For a while now we’ve all been thinking about modern educational delivery. We moved fully on-line when COVID hit. Now many students are back, but not all.  Sometimes we simultaneously teach on-campus and on-line students together. We call this hybrid mode.

Now we’re all wondering about the future mix of face-to-face, on-line, and hybrid teaching, and the possibility of using synchronous and asynchronous delivery for different aspects of a course.

I’ve been told that digital education should be like e-commerce. Which ideally just co-exists with in-person shopping. Merchants just offer the mix of in-person and on-line support that works. In education we should stop worrying and do the same.

But it’s harder than it looks. Total flexibility can be confusing for both students and staff. Hybrid teaching can be difficult and exhausting.

To some it looks like universities haven’t figured things out. But I believe each university is homing-in on what is best for their students.

Let’s look at history. Oxford has long had a very precise rule “undergraduate students, for the period prescribed for their degree, must reside within six miles of Carfax tower” – an old church tower in the city centre.

But what about students who couldn’t move to Oxford?

In 1969 – long before MOOCs – the Open University was founded in Britain to offer remote learning. In Australia , Uni New England, Deakin U, Charles Sturt U and others have long provided on-line education for off-campus students.

The important thing is to think in terms of the different students, rather than the educational delivery mode: traditional, on-line, and hybrid. There are, thus, just two types of students: students who can (and want to) come to campus, and students who can’t (or won’t).

Suddenly, it’s simpler – it’s not about the mix of delivery, it’s about the target population for the degree. It’s all about those who can live near Carfax tower and those who can’t.

Things look complicated because universities with students studying on campus include a lot of digital support. In some subjects the digital support almost totally eclipses traditional teaching, because digital learning works really well in some subjects.

I think institutions like Oxford will continue to cater mostly for undergraduates who can come to campus, and others like the Open University will continue to provide for remote students. Many universities will cater for both by offering some traditional and other on-line degrees rather than offering every degree via hybrid classes.

Overall, an undergraduate experience on campus will remain part of growing up and fledging the nest for many young people. Not everyone – so there must be universities that provide for those who cannot attend – but many young people, and particularly international undergraduates, who want an international in-country experience, will expect to come to campus.

There is a magic when students from different high schools come together and enjoy the invisible benefits of learning together with other humans in first year.  It’s much harder to Seize The Day and be transformed when one is watching fragments of videos alone.  It’s possible, of course, but it’s harder.  The campus experience can be richer than shopping for tee-shirts online.

What about postgraduate and lifelong learners?

Here it varies. I think many international students will want an in-country experience and so will come to Australia. Some Australians will always go abroad to perfect their French at the Sorbonne. On the other hand, many domestic postgraduate students and lifelong learners will choose the convenience of on-line study.

Clarity is important in setting expectations for students and for staff. If students opt for a traditional course, then they should expect to attend, though they may take advantage of on-line support as required. If students enrol in an on-line degree, they should not be required to attend but may take advantage of on-campus activities when available.

In the future I expect the majority but not all Australian undergraduates and most foreign students (whether they are undergraduates or postgraduates) will opt for traditional degrees, while many domestic postgraduates and lifelong learners, because they need flexibility, and may have already enjoyed a traditional undergraduate education, will prefer on-line.

Educational delivery will seem dizzyingly complex as technologies advance, but it is all about catering for different students in different contexts and life stages.

We will also see different staff. Some staff will specialise in teaching students on campus (while providing digital support), others in educating students who are on-line. Each university will decide how many traditional and online courses it offers. Hybrid classes or asynchronous digital backups such as recordings will exist for the students in face-to-face classes who can’t make it on the day.

My expectation is that our physical campus will remain vibrant and powerful, and our cloud campus will continue to develop, so that both sets of students are supported to grow and meet their aspirations for higher learning. Simultaneously, some staff will continue to teach mostly on-campus, while there will also be more options to work remotely.

It’s really all about the people, not just the technology.

Professor Merlin Crossley is DVC  Academic and Student Life at UNSW Sydney


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