Podcast

Where Minecraft meets history

Where Minecraft meets history: convergence of the learning and digital worlds

As schools go back to Term 2, parents all around the nation are either preparing for children to return to school or settling in for a continuation of the home schooling while working from home juggle. 

COVID-19 has brought to light the schooling version of what has long been referred to as the ‘digital divide’ – but schools have developed innovative ways over the years to close this gap, which assisted many schools’ preparedness for digital and remote learning brought on by COVID-19. With IT helpdesks for students, cyber security education, and digital tools to augment learning, students are engaging in a powerful way as the digital and learning worlds converge.

Stuart McDowall, National Head of Education, discusses the ways schools are innovating around technology, fees and the way we learn, and new the points of difference that can drive enrolments in future.

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Podcast transcript

Velvet-Belle Templeman

Welcome to Boardroom.Media.  My name is Velvet-Belle Templeman, and I'm here talking to Stuart McDowall, National Head of Education at Grant Thornton.  Stuart is a consulting partner with a special focus on working with schools, universities, and training providers.  Today we'll be talking about schooling and how the disruption from the coronavirus has brought to light some issues and positive innovations from our educational institutions.  Stuart, thanks so much for joining us.

Stuart McDowall

Velvet-Belle, thanks so much for having me.

Velvet-Belle Templeman

Stuart, we're still right in the thick of this social experiment.  The Prime Minister is eager for kids to get back to school with the states and territories all tackling their return in their own unique ways.  Looking back, how prepared were schools for a disruption of this magnitude?

Stuart McDowall

Well, while many schools and school networks have done some form of business continuity planning in advance, I think it's fair to say that very few of us expected or would have contemplated a disruption quite like the one that we have.  There certainly has been a range of different experiences.  I think that gives us a lot of learnings.  So there were quite a few schools that we know of that already had in place a lot of the infrastructure that they needed to keep teaching their students during this situation.  So, here I'm talking about things like students having devices that they could access from home, students having their own email addresses or being familiar with how to use digital learning tools and also, the school's IT support structures.  A help desk for students to ring into, or having good cybersecurity practices in place.

So these sorts of things gave a lot of schools a head start in how they responded to this disruption.  On the flipside, of course, there were some schools who hadn’t already gone down that road to the same extent.  And we did see some issues in the media about, you know, schools where maybe a system's crashed on day one or that sort of thing.  And then of course, you've got some student cohorts who are starting from behind.  So maybe they don't have the internet at home, maybe their home environment isn't set up for good learning or maybe that student just needs extra support to learn.  And of course, let's not forget that there are some schools who specialise in remote learning and so for them this would have been a very different experience.  So I think it is a wide range of experiences.

Velvet-Belle Templeman

Social distancing has really meant a sudden and dramatic shift away from face to face learning to remote learning.  What do you think will be the long-term impact of this?  Will online become integral to the curriculum in the future?

Stuart McDowall

Yes, look, I think this is a really interesting question to ponder.  Certainly, I think that those schools who found themselves on the back foot as we entered into this disruption will rightly be thinking about how they can be better prepared for the next disruption.  So I expect that we will see an increased focus particularly on IT, like what devices are their students going to use, what learning platforms or video conferencing tools are right for that school and of course, you know, making sure that the school has their cyber security issues sorted out.  But, you know, even for schools who were able to respond effectively to the situation, I do think we'll also see some longer term shifts.  One school who I spoke with recently is already looking at whether there are some subject areas where maybe they should hang on to the remote learning approach.

So you know, are there some subject areas where this might be more effective than face to face learning or where that that learning approach could be rolled out and use next time there's an emergency.  Another shift I think we’ll see is more use of digital tools to augment learning.  So here I'm talking about apps or online tools which teachers can bring into their lesson plans as another way to cement learning.  As an example, I know of a primary school class where they were doing an Australian history unit, so they had their students use Minecraft and the students worked together in Minecraft to make a replica of one of the ships from the First Fleet.  So these tools can engage the students in a very different way.  There's something very powerful in some of that engagement.  Now those tools have been around for a long time but the situation did force everyone to adapt very quickly and to experiment with digital tools.  And I think this is a good thing.  And I think in a lot of cases we'll, we'll see these tools being used a lot more into the future.

Velvet-Belle Templeman

Stuart, as you've mentioned, some schools were better prepared than others to move towards online learning, but what other issues have been brought to light through this process?

Stuart McDowall

Well, my personal experience, I have school aged kids, so my experience of remote learning for me has really highlighted just how much work goes into teaching kids.  You know, there's a lot of work and a lot of preparation that goes in, not just during the pandemic of course, but all the time. We so rely on teachers and teacher aides for that expertise and I think this may resonate with other working parents who have had children at home.  But it's obvious that teachers in schools are absolutely essential.  And also, you know, how maybe society undervalues their contribution. 

