The university sector looks fundamentally different from two years ago.
If you asked any educator if the sector could survive two years of campus closures, pivot to online delivery for all courses practically overnight, and weather a storm of low international student enrollments, they would have laughed and simply said “no.”
And yet, these issues are exactly what we have weathered.
The universities have not collapsed, although they are struggling. As far as teaching is concerned, on many fronts, it is thriving.
Online education posed a massive challenge to educators. Most had never taught a course online — some lacked the online materials to do it at all. Educators have risen to this challenge and developed completely online courses overnight.
For example, educators developed synchronous class time with tutors using tools such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom, break out rooms to engage with peers directly, group work to develop collaboration and communication skills, and bite-sized videos to be digested at the students’ leisure.
This new way of learning (and teaching) has its disadvantages. From zoom-bombing to silent-cameraless breakout rooms, students are struggling to self-motivate, and, perhaps most importantly, there is inequitable access to resources such as a stable internet connection, creating an even bigger gap in the equity disparagement.
However, there are many benefits that have risen from online learning. Students have greater flexibility than ever before. For example, students are now able to fit a class in during their lunch break at work or between diaper changes. They can attend class without having to commute, and stay home when they’re feeling under the weather, without missing class. Students with disabilities are able to make choices about how and when they engage with their studies, such as AI-generated close captions for live classes and recordings to review later.
Building the Next University
As educators, it is now our job to start thinking about what’s next. How can we take our learnings during the pandemic and apply it to our newest iteration of teaching practices? What pre-pandemic teaching practices should return?
Technology use within the traditional classroom is guaranteed to increase — with collaborative tools linking students not just in the classroom but outside the classroom. Online learning communities that span subjects and degrees are becoming increasingly common, particularly where there are student-led courses on platforms like Discord.
Mixed-mode delivery is likely here to stay as we transition out of the pandemic. Mixed-mode delivery helps bridge the gap between students who can attend campus with those who can't or don't want to. Students can choose to attend the online classes or on-campus classes but both are taught at the same time using collaboration and streaming tools.
At the University of Technology, Sydney, we have experimented with this mode. Using tools such as Microsoft Teams or Zoom we can stream the class slideshow as well as audio and video from class to remote students, and remote students can participate and ask questions in a text chat or even have their voice output to classroom speakers.
On-campus students can collaborate together as they always have, while online students use tools, such as MURAL, to collaborate on an expansive digital whiteboard. We can even bring the whole cohort together into MURAL for entire classroom activities.
For students, it’s not about going into the classroom vs. online learning. It’s about having the choice to select which environment is right for them. Whether it is preference, responsibilities, or disabilities, students prefer to have the option to choose between modes. Additionally, offering the flexibility to change that choice in a mixed-mode setting empowers students to learn in their own way.
Consider a student with chronic fatigue syndrome (or ME) or similar. They desperately want to participate on campus, but sometimes they can't leave their bed. Traditionally, they would miss out entirely, but mixed-mode could have them choose each week whether they can attend campus or if they should use the live stream online option.
The Next University needs to be flexible. We can no longer assume that students have just finished high school, have no responsibilities, and can dedicate all their time to their studies. Students come from all walks of life and need flexibility to complete further education. If we want to see an equitable future where people with disabilities, people of color, new mothers, and other minority groups have equal access to the life changing experience of a university education, we need to take what we have learned about flexibility and apply it to our future.