On behalf of the hundreds of thousands of Australians who have graduated through on-line and blended higher education, plus their teachers, I want to register the strongest of objections to Warren Bebbington’s statement that “… an analytical mind is a fundamental graduate attribute in any field. But its nurturing is not naturally facilitated by on-line learning modes,” (CMM October 11) 

Certainly if such education was indeed “bite-sized information and quick-quiz follow-up mode of on-line pedagogy” there might be grounds for such a claim but such a pedagogy could be – and probably has been – applied just as ineffectively to physical teaching.  As the pandemic experience has shown across the working world, much of what was assumed to require physical presence, actually does not and in certain respects is better for that. 
But the real grounds for my objection is that on-line education has been successfully delivering both the development of the graduate and their mind along with effective student support for many years pre-Covid-19, and increasingly so in recent years.
According to government statistics, of the 1.609m students enrolled in Australian higher education in 2019, 29.6 per cent (0.476m) were studying externally or multi-modal, or in less bureaucratic speak, studying on-line or in blended mode. It furthermore seems reasonable, given international student visa requirements for mainly internal (on campus) study, that most of these students were domestic students. Taking this to be about 95 per cent, leads to an estimate of about 41 per cent of domestic students being enrolled to study – develop their minds – on-line or in blended mode. (These figures probably explain the lack of domestic student study mode change angst in Australia compared with the high levels in the UK and USA.)
On top of this, enrolment mode has not for many years excluded students from experiencing aspects of on-line study.  Even for internal (on-campus)  students, learning management systems have been digitally delivering teaching materials, recorded lectures, student and teacher communication and interactions.
Pre-pandemic, along with a couple of other factors, the pursuit of the on-campus international student market seems in parts of the Australian higher education sector to have slowed and constrained the mainstream uptake of and innovation in on-line learning. Professor Beddington correctly identifies that the pandemic has thrown up opportunities (even necessities) to escape those restrictions. Indeed there was pre-pandemic, and then during the pandemic a once in a generation opportunity that Australian universities appear to have let pass by. That is, to teach students world-wide on-line, and to lead in teaching overseas academics how to proficiently teach on-line. After all, the new normal in work, life and play, requires the ability to be highly functional including analytic in the digital world.
Janet Verbyla, emeritus professor.
Independent academic consultant and coach.
former Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor, University of Southern Queensland


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