Online learning: The writing is on the virtual wall

| 07 May 2020

Education Focussed academics Carol Oliver and Angela Maharaj (Faculty of Science) and co-leads of the EF Online Learning and Innovation Community of Practice, share their expertise and perspective on the future of online learning post-pandemic.

The next 20 years will see 50% of jobs automated, and one-third of the current workforce will transfer to new careers in the next five years.

Education that is currently front-loaded into the first 20 years of life will become lifelong – and mostly online. Across all Australian universities in 2002, 82% of domestic undergraduate students were on campus, 12% were online and 6% were multi-modal. In 2018, 67% were on campus, 16% were online and 17% were multi-modal. Based on this trend, over the next 10 years only 55% of domestic undergraduate students will be on campus; 20% online and 25% multi-modal (Source).

Most universities have, understandably, pursued international students as the low hanging fruit for increasing their market share but COVID-19 may spell, at least a temporary cessation to this, translating to a greater need to focus on domestic students and hence lifelong learning opportunities. An obvious area to explore is the online market. Arizona State University, with whom we partner through the PLuS Alliance, doubled its domestic market by going online. It reached students with work and family commitments and disadvantaged communities by offering a choice to students of an online degree or a campus-based degree with some online learning. ASU removed the barrier to getting a degree with a top university. Whether this is a step that UNSW will take remains to be seen but the benefits of online learning for improving equity and inclusion (a 2025 strategy commitment) are evident from the ASU exemplar.

Whatever direction we go in, vision is also needed in the online courses. These still primarily consist of text, images, links, videos and some technology either in asynchronous or synchronous modes. The problem is that these approaches are a mostly ‘one-size-fits-all’ model and often lacking in richness and the adaptive or differentiated approach that a face-to-face educator can provide to cater for individual students.

However, online education is on the cusp of a transformation. Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality and Artificial Intelligence technologies have the potential to change online learning and teaching experience. Adaptive e-learning has begun to pave the way to personalised learning at scale. Intelligent chatbots that adapt to individual students to provide personal tutoring are emerging. Virtual audiences for practise in presenting are here in an early form too. New ways of engaging, cheat-resistant assessments that form part of the natural learning process are emerging. Some academics argue that there are too many shortfalls in online learning and assessment, but it is worth remembering that hundreds of years of traditional face-to -face teaching has not yet created fool proof methodologies. If we wait for perfection, we will miss the (virtual) boat and our chance to shape the future of higher education.

The bottom line is that the pandemic has changed education. COVID-19 has placed us at Robert Frost’s yellow wood where two paths diverge – the way we educated, and the way we will educate. The vision along the path not yet trodden is in our hands as researchers, educators and universities as a whole.

We co-lead UNSW’s Online Learning and Innovation Community of Practice. The CoP members are nurturing and sharing current online learning expertise while exploring the potential of emerging and future technologies to design, develop and implement university undergraduate and postgraduate education and work skills acquisition at scale. More than 70 academics from across the university have already joined the Community of Practice. Any academic or professional staff member with a work role or interest in online education is welcome to either join as a member or dip in and out of discussions.

Recently, Carol and Angela provided training on using Moodle effectively to support your online teaching. You can watch the recording here.

To learn more about the Online Learning and Innovation CoP, please visit their page or contact the Project Officer Charlotte Waudby.