One of the key challenges in safeguarding the quality of learning during the COVID-induced transition to online delivery was maintaining student engagement. Meeting this challenge was a responsibility, not only of management and lecturers, but also of administration. At UBSS administrative staff in all areas and at all levels promoted engagement during the transition period by ensuring that appropriate online equipment and support mechanisms were in place, by maintaining proactive and friendly communications with students, and by ensuring that students were fully aware both of the range of resources available from the School and of the complementary resources students would need to provide themselves with to maximise the benefits they could receive from the new mode of learning.
The COVID-19 pandemic precipitated a dramatic, virtually overnight change in the provision of higher education, away from the comfortable, centuries-old mode of on-campus and face to face (F2F) learning and teaching to off-campus and online delivery. The suddenness and scale of the transition were generally unforeseen, and few educational institutions had the resources and experience to adjust easily to them. The move presented many problems for senior management who were faced with a sharp reduction in revenues, increased demands for equipment and training, and an urgent need to adopt new strategies and introduce new procedures. It presented equally difficult challenges for academics who had to adapt quickly to unfamiliar methods of delivery and assessment. However, the pandemic also gave rise to challenges for the less visible workers, the administrators. At UBSS, a major goal for the administrative staff was to provide appropriate administrative complements to the efforts of management and lecturers to maintain student engagement.
Following the transition, students quickly became aware of the benefits of online learning, such as shorter travelling times and lower commuting costs. However, they were also faced with significant challenges, particularly those international students who had no prior experience with online learning in an overseas setting. Administrators at UBSS, who undertake most of the one-on-one communication with students, quickly became aware of the nature and scale of these challenges.
The challenges and approaches
Carla Blakey and Claire Major, researchers at the University of Alabama, point out that ‘engagement requires a psychological investment on the part of the learner as well as persistence in undertaking the learning task’ (Blakey, 2015). A key objective in safeguarding the quality of learning following the COVID-induced move to online delivery was to ensure that students continued to make this psychological investment in their learning and to maintain their persistence as learners. At the administrative level, these were pursued through careful management by the administration staff of online learning processes and activities, including:
- Being technically ready. UBSS technical staff worked around the clock to ensure that the School’s online equipment was up-to-date, internet access was reliable and expert technical staff were on hand to support the new mode of learning. The administrative staff also quickly recognised the value of longer lead times, and prior to the first full trimester of online learning, informed students well in advance of all technology-related requirements for the coming period. This was especially important for students who were accessing online classes from their home country.
- Ensuring that teaching and administrative staff as well as students were familiar and comfortable with the online learning methods being used, including the online course structures and content developed by the academics and the learning management system (LMS) used by the School. UBSS’ smooth-functioning, web-based information hub provided an excellent platform for accommodating the need of students to share their online learning concerns and to explore with staff and each other suitable remedies for them.
- Providing students with the administrative and learning support they required, such as information about online course arrangements, timetable selections, and assessment processes including the new practice (for UBSS) of online examinations.
- Helping students achieve cognitive readiness for and be proactive about online learning. Many students, especially those in the early stages of an undergraduate degree, lack an adequate appreciation of their role as commander-in-charge of their own learning and of the need to take personal responsibility for acquiring the knowledge, skills and other resources needed for enjoyable and effective learning, including online learning.
- Being aware of and responsive to the cultural aspects of online learning. Some Asian students (particularly those who had recently arrived in Australia) experienced difficulties in the early stage of the transition as they felt ‘lonely’ and ‘isolated’ in the new, off-campus environment. This was largely because they came from a cultural environment that is dominated by a ‘collectivist’ value system. It requires time and support to pivot their mindset toward an ‘individualistic’, learner-centred mentality and toward more autonomous behaviour. The administrative staff were patient but persistent in helping students make this pivot.
The experience at UBSS showed that forward-looking and positive support by administration staff across the whole institution can make an important contribution to helping students adjust to change, and to maintain a high level of engagement with the institution, lecturers and fellow students. Most of the steps taken by administrators are small, affecting individual students in specific and often unique situations. However, cumulatively, these steps can be quite large, and can change a good result into a great outcome, both for the institution and for the students.
- Blakey, C & Major, C 2019, ‘Student Perceptions of Engagement in Online Course: An Exploratory Study’, Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, vol. XXII, no. 4., viewed 20 March 2021, https://www.westga.edu/~distance/ojdla/winter224/blakeymajor224.html
Richard Xi is a Senior Postgraduate Coordinator and an Assistant Professor at UBSS.
His Australian education experience includes a Diploma of Business (SIT), a Diploma of Interpretation (NSIT), a Graduate Certificate in China Studies (USYD), a Graduate Certificate in Business Administration (UBSS), and a Master of Arts in Asian Studies (UNSW).
He has been a keynote speaker in WSU’s cross-cultural seminar program and a cultural adviser for two published books.