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Pandemic sparks digital revolution in Australian education

But concerns that not all universities are ready for shift to online courses are growing

In 2019 the pro vice-chancellor of Newcastle University, John Fischetti, indulged in some crystal-ball gazing.

“To remain relevant, Australia’s universities need to transform into very different entities,” he said. They should do this by embracing “the interconnection technology offers. And they will need to do so quickly.” 

With the pandemic’s arrival on Australian shores in early 2020, face-to-face teaching was shelved. Universities scrambled to adapt course material to online formats, with varying degrees of success. 

Speaking with Research Professional News this week, Fischetti reflects on his uncannily prescient observations.

“This year in Australia we’ve faced bushfires and the pandemic. The previous ‘unusual’ is now the Covid-normal,” he says. “We have to protect ourselves from global disruptions by having fantastic online product on standby.”

Although most of Australia’s universities have now returned to at least partial on-campus instruction, the pandemic has created a seismic shift in the sector. But a wholesale shift to online courses has piled pressure on academics with dual responsibilities for researching and teaching.

Boom time

Writing in February as lockdowns rolled out across Australia, Carlo Perrotta, a senior lecturer in digital literacies at Monash University, accurately predicted that the crisis would “trigger an online boom for education”.

But Perrotta warned of turmoil as Australian tertiary educators played catch-up in the rush to shift courses online. He pointed to the lack of “mandatory standards for online education” resulting in “a huge variety among institutions and even between individual courses”.

“To make this worse,” he warned, “not all staff are familiar with—or feel positive about—distance learning.”

Early indicators indeed show that some universities have performed much better in this environment than others. 

At the University of Sydney, students rated their learning experience at an all-time high during the semester they were in lockdown. A spokesperson for UoS told Research Professional News that was because “good teaching and learning is good teaching and learning regardless of medium”.

Chief information officer, Trevor Woods, urged UoS academics to create “more ambitious, fully curated online learning experiences”.

Academics took the advice to heart. Today, psychology students at the university don virtual reality headsets and learn about phobias by handling virtual spiders in online labs, while veterinary science students use suture kits at home to follow their teachers in real-time on Zoom. 

In this brave new world, podiatry teachers at the University of South Australia pop life-size, 3-D printed feet in the post to send to students so they can learn to identify and treat conditions such as diabetic ulcers, while journalism students participate in virtual press conferences and file stories with an online editor.

Pressure warning

But developing and delivering these programs with the Covid-19 clock ticking has been a daunting task for university staff already lumbered with bigger workloads after the axing of casual and sessional teaching staff. 

“We’ve had reports of academics given mere days to move their entire curriculum to ‘online delivery only’,” Alison Barnes, president of the National Tertiary Education Union, said in the early days of the pandemic. “It’s putting huge pressure on staff.”

That pressure has led to patchy outcomes. A recent Australian National University survey found that almost 40 per cent of students considered leaving the university in first semester. ANU students judged the quality of remote education in 2020 as “below satisfactory”. 

Speaking with Research Professional News, Hannah Buchan, president of the University of Melbourne Student Union, echoes these sentiments.

“Students have struggled with the shift to online learning,” she says. “They feel they’re not receiving the same quality of education they would on campus. Yet they’re forced to pay the same fees.”

And those fees—especially the higher ones charged to foreign students—are vital to support the research work of many institutions. Any widespread shift in opinion of the quality of Australian courses could store up major problems for the future of the sector.

But Fischetti tells Research Professional News he believes these changes are inevitable, and that Australia’s HE sector is at risk of “becoming obsolete” unless it rethinks the “old university model.”

“The Covid-19 reality has flipped lectures to online mode,” he says. “With the best lecturers in the world just a click away, why would universities return to face-to-face versions of their own product when the whole world is now available to any student, anytime, anywhere?”

A shift online could even boost the traditionally well regarded quality of Australia’s universities.

In a recent paper, HE sector analyst, Claire Field, suggested just such a silver lining for universities who are swift to adapt: recruiting international experts to teach on their courses.

“With Australia’s HE sector comprising a decreasing number of senior tenured professionals and a much larger pool of casualised lecturers and tutors, the structures are already in place to ‘swap out’ Australian lecturers for global experts in fields where Australia has less expertise in-country.”

What this means for the future of Australian academics and university students remains to be seen. But Hannah Buchan is more concerned about what’s happening in Australia’s universities today. 

“Many universities say they’re supporting students through this,” she says. “But that’s not what their actions are saying. Universities need to put student welfare above profit and make sure that students and staff are not disadvantaged because of this crisis.”