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You are reading: COVID-19 online learning landscapes and CALDMR students: Opportunities and challenges

Sally Baker1, Joel Anderson2, Rachel Burke3, Teresa De Fazio4, Clemence Due5, Lisa Hartley6, Tebeje Molla7, Carolina Morison8, William Mude9, Loshini Naidoo10, Ravinder Sidhu11

Executive summary

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed vulnerabilities of educational systems in Australia and around the world. For universities, campus closures and a rapid shift to teaching and learning online — which we call emergency remote delivery (ERD) to distinguish from planned online learning — has deepened inequalities in access to quality learning experiences. While the challenges created by COVID for universities and students have not yet fully unfolded, ERD has both created new, and magnified existing barriers for educational participation, as well as some unanticipated positive consequences for enhanced flexibility and more engaged learning. In particular, it has created new educational and social vulnerability for culturally and linguistically diverse migrant and/or refugee (CALDMR) communities. COVID has also exposed the stresses and difficulties for educators, student-facing support staff (SFSS; equity practitioners, student advisors, learning advisors, counsellors), and educational developers.

This research project draws on the expertise of a collective of interdisciplinary academics across Australia. Working with a steering group from the Refugee Education Special Interest Group, this study examines the equity-related challenges and opportunities of ERD for four groups of ‘stakeholders’: CALDMR students, university educators, ‘student-facing’ support staff, and educational developers. This research draws on data from a national, mixed-methods study involving 30 universities. It gathered data from 87 CALDMR university students who completed an online survey and 10 students who participated in a Photovoice exercise; 29 university educators who completed an online survey and eight who participated in semi-structured interview; 13 SFSS who participated in semi-structured interviews; and 19 educational developers who completed on online survey.

Major findings


The pandemic has generated a range of policy responses. Through the Higher Education Relief Package and other initiatives, Federal and State governments made resources available so that universities could support international students and offer short courses tailored to workers who lost their jobs because of the lockdown. Although most COVID- related student support initiatives did not specifically target CALDMR students, there were emergency programs that benefited members of the group. Importantly, COVID-related equity arrangements focused mainly on financial assistance—academic challenges of disadvantaged student have gained little attention.


The evidence resulting from this study suggest that CALDMR students were not equipped for the sudden shift to online learning and virtual classrooms. While the students who participated reported that they were able to remain engaged with their studies and that they enjoyed aspects of online learning, they also reported being disproportionately impacted by factors outside their academic settings. These factors include their finances, mental health, and wellbeing, living and learning environments, and their ability to access computers and the internet. The students reported being mostly unable to find support from staff or peers to help overcome the challenges associated with learning from home. While the impact of COVID on CALDMR students was primarily negative, revealing structural problems in online learning that will continue to impact this population into the future, there were also advantages, such as increased flexibility, new possibilities for student engagement, reduced commuting time, and enhanced relationships with lecturers.

Carer responsibilities were foregrounded in the data as a significant factor impacting student engagement during the shift to remote instruction, although participant perceptions regarding the potentially gendered nature of these roles were mixed. Overall, attitudes to whether and how gender impacted student and staff experiences during ERD were mixed. Some staff indicated that gender was an important factor in shaping engagement, while others were unsure and suggested it would be useful for institutions to collect data on this issue, particularly in relation to carer responsibilities, experiences of domestic violence, and engagement with university support services. We therefore suggest that these findings regarding the lack of evidence around gender warrant institutional attention and further research focused on gender and sexuality as possible intersectional factors shaping CALDMR student inclusion. Further, the need for more diverse models of higher education participation that acknowledge different cultural and social understandings of gender roles and identities was also identified as important to CALDMR students’ cultural safety and inclusion

University educators

University educators identified having insufficient time to prepare for remote learning and challenges navigating the work-home life balance. These challenges added to the educators’ stress and workloads in the context of sector-wide job insecurity. Given the rapid shift, some educators disclosed not providing sufficient consideration to the needs of CALDMR students in the online delivery. Despite this, educators described feeling moral and pedagogical responsibility to respond to their needs which led to an increased ‘caring’ work directed towards students specifically impacted by financial pressures, caregiving responsibilities and other factors during the lockdown. University educators identified that the forced transition to online delivery provided an opportunity for educators to discover a range of different strategies and modalities which they may otherwise not have used. This also led to the adoption of different online tools which enabled some students to feel more confident about class participation and a sense of belonging in the class community.

