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The Centre for Educational Leadership Perspectives are opinion pieces that highlight current and topical educational leadership matters. Our professional experts write candidly about their views and offer a fresh perspective on today’s educational leadership challenges. Occasionally, other faculty members contribute.

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The Covid Chasm: Challenges of learning online

This article discusses how the recent lockdown has highlighted some of the enduring issues for education as students and teachers must move to learning online.
Posted on
Tuesday, April 21, 2020 - 15:00

Currently, in education, we are all feeling the impact of Covid-19 with nation-wide closures and shifts to online learning. But not all lockdown experiences are created equal.  While some school principals heralded this moment as an opportunity to rethink education, others were more cautious, raising concerns about the mounting pressure these changes would place on staff, students and families. Many recognised this lockdown would shine a light on our societal differences and amplify the struggles for our most vulnerable learners. The growing spotlight on inequity is making these uncomfortable realities hard to ignore. However, it may be the challenge our education sector needs to unite us into action: future-proofing access to quality education for all our young people.

One persistent challenge schools have faced, even before this pandemic, has been a student’s access to technology for online learning. A New Zealand study in 2016 by Dr Maggie Hartnett found that students from poorer families were less likely to have access to a device for learning at home. The digital divide between those who have and those who have not is becoming more visible for teachers as school closures compel students to make their home circumstances known. A note one teacher received just prior to his school being locked down illustrates the situation more often faced by students from poorer families:

Good morning Sir, 

I would just like to ask if I am able to borrow a laptop from school to continue my learning for term 2 since my sibling and I are sharing a laptop. Thank you for considering my request. 

“Do privileges ever end?” was the question a school leader asked after checking in with each student in her whanau class, highlighting another enduring challenge. During the check in a student revealed that he was working from a cramped bedroom shared with 3 other siblings and he had nowhere else to go.  A very different experience from other students stuck at home in their own rooms with their own desks and a spacious backyard if they need a breather. Technology and personal circumstance seem to amplify inequity during these locked down times. 

For teachers, the demand to shift lessons to an online platform raises an additional set of challenges. For some teachers, the shift is business as usual. For others this requirement represents a steep professional learning curve. Using unfamiliar technology can be a daunting prospect, let alone using this technology to design quality learning experiences and to foster strong learning relationships. Moving from the dynamic social setting of a classroom to an online environment can make it hard to gauge how each student is responding to a lesson and what help individuals might need. 

Even when schools were open for instruction, using technology more in class for online learning did not mean that student outcomes improved (OECD, 2015). Many technological innovations do not have a clear pedagogical element (Fullan, M., & Donnelly, K., 2014). There are often no links outlining how to interact with these innovative platforms in ways that will achieve high learning gains. This emphasises the important role school leaders can play to support quality instruction online. Leaders can ensure that teachers have the guidance and professional support they need to use technology deliberately, in ways that will increase engagement and deepen student understanding. 

Covid-19 at level 4, in such a short space of time, has required us to come face to face with some of education’s most enduring challenges. As leaders, how do we support teachers to use technology intentionally to deepen learning? As teachers, how do we ensure our online offerings consistently stretch students’ understanding, curiosity, and foster a love of learning? Not to mention, what do our most vulnerable students have to say about their experience of our online offerings? In this moment of crisis-as-opportunity it is critical schools adopt systematic practices that will continue to reduce the Covid-chasm and deliberately future-proof learning for all our students.


Fullan, M., & Donnelly, K. (2014). Alive in the swamp: Assessing digital innovations in education. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

Hartnett, M. (2017). Differences in the digital home lives of young people in New Zealand. British Journal of Educational Technology, 48, 642–652. 

OECD (2015b). Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connection. PISA, Paris: OECD Publishing.

Written by: Miranda Makin, Professional Expert m.makin@auckland.ac.nz