unequal division of resources and support for students learning at home. Some students may have limited access to a computer, some may share a computer with other family members, and with others having limited internet access and if access is available it may be through expensive mobile plans with restricted data.

These issues did not go unrecognised during COVID_19 with many schools and communities implementing innovative solutions to address inequalities – for example

  • loaning out computers,
  • buying dongles for internet plans for their students,
  • supplying paper packages to their homes,
  • having community businesses supply computers and
  •  local prisoners building desks for students  for their home study. 

Although these interventions were innovative, they were ‘band aid’ in nature. Yet they went a long way to mitigate the inequalities of resources for students studying at home.

Despite these interventions, it is estimated that students from disadvantaged backgrounds have learnt at half their usual rate during lockdown, so the longer the students were away from school, the more learning was lost.

Equally, what these responses could not address was the fundamental emotional and psychological difficulties that school closures presented. Many students need structure in order to learn and the school system provides such a structure. Importantly, the school environment provides the basis for the teacher-student relationship to flourish, which is known to be particularly important for student engagement. When students are engaged in their learning, they learn more.

If students become disengaged they are at risk of a range of adverse academic and social outcomes, such as daily absence, disruptive behaviour, and poor school connectedness. Furthermore, for some students, once the physical link to school is broken through COVID-19 disruptions it stays broken, and even though the school reopens they do not return. For these students who continue to disengage, they fall further behind their peers, and for some, the learning deficit won’t be recoverable.

Building capacity and resilience

Moving forward and learning to live with further disruptions, requires future generations to become adaptable to possible changing learning environments, building capacity and resilience for future crises becomes an imperative. Proactive and multifaceted responses and planning for any future crises will best meet the educational needs of our diverse student populations to ensure vulnerable children are not left behind in their learning.

Governments should re-examine resource allocations to schools to ensure all students have equality of access to up-to-date resources, especially technology. The pandemic has shown us that learning online is possible, but if we are to avoid widening existing educational disparities, we must ensure that learning is equitable for all students.

For those who want more, here is our full paper Drane, C.F, Vernon, L & O’Shea, S. (2020). Vulnerable learners in the age of COVID-19: A scoping review. Australian Educational Researcher.

Catherine Drane is a Research Fellow in the NCSEHE. Previously, Catherine has worked on large-scale National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) projects across Australia. Catherine’s research interests include adolescent development and public health interventions, and quantitative research methods. Her teaching in the areas of research, measurement, design, and analysis led her being awarded a Murdoch University Vice Chancellor’s Award for Teaching Excellence.

Lynette Vernon is a Senior Research Fellow at Edith Cowan University with the School of Education and an adjunct researcher with the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education at Curtin University. Lynette was a secondary science teacher for over 20 years retraining to complete her PhD in psychology at Murdoch University. She directed the Murdoch Aspirations and Pathways for University project (MAP4U) working with high schools to support students aspirations. Her research interests are in developmental psychology, especially related to technology use, sleep and their impact on academic attainment and wellbeing.

Prof. Sarah O’Shea is the Director of the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE) which is hosted by Curtin University. Sarah has spent over twenty-five years working to effect change within the higher education (HE) sector through research that focuses on the access and participation of students from identified equity groups. Her institutional and nationally funded research studies advance understanding of how under-represented student cohorts enact success within university, navigate transition into this environment, manage competing identities and negotiate aspirations for self and others. This work is highly regarded for applying diverse conceptual and theoretical lenses to tertiary participation, which incorporate theories of social class, identity work, gender studies and poverty. Sarah has published extensively in the field and has been awarded over $AUD3 million in grant funding since 2009, she is also an Australian Learning and Teaching Fellow (ALTF), a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (PFHEA) and a Churchill Fellow.

Changes to career advice needed now more than ever

The recently released report into post-schooling pathways in Australia has presented a challenging picture of how career advice needs to be reconsidered in the current employment and health climate. The Report of the Review of Senior Secondary Pathways into Work, Further Education and Training identifies that many career strategies used in Australian schools rely on old paradigms that are predominantly focused on supporting students in pursuing a single career or profession, rather than encouraging a broader career outlook. These problems were identified before the disruptive impact of COVID-19 on education. The pandemic makes changes even more urgent.

Addressing gaps in career planning and advice could yet be key to global economic recovery. It is estimated over 1.6 billion students are negatively impacted by COVID-19 world-wide. Significantly, the United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres, warns us that because of the COVID-19 pandemic the world is facing a “generational catastrophe that could waste untold human potential, undermine decades of progress, and exacerbate entrenched inequalities”.

