by Cathy Xu, Brian Stoddart and Keith Houghton

Multiple attempts have been made to evaluate student learning experiences during Covid. The Martin Report published by TEQSA late in the first year of the pandemic concluded that, student experiences were overwhelmingly negative noting “a significant percentage of survey respondents indicated that they did not wish to continue with remote study and wished to return to a face-to-face experience as soon as possible” adding the “characteristics of what worked well …. are relatively few…” *

But if there are there lessons to be learned in respect of online and digital education some might come might from the business community.

Today, many global and national businesses (including several professional services firms) now deliver all or most of their professional development educational offerings via on-line and digitally delivered education (DDE), and are not heading back to face-to-face delivery.

They have experienced significant efficiencies in staff time utilization and in efficacy of learning outcomes. These programmes can reach staff in any location and at any time. Given the needed level of sophistication, success here does not come cheaply.

Those who believe education is fundamentally a social activity, with face-to-face delivery being an essential component, push back on DDE becoming the dominant or even a prominent learning approach. There are two responses to this.

First, the use of digital learning communities, with digital spaces replacing the physical community spaces such as libraries and coffee shops are important in digitally enabled learning but have been relatively rare in the Covid applications of on-line delivery in Australia.

Second, it is understandable to want face-to-face social interactions for some cohorts of students, particularly undergraduates. The on-campus experience that is almost a “coming of age” phenomenon is highly positive – especially for those lucky enough to be resident on campuses.

However, certain student groups want their education delivered by DDE now and at scale.

The lingering belief that DDE “will never catch on” comes from the view that face-to-face interaction between lecturers and students and between students themselves is the only way to transfer knowledge.

This might be historically true but technology moves the world on. It is worth remembering that decades ago it was believed flight simulators would never catch on in the training of airline pilots. But as with the aviation sector, technology can provide new opportunities if it helps fulfill the learning needs and expectations of students and is embraced by educators.

How many of those people who regard DDE as a somehow lesser form of education are well acquainted with what leading edge DDE looks like, and can do, now? Some of them will naturally point to declining student satisfaction scores during the pandemic as support for a return to face-to-face teaching. But was the Covid-19 emergency response a valid representation of what can be done if planning and resources are available?

One crucial reason why on-line university education during Covid returned lower student evaluations was that the learning design approaches used in the emergency response were based on conventional face-to-face learning. That is, the design approach was not optimized for the digital world; and the differences can be significant. The expert support needed to move to digitally enabled learning designs was simply not available to universities in sufficient scale. And as the pandemic unfolded, the required expertise became highly expensive.

Put simply, students often want more than was on offer in the Covid emergency response. Given they have a higher digital literacy than ever before, often with stronger digital skills than those who teach their classes, it is little wonder that student satisfaction scores tumbled.

While it is not likely that all in the higher education sector will offer DDE either now or in the immediate future, we predict that, in time, many will for certain student populations.

In the meantime, sizable numbers of students will seek out programmes that provide increasingly content-rich, engaging, student-centric learning by way of DDE that will employ digitally enabling techniques to craft a “social” experience much like social media.

The move will likely start with one growing student group, graduate domestic coursework technology-literate students. They will likely be less interested in university “brand name” and more in the accessibility of delivery mode. Studying when and where they want and at a pace of their choosing, will be key drivers of demand.

The inevitable catch is that capacity-building costs are high. In the present funding context, the providers of higher education in Australia may not see an adequate return on investment in the short and medium term. There are two possible effects of this:

* smaller institutions including some public universities, may well band together and develop a shared platform for DDE, and

* this may be seen as a national, rather than institution problem and opportunity – cue, newly minted Education, Minister Jason Clare, who will, no doubt, be briefed (and lobbied) on the matter.

Why might this be successful?

Because a national digitally delivered education agenda is highly relevant to Australia, as we are seen as a major leader in internationalised higher education – and developing high quality and well-designed offerings in the digital space will attract an international audience, not just a domestic one.

* Martin, L Foundations for good practice: The student experience of online learning in Australian higher education during the COVID-19 pandemic, November 2020, TEQSA


Cathy Xu is the chief executive officer of the Australian National Institute of Management and Commerce (ANIMC) and of Top Education Group

Brian Stoddart is formerly a vice chancellor of LaTrobe University and chair of the council of ANIMC

Keith Houghton is a director of The Higher Education and Research Group (HERG) and Campus2Cloud


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