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How COVID-19 has created a ‘new normal’ for Australian universities

After suffering widespread disruption during the pandemic lockdowns of 2020, Australian universities are now coming to terms with what the future might hold for tertiary education.

While many international students have been unable to return, lectures and tutorials are cranking up once more for those able to attend. Unfortunately, however, campus life in 2021 is going to be a very different experience for both students and faculty members.

Both groups now need to become comfortable with new ways of learning and communicating. A ‘new normal’ has to be established.

Cultural shift

One of the first things needing to be created is a culture of remote learning. While some activities are likely to take place in a face-to-face environment, many others will be conducted via video link with lecturers in empty lecture halls talking to students connecting from home.

This method of learning requires a very different approach. Lecturers need to find a way to communicate with students without the benefit of immediate visual feedback. Talking to a camera for hours without knowing how your materials are being received can be a challenging activity.

Students will also need to alter their approach. While many are content to turn off their cameras and microphones and passively listen to classes, they are going to have to be encouraged to be more interactive. It’s all but impossible to replicate face-to-face lectures but efforts need to be made.

To be a success, the push for this change in culture will have to come from the top. Senior university management will need to create an environment where staff and students can effectively interact remotely. Investments will be needed in everything