Career education (also known as career advice, guidance or learning) for young people is largely offered within high schools in many countries around the world, including Australia. Both teachers and students in Australia report that current approaches to career education are both inadequate and inequitable.

The ‘narrowing’ of options by career education strategies was also a key theme that emerged from our current research in this field. We looked at identifying best practice career education for the post-COVID era and how this could be implemented in educational settings, particularly for students from diverse backgrounds who are currently underrepresented in higher education.

Our research

Limited options

Students and teachers who participated in our research said there was an expectation from the career advice they were given that just one overriding career or pathway could, or should, be chosen. For one student ‘picking’ a unique or sole pathway was difficult and confronting.

I was told on several occasions that a particular career path was over saturated and to ‘choose a different interest’ which was a bit shocking to me, how are you supposed to just pick something else? (Female, 21-25, PhD)

Indeed, students described experiences of being funneled into particular pathways.

my school… they have a lot of advice for people that had to do trade and all that stuff but for academic purposes, it’s not that good… (Liam, 17, Bachelor of Engineering)

Lucy, a work placement provider in a NSW regional town, witnessed the foregrounding of higher education pathways rather than supporting each persons’ exploration of multiple options and opportunities.

I think these days, the careers adviser’s role has changed so much that it’s more about university entry, preparing students for university, and the ones that are not going to go to university are left out (Lucy, CEO, Work Placement Provider)

We know that career education that supports the notion of a single career is old fashioned and out of step, and so too is the idea that there is one pathway into a desired field of work. Recent research by the National Centre for Vocational Education Research in Australia has shown that a pathway from school directly to university is experienced by few and mainly those who live in metropolitan areas and often from high socioeconomic status backgrounds.

The reality of interrupted and complex pathways

In contrast to a predefined pathway or linear journey into a predetermined job, participants in this research described diverse and individualised school-to-work routes. This visual map drawn by current university student Noah (31, Bachelor of Arts) depicts his complex journey since high school which has included switching between work, study and training in the fields of Hospitality, Information Technology, and Creative Arts across three states. Noah’s journey has been influenced by depression, a sleep disorder, and indecision about what job he would like to do in the future. Noah described it as

a very storied and long journey for me, not one that I would want to go back and do again, but… better late than never.

(Post-school pathway of Noah, 31)

Noah’s journey is one example of the highly interrupted and ‘swirling’ journeys experienced by students with pathways typified by ‘stepping stones’, ‘zig zags’ and ‘lurches’.

Key message about alternative pathways

Overwhelmingly, when asked what they had wished they had known in high school, current university students told us that they had wished they had known about alternative pathways and that

ATARs aren’t like, the be all and end all’ (Jasmine, 18, Bachelor of Information Technology).

Here Yolanda highlights the pressure that the notion that there is a singular pathway, for example, achieving the requisite ATAR, has on students throughout their schooling.

I think in high school, especially at the start of high school, I wish that I had known that there were so many more pathways available to me…it would have been nice to have that kind of at the back of my mind while I was studying so that I didn’t have to stress out so much (Yolanda, 23, Bachelor of Psychology).

Arielle, University Outreach Officer, suggests that students need to be told that

it’s okay to change your mind, or to change direction and that that’s really normal… (Arielle, University Outreach Officer).

A key message for career education of school students should be that alternative entry into courses and careers do exist, and that fluid pathways are not only possible, but normal. In the current climate, career advice can no longer be focused on guiding students in one direction but should aim to provide students with choices. Indeed, for students from diverse backgrounds, whose educations can be disrupted by caring and family responsibilities, disability and illness, or financial issues, having options is critical for educational access and career development. Career advice for these students is preparing the student for multiple possible pathways rather than trying to tie them to one journey.

Career Development Learning

This more encompassing and contemporary vision of career advice, which supports equity goals, we have called Career Development Learning (CDL). In its broadest form, Career Development Learning relates to learning about self, learning about the world of work and developing the skills necessary to navigate a successful and satisfying life. Our research indicates that Best Practice Career Development Learning involves the implementation of a ‘partnership’ approach between multiple stakeholders, including schools, universities, vocational education providers, community and industry to provide students with a wide variety of authentic career-related experiences which increase knowledge, alternatives and choice.

For example, High School Principal, Michael, highlights the benefits for students when they are supported to engage in Career Development Learning activities which broaden their options, such as HSC subjects with vocational accreditation.

We’ve got, I think, six or seven kids at the moment doing nursing as a vocational subject… They’ll walk straight into work almost anywhere on the globe and it counts for their HSC (Michael, Principal, Regional High School)

The uncertainty caused by the current health emergency combined with expected record levels of unemployment and changes to educational funding means that now, more than ever, the need for high quality and targeted career advice is needed.

