“Necessity is the mother of invention.” This proverb nicely sums up the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on higher education.

Pre-COVID, universities lagged well behind other service sectors when it came to digital transformation. Think of shopping, entertainment, banking, utilities, and public services – all sectors that saw a complete transformation in service delivery and the customer experience this past decade, powered by digital technologies.

Meanwhile, in universities, the student learning experience had changed little. Most universities had only “islands of innovation”, with a handful of teachers and courses making comprehensive use of digital technologies; the bulk of teaching continued to be delivered via in-person classes and paper-based examinations was the dominant form of assessment.

COVID has dragged the higher education sector into the 21st century. In response to the pandemic, universities across Australia had to pivot to online remote delivery. At the University of Wollongong, we suspended our teaching in late March 2020 to enable the rapid transition of 99.9 per cent our subjects to remote delivery. Core to this was an intensive training programme for our academics.  Over a two-week period, we delivered 80 webinars to over 1,700 staff. We also created a self-paced on-line training programme that by mid-May had been accessed 119,000 times by our staff.  Uni Wollongong is proud receive the Australian Financial Review 2020 Higher Education Award for Learning Experience in recognition of the success of our transition to remote delivery.

Of course, our success was not unique. Universities across the country rapidly pivoted at extraordinary speed and scale to online remote delivery, all thanks to the remarkable commitment and efforts of staff. The COVID-19 Delta variant kept many universities in remote delivery for much of 2021. With the national vaccination rate on track to exceed 90% by the end of the year, and public health restrictions already easing in some states, the question becomes “what happens next?”

Digital transformation is here to stay: Most everyone wants a return to vibrant campus life, not in the least because human interaction is so important to learning and personal growth, and universities are where students build friendships and networks that last lifetimes. At the same time, we know that many students value the diversity of resources that are now digitally available, as well as the flexibility offered by on-line learning and teaching environments and experiences. Universities must also reduce dependency on large lecture classes in preparation for the possibility of future COVID variants triggering a return of public health restrictions. If we do it right, by incorporating inclusive and purposeful design and providing support, digitalisation can improve equal access to higher education. For all these reasons, digital transformation is here to stay.

Hence, we have launched the Blended Learning Enhancement Initiative at UOW to build on the momentum of all that has been achieved these past two years, and cultivate the culture and strategic direction needed to drive digital transformation.

As a result of the transition to on-line remote delivery, every teacher has been upskilled in aspects of digital learning and teaching. Those that were already good have excelled, and those colleagues who did not previously use digital technologies have similarly enhanced their proficiency. Mid-year surveys in 2020 showed that students recognised that academics were doing what they could in immensely trying circumstances. However, the 2020 Student Experience Survey for the Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching programme also recorded a large drop in student satisfaction across Australia. In short, we need to do better.

The task ahead as we reintroduce the on-campus experience is to lift the baseline quality of blended learning across all our courses. This involves a more considered approach to the design, and perhaps more importantly, the connection of synchronous and asynchronous learning experiences, across a range of technology enhanced on-line and on campus delivery modes. Moreover, a strategic focus on the resilient and reflective pedagogies that drive learning and teaching excellence will help move us beyond emergency remote delivery, and the way things were before, toward the realisation of true digital transformation of higher education.

Empowering staff to be innovators: The best approach to digital transformation is one that inspires and empowers academics to make strategic choices around the development of blended learning in their courses.

Hence our approach at UOW provides staff with a range of new resources, tools and programs that promote reflective practice and the purposeful online learning design.

Academics are busier than ever before, and so we have designed a one-stop learning and teaching hub for staff to access these resources. Reflective practice is at the heart of our blended strategy. We have designed a Digital Uplift Check (DUC) tool to make it easy for staff to engage in structured reflection and identify appropriate resources and support.

Guided by student feedback: As universities continue to transform, most important of all is that we listen to students. Students face being overwhelmed by inconsistent on-line subject sites with limited instructions and too much content (including lengthy lecture videos, recycled outdated teacher-created videos, and disconnected YouTube clips).

Like staff, students are increasingly time-poor and they rightly have limited tolerance of on-line activities that lack clear purpose or involve unnecessary duplication.  Creating more videos and on-line activities does not necessarily improve student engagement. Rather, our efforts need to be purposeful, aligned, inclusive and student-centred if we are to make a real difference. While opportunities for interactivity and active learning are key, students will notice whether we have sought to meaningfully connect online and on-campus experiences in ways that facilitate their learning journey.

The debate between on-campus versus online teaching offers a false dichotomy. Universities in Australia are and need to do both to meet the needs of our students. We need to continue the momentum in digital transformation whilst returning our classes to campus.

Professor Theo Farrell is Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Education) and Dr. Alyce Mason is Deputy Director of the Learning, Teaching and Curriculum Division, at the University of Wollongong.


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