COVID-19 saw universities across the globe shift to fully online delivery as campuses locked down. Australia was no exception.
For Australian institutions which had previously relied on a traditional face-to-face teaching model, the move to the ‘Zoom classroom’ saw many attempting to replicate their on-campus delivery in an online environment (that is, rigid timetabling and synchronous video instruction, supplemented by PowerPoints or pdf).
For universities that had made an earlier investment in online education, the question was how to scale up their interactive content, synchronous and asynchronous delivery and where they could find more learning designers to build out their course content.
Despite Australia’s long history of firstly distance and more recently online learning, the vast majority (70%) of Australian higher education students were studying face-to-face on-campus prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Only 16% attended externally (almost exclusively online), while 15% were studying both on-campus and online or by correspondence (multi-modal).
As always, the averages in these statistics mask the diversity among the universities. Ninety percent of students at Australia’s research-intensive universities (the Group of Eight) were studying on-campus in 2019. For universities in rural and regional areas, the reverse was true. The University of New England, for example, had more than 80% of its students studying externally. Newer, more technologically focused universities also had a much higher share of online students.
By contrast, students in the non-university higher education sector in Australia were slightly more likely to be studying face-to-face on-campus (74%), reflecting the fact that smaller class sizes and a strong sense of community are a hallmark of Australian non-university higher education providers.
And then came COVID
Understanding the differences within and across the relatively small Australian higher education sector is important in appreciating the subsequent impact of COVID-19. All Australian universities switched from face-to-face teaching to fully online delivery for at least part of the 2020 academic year and were in different states of readiness to manage that change.
Adding to the demand for high-quality online learning, many universities also had international students caught offshore when the Australian government closed the international border. This posed two challenges for the sector:
• How to ensure offshore international students studying online were offered engaging content and meaningful learning support.
• How to manage the loss of the significant revenues Australian universities earn from educating large numbers of international students.
As if all of that was not difficult enough, 2020 also saw the passage of the Australian government’s Job-ready Graduates legislation which split research and teaching funding and changed the funding universities receive for their undergraduate students.
The continued rise of ed tech
Against a backdrop where institutions needed to quickly reduce costs and offer more engaging, pedagogically rich online content, it is unsurprising that Australian universities started making significant changes to their operations in 2020.
It is also notable that, even before the pandemic, the Australian edtech sector was booming (it doubled in size in the two-year period 2017-19).
Globally edtech was also on the rise in 2020, with more than 300 academic-private partnerships (online program management or OPM, boot camps, and international education pathways) created.
One of Australia’s longest-standing OPMs is the Online Education Services (OES) partnership between the online jobs board, SEEK, and Swinburne University of Technology. OES is now partnered with three other Australian universities and manages all aspects of their online student marketing, enrolment, course design and delivery, assessment, and student support in a growing number of undergraduate and postgraduate degrees.
And OES is not SEEK’s the only investment in the edtech sector. In 2019 it took a minority stake in Coursera and a 50% stake in Futurelearn (founded by the UK’s Open University).
Keypath Education has OPM partnerships with eight Australian universities predominantly focused on taking their postgraduate course content online. With 46% of domestic postgraduate students in Australia studying online, this is a significant cohort of students.
Another United States-based edtech partner is 2U’s Trilogy Education Services, partnering with a number of the Group of Eight universities to deliver coding boot camps.
The focus of the Australian tech sector is not just helping Australian institutions. Australian edtech companies are also partnering with overseas institutions. OpenLearning is a SaaS (software as a service) provider listed on the Australian Securities Exchange. It describes itself as the leading platform for online higher education in Southeast Asia and, as well as partnering with seven Australian universities, it has also recently launched a micro-credential platform aligned to both the Australian and Malaysian qualification frameworks.
Student support in an online environment is another growing area of interest for the Australian edtech sector, with OES recently taking a stake in academic student support provider Studiosity (which offers support to students and universities across eight countries). There are also a number of other Australian edtech providers offering academic support to students during their degrees, as well as assistance to find employment on graduation.
In the next few years, digital technology will be both a key transformation tool and a significant challenge for Australian universities.
A recent survey by HolonIQ of 312 higher education leaders in 30 countries identified process and people (and then technology) as the biggest gaps in universities’ digital capability.
Australian academic leaders face the same challenges as their global counterparts. With many Australian institutions under significant financial pressure resulting from the decline in international student revenues and last year’s government funding reforms, it is increasingly likely that they will continue to look to the edtech sector to reduce costs and improve online delivery.
Claire Field is the principal of Claire Field & Associates, an Australian consultancy that provides services to assist and support providers and stakeholders in the post-secondary education sector.
Courtesy- university world news