In Summary

  • Opinion piece for The Australian by Professor Duncan Bentley, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic)

With great fanfare, all education moved online in a matter of weeks. Surely this was a turbocharged realisation of years of promise? Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), micro-credentials and the fulfilment of anytime, anywhere learning.

Without a doubt there has been a mindshift. But let’s be clear about what has happened and what has not happened. Yes, we have moved much more quickly through the naysaying to discover the advantages of digital delivery. And yes — how, where and why we deliver learning can become more tailored to learners’ needs, particularly by embracing online short courses.

However, we have not all moved seamlessly to the highest quality online delivery. When we are allowed back onto campuses and into classrooms, we will not all offer the choice of online and face-to-face as though they are interchangeable. We will not chunk and stack every qualification in manageable bytes. These things may come, but they will be driven by quality, and the learner and employers’ needs.

Learning must be demand-driven, evidence-based and, to protect Australia’s future, of consistently high quality. That will not suit quick-fix commentators or those fixated on their vaguely remembered last century learning. What changes wrought by COVID-online should we seize and build on?

The best-quality Australian online learning does offer outstanding outcomes. At my own university, Swinburne Online graduate satisfaction ratings are among our highest, with learners recording satisfaction that is five or ten per cent higher than face-to-face learners. Yet, retention is much lower. Why is that?

Extensive studies, including a 2018 report by Andrew Norton and the Grattan Institute, have shown that fully online learning is usually the choice of busy, mature-aged adults, often in regional areas without access to a university campus. They learn, work and juggle multiple obligations and find it deeply fulfilling. Sometimes they put their study on hold or stop when they’ve achieved what they needed, including deciding that study is not for them. Mostly they go on to new careers, secure good jobs and pay rises. Those in the regions often remain local.

High-quality online learning is expensive to develop, is designed to deliver authentic, personalised learning, and builds highly personal interactive communities. Our recent embrace of online delivery is a patchwork quilt of variable quality, but it has shown the incredible value and effectiveness of virtual learning communities. Social media demonstrates this in spades.

While we will see more fully online learning, it must be carefully designed to deliver on its promise. The digital design of effective formative assessment that simulates the workplace is complex. It requires continual application of emerging technologies to ensure that digital learners can perform as effectively as those learning in real workplace environments. Online providers build virtual classrooms, medical clinics and intensive care units, virtual law firms, simulated manufacturing — all to ensure graduates are ready for the workplace on day one.

We need to seize the best changes we made moving to COVID-online education. For many sceptics, it was an exciting voyage of discovery past the imagined traumas into the adventurous realities of blended learning.

We discovered that blended learning done well is a clever mix of digital and physical. Our experiment in fully online built hastily in two weeks, showed what is needed to effectively deliver blended learning when we can once again include face-to-face and in workplace learning.

It does not mean synchronous lectures and PowerPoint dumps. It should not mean replicating the stultifying boredom of many lectures, followed by overassessment and examination which hardly reflects contemporary workplaces.

Instead, it opens the imagination of both teacher/facilitator and learner to develop the rich and diverse skills needed when acquiring, developing and applying knowledge in a digital society. It requires teamwork and cross-disciplinary engagement by those developing the curriculum. Learning designers and technologists are as important as the discipline experts. So, too, are the researchers, feeding cutting-edge developments and thinking into the classroom experience.

More important is the essential engagement with employers and entrepreneurs to bring the latest developments and emerging skillsets into the learning journey. No future qualification should be without the opportunity for work integrated learning or learning in the workplace.

On-campus learning experiences should be part of our offering, whether for school-leavers living their dream of intellectual, social or sporting adventure; or mature-aged learners mixing learning with stimulating place-based interaction.

We must seize the opportunity to build chunked and stacked qualifications that can be offered in the workplace to learners wanting to add a suite of skills or competencies. Ignore the calls for these to replace other types of learning. I don’t want my heart surgery performed by a surgeon with a CV comprised of micro-credentials.

Moving online can be a game-changer, provided we lock-in the gains and seek to understand the real benefits of their long-term application to support Australia’s knowledge economy.

Professor Duncan Bentley is Swinburne’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic). This opinion piece was originally published in The Australian.

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