April 21, 2020
THE AUSTRALIAN

Digital delivery is inevitable; the virus simply speeds up the process

Keith Houghton

Even with the recent federal government package, the current disruption in higher education seems overwhelming. The impacts are immediate and real. For many, the future opportunities for universities seem to be well hidden behind a mountain of immediate and pressing challenges. 

As with many other sectors in the economy, universities are making root-and-branch changes, and completing them in weeks when, under normal circumstances, it would take years. This effort is being sustained in the short term by adrenalin, co-operation and long hours.

But looking through the “fog of war”, we can observe a move towards online education that is replacing the conventional face-to-face approach. The government package for tertiary education, announced on April 12, explicitly recognises the place of online education.

This is of great significance. What some have missed is that today’s student population is often highly digitally literate — many are digital natives — they are receptive and welcoming to these changes. It is possible, even likely, that attempts to regress to more conventional approaches after the disruption is over will be resisted.

While some of the new hastily developed online offerings are sophisticated and leading edge, others are minimalist: downloadable PDFs, an optional chat session or two and some online assessments. In today’s circumstances, this is understandable; it is preferable for students to have something rather than nothing.

As we move forward quality needs to improve and a distinction must be drawn between online education and digitally delivered education.

The former can be perfunctory and minimalist, as described above. Digitally delivered education, which is more common in corporate learning and professional development, is more sophisticated and can involve extensive use of ed tech — including digital libraries, gamification and certain high-end technologies.

Ultimately it is digitally delivered education that will be the dominant, but by no means exclusive, approach as the level of sophistication evolves and technology costs decline.

By contrast, and at least for now, highly experiential education will continue to involve the physical world and will routinely involve face-to-face education.

The supply side to digitally delivered education has four elements.

Element one is the academic content for each subject. This material is the existing or newly developed intellectual property of universities. There is little or no change here.

The second element is educational design. There are two levels in educational design. First, at the macro level, we establish what the overall product looks like and what the student experience feels like. There is significant change here. Digitally delivered education is best if it is not optimised to simply replicate face-to-face education; it needs to play to the considerable comparative advantages of the digital world. It should not be a pale imitation of the face-to-face classroom experience.

At the second, micro level, individualised design support is needed where digital education designers work with individual academic staff subject by subject.

This might include a mixture of large and small group activity, individual learning tasks and a variety of digitally enabled assessments. It might include simulations, gamification and WhatsApp-based forums or chat rooms, and digital mechanisms to support reflective learning and debate. Data on student-learning behaviours can be used to improve the individual student educational experience.

The third element relates to the educational technology. Included here is what is now referred to as learning management systems but can be enhanced into learning experience platforms (known as LEPs or LXPs) that are optimised for digitally delivered education.

The fourth element will be with us soon. High-integrity digital student identification is crucial. Without this, the new regime may be unacceptable to reputable universities and regulators alike.

There is, however, a solution. It involves reusable student digital identification and recognition technology covering enrolment and assessment. A trial in Australia may be completed by year’s end. The plastic student card’s days are numbered as it offers little security or efficacy in a digital world.

Some universities will be motivated by the early mover advantage. Australian higher education has a strong overseas profile, particularly in Asia and the Pacific. Digitally delivered education provides significant advantages to access untapped markets.

In a post-coronavirus world, there will be students who will want a high-quality university education but who will be unwilling or unable to reside in a foreign land. Digitally delivered education will provide an opportunity where one did not exist before.

Some would argue that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (where, coincidently, former education minister Simon Birmingham is Trade Minister) and the relevant export agency, Austrade, would be highly supportive of such a move.

There are many constraints and limitations to be worked through, not least of which is the funding of a comprehensive solution. Perhaps aspects of the government’s rescue package could be crafted to help fund this needed investment.

That said, can universities afford not to move to this demand-desired approach to education? Indeed, can we, as a nation, afford not to establish national collaborations between institutions, digital service providers and other experts to create an enhanced digitally enabled future for the sector?

Digitally delivered education is an inevitable part of Australia’s higher education future — and the students are ready to make it happen.

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

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