Publishers discuss the shift to online teaching

April 22, 2020

The COVID-19 outbreak in Australia has necessitated rapid and substantial change at all levels of society – not least at the level of education. With protective measures and restrictions set to be enforced for many more weeks (if not months), schools and universities have had to adapt to online teaching on an unprecedented scale.

The success of this venture depends (among other things) on quality teaching material: specifically, digital resources that support and enhance remote education. While these have been available in Australia for some time thanks to educational publishers, demand has reached an all-time high.

Cambridge University Press (CUP) has produced interactive versions of locally-published titles, plus digital-only teacher support resources, for many years. But Executive Director (ANZ) Mark O’Neil has observed a massive spike in queries as schools turn to remote education.

“Our digital support team is currently more than three times the size it would normally be at this time of year,” he says. “And our small English Language Teaching (ELT) team has switched their focus entirely to setting up and supporting schools to work online, plus dealing with licensing enquiries.”

Nicole McCarten, Vice President of Cengage’s School Division, notes that teachers have had little time to prepare for the seismic shift in the way they work. Cengage’s priority has been minimising disruption while quickly onboarding customers to new platforms.

“Naturally, some schools are more equipped to utilise and deliver online learning resources than others,” she says. “We’ve been inundated with requests, and our team has worked closely with teachers to try to make the transition from school to home learning as seamless as possible.”

Haese Mathematics is similarly ramping up support for its customers, who access digital textbooks – with accompanying questions, calculator instructions and graphing and statistics features – through an online learning platform.

“We’re working with delivery companies to try and minimise delays,” says Marketing Coordinator Portia Hannaford, “but the great thing about offering a digital product is that we can make it instantly accessible.”

Mark O’Neil

Nicole McCarten

Portia Hannaford

The increased demand is not without its challenges. CUP’S local publishing operations have been affected by delays and price increases to typesetting, printing and freight services. Technology can also be problematic; Mark reports, “The sudden global surge in teachers and students accessing online learning resources placed some systems under initial strain, which we have worked hard to overcome.”

But as Nicole discovered, new customers aren’t the only ones who need guidance to make the most of digital material. “We found that some teachers had never accessed the rich online resources that accompany our textbooks, or had only ever used a small component of what was available,” she says, describing how teachers have reached out for assistance in delivering new lesson plans.

At the same time, the transition to online teaching affords publishers new ways to support schools and add value to their products. Portia believes it will benefit students and teachers alike as they “discover just how valuable the additional content in the digital versions of the books is.”

Given all of this, will the shift to online outlast COVID-19 Australia? It’s difficult to comment with any degree of certainty, but Portia is optimistic about the longevity of digital advances – though the benefit of face-to-face schooling should not be forgotten.

Nicole agrees that the ability to study and learn remotely will have enduring importance, but stresses that publishers must continue to develop content flexibly in both print and digital formats. “Students have individual learning pathways and we need to accommodate that,” she says.

“We also can’t forget about equity. Schools struggle with infrastructure when delivering online learning, and not all students have access to devices or the internet at home.”

Mark also sees the need to identify which students are negatively affected by online delivery, and for schools, universities, publishers and governments to work together to address this. “Hopefully we will end up with learning solutions that cater to diverse situations and learning needs,” he says, “and where technology helps teachers to differentiate solutions based on students’ abilities, capabilities and capacities.

“It is the quality of learning solutions that will matter, not one single medium of delivery.”

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