I think this extends maybe to a lot of caring professions.  You know, childcare workers, nurses and health workers.  I think this experience has highlighted for us, again, just how important those professions are.  Also you need really great leadership and support functions to bring all that together especially when things are changing fast.  I think a lot of school IT support functions have shown in recent weeks that they’re a really vital resource.

Velvet-Belle Templeman

Stuart, you mentioned that you're a parent yourself and you work closely with the education sector, have you heard many stories of schools that have adapted in innovative and positive ways?

Stuart McDowall

Yeah, we have seen some great innovations out there.  I've heard of school libraries who are running a click and collect system, so their students can order their books online and then pick up their books from a special collection point the next day.  I think that's really awesome.  So the children don't lose the habit of reading widely, you know, which we know is so important.  On the business side, I've also seen schools have a lot of flexibility around school fees.  Obviously, a lot of parents are seeing reduced income at the moment and some might be out of work altogether.  So some schools have offered to defer fee payment until down the track.  One school I know of has also brought in an early payment discount.  So those families who were able to pay earlier can do so and that essentially balances out the cash flow for that school that's missing from those families who had to defer.

I know of other schools who have lined up an external finance provider so families can enter into a payment plan if they need to and of course, some schools I know of have offered to waive fees altogether if there's, you know, some genuine hardship.  I think a lot of that flexibility stems from the culture and the ethos that's already there at that school.  So, you know, when schools really care about their students, I think they'll be really flexible and proactive and try to help wherever they can.

Velvet-Belle Templeman

I've heard that some private schools were concerned about children leaving to enrol in public schools.  Are you aware of this happening?

Stuart McDowall

One thing about schooling from an economics perspective is that it's a really sticky purchase.  You know, once you've chosen a school for your kids, you tend not to chop and change.  You might do that in some situations like if you move a long way away or maybe if that school's not working out to be a good fit for your child, you know, or some sort of fairly extreme circumstance.  But so far, I haven't heard of any great exodus from private schools.  In terms of the economic downturn I think that we're all expecting, we're actually fairly early in the process and if you think about it in terms of term two, parents will have already paid their fees in advance.  I wouldn't think that many parents will have taken their kids out yet, but a reduction in demand may be on the cards later this year.

That might particularly affect new enrolments for next year.  I think we'll see some extra sensitivity to fee increases as well.  We know that fee increases for top tier schools have been growing faster than wage growth.  You know, something like, you know, 5% over recent years perhaps that's slowing down now, but that's still faster than inflation.  For some parents, that sort of fee increase might be more than they're able to absorb the way things are right now.  So certainly, if I was at school, I'd be looking at cashflow.  I've been mapping out forecasts for a number of different scenarios.  I'd make sure I was in as good a position as possible by hanging onto cash wherever you can, maybe deferring capital projects, if possible.  There's a lot that a school can do to manage costs, but you've got to be very careful, very strategic about things, particularly things that represent value to parents.

Velvet-Belle Templeman

So a question may be will private and religious schools need to sell themselves differently in a post Covid-19 world?

Stuart McDowall

I think many schools should be proud of the way they adapted to this disruption.  School leaders and teachers and support staff across the country have worked really hard to make sure that their schools are safe and students are looked after.  If a school can demonstrate this and promote that to their community, then that might be a point of difference for them.  I have already heard of some families who moved their kids from one school to another, at least in part, because they weren't satisfied with the way that their old school was dealing with the current situation. 

So I do think that safety and flexibility and tailored support will be key differentiators know, particularly in the near term.  Thinking longer term, there's also some indication that when unemployment is high, there can be a greater demand for post-school education.  So, you know, university or vocational education.  As people have a harder time getting a job, or feel that they need to do extra study to put themselves ahead, that we see more people going into that sort of formal post-school education.  Now, whether that will extend to private schooling, I'm not sure, but if future job security or a pathway to further study is something that can set your school apart then that might be attractive to parents as well.

Velvet-Belle Templeman

The coronavirus is an example of extreme global disruption, but it's not unfeasible that this could happen again.  Stuart, do you think that we'll be better prepared for the next time?

Stuart McDowall

Oh, hope they're into next time, [laughs] but look, you're right.  This isn't the last disruption that we'll see.  There'll be others, they'll come in other shapes and sizes and we won't really expect those either.  But we've all got an opportunity to learn from this experience.  I think we can be even better prepared for whatever the next one is.  So the schools that do take this opportunity to reflect on what they've learned and take action based on that will absolutely be in a much better position.

Velvet-Belle Templeman

Stuart, thank you for your time.

Stuart McDowall

Thank you very much, Velvet-Belle.

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