Australia’s community education and training providers and the Coronavirus “new normal”

In the following opinion piece, CCA’s CEO, Dr Don Perlgut, writes that we will have the Coronavirus with us for many months to come, most Australians have internalised social distancing behaviours, with many learners avoiding post-secondary classroom training as a result. Online learning is not the panacea, as it is not suited for many learners, and significant number of Australians lack proper internet access. We need to extend digital inclusion, ensure our trainers can operate in the new environment, and support governance and IT infrastructure of the country’s adult and community education providers so they can meet the needs of current and future learners.

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How do Australia’s not-for-profit adult and community education (ACE) providers operate in the “new normal” of the Coronavirus pandemic?

Most of us are still very careful even when no virus is present

Even in parts of Australia which have not been touched for months by cases of the Coronavirus – and that’s most of the country outside of Melbourne, parts of regional Victoria, Sydney and south-east Queensland – we are being exceedingly careful. We are staying home, social distancing, working remotely if our jobs allow us to do so, not going to the theatre (hardly any open), the movies (will we ever bother again?), to concerts or many sporting events. Almost no-one is flying in airplanes, and public transit use is down. Even in Perth – virtually untouched by the virus – the Central Business District stands eerily empty and people avoid public transport.

In other words, most (although by no means all) Australians have internalised COVID-safe social distancing behaviours, irrespective of whether official lock-down procedures are in place. In my local Sydney shopping centre, almost all staff and more than half of the customers now wear face masks, even though we are not an identified “hot spot”.

Post-secondary education is in crisis during this time of pandemic

Post-secondary education in Australia is in crisis during this pandemic, although different sectors have different challenges. The “sandstone” and “sandy concrete” top and middle-rank universities are still reeling from the loss of international student income: read Greg Craven’s devastating take-down in The Australian of the unsustainable, now destroyed international student income business model utilised by Australia’s top-ranked universities.

The Coronavirus pandemic negatively impacts almost all Australian post-secondary institutions, excepting a small number which operate online only (which have received a boost). Concerns about virus transmission among university and VET students mean that large number of institutions still primarily offer online study, although many have partly opened. For example, despite no active virus cases in Canberra, the Australian National University has in place a “hybrid model” of learning, which appears to be primarily online. Nevertheless, universities are like “ghost towns”, with rats seen running in the quadrangles during the day.

Every Community Community Colleges Australia (CCA) member continues to operate some form of face-to-face instruction for their vocational education and training (VET) and other adult learning programs, all with COVID-safe and social distancing protocols in place. But a large number of students appear to be staying away, even in locations where no cases of the virus exist, like regional and rural New South Wales.

This is the new normal

In early June, prior to the Victorian virus outbreak, most of us believed that things would continue to get better and better in Australia, reinforcing our position, as Donald Horne once wrote, as the “lucky country”. Just to make certain we “got the message” of our own vulnerability, the still-unexplained mid-August outbreak in New Zealand convinced us of the persistent nature of the Coronavirus.

This is “the new normal”, one of continual social distancing and care, even in locations where the virus does not appear to be present. There’s lots of “chatter” about a Coronavirus vaccine, but my most optimistic assumption is that we will not see a proper vaccine until the middle of 2021, with “normal” life resuming, maybe in early 2022.

That’s also the conclusion of Bill Gates, whose foundation is one of the largest public health funders in the world: “If you live in the industrialised world, don’t make any major plans for the next year or so,” he says. “For the rich world, we should largely be able to end this thing by the end of 2021, and for the world at large by the end of 2022,” he told Wired last month.

That’s 18 months from now, that’s optimistic and that’s a long time to hold your breath and wait it out. With increasing reports of pandemic safety fatigue and burn-out, can we last that long?

We will not solve Australia’s skills challenges until we fix internet access for all

Australia’s skills crisis – belatedly, but now actively recognised by the Commonwealth Government – is heavily influenced by poverty and lack of digital access, meaning that a large number of learners and potential learners are prevented by distance and technology from accessing training. We cannot and will not be able to solve the challenge of skilling Australia until all Australians have proper access to the Internet, not just during the current pandemic, but going forward once this long pandemic moment passes.

The impacts go beyond learning: “Internet access is a prerequisite to participating in the digital economy. It’s also essential for completing many of the tasks modern life requires…. like welfare and banking. In a matter of weeks, we’ve seen the Coronavirus pandemic effectively shut the door to the offline world,” writes Nicola Heath.

Reports from CCA members reinforce the importance of fixing internet access. Online delivery increases access for some… but can leave others behind, writes Ron Maxwell, CEO of VERTO. Although digital learning has found valuable uses, an online-only model will “not work for the VET sector, and the reason is clear: It would leave some people behind…. For some people with learning challenges, an online environment simply doesn’t provide the right level of support for them to succeed and achieve qualifications that will set them on a pathway to a lifelong career,” he writes.

Other CCA members report the same challenges: some students became totally disengaged when they postponed face-to-face classes; many students in the lowest foundation and digital learning classes do not own the appropriate technology, or have limited capacity with what they do own. While some learners willingly jumped on to Zoom, for others it was really “not OK”.

What do we do?

The pandemic is not a short-term, “hold your breath and it’s over” event like many of us had originally assumed or hoped.

Actions need to commence now to ensure that Australia’s present and future learners can learn and that ACE providers can maintain their ability to reach current and future students. Here’s a simple list, worth the attention of every Australian VET and skills minister:

  • Institute a comprehensive program to ensure that “no Australian is left behind” in the digital world. As a country, we cannot afford more than 15% of households without access to a stable internet connection, and we can never skill our country without extending digital inclusion.
  • Ensure our VET trainers and teachers have the skills and understanding how to operate in a digital learning world, because that world is not going away, not even when this pandemic ends.
  • Develop new models of “blended learning” that incorporate both online and in-person learning modes.
  • Enable ACE providers to communicate in the digital world, with strong IT and telecommunications systems, allowing them to become “digital nodes of excellence”, especially in regional, rural and outer metropolitan areas, where they play such important parts of their communities.
  • Support governance for ACE providers, which will lead to strong leadership and organisational resilience. Unlike TAFEs or universities, their medium to small size consistently limits their strategic and business development capabilities. Without that capacity, they remain vulnerable in a rapidly changing world.

We have no easy answers to the virus impacts, but we do have strategies to ensure that our valued educational institutions can survive.

 

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