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Campus no longer king, survey shows


Most Australian universities are moving to a hybrid delivery model in 2021

University teaching in Australia may be permanently changed by the Covid-19 pandemic and the emergence of blended and online teaching models.

As universities attempt to keep international students who are stranded overseas engaged while grappling with the risk of sudden lockdowns, most are keeping their options open as the first semester of 2021 approaches.

Some courses are combining recorded lectures with smaller tutorial groups for class and lab work.

A white paper from the Australasian Council on Open, Distance and E-learning, written by Michael Sankey from Griffith University, says that about half of universities will have some form of on-campus lectures. It adds that 22 out of 43 universities that responded to a survey across Australia and New Zealand said they would have full on-campus lectures or “a reduced model” of on-campus lectures. Another 17 said they would not restart lectures in the first semester.

Six of the responding institutions said they did not plan to run on-campus lectures even after 2021, with their reasons a mix of pandemic-related and “other”. About a third of respondents said they were looking at ways to deliver lecture materials in smaller groups by adjusting timetabling and teaching spaces.

The study, published on 28 January, also identified a trend in cutting course content into smaller blocks of information. “A strategy that many institutions have adopted over time is to provide more prerecorded (shorter, more topic-focused chunks of) content for students, rather than providing one-to-two-hour face-to-face lectures.”

Among the reasons given for keeping lectures is their cheapness, a sense that they promote engagement, and “old-fashioned” academics. One university said it was explicitly requiring courses to be designated “face to face”, “blended” or “online”. Responses to the study were anonymised.

A spokesperson for Monash University told Research Professional News that Monash would “provide on-campus learning for students in semester one, 2021, in line with current state government restrictions”.

“It’s expected that all students based in Australia will be in Melbourne and attending on-campus activities from the commencement of semester one.” All students unable to attend campus for reasons to do with Covid-19, including border restrictions, “will be supported with online study”.

On 9 February, Monash announced it would host a temporary Covid-19 testing site on campus. On 12 February, Victoria became the latest state to go into a short lockdown due to the virus escaping quarantine, highlighting the need for flexibility.

The University of Melbourne said it would offer a combination of course modes. “Our planned modes of teaching for semester one, with many subjects to be delivered fully online or in dual delivery, are designed to cater for the needs of students unable to attend campus and ensure students currently overseas can continue to progress through their degrees.” Some Melbourne subjects are offering a choice of either in-person or online tutorials.

The University of Technology Sydney said that “some active and informal learning activities (such as tutorials, labs and group work) resumed on the UTS campus from the beginning of the 2020 spring session (27 July), but the majority of learning activities, including all large lectures, continued to be delivered online. Our campus has never been closed, and essential research activities continued throughout 2020.”

“While we envisage lectures and very large classes will remain online during the university’s 2021 autumn session (commencing 9 March), we are seeking to return to campus learning for many other activities, taking into account government health directions as appropriate,” a UTS spokesperson said. “We expect around half of learning activities to be provided in face-to-face mode.”

However, the spokesperson said: “We are closely monitoring the latest government announcements and health advice and putting in place the necessary measures to manage any health risks in a sustainable and consistent way.”

In November, Curtin University published a draft plan to abolish face-to-face lectures permanently and have at least 30 per cent of course time delivered online.