Universities in a more virtual world: lessons from Australian higher education

06 Jul 2020

Universities in a more virtual world: lessons from Australian higher education

As global educators adjust to a post-COVID world, we hear from Australia’s Professor Merlin Crossley, Deputy Vice-Chancellor Education, University of New South Wales, Sydney, as part of Odgers Berndtson Education Practice’s In Global Conversation series.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led universities around the world to change their teaching and learning delivery overnight.  

How has the University of New South Wales found the transition to online and digital delivery? How are staff and students responding?

We were at week five of a ten-week term when we first signalled to staff and students that it may be necessary to suspend face-to-face teaching. By the end of the week, the last in-person lectures, tutorials and lab practicals had been held and we’ve been online ever since.

In week five, a few students and staff had expressed anxiety about being on campus. With the move online, obviously those concerns vanished. There was then a period where internet conductivity became the issue and our IT department leant out equipment, but things quickly settled.

We ran the student survey as normal near the end of term one. We wanted the data and we wanted to gain insights from students. Some staff were apprehensive, but they needn’t have been.

The response to the quality of teaching was as good or better than normal. That said, some of the individual units worked better than others, and we keep learning.

Overall, the best parts of human nature shone through. None of us wanted this and the only sensible response was for everyone to do their best.

The staff were extraordinary and the students were understanding.


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What has been the biggest challenge in moving to a platform of online course delivery at this time, while maintaining the quality of teaching?

We made an early decision not to postpone things but to either run them online or to run substitutes. This meant that laboratory practicals moved to demonstrations and discussions.

Tutorials continued but the dynamic was different. That said, the classes felt more unified. For several years now, we have been investing in ‘digital support’. This ensured everything was available online for students who were sick, working at part-time jobs, or needed to watch things twice to catch the nuances of the language.

So, in reality, our lecture halls were never full. But now, few students are sick or working, so we have fuller classes assembling online.

We’re also learning that some of the shyer students participate more in online sessions.

Yes, things have been challenging but many things are going well. I think our biggest concern has been assessment. We felt that the playing field was not level, so many courses have moved to pass/fail grading just for term one. I think that reduced the pressure on everyone a bit.

What interesting innovations are you seeing in the wider Higher Education sector in the context of digital delivery and technology?

I’m a biologist and consider that change occurs via gradual evolution more often than via revolution. I’ve watched digital support building up for many years and my university, UNSW Sydney, has invested very heavily in what we call ‘digital uplift’. We are now seeing the value in full.

Students were beginning to ask that all resources be available online. Now they absolutely expect it.

Of course, MOOCs and other digital information have been out there for a while too. The most interesting thing to me is how the enthusiasts and the sceptics have gone online together in step.

The tools (for us Teams and Zoom are very useful, as well as Moodle of course) are relatively intuitive so people have adapted very well. It really is a tribute to the IT designers how ‘user-friendly’ and reliable software can be these days. One tends to remember the frustrations – and there are some – but overall computers work better than biology!

Looking ahead, what will these changes mean for how your university will deliver its courses in 2021? What changes do you think are likely to endure in a post-COVID world?

In Australia, the travel bans will have major impacts. We have always felt isolated, and now more than ever. On the plus side, we are in the ‘Asian time zone’. Many students come to us from China, India and South-East Asia.

The crisis began just before our first term intake, our major start point. This meant our enrolments fell by about 20%. Pipeline effects mean that we’ll be smaller for a few years yet.

Obviously, this is challenging. That said, while we have fewer commencing students, our existing students are staying with us, and they seem to be doing well. We expect some new students will begin online this term and then come to us when travel resumes, which could work well.

There is also the idea that we will then market our degrees across the entire world, as all our courses are available online now. I think that will be an interesting experiment that every university in the world may wish to consider.

Others say that we will stay online in the future and everything will become more flexible and the campus will never be the same. I’m not so sure of that.

To me the modern world doesn’t involve successions, with one mode replacing another – it’s more like music. It wasn’t that rock was replaced by pop, then by disco, then by new wave, dream pop, goths and acid house and rap. It was that each new mode had its fans and today they all co-exist.

I think in the future all the different modes of delivery will exist. Some people will move between modes and others will stick primarily with one mode of learning.

The younger students will still want to come to campus – as they went to high school. Chemistry labs will always be on campus. My lab does genome editing, and you can’t do that online.

Older students are more likely to rely increasingly on online learning with on-campus intensives. There will be variety, and we’ll soon find out what works. Or, as they say, these days, what sells.

Thank you, Merlin, for providing the view from Australia. Hear from the UK and US too by downloading all three interviews here.