Current work being completed in our two-year research project include a set of Best Practice Principles for career advice for students from diverse backgrounds which, together with our Guide to Partnerships, are practical resources which can help schools and other stakeholders provide quality career development learning activities for all students.

Prof. Sarah O’Shea is the Director of the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE) which is hosted by Curtin University. Sarah has spent over twenty-five years working to effect change within the higher education (HE) sector through research that focuses on the access and participation of students from identified equity groups. Her institutional and nationally funded research studies advance understanding of how under-represented student cohorts enact success within university, navigate transition into this environment, manage competing identities and negotiate aspirations for self and others. This work is highly regarded for applying diverse conceptual and theoretical lenses to tertiary participation, which incorporate theories of social class, identity work, gender studies and poverty. Sarah has published extensively in the field and has been awarded over $AUD3 million in grant funding since 2009, she is also an Australian Learning and Teaching Fellow (ALTF), a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (PFHEA), and a Churchill Fellow (CF).

Dr Olivia Groves currently works between the School of Education and Outreach and Equity unit at University of Wollongong in teaching and research roles. Olivia has worked in HE for ten years teaching and supporting students, including those studying via distance and with language backgrounds other than English. Also, for the past two and a half years, Olivia has been involved in research activity focused on achieving equity in HE, including improving access, participation, and outcomes for students from diverse backgrounds.

We would like to acknowledge the other research team members Kylie Austin and Jodi Lamanna for their contributions to this study, as well as the National Centre for Student Equity in HE (NCSEHE) and the Department of Education, Skills & Employment (DESE) for funding this research.

What does success mean to you? Be surprised what it means to our uni students

If you asked a university student nearing the end of their undergraduate degree what success meant to them, what responses would you expect? Good grades or perhaps a career in the field? For some it might be having the edge in a competitive job market or a secure, regular salary?

In our recent study we did ask this question and we were surprised by many of the responses.  We expected more of a focus on future desired jobs or high incomes but instead students told us, often in humble ways, how they themselves defined “success”.

In this blog post we want to tell you what we found and look at the complexities of how students define success, in a nuanced and richly descriptive manner.

Our findings should be of special interest to government and university policy makers in the current political climate where the Australian Government plans to tie university funding to measures such as graduate employment and student satisfaction with their university courses – measures that the government sees as embodying success at university.

Such measures could be overlooking many life changing experiences that attending a university can add to a student’s life and in particular miss the complexities of how students themselves view success at university.

Our study

We conducted a total of 163 interviews and surveys across five Australian universities for this research study, which was part of a much broader study exploring the persistence behaviours of students who are the first in their family to attend university.

Students were asked two key questions relating to success namely: Would you describe yourself as a successful student? and How you do characterise success at university and after graduation?

During data collection, participants identified additional equity and demographic categories with significant numbers being derived from low socio-economic backgrounds or from rural/remote areas as well as being older. Questions covered a range of areas including personal self-reflections on ‘being’ a student; reflections on higher education participation and how family/community, the institution and others has shown support (or not) of these educational endeavours.

This gave us a rich dataset to work with.

We drew on the work of economist and philosopher Amartya Sen to help us unpack the perspectives of the students in our study. He believed a person’s capability to live a good life is defined in terms of the set of valuable ‘beings and doings’ like being in good health or having loving relationships with others. His approach allowed us to consider how ‘success’ can be more broadly conceived as reflecting a person’s achievement of such ‘valuable functionings’ or those things that are intrinsically important or beneficial to individuals themselves. Adopting this conceptual framing provided an alternative way of thinking about this data and forced us to question taken for granted assumptions or ideas.

Our findings

We were surprised by many of the responses received to our question. Students told us, how they themselves defined ‘success’ and for many it was far from high incomes or desired jobs. For one success was basically ‘survival and having my mental health intact’, another explained how success was simply being ‘here … still going – I’m not failing which is good’ another acknowledged ‘just coming to uni already makes me successful’.

While most of the students we asked considered themselves successful, around twenty percent were not sure or did not think so. This was surprising as these students, according to normative or accepted standards, were successful – they were all first in their families (and sometimes their community) to attend university; they were all nearing the end of their undergraduate degree; and they were all performing well, often extremely well, academically.

The students’ explanations countered popular notions of ‘being academically successful’, particularly, those illustrated through university marketing and quality indicators, which largely refer to high grades or passing exams, a focus on individual achievement, competitive prowess or measurable, usually vocational, outcomes.

Being the first in the family also meant that these learners may have already achieved significant ‘success’ in simply arriving at university. Many had undertaken interrupted and difficult educational journeys, enduring and overcoming many significant hurdles to achieve their educational goals. Perhaps then it is not surprising that another participant eloquently reflected how success was summed up by the fact that ‘I’m happy and I’m passing, that’s all that matters’.

When analysing the data we noted how students repeatedly defined success in terms of what success was not, often challenging those generally accepted understandings of success, such as getting a good job or earning a higher income.  

Importantly our findings indicated that success was perceived as a form of validation for these learners, also providing a sense of ‘defying the odds’ but equally underpinned by emotional and unique understandings of achieving outcomes that are personally validating.

The need to acknowledge success at university is complex

Success is a complex entity and we argue that while different definitions of success may co-exist they also frequently ‘jostle uncomfortably’ against each other. We propose that there is a genuine need to develop and recognise more expansive notions of what ‘being successful’ actually means to individual learners. The various facets of success should be equally acknowledged and celebrated in higher education rhetoric rather than just an emphasis on financial gains.

This is not simply a moral requirement but also a political one. Recognising the broader social impacts that higher education participation has on people arguably shifts the material responsibility of learning from the individual and instead recognises the wider public benefits of the university experience. 

It is a significant issue given the promise of secure employment upon graduation is no longer true, particularly for those students from more disadvantaged backgrounds. Similarly, graduates in certain fields earn less than those who entered full-time employment after school so the guaranteed economic return of university studies is not necessarily the reality for all graduates.

We believe this dysfunction means that current emphasis on employability should shift to incorporate a more inclusive understanding of achievement post-graduation. This might include a desired job or less tangible, but equally anticipated, forms of success.

Importantly, differing perspectives on the nature of success are not necessarily mutually exclusive but could be regarded as complementary goals, assisting people to achieve desired flourishings. Recognising the multiplicity of success within policy and popular discourse would go some way to achieving recognition of how understandings of success can be balanced. This recognition would simultaneously acknowledge the value of diversity in the university population as well as different lived experiences.

Let’s shift the way we talk about success

Continuing to retain this dominant focus on the private benefits of university has deeper and more insidious financial implications. If popular debates on higher education attendance only emphasise financial or employment outcomes then the responsibility for funding such activity similarly rests with the individual. Student debt in Australia continues to grow with current estimates over 50 billion dollars.

Responsibility for the costs of study is shifting wholly to students, reflected in Australian political discourse and policy, with changes in loan repayments and fee structures imminent.  This is alarming for all students but particularly so for its adverse impact on students from less-advantaged backgrounds. 

Shifting the way we talk about higher education participation can assist in celebrating the more personal and social outcomes of this educational participation; from emphases on often-illusive rewards, to acknowledgement of the wider more public benefits of attendance. We argue that this provides a more encompassing and valuable recognition of ‘success’.

In co-author Sarah O’Shea’s research on female first-in-family students, the women interviewed positively reflected on university as offering a space to reflect and reconsider the possibilities in their lives, including reconsidering the constraints they had taken for granted. This enabled them to consider alternatives, which while not necessarily financially enriching, marked an emotional richness appreciated by these women.

Importantly, higher education institutions have the means to ‘enable independence in learning and criticality in new generations of learners, and the desire to produce rather than reproduce knowledge’.

This is a moral endeavour as well as an educational one, requiring proactive institutional engagement at the level of curricula, instruction and also, policy.

As educators we should question our own assumptions of success

Equally, as educators and scholarly practitioners in the field, we need to continually question our own assumptions around the role of ‘success’ in students’ thinking and engagement, remaining mindful of the varied and personal nature of this concept for diverse learners.

We believe better understanding of what students desire from their university experience is fundamental to creating a clearer alignment between the goals of the institution and those of the individual.  And it should have a profound effect on policy makers in governments who have the power to change the lives of so many Australians who aspire to a university education.

For those who want more on this study ‘Getting through the day and still having a smile on my face!

Dr Sarah O’Shea is a Professor in Adult, Vocational and Higher Education in the School of Education, Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Wollongong. Sarah has over 25 years experience teaching in universities as well as the VET and Adult Education sector, she has also published widely on issues related to educational access and equity. Sarah has co-authored 57 scholarly publications – this work has also featured in The Conversation, University World News, Campus Review and The Australian. Sarah is on Twitter @seos895

Dr Janine Delahunty is Project Manager (various projects) and Academic Developer on the Academic Development and Recognition Team- Learning, Teaching and Curriculum at the University of Wollongong. Janine’s research is motivated by how the educational experience can be enriched, particularly for diverse learners and those from educationally disadvantaged circumstances, reflected in her ongoing research projects. She has published across the fields of education, higher education, distance education, educational research, linguistics, adult learning and university teaching and learning. Janine is on Twitter @janined60