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Digital transformation has been on the higher education agenda for some time, but COVID-19 has accelerated digital investments and projects at unimaginable speed. The industry arguably saw greater transformation in 2020 than the last 10 years combined. The crisis has compelled universities to reimagine teaching and learning possibilities, and to embrace online education as a delivery mode. 

But how much of this is temporary and what looks likely to remain in 2021 and beyond?

This was the question put to higher education leaders at Turnitin’s 2020 Summit, from the Queensland University of Technology, The University of Melbourne, Edith Cowan University and Keypath Australia. The discussion centered on the need to adopt and adapt digital technologies, to develop online teaching methodologies, create curricula for online platforms and use virtual laboratories for research. 

Here are the three discoveries they shared from this period of rapid learning and teaching innovation: 

  1. It enabled academics and students to evaluate what they want from a learning environment

    By paralysing in-person teaching, COVID-19 hit at the heart of how universities operate.  

    “Lectures suffered the most during the pandemic. However, pre-pandemic, the lecture was commonly agreed upon to have had its day. It’s understood, accepted and adopted, even by the academics and students, that this is not the way of the future,” said Dr Ratna Selvaratnam, Manager, Learning Technologies & Innovation, Edith Cowan University.

    Leaders also agreed that not all disciplines are created equal and were able to move online seamlessly.  

    “Wet labs, the music conservatorium and fine arts were all were greatly affected by the move online,” said Patrick Stoddart, Senior Manager, Academic & Learning Systems Support at The University of Melbourne. “For example, it’s very hard to play music properly over Zoom. To do it collaboratively, you need the timing to be very accurate – and technology is not quite there yet. Veterinary sciences and clinical practices were also areas that suffered.” 

    Academics faced new challenges in the move to remote or online learning environments, in particular the need to develop new ways to reach and engage students, all with unique circumstances. 

    “The overwhelming feedback we received from students was they wanted more environments in which they could collaborate in a virtual setting,’ said Professor Kevin Ashford-Rowe, Pro Vice-Chancellor of Digital Learning at the Queensland University of Technology. “Students wanted us to facilitate spaces where they could get together, chat and unpack their assessments, as well as interact with teachers. Essentially, they wanted us to replicate the physical world in the virtual world.”

    “Building and maintaining strong student relationships in remote learning environments requires a different approach to in-person classroom settings. For students, it can feel really isolating,” said Chuk Ogoh, Technologies Consultant of Assessment Solutions at Turnitin Asia Pacific. “However, with the right tools, instructors can build a virtual classroom space with a classroom community feel and can provide consistent and personalised feedback to students such as voice comments on assignments.”

  2. Online learning requires different forms of assessments to upload academic integrity 

    Leaders were in agreement that assessment and grading are more challenging online than in-person.

    “Exams were a challenge to implement, particularly when it came to disciplines that involved maths and statistics,” said Eamon Vale, Associate Director of Learning Design at Keypath Australia. “A key concern for us was to maintain the integrity of assessments, whilst ensuring manageable marking schedules for academics, and meaningful feedback was available for the students. Wherever possible we tried to move to different formats of assessment which is why having a platform like Turnitin is so important.” 

    “Remote learning has added a new level of complexity when it comes to course and assessment design,” said Ogoh. “That’s why the ability to track multiple data points on teaching and student performance is a critical tool for instructors, as it enables them to get an accurate picture of student learning.”

  3. Just because we’ve shifted to online now, doesn’t necessarily mean we won’t shift back

    Leaders agreed that online learning shouldn’t be “an alternative” to in-person high education. Rather, universities should look at how to optimise hybrid or blended learning delivery modes in the future. 

    “In many areas, the pandemic has shown why we still want and need face-to-face learning and teaching to occur, certainly in particular disciplines,” said Stoddart. “The pandemic has highlighted that we can move online in many ways and do blended learning very well, but it has also highlighted certain areas really do suffer if they only have online teaching available.”

    “There are times where face-to-face is useful, but I don’t think it should be a one-size fits all approach, “ said Professor Ashford-Rowe. “COVID-19 has enabled us to have the conversation on alternative ways that end of semester assessments might take place, with a community that is motivated and engaged.”

  4. We’ve fundamentally changed hundreds of years of academic practice

    In conclusion, leaders believed that COVID-19 marked an inflection point for the higher education sector – it has undeniably has challenged the viability of university operating models and practices. 

    “Within nine weeks, we had to undo hundreds of years of academic practice. The challenge in itself wasn’t technology adoption, but rather implementing new support models at scale,” said Stoddart.  

    “Thanks to the pandemic, we were able to create that cultural shift in a very short time frame. If you were to ask me in January how long it would take to shift a university’s reliance on exams as the principal means of assessment at the end of semester, I would’ve said it would take a minimum of 5 years for it to have traction,” said Professor Ashford-Rowe.

    “Up until now, we haven’t had the luxury of feeling excited about the cultural shift that’s happened. We’ve all been heads down and haven’t had the opportunity yet to reflect on the huge technological, cultural shift that’s emerged from the emergency remote teaching crisis. There’s this whole new world that is waiting for us and now we’re all excited about what’s next in store,” said Dr Selvaratnam.