While I do not dismiss Lin Martin’s concerns (CMM Wednesday) I can certainly assure her that learning and teaching has risen to the on-line challenge.

On the surface, Dr Martin’s concerns relating to on-line learning and professional registration bodies, and a lack of on-line teaching skills in the sector seem justified.  But it is important to acknowledge the huge effort teaching staff are making in coming up-to-speed quickly in this space, largely thanks to the centralised learning and teaching support units that facilitate rapid professional development opportunities.

At my Griffith University, we have been running an average 11 on-line workshops a week for the last six weeks, on topics designed to help staff with this transition. These have attracted more than 900 registrations thus far. Staff appreciate these opportunities and we are starting to see a significant up-lift in their skills, based on the engagement in our support sites. There are also new opportunities to employ more engaging on-line pedagogical models of teaching.

Teachers want their student to succeed and are going above and beyond to help make this happen.

But it is worth remembering that teaching in higher education is very much about specialist knowledge and the way students acquire it. Knowledge is the food students need and it matters little if they metaphorically eat it in a restaurant, collect it as take-away or have it home delivered. The same food is consumed and enjoyed. Sure, the ambience is different, but this does not necessarily make any one way worse. So, the knowledge-skills of the teacher are not the thing in question here, it is more about how the food is delivered and the skills of the delivery person, who may or may not be the same person.

Admittedly, Dr Martin’s examples, from the sciences, engineering technologies, medical and life sciences, are particularly tricky. But they are not insurmountable in the short term, although they would be highly problematic if the disruption were to continue.

The use of on-line lab technologies, multi-camera recordings of complex experiments and simulations, are not new to higher education, it is just there has been a huge up-lift in their quantity and frequency, in a very short time. This is an opportunity to strengthen our engagement with emerging technologies, in much the same way that industry already is, through the use of robotics, AI and 3D technologies. The biggest risk here is those wedded to older (more traditional) ways of teaching in their disciplines resisting these opportunities.

Dr Martin asks, “how does an institution ensure that on-line learning assessment is comparable to in-class assessment to warrant the same subject/course accreditation?”; stressing this is of major importance.

Interestingly, in the shift to fully on-line assessment there are very few differences to the practices of recent years. Students, in most cases, have been submitting electronic forms of essays and undertaking on-line quizzes for close on a decade now and so there is no change there. Really, the only difference we see is the adoption of on-line proctored exams. However, in practice these are being minimised, as much more authentic forms of assessment are adopted. In Griffith U’s case, where we would normally run 500 plus human proctored exams at the end of our Trimester One, we are now running only 41 remotely invigilated exams.

No, it’s not ideal but in these cases the appropriate accrediting bodies have required this and agreed to accept this as appropriate, given the circumstances. At the end of the day, we are just trying to make it possible for our students to actually sit their exams, where they have to for accreditation purposes, and not have to defer them to another time, which would have far more negative consequences for them.

Through all this, will we see a decline in the quality in our courses, or a drop in assessment standards, as Dr Martin fears?

I trust not, our normal quality mechanisms are all still in place and they have held us in good stead so far. If anything, assessment is strengthened, not weakened; there is more attention paid to analytic data on how students engage in their course sites and tools; teachers are no less experienced in their subject matter and there is help available for those who struggle with the on-line teaching, even to the extent that we are improving their practice overall.

Dr Martin raises real and legitimate concerns that all need to be addressed and if they are not being addressed by some institutions then somebody should be holding them to account. This is precisely where skilled academic leadership will shine through, not just from those at the top of the pile, but through all levels of an institution.

Professor Michael Sankey. Director, Learning Transformations, Griffith University


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