After a disastrous Australian bushfire season during the summer of 2019–2020, it was almost a relief to be back at school. A return to normality. But that did not last long. By 22 March, Australian students had been asked to study from home, with the implementation of emergency remote teaching (ERT). Teachers and students are to be congratulated on their response to the social distancing restrictions. Australian schools have now resumed face-to-face classes, while most other institutions are still using either ERT or a blend of face-to-face and ERT.
ERT uses a variety of resources, including online learning and web-based communication media, but it would be wrong to call it online learning. Teachers are doing a fantastic job, but emergency remote teaching and learning is an ad hoc reaction to challenging circumstances, not a proactive plan ab initio with careful instructional design and planning, using a systematic model for design and development. Australia does have a tradition of remote teaching and learning; for example, the Alice Springs School of the Air since 1951. True online learning, distance learning and mobile learning are pedagogies, which are purposefully and deliberately designed for learning to occur and with flexibility of location.
Before 2020, some schools and most tertiary institutions were already using learning management systems. Common learning management system features include announcements, asynchronous discussion threads, real-time chats, email, the ability to post documents and other digital resources as course content, online quizzes and other assignments, and an online grade book. As part of ERT, schools and tertiary institutions have increased their use of videoconferencing and related platforms. A big advantage of these videoconferencing packages is the ability to both see and talk to participants in the meeting. There is also often the ability to have a text-based chat in addition to the audio-visual link.
ERT cannot fully replicate a classroom learning environment. In a videoconference, a teacher can only monitor and supervise a single online space, whereas in a physical classroom, a teacher can use physical separation to talk to students at one table, while other groups are engaged in various activities elsewhere in the same room. ERT has resulted in a decrease of the quality and quantity of one-on-one teacher-student interactions and feedback. Furthermore, the need for all videoconferencing participants with a diversity of abilities to be engaged in the same task and at the same pace is frustrating for both teachers and students.
ERT has other problems, too. The reliance on online technologies will exacerbate the poorer learning outcomes due to the digital divide and socioeconomic disadvantage: some families have limited ownership of internet-capable devices, or live in areas with poor internet access, or have difficulty finding enough distraction-free spaces for parents telecommuting from home and students studying at home. Many educators have serious concerns about the validity of online examinations and the reality of cheating, which would normally be minimised in face-to-face classes and on-campus examinations.
But the single biggest difference between ERT and regular classrooms is the ability to undertake laboratory learning activities, which are the signature pedagogy in chemistry education (February 2012, p. 39; September 2013, p. 35; February 2016, p. 36). Some classes have replaced hands-on laboratory activities with simulations or videoed demonstrations, while others have deferred these activities until later in the school year, with the recommencement of face-to-face classes
Despite the shortcomings of emergency remote teaching and learning, not all is gloom and doom. Teachers have been voluntarily working unpaid overtime so that their students can continue learning. There has been unprecedented cooperation and willingness to share resources, and commercial publishers and major museums have made many of their resources freely available to the community. And the experience from school closures in New Zealand after the 2011 Christchurch earthquakes is that ERT for a term or so will not have any long-term detrimental effects on students’ learning.