Australian universities bite the bullet on online delivery

Go remote now or later? That’s the question, as coronavirus threatens campus shutdowns

March 17, 2020
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Australian universities are overhauling their course delivery and resigning themselves to mandated campus lockdowns, as the coronavirus morphs into a primarily domestic crisis.

More than half of the country’s 41 universities are shifting substantially or completely to remote delivery of their courses. Ten have frozen part or all of their teaching activities for up to two weeks to buy breathing space to adapt their offerings.

With policy responses to the pandemic now changing rapidly, Australian universities have arranged themselves into three camps. Twenty-one institutions are shifting their teaching wholly or mostly online, with another three making modest steps in that direction.

Another three universities - Deakin, Monash and the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) - are overhauling their courses to ensure their face-to-face delivery is consistent with the government’s “social distancing” principles, such as keeping students at least 1.5 metres apart and limiting the duration of large gatherings.

The remaining 14 universities are toughing it out, adhering to current government advice while they muster their online resources.

The differing approaches have emerged as two Sydney universities - Macquarie and UTS - reported fresh student infections. Both institutions had already announced “pauses” to their teaching, with Macquarie suspending both on-campus and remote classes until 30 March while it transitions to online delivery.

UTS has ceased lectures, tutorials and laboratory classes until 24 March “to enable redesign” of face-to-face delivery “to modes which support social distancing and remote support”. Queensland, Swinburne and Wollongong universities are cancelling face-to-face and online lectures for a week or two as they transition to online delivery.

The Melbourne-based University of Divinity has cancelled all but “intensive” units for a week in late March, as it shifts to online delivery for all units “except those with practical field-based components”. La Trobe and Deakin have suspended face-to-face classes for a week, while Monash has paused its tutorials, workshops and practical classes.

All Australian universities are cancelling non-essential gatherings such as graduation ceremonies, sporting contests and student competitions, and complying with government bans on assemblies of 500 people or more - although universities are exempted from these bans.

While universities are allowing or encouraging staff to work from home, most are keeping libraries, study spaces and food halls open - including those suspending their classes. Most hope to maintain on-campus delivery of at least a minority of teaching delivery, particularly laboratory sessions.

“A number of courses by necessity involve strong elements of hands-on learning to ensure graduates are equipped with real-world skills, so it will not be possible to deliver these elements online,” said Queensland University of Technology vice-chancellor Margaret Sheil.

But specialist distance teaching institutions such as the University of New England are planning for full “online modality”. Charles Sturt University said it would move to “online delivery as soon as practicable”.

Online specialists Charles Darwin University and the University of Southern Queensland said they were following government advice, while highlighting their distance education capabilities.

The University of Newcastle said lectures for 200 or more students would be conducted online, while those with over 100 students would be “rescheduled to larger spaces” to keep students separated. It said all face-to-face lectures would be limited to 100 minutes.

The University of Notre Dame Australia said classes and exams were “continuing as scheduled” and insisted that it was “proactively following the advice” of four government departments.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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