March 16, 2020
THE AUSTRALIAN

Coronavirus: Door opens for digital delivery of learning

Keith Houghton

The coronavirus is causing significant disruption. The question to be asked is: will this crisis be the catalyst for major positive change?

At face value, a major casualty is the Australian university sector. Students, staff, university executives and others are all bearing the cost in different ways with varying intensity. The scale and duration of the consequences are unknown.

It would be a mistake to think that this pandemic will come and go, and things will go back to the way they were. There is profound change. This can be seen as a threat or an opportunity. Those who see it as the latter will seize a competitive advantage. The first movers will win.

An immediate and obvious response by institutions to the disruption has been to move educational activities to online delivery. With multiple solutions and different processes on varying platforms, there is an understandable incoherence in many situations, with systems and processes not being able to talk to each other. The consequence of this is an understandably lessened student experience, together with cost blowouts. The revenue effects are huge.

There is a compelling case for strong financial support from government. However, financial support might come with strings. These could involve supporting change to education models and to structures that affect the ability and agility of universities to deal with future disruptions.

The disruption will result in Australia’s universities suffering productivity and efficiency deficits in the short term. But can and will universities use this to simultaneously improve two key objectives in the mid- and longer term — efficiency in education delivery and enhancement of the student experience? The answer may well be “yes” — but there need to be new ways of thinking.

A starting point is to recognise the continuum of education types from highly experimental to education with modest experiential content. Some refer to this end of the continuum as “standard” or “transactional” education.

There are multiple types of experiential education, including: where the interaction of the educational material, the instructor and other students is essential to creating the desired learning experience, and where physical proximity of the student to teaching materials is essential — such as medical students practising surgical techniques.

There are other educational approaches that are much less experiential. These can involve the student experience being limited to interacting with educational material, the instructor and nothing more complex. This type of education lends itself to online delivery. It is the low-hanging fruit that will provide universities with greater efficiency. Some examples already exist in Australian universities; their overall scale is still small. One existing example is first-year accounting classes.

In respect of highly experiential education, the technology is not yet available to ensure an equivalent student experience. But it is only a matter of time. In the future, the quality of virtually enabled meetings may allow for an experience that matches the interaction of classroom discussions. With virtual reality, the future may permit us to teach medical students surgical techniques in a digital world. There are some early adopters, but as a sector we are not there yet.

A second step is to recognise the distinction between “online education” and “digitally delivered education”; the latter of which can be provided either on a physical campus or in a virtual campus. It is not uncommon to see examples of online education being simply a series of downloadable PDFs followed by online assessment. Digitally delivered learning is more complex and engaging, and can lead to a significantly enhanced student experience.

There is a range of technologies including adaptive learning, social learning, digital libraries and gamification. At the advanced level there is augmented reality, virtual reality and artificial intelligence.

There are many instances where digitally delivered education is superior to conventional face-to-face classes. Today’s conventional first-year biology classes may involve a lecturer at the front of a lecture theatre showing slides of the cross-section of a biological specimen. In VR, one can have a student “dropped” into a living cell.

Digital learning techniques are developing fast. Applications in university, vocational, school and corporate professional development education exist. The sophistication is accelerating and the cost of the technology (but perhaps not content development) is plummeting. The user experience is improving also.

In this new world there are no physical boundaries; digitally delivered education can provide efficiencies that may have never been available to Australian universities before. Scale will provide efficiency. Australia can be a global leader — if we are an early adopter and see the present situation as an opportunity.

The accelerated acceptance of online and digitally delivered education raises multiple issues both for university management and for public policy, and there are many questions to be asked. Are the size and location of physical campuses still relevant? Does the existing structure of university resourcing still work? Is there an appetite in universities to be more agile in adapting to new challenges? What will be the impact if they are not?

More particularly for university management, who will be responsible for implementation of learning in a digital world? It is unlikely to be the role of chief information or technology officers, neither is it solely the purview of pro vice-chancellors (student experience).

Such a role needs someone skilful in maximising the interaction between the technology and the student experience. The appointee needs to be a champion of both. Arguably, this will lead to a positive future, especially for universities that are first movers.

The current disruption has and will affect individuals, communities and the economy. It could also be the catalyst that supports an extraordinarily bright future for higher education that includes both a heightened student experience and a more efficient delivery mechanism.

Keith Houghton is chief academic strategist of the Higher Education and Research Group. He is a former dean of business and economics, chairman of the academic board and member of the university council at the Australian National University

Keith Houghton, chief academic strategist, Higher Education and Research Group Picture: David Geraghty/The Australian