The COVID-19 pandemic and associated school closures may have constrained educational participation particularly for students in disadvantaged circumstances. During interviews with 30 disadvantaged students in secondary school (14 mainstream/16 Flexible Learning Program) from Queensland, New South Wales, and Tasmania, we explored three interconnected themes impacting home-based learning: connection; connectivity; and choice.
Connectivity captures the impact of digital, remote, or home-based learning on students’ ability to keep up with the curriculum. Factors are the provision of material resources needed to access digital content, digital literacy, and stable internet connection. Even when internet capable devices were provided, living in a remote location with poor connectivity, sharing devices in a household, or difficulties in making use of digital resources all had the potential to interfere with successful home-based learning if appropriate support strategies were not implemented.
Choice captures the flexibility afforded to students and their families to learn in a way that works for them. Here, we often heard that students appreciated being able to ‘learn at their own pace,’ being provided with hardcopies to learn, if connectivity issues could not be resolved, and the notion of responsibility for their own learning. We found that Flexible Learning Program students were generally better positioned to make choices, possibly because they were socialised to be self-paced learners prior to the pandemic.
Flexible Learning Programs appeared able to draw on an educational infrastructure that was well aligned with responsiveness to individual students’ support needs. Findings indicate a need for strengthening student-centred policy and practices aimed at leveraging the affordances of information technology, balancing self-directed and structured learning, and providing holistic support to enable meaningful student choice. We conclude that the lessons learnt during COVID-19 restrictions point to potential strategies that would benefit the educational participation and attainment of secondary school students experiencing complex social disadvantage more broadly.