Issue 1 | Article 15
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on all aspects of business and society. In the higher education sector, it triggered an immediate and total transition to offsite, mainly online, learning. This article considers the impact of the transition on the student learning experience, educational outcomes, teaching and technological innovation, drawing on insights from across the sector including providers already well versed in online delivery strategies. The article also provides a broader stakeholder context that can inform strategies for the future ‘new normal’.
An incontestable truth is that the Coronavirus, which first became apparent to those outside China in early 2020, has profoundly affected everyone in a myriad of ways. In one year, an estimated 40,000 academic articles on the pandemic have been published worldwide (Allen, April 2021). Complementing this is the ubiquity, diversity and incalculable quantum of comment and opinion outside of academia. Education is one sector which has been and continues to be significantly affected, with many providers, both Vocational (VET) and Higher Education (HE) across numerous disciplines, required to transition away from face-to-face to online teaching or some other form of ‘distancing’ or hybrid model.
The forerunner to ‘distance’ education in Australia (and what is today TAFE Digital) has its genesis in response to another emergency, the typhoid epidemic of 1910. At that time, Sydney Technical College was contracted to convert old railway cars into classrooms that could be transported around the NSW to deliver training to remote railway workers who were unable to travel to Sydney because of the epidemic (Latchem, 2017).
Transition to online learning
In the wake of COVID-19, online learning was either mandated by or a consequence of various government edicts or was an operational response to the challenges imposed (NSW State Government, 2020).
TAFE Digital did not need to make significant changes to its front-end delivery strategy. The ramping up of back-end operations amounted largely to enabling teachers and administrative staff to work from home by providing them with delivery software for home-based operations such as Moodle, Equella, Student Administration System (SAM) and the new TAFE Digital Campus (TDC). TAFE Digital’s systems and processes were deployed across the State’s face-to-face network in conjunction with Zoom (initially), allowing remote delivery of classes to begin in early March 2020. Technical limitations and security issues with Zoom caused a rapid switch to Microsoft Teams’ Online & Remote Classroom platform.
Universities also quickly established and implemented new protocols, ensuring little disruption to content delivery. Students and staff had to adapt too. Technology was ramped up quickly to accommodate operational requirements and provide foundational capability for increased future opportunities (UBSS Online, n.d.). The latter included the establishment of lecture studios and support technologies.
Online delivery, best practice and context
Student attitudes toward online delivery are highly contextual and cohort dependent. If participation and completion rates, which are universally very low (5-10%) for traditional online delivery (Bawa, 2016), are indicative, then one might conclude that online learning is preferable to onsite learning, as participation rates at TAFE Digital doubled in the first full year of online learning. Nuance, however. moderates this observation as many free government-funded VET short courses (e.g., under JobMaker) were made available following the transition to online learning. Those accessing these free courses, which comprises most of the increase in enrolments during the year, have typically been recently retrenched and are strongly motivated to re-enter the workforce. Many view the free courses as an opportunity to strengthen their CVs by obtaining formal status for skills they already possess. Adopting a socio-cognitive perspective, one would reasonably infer a high degree of self-efficacy in this cohort’s ability to persist and self-regulate (Zimmerman & Schunk, 1989) as a key contributor to the rise in participation rates.
Evening students studying Marketing at TAFE Meadowbank preferred online over face-to-face learning (Vox-Populi, 2020). Many were studying after work and lived across a relatively large geographic area. Finishing at 9pm made this a very attractive option for both students and teachers. Engagement (measured by attendance and confirmed by completions) was higher. Learning styles (VARK model) appear to be a significant factor in driving learning preferences (Miller, 2021). Interestingly and perhaps somewhat counter-intuitively, the author viewed research which found that, in one sector in the United States, just over half (55%) of all students strongly preferred face-to-face learning (Miller, 2021). Whether a year of lockdowns (or lockups) and the significant curtailment of other freedoms caused by COVID-19 was a causal factor is not stated.
My experience across a range of teaching and student contexts (low- and high-level VET to post-graduate HE) and cohort attributes across a range of providers concurs with much of the research, once synthesised and contexualised. Fundamentally, learning delivery mode preference is highly situational (Saxena, 2021). For example, I interviewed one student whose preferences varied across different study areas and life-cycle stages. As a young university engineering student with ostensibly no responsibilities other than to herself, face-to-face learning complemented by the socialisation of university campus life was extremely important. Later, as a mother working full-time and undertaking dual diplomas in Project and Leadership Management (hitherto unavailable widely online), only online learning was feasible. Options in the form of tutorial support and flexible ad-hoc class attendance were also indicated. Flexibility is undoubtedly the key. The increase in online delivery capability has evidently widened the market.
Stakeholder context, risk and opportunities
The Australian ‘sandstone’ university model has arguably been broken for some time, with the coronavirus pandemic merely providing illumination of the situation. The model depends on a heavy reliance on cashed-up foreign students funding dubious research and increasingly cross-subsidising a range of courses with educational outcomes of questionable value. It is being undermined by cultural problems, notably the encroachment on free speech. Under this paradigm, administration and bureaucracy have flourished while teaching and research capability have diminished (Spartacus, 2021). Coupled with an increasingly radical revisionist approach to an ever-widening curricula rejecting western enlightenment, which has now metastasised beyond the humanities, one is left to ponder what differentiating factors will attract foreign students to a ‘western’ education. This self-inflicted gap presents a significant opportunity for second and third tier HE providers to provide an educational experience with an ‘Australian flavour’.
Current risks associated with the heavy reliance on foreign students centre around government policy and immigration rules governing the visas that may be granted to potential and current students. The availability of different visa categories is a matter of government policy. Certain visa categories favour those who possess skills where critical shortages have been identified, with these categories being subject to on-going review. The granting of permanent residency (PR) has also been made more restrictive since 2017. For example, those with accounting degrees now must meet a higher threshold before permanent residency is granted (International Student Support, n.d.).
Australia has a favorable and improving political environment in terms of stability, freedom from corruption, and accountability of government, ranking 10th (out of 180 countries) on the Global Corruption Index in 2020 (up from 15th place in 2019) (Global Corruption Index, 2020). The Government’s response to the pandemic has included the prevention of international travel from a range of countries that have traditionally been the leading catchment area for foreign students, namely China, India and Nepal. Currently, there is considerable uncertainty about when the traditional business model, incorporating active student acquisition and face to face delivery, can recommence (International Student Support, n.d.).
Some political actors (e.g., China’s Communist regime) continue to portray Australia as a ‘racist’ and ‘dangerous’ country. Paradoxically, they claim that Australia’s lack of action on ‘climate change’ will deter potential foreign students from China and elsewhere. This ‘fake news’ narrative for political purposes is, not infrequently, promulgated by certain sections of the local media, also for political purposes (Hunter & Bonyhady, 2020). This is in stark contrast to the results of international student surveys, which consistently yield responses that are overwhelming positive, with overall satisfaction levels of around 90% for students (VET and HE). Further, 75% of students surveyed in the International Graduate Outcomes Survey (2018) stated that Australia was their first choice for overseas study. In addition, ongoing significant support exists for foreign students in Australia (COVID-19 and Beyond for International Students, n.d.).
These largely foundational aspects present an overall positive outlook for Australia’s export of higher education. However, it is imperative that VET and HE providers continue to exploit Australia’s natural and structural advantages and publicise these among stakeholders (How to engage us, 2021). Within the sector, there is an opportunity for second and third tier providers to gain market share by focusing on traditional benefits of Western education. It is auspicious and timely that key stakeholder representation appears to be widening (GCA Chair and CEO Alan Manly Appointed to MACSM, 2021). This not only protects the legacy of quality education, it also permits opportunities presented by the Coronavirus pandemic to be leveraged in the ‘new-normal’ education industry.
- Allen, D. W. (April 2021). Covid Lockdown . A Critical Assessment of the Literature, 2.
- Anonymous. (2020, June 3). My University’s Betrayal of Truth. Quadrant.
- Bawa, P. (2016, March). Retention in Online Courses. SAGE Publishing, p. 1.
- COVID-19 and Beyond for International Students. (n.d.). Retrieved from Study Australia: https://www.studyinaustralia.gov.au/English/student-support
- GCA Chair and CEO Alan Manly Appointed to MACSM. (2021, April). Retrieved from Universal Business School Sydney: https://www.ubss.edu.au/media/media-release-gca-chair-and-ceo-alan-manly-appointed-to-macsm/
- Global Corruption Index. (2020). Retrieved from Transparency International Australia: https://transparency.org.au/global-ranking/
- How to engage us. (2021, April 22). Retrieved from Department of Home Affairs: https://www.homeaffairs.gov.au/help-and-support/how-to-engage-us/committees-and-fora/ministerial-advisory-council-on-skilled-migration
- Hunter, F., & Bonyhady, N. (2020, January 14). Bushfires pose costly risk to Australia's booming international education market. The Sydney Morning Herald.
- International Graduate Outcomes Survey. (2018). Retrieved from Department of Education, Skills and Employment: https://internationaleducation.gov.au/research/Pages/Data-and-Research.aspx
- International Student Support. (n.d.). Retrieved from Study Australia: https://www.studyinaustralia.gov.au/English/student-support
- Latchem, C. (2017). Using ICTs and blended learning in transforming technical and vocational education and training. Commonwealth of Learning, 85.
- Miller, C. (2021, February 23). Why Learning Preferences Are More Important Than Learning Styles. Retrieved from BIZ Library: https://www.bizlibrary.com/blog/learning-methods/learning-preferences-versus-learning-styles/
- NSW State Government. (2020, March 23). Retrieved from Restrictions begin as schools move towards online learning: https://education.nsw.gov.au/news/latest-news/restrictions-begin-as-schools-move-towards-online-learning
- Saxena, B. (2021, April 19). Learning Mode Preference. (I. Bosma, Interviewer)
- Spartacus, S. (2021, March 13). Sydney University choses to chase cash, not quality. The Spectator.
- UBSS Online. (n.d.). Retrieved from Universal Business School Sydney: https://www.ubss.edu.au/ubss-online/
- Vox-Populi, T. (2020, November 4). Class Mode Delivery Preference. (I. Bosma, Interviewer)
- Zimmerman, B. J., & Schunk, D. H. (1989). Self-Regulated Learning and Academic Achievement. New York: Springer.
Assistant Professor Igor Bosma Igor is a passionate educator with 15 years’ experience across the HE and VET sectors. He has wide experience in leadership, management, marketing and business-related disciplines, including course content design, development and delivery to cohorts in both face-to-face and online operations. Igor is also an entrepreneur and founder of the iBoss Property Group, which owns and operates a diverse portfolio of property and related management services across Australia and internationally in the residential and commercial sectors.