Student-facing support staff

Student-Facing Support Staff (SFSS) noted that institutional shifts to deliver online support and services were actioned at a speed and scale unprecedented and uncharacteristic to normal modes of institutional operation. Many stakeholders, including SFSS with specialised knowledge of equity cohorts including CALDMR groups, were largely absent from the decision-making process. This meant the representation and awareness of the needs of these students, and the targeted engagement of resources to support them, were likely to have been overlooked. The interview responses highlight the multiple challenges faced by CALDMR students in the pivot to online learning during the peak of COVID, and the forms of support provided by universities to address these difficulties. Tertiary institutions across the country have supported the CALDMR student cohort by providing financial, mental, and material support to help address their current challenges. Nevertheless, findings from interviews highlight the need to provide greater ongoing support to help students navigate the ‘new normal’ in their tertiary education experience. The interview responses also point out the need for greater staff support, as the findings highlight the evident increase in staff workload with the shift to online learning.

Educator developers

Findings from this study indicate that institutional equity work needs to consider the specific needs of CALDMR students through practices that can then be reflected in impactful educational development work as universities plan for more online delivery ‘post-pandemic’. Our study illustrates that educational developers are generally aware that interculturally inclusive design is important, and that it is particularly important in the move to online delivery. Educational developers are aware that their strategic pedagogic responses to supporting educators requires professional development tailored for educational development beyond what is generally available.


From these findings, we used a strengths-based approach underpinned by Appreciative Inquiry to create a research-informed advocacy agenda, which makes recommendations for policy and practice directed at the federal, institutional and community levels:

Federal government

  • Recognise students from refugee backgrounds and asylum seekers who have been in Australia for less than 10 years as equity groups because doing so can provide additional support to compensate for the education disruptions experienced.
  • Provide institutions with emergency equity funding that targets CALDMR students to recognise that creating responsive and enriching learning experiences can be resource intensive.


  • Develop institutional systems of identification and data intelligence systems to better assist staff to locate and support CALDMR students in their courses and programs. This will enhance the delivery of targeted services, support, and intervention strategies for the full life cycle of their higher education experience from participation to achievement and post-study employment.
  • Affirm the importance of care and advocacy and the need for institution-wide valuing of student and staff wellbeing as essential to engagement, inclusion, and success for CALDMR students.
  • Address the intersecting disadvantages likely to be experienced by CALD students through services tailored to specific community and cultural perspectives and informed by students and staff from CALDMR backgrounds.
  • Employ CALDMR liaison staff to provide targeted support.
  • Revisit policies to proactively plan for flexible arrangements to support CALDMR student learning in extraordinary circumstances, underpinned by a commitment to social responsibility.
  • Provide structural support for CALDMR students as they adjust to online or hybrid teaching delivery, such as access to emergency funding, digital resources and equipment, and person-centred guidance with navigating policies, procedures, and practices.
  • Build institutional capacity for providing a flexible and blended approach to service provision in both online and in-person capacity which considers the particular needs of CALDMR students.
  • Invest in opportunities for staff—including colleagues on casual contracts—to access cultural awareness/ intersectionality and implicit bias training that includes strategies and case studies with critical CALDMR examples.

University community

  • Develop teaching and learning resources that are fit for purpose for CALDMR and equity students that do not assume students have equal access to linguistic and cultural resources (including institutional/system knowledge).
  • Devise teaching and learning strategies that integrate accessible, inclusive, and engaging digital technologies.
  • Provide support to university educators to ensure teaching is student-centred, engaging, considers diverse learner experiences, and reflects an ethic of care.
  • Enhance institutional engagement with CALDMR students and foster a greater sense of belonging by incorporating the use of community languages in the distribution of institutional communications, particularly around the access and availability of student services and support.

Read the full report: COVID-19 online learning landscapes and CALDMR students: Opportunities and challenges

This research was conducted under the NCSEHE Research Grants Program, funded by the Australian Government Department of Education, Skills and Employment.

1University of New South Wales
2La Trobe University
3The University of Newcastle
4Victoria University
5University of Adelaide
6Curtin University
7Deakin University
8Macquarie University
10Western Sydney University
11The University of Queensland

Expert Review

Alfred Deakin Professor Alexander Newman
Head, Department of Management
Deakin Business School
Deakin University

In this report Sally Baker and colleagues from across Australia examine the challenges faced by culturally and linguistically diverse students from migrant or refugee backgrounds (CALD/R students) resulting from the move of higher education institutions to online learning (emergency remote delivery) during the pandemic. Drawing on data obtained from mixed methods research with four groups of stakeholders (CALDMR students, educators, support staff and educational designers) they found that in many cases CALDMR students were not equipped to deal with the sudden shift to online learning and were impacted by a whole host of factors. These included difficulties faced in accessing computers and the internet, limited support from staff or peers in the transition to online learning and living environments that were not conducive to online study. They also found that due to time pressures university staff were not always able to provide sufficient consideration for the needs of CALDMR students and other equity groups, and that staff tasked with providing support for CALDMR students were not always consulted in the shift to online delivery. The report makes an important contribution by highlighting the need for higher education institutions and policy makers to consider the impact of the pandemic on CALDMR students amongst other equity groups.

Download the full report:
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