In the early months of the COVID-19 emergency, as MQ moved to support our Chinese students trapped offshore, then moved all teaching online, and delivered the Commonwealth’s intent on Higher Education Certificates, the term “COVID-19 Business Continuity Planning” appeared in the title of practically everything I wrote.

By the end of April 2020, however, our institutional COVID-19 Taskforce had moved to thinking about “Business Recovery Planning”.  The change was subtle but important.  Our focus was now on the future.

While many institutions decided (often with little choice) that their students would stay away from campus for the academic year of 2020, Macquarie delivered a return to face-to-face small group learning activities in late July.  Our approach included learning activities such as labs where there was a mandatory requirement for attendance if the student was to meet the unit’s learning outcomes plus learning activities such as tutorials where we could give students the choice of continuing to study online (in synchronous mode) or in a COVID-Safe on-campus environment.

For several days my team and I walked around teaching spaces with tape measures to ensure 1.5 metre physical distancing was possible before giving models to our colleagues in Property who then made the necessary changes with signage and the removal of furniture.

Despite the speed of change in responding to the lockdown we resolved that we still required academic governance oversight of the wholesale move on-line.  An agile but manual approach that sat outside our digital Curriculum Management System was the result.  As we prepared for the return to teaching in the middle of 2020, however, we had time to adjust our Curriculum Management System with a new attendance pattern we called “Special Circumstance” (SC).  For select units, SC mode was the means through which students had the opportunity to exercise choice in select learning activities in select units of study. We also continued to deliver units, with enhanced support from the Office of the PVC( Learning and Teaching), for our students still studying offshore. Across our unit suite, 61 per cent of scheduled learning activities gave students the choice to complete them face-to-face or on-line.

While expectations were dampened by events in Victoria, it was still the case that when we returned to teaching in late July 44 per cent of students chose to complete one or more of their learning activities on campus.   To further ensure a safe learning environment around 80 students were employed as “COVID-Safe Ambassadors.”  These students encouraged physical distancing of students and staff as they moved around the campus.  The initiative supported our communications strategy which benefitted greatly from a VC (S Bruce Dowton) who is a medico and a DVC (David Wilkinson) who is an epidemiologist.

With the start of the 2021 academic year we continued the Special Circumstance approach. Today, 56 per cent of students chose face-to-face learning activities when they were provided with a choice.  The pattern, however, has not been uniform across our four faculties.  In one Ffaculty 75 per cent of students chose the face-to-face option while in another the figure was 40 per cent.  These results speak to the need for nuanced and course-specific responses as we move through our recovery phase.

Last week the vice chancellor informed the Macquarie community about our plans to move to a new “COVID-19 Low Risk” environment (CMM, April 6).  This move will see us return to full capacity in our teaching spaces from July. Colleagues will be able to once again schedule face-to-face large group learning activities such as lectures unless their unit has a high off-shore student enrolment.  This said, individuals, disciplines and even faculties are now debating what the learning environment of the future should look like and whether the humble lecture has a place.  Colleagues in Biology, for example, flipped their content delivery away from lectures in first year, are happy with the results, and intend to stay with the COVID-inspired change.

The Office of the PVC(L&T) is leading an institutional conversation around what we have learned from the COVID-19 experience regarding content delivery and the consequences for large group teaching.  Students, especially those starting their university journey, have told us they are very keen to be on campus with their teachers but, for many, COVID-19 has highlighted for them the limitations of traditional stand and deliver lectures and they have enjoyed the increased flexibility.

As we move to our new normal, the COVID-19 emergency has also thrown up a number of process challenges and revealed some of the limitations in our systems.  For example, we are currently exploring how our CMS can better integrate with timetabling.  COVID-19 highlighted the power of synchronous on-line learning activities, but we still have many students (those completing our units through Open Universities Australia, for example) for whom asynchronous learning remains essential.    A single “fully on-line” attendance pattern, therefore, is no longer fit-for-purpose.  We also want “special circumstance” to become a feature of our new normal.

As part of this work designing new attendance patterns, we also need to renew how our learning activities are expressed in the CMS to ensure the timetable appreciates the unit convenor’s intent.   Currently, our CMS simply lists “tutorial” as a learning activity.  If our systems are going to realise our new future we will need to know if that tutorial is scheduled for in-person or asynchronous delivery and whether a student can choose.

Ensuring the opportunities presented by the COVID-19 emergency are realised remains a challenge for all institutions.  As we struggle with a range of consequences from the pandemic, it may become all too easy to ‘”snap-back” into old ways of thinking and doing.  Finding the time and space to have collegial conversations around these matters when we continue to sprint a marathon is the first challenge.

Sean Brawley

Pro Vice-Chancellor (Programs and Pathways)

Macquarie U

Professor Brawley wrote on how Australian universities dealt with the previous pandemic for CMM here.



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