August 12, 2020
THE AUSTRALIAN

Covid has pushed universities into an era of transformative change

KEITH HOUGHTON AND GEORGE AVELING

With an ever-evolving pandemic, what are the prospects of a second or subsequent wave, here or abroad? There is a real possibility that higher education will continue to be delivered online next year and perhaps beyond.

This is an inflection point for universities. With such an uncertain future, several overseas institutions, including high-profile universities, have made ongoing commitments to online education. They are not going back to the way things were and recognise the risks in assuming that a large-scale return to the old “normal” is certain or even possible. Others appear to desire a return to exact­ly the way things were and have accepted, explicitly or implicitly, the risks involved.

In Australia, there are divisions over the future of university learning. Like some other sectors, where institutional history is seen as a valid proxy for quality, universities traditionally have been conservative in embracing large-scale transformative innovation.

Several significant and interrelated impacts are emerging. Where digitally delivered learning is recognised as ongoing, there will be:

  • A reduction of the geographical barriers to student selection of universities (at least in some fields).
  • An increased level of accountability for the student learning experience.
  • The rise of innovation in the practice of education, particularly in respect of learning design.

These will build into significant long-lasting change.

But change may come later rather than sooner. It will be later because of the regulatory environment that largely ring-fences Australian higher education for domestic students. So, change may be dependent on policy adjustments that are rarely quick. We are, however, not protected from global competition for international students.

For domestic students, universities traditionally have experienced a naturally occurring geographic protection. Typically, most Australian students enrol at the “best” available university they can commute to. In a digitally enabled world, geographic barriers will be lowered for certain courses. In a digital world, the campus is shifting to the cloud. This transition is under way but the move is far from universal; there will be variation by course type, student persona, university readiness and mores.

In a regulation-sympathetic and boundaryless digital world, students increasingly will have wide choices. At last the University of Sydney, for example, can be a serious undergraduate rival to the University of Melbourne for Victorian students for some degrees, and the University of Adelaide can poach students from the eastern seaboard.

Digitally delivered education is significantly more scalable than traditional face-to-face. The cost efficiencies of scale will become apparent and significant. Additionally, digitally active universities will enable overseas students to earn their degrees without requiring them to leave their home countries — whether by choice or by necessity.

Student choices in this digital world will involve new criteria. University esteem will remain impor­tant. The learning experience will become a critical selection criter­ion. Students can seek out universities that offer easy-to-navigate, engaging and rich online learning experiences. The content and academic rigour are not to be compromised in a digital experience but the method of delivery will be evolved.

A critical lesson for educators is that the learning design of the digitally delivered educational experience cannot be just an imitation of the design used in face-to-face learning.

Success will require that universities understand students in ways that are different from today. The student population might become a taxonomy of student “personas”, each with learning needs. Digitally delivered education can play a critical role in full or in part for many personas. One student persona is domestic school-leavers. They look forward to life experience on campus. However, most have part-time jobs; their needs are: “give me the campus experience” with the flexibility to study in “my own time and location”. A digitally rich learning experience can do this.

Working mature-age students are another persona. “Time poor” is their cry. This persona will say: “I prefer a virtual learning experience that does not require me to be on-campus.”

Students who live in non-metropolitan areas who have had no choice other than to leave home to attend university will have more choice. In a digital world, some, for economic, community or other reasons, will opt to stay home and study.

A substantial new population of international students will become available to universities. These are prospective students who cannot afford the travel and residential costs associated with overseas study. For those not seeking to gain permanent residence in Australia, this group will seek learning experi­ences without physically co-locating. This is a largely untapped and potentially substantial market for Australian (and other) universities.

In a world where the quality of the learning experience is an important selection criterion for students, universities will become even more accountable for that experience than they are today. With digitally enabled education, online review sites will become an everyday part of university-based social media.

The requirements and demands of the student body, both existing and prospective, will drive innovation. The current effort made by academic staff to convert face-to-face learning to online education has been impressive, even heroic. But many of those staff members would acknowledge that some of this is uneven in quality.

As a short-term tactic, it is all that could be expected. However, there are examples of online education that amount to little more than a learning management system with some PDF references, a series of PowerPoint slides and a weekly Zoom meeting. In these cases, is it any wonder that students are less than inspired? Is it fit for purpose in a multiple-year online world?

The learning design options available in digitally delivered education are different, not better or worse, but different from face-to-face learning. Digitally delivered education using only face-to-face learning designs will likely disappoint. Ongoing online education will drive a sky-high demand for skilled digitally-enabled learning designers.

Will our current regulatory environment be fit for purpose in a digital world? The history of regulation in other sectors of our economy affected by technology and digitisation gives us some pointers. This history tells us that first-movers that are also “customer-focused” — the higher education synonym of which might be “student learning experience focused” — are likely winners.

We would argue that, by choice or necessity, transformative change is upon us.

Keith Houghton is chief academic strategist of the Higher Education and Research Group. George Aveling is chief executive of Elementrix, an Asian-based digital learning firm.