Social distancing and lockdowns have disrupted college studies for the past 18 months. Students are naturally stressed, as shown by the dramatic drop in student satisfaction across Australia reported in the annual report Student experience survey. Federal Education Minister Alan Tudge drew attention to this point in call for a “return” to studies on campus.
But the world is increasingly digital. Old notions of amphitheatres will not help graduates thrive in their careers. We need university studies that help students succeed by preparing them for a digital future.
Various industries have found that they can move efficiently online, making it an authentic place to work. Telehealth has become the default option for seeing your GP, while the first place to find a service or product is an online search engine. Professionals need to translate their skills into any environment – physical or virtual – and have the confidence to use new spaces and formats.
Real-world professionals, including physicians, must now be prepared to work in a mixed environment of online and physical interactions. Shutterstock
What about the impacts on learning?
Learning is created through interactions – with teachers, peers and information. Decades of research show that learners learn best when learning is active, engaging, relevant and intentionally designed. These principles hold true wherever learning takes place: on campus, online or in the workplace.
The real question is how to balance the best of the Internet with the best of delivery on campus and in the workplace.
Universities are already embarking on this path. University studies have been mixed for more than two decades as study resources, activities and assessments have moved to the subject and course websites in virtual learning environments.
Initially, the goal was to organize learning for anywhere and anytime access. Today, digital learning environments have become much more sophisticated. They now also offer tools for group learning, projects and creativity.
“Emergency distance education” is not ideal
Online learning during the pandemic was often a compromise. Good learning design takes time, as teachers create programs, resources, and assessments that are appropriate for their learners and the discipline. In March 2020, like most universities in Australia, academics at my institution, Deakin University, had a week to rebuild our courses to allow our 41,000 students on campus to continue studying. Of course, many of the activities we had planned became impossible and online substitutes were quickly developed over the following weeks.
This rapid global change has been dubbed “emergency distance education»By an American professor Charles Hodges and colleagues. They cautioned that we should be careful not to judge online learning by this experience.
Good online learning creates a sense of community. It engages students with rich resources and activities. It helps learners find study buddies and places for their independent work.
However, engagement looks different online. Instead of meeting in a cafe, students chat online to share ideas and solve problems as they do in their daily lives. Social learning can take place on campus or online.
Some activities work best online, others in person
Some activities must always be online. To begin with, contemporary information is digital. While we appreciate their physical spaces, university libraries are now primarily digital with the vast majority of books, journals, and images delivered and used online. Data sets are also largely digital and analyzed using digital tools ranging from spreadsheets to sophisticated software.
Digital learning is great for exploration. The world is at your fingertips and computers never tire of practicing basic skills with you.
Other activities should take place in a physical space. Using specialized equipment or discovering a workplace often means being in a purpose-built space. Being in the field develops observation skills and provides more sensory inputs to take into account. Collaborating with peers in the same room develops human interaction skills using different social cues than we have online.
Online work can complement these activities with targeted preparation and follow-up.
Building on the best of recent experiences
The emergency response to distance education has prompted educational teams to consider other ways of learning. They tested and refined new online activities. Many teachers say they will keep at least some of them.
Professor Eric Mazur at Harvard is famous for its use of peer education to make classes active and social. He reports his online model developed in 2020 has improved learning and support so convincingly that he intends to continue with this format. Breaking down assumptions about what works best has opened the door to a better understanding of online education.
Students from all sectors of education have faced emergency distance education and its disrupted life context. They reported difficulties with online provision, lack of motivation, loneliness and decrease mental well-being.
Universities must work to counter the negative impacts on students of emergency distance education by refining their online learning offerings. Shutterstock
But universities are polishing their courses. When students experience well-designed e-learning over time, it builds familiarity and confidence. We asked students enrolled on campus at Deakin about their study experience during the pandemic with regular “pulse check” surveys. Their comments show that their confidence in online study and assessment has risen sharply over the past 18 months as they have developed their skills and familiarity.
As we move towards more sustainable models for today’s learners, universities are rethinking learning activities. To sit and listen to the sage on stage is to be replaced through active learning using real-world information and scenarios.
We need to invest in an intentional learning design that combines the best of online and on-campus delivery. It will show students that they can learn, thrive, and develop the skills they need no matter how they study.