Interaction with learners

What to look for when choosing a university as digital competition grows

Online education became the norm almost overnight when the pandemic struck. For the students, the complexity of the situation was brutal, the change frustrating but inevitable.

Prospective students evaluating study options may also have been confused. However, they are now in a better position to understand what universities offer in an increasingly competitive digital learning market. They also have more choices.

The University of Sydney’s new vice-chancellor, Mark Scott, has warned that competition for enrollment is intensifying as student options increase. “The [news] the media experience has clearly shown that your competitors in the digital space go far beyond your traditional competitors in the analog space, ”said Scott, former CBA editor and senior manager of Fairfax Media .

“Digital” education will redefine the way students view and select universities. This can enable more personalized learning paths, lifelong and more accessible learning, improved skills for employment, and a more remote and diverse student body.



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There is no return to the old model

As learning moved away from the on-campus experience last year, learner-teacher engagement and peer-to-peer networking have changed dramatically. The digital transition was a monumental and urgent task.

But time has passed. Fully or partially digitized university programs have multiplied. And many have become more sophisticated as academics and students receive support to take the plunge.

A recent PwC report on the digitization of higher education states:

“The changes imposed by the rapid digitization of the sector will not be reversed. “

“Digital” in education can now mean anything from simple video lectures, online documents and tutorials to high-end digital animation and simulation tools.

Just before the current shutdowns, Macquarie University, among others, announced that most lectures will continue online while “small group” in-person learning will require students to wear masks. The University of Melbourne said it “plans to teach about 90% of Semester 2 subjects on campus.” It also deploys “mixed synchronous learning” using microphones and cameras onsite so remote and campus students come together in a single classroom, said its DVC (academic) Gregor Kennedy.



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RMIT University posted: “Classes that require specialized space or equipment will be prioritized for on-campus learning.” At the University of Sydney, the campus was to remain open during the lockdown for critical teaching and research activities only. The University of Queensland and Monash University, among others, have introduced proctored exams online.

The gap between the best and the worst of what institutions offer digitally is vast.

In the worst case scenario, digital learning means that students are invited to read chapters of digitized textbooks and have academics or tutors speak to them via recording without any interaction. It is a terribly disengaging experience for the student and therefore less effective for learning. But this requires very little investment from universities.

Ideally, universities offer active learning through digital simulations and well-designed activities. These include peer group activities, networking, and technology-enhanced alternatives to the on-campus experience. The result is a varied and engaging experience, but it requires a substantial investment on the part of the university.



Read more: As universities consider more ‘Instagram-worthy’ campus experiences, they shouldn’t see online education as a cheap and easy option


What should students look for?

So how can prospective students know which universities offer interesting digital education? They must take into account the following criteria:

  • Focus on the online / blended student experience

    What is the value placed on students feeling connected, part of a learning community, having a social dimension in addition to influencing their learning and being on campus when possible? Do the study options match the life and lifestyle needs that the pandemic has highlighted as important?

  • Transparency on digital quality

    Does the university adequately communicate its definition of “digital” quality? Pay special attention to review mechanisms, to avoid having to deal with postponed exams, for example.

    The Agency for Quality and Standards in Higher Education (TEQSA) has provided guidelines for the quality of e-learning. Federal Education Minister Alan Tudge has announced a renewed group on higher education standards with online and hybrid course quality as part of his new duties.

  • Proof of agility, convenience and accessibility

    What solutions can be adapted to post-COVID educational expectations, both locally and internationally? Are there options for polysynchronous learning: some on its own time, some with others? What does inclusive digital education look like – accessibility for visually impaired students, for example -?

  • Price clarity

    Is the price of the program or unit a low-cost, standardized product, or is the price high? Does the university offer financial support options?

  • Digital design ambition

    Is the curriculum and learning design focused on long-term COVID-resilient learning and career outcomes? Is there strong evidence of industry relationships?

    And (for the more ambitious) is the university exploring and / or using artificial intelligence (AI) and data analytics to personalize individuals’ learning journeys?



Read more: In a world of digital spectators, the challenge for all of us is to design an engaging online education


An emerging digital divide between the United

Some universities are using digital education to access new markets. These universities include Melbourne, RMIT (with RMIT Online), Adelaide and Griffith. At different price points, their offerings increasingly include demonstrated digital expertise, mixed synchronous learning options, and well-defined online engagement and connection.

The education market is bigger and more competitive than ever.
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Universities are also responding to industry demand for accessible development and improved learning (often “micro certifications”). Again, their offerings vary, particularly across disciplines.

The PwC report predicts that most universities will compete with mid-range offerings. This group will deliver personalized learning alongside mass offerings, keeping income streams open, maintaining a brand in a technology-enhanced world, and balancing border restrictions on international students.

Some universities will take a serious quantum leap in online or blended education programs. These universities are likely to outperform other providers and diversify their student populations in ways that improve the student experience.

Others continue with minimal investment or low cost solutions. These providers seek to return to the “old normal” of a strictly face-to-face experience. They aim to deal with learner frustrations as they arise, rather than investing in quality digital services for the long term.

This approach may be understandable for universities with serious cash flow problems. In the long run, this is probably short-sighted and can lead to dissatisfaction among students and industry.

We can see the gap between these approaches in the submissions from each higher education provider to the federal government during consultations on a new strategy for international education. Interestingly, the views of providers show little correlation with the type of institution, whether well ranked or not, rural or urban. Our discussion above is based on our deep dive into these submissions.