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To be or not to be: a hybrid return to campus

The term ‘hybrid’ has popped up across the higher education sector to denote a part return to campus, by both domestic and international students. Yet its application and perceived longevity are not as cut and dried as many would believe.

Early adopters of the term ‘hybrid’ in the automobile industry[1] used it in the context of alternative fuel options. Likewise, we appear to have adopted the notion to designate a dual teaching and learning model that mixes face-to-face with online instruction. It is an appropriate designation at this point and may be with us for some time.

The key issue, though, is that a truly hybrid model provides the user with the authority to choose their preferred mode of delivery – not to be dictated by the providers.

Giving students choice

A truly hybrid higher education offering would, then, be a combination of online teaching and learning with the option to switch to face-to-face. And that switch, whether done in full or in part, would be primarily driven by student choice.

Using social distancing and strict COVID-safe protocols, it will be possible for students to return to campus for a range of activities. Doing so, however, will be controlled and stubbornly difficult.

A recent experience with a ‘two-person limit’ carpark lift in the Melbourne CBD highlighted the complexity of moving people up and down buildings in a COVID-safe manner. Magnify this issue at scale and you have the real challenge of a return to campus.

I think it wise to examine the issue under two scenarios – pre-vaccine (current until mid-2021) and post-vaccine (July 2021 onwards). This timeline, of course, is arbitrary and has no certainty.

Hybrid pre-vaccine

My own institution (UBSS) modelled a hybrid return at our NSW campus in T2 2020, where a limited number of students were invited to attend in-person classes using event ticketing software[2].

Our initial survey of students suggested more than a quarter (28 per cent) were keen to physically return. However, the reality was quite different: only a handful of students actually took up the opportunity once it was made available. The project was abandoned accordingly.

In more recent times, 93 per cent of the same cohort of students have indicated a preference for purely online studies over a hybrid return. The process, then, will take some time to reach fruition.

Curtin University[3] recently touted the idea to “ditch in-person lectures and exams, even after coronavirus pandemic ends”. Few were surprised by such a concept.

Regardless of whether or not an institution intends to provide a hybrid option, the big issue here is that COVID-19 has changed the very nature of this particular HEP. The suggestion is that it will become primarily an online delivery mechanism with the possible option of some in-person delivery. Yet in truth, this is not the hybrid reality of choice.

Both examples represent a pre-vaccine mindset which is almost certain to remain in place into 2021 – if not for the whole of 2021.

Hybrid post-vaccine

The rollout of a COVID-19 vaccine (or multiple vaccines) will undoubtedly have a positive impact on HE activity. Yet the lessons of the current pandemic may linger well into the 2020s.

Staged returns to campus will be encouraged. The Australian Government and many state and territory governments alike are currently encouraging companies to bring staff back to the office – with considerable resistance, I might add.

In some ways, workers have moved on – relocating to regional centres, installing high-end office and conferencing equipment, and essentially accepting the fact that much of what they did in the corporate office environment can be done elsewhere.

The same can also be said of the higher education workforce.

A vaccine may relax the level of concern but won’t completely eliminate it – at least not in the next few years. The return to university campuses, like all other workplaces, will be nervous and strained.

Additionally, the parameters of facilitating the return to campus will be complex as part of efforts to maintain COVID-safe certification and associated procedures and practices.

To be or not to be

Irrespective of a vaccine, I believe higher education delivery methods will require a considerable rethink, as evidenced in Rigg (2020)[4]. Whether institutions like it or not.

Australian universities have spent considerable effort pre-vaccine fixing sins of the past: an overreliance on international students; preoccupation with research in place of teaching and learning; poor business models; and inflated staff sizes.

The international student ‘cash cow’ has dried up for the time being – and the impact has been significant.

What is now called for is a rational consideration of better practice, where students are given the choice between face-to-face or online learning, or in fact utilise a combination (hybrid) option to best suit their needs and circumstances.

Doing so will require the development of better technologies and more flexible international student legislation to accommodate choice – the very essence of a ‘hybrid’.

Emeritus Professor Greg Whateley is currently deputy vice chancellor at Group Colleges Australia.

[1] https://www.toyota.com.au/hybrid
[2] https://www.ubss.edu.au/media/1824/transition-to-online-teaching-and-learning-at-ubss-2020.pdf
[3] https://mobile.abc.net.au/news/2020-11-27/curtin-university-in-wa-phasing-out-lectures-by-end-of-next-year/12923772
[4] The reimagined international student office post COVID-19 (universityworldnews.com)

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