Pandemic ‘confirms face-to-face teaching is here to stay’

University chiefs laud success of rapid online pivot but say campus-based programmes will not disappear any time soon

June 4, 2020
ANU webinar panel 4 June 2020

The Covid-19 crisis may have accelerated universities’ adoption of online education, but it has also confirmed the durability of the bricks-and-mortar model, an Australian forum has heard.

Indiana University president Michael McRobbie said the past few months had strengthened his scepticism about predictions that traditional education would be supplanted by purely online approaches. “One thing we have learned definitively is that students do not want to be locked in their parents’ basement for four years doing their degree online,” he told a webinar presented by the Australian National University (ANU).

“Sociologists will claim that 50 per cent of what a student learns, they learn from interaction with other students and aspects of their environment outside the classroom. There is a desperation for young students to get back to a college education.”

A Melbourne-born computer scientist and ANU alumnus, Professor McRobbie spent a decade as Indiana’s chief information officer before becoming president in 2007. He said that as the university prepared for its bicentennial year last winter, he had been contemplating how to make technology “even more pervasive” throughout the institution.

“Little did we know what was in store for us,” he reflected.

Singapore Management University, which was gearing up for its 20th year, also had to pivot very quickly to the use of educational technology. The institution’s president, Lily Kong, said the experience had served “to strengthen my conviction about what we use technology for”.

“It’s easy to have lots of talking heads on screen,” Professor Kong told the forum. “Students can listen to whatever material is being spewed out. But…how do we use technology to personalise learning? How do we use technology to deepen interaction and collaboration, rather than to take away from it?”

Professor Kong said the experience had also highlighted the importance of “synchronous interaction” in online learning. “It’s entirely possible to put lots of material online [that] students can access in their own time, at their own pace. But really what the students are looking for, and what they really learn from, is that interaction with somebody else on the other side of the screen.”

She said her university had “politely” declined invitations from partner institutions to send its students on virtual exchanges. “If they’re not able to go where you are, they’re not immersed in another country [or] culture. As a Chinese saying goes, ‘You can read 1,000 words, but it’s not the same as seeing it for yourself just the one time.’ At the end of the day, technology can supplement – can maybe even enable for some – but it doesn’t replace.”

ANU vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt said the crisis had clarified how digital approaches could enhance education: “And it’s made very clear where digital is a second cousin to the intense, in-person experience – how to use digital successfully, and how to not use digital in the future.”

Professor Schmidt said students “don’t like coming to thousand-person lectures very often. But when they do come on campus, the thing our students really [value] is that in-person engagement where you interrogate ideas. So, let’s spend our time doing that.

“Google can outsource me on the big, standard deliverer digital stuff. But they can’t outsource my world-leading professors who can have a one-on-one conversation about exploring ideas anew.”

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Reader's comments (2)

In my view, to come up with a conclusion such as the one in this article for all the students looks like kind of over-generalisation, which I tend to avoid. Notwithstanding the obvious value of face-to-face delivery in HE along with an overall on-campus experience, confining online delivery only to the "complementary" area lies in stark contrast with the success of many online degree programmes, which are offered not only by solely online institutions but also by many bricks-and-mortar universities, among them some of those at the very top of various rankings. Online (or digital) learning is also here to stay, IMO, along with face-to-face learning, be that in a blended approach or a fully digital approach. Instead of blanket conclusions, I think that the higher education sector had better embrace this diversity of delivery modes and try to make the best of all of these experiences, so that they can serve the requirements of all student profiles at all levels of higher education. In my view, these requirements are subject to change according to the student attributes such as age, employed/unemployed, financial status, personality traits, etc. as well as the level (undergraduate/postgraduate) and type (taught/research/WBL) of the programmes on offer.
Coming out of COVID, we have flipped the classroom. I post all the materials and recorded lectures, and require the students to move through the posted content via quizzes. Then, in the classroom we engage in conversation and debate, guest speakers, and work group projects to bring the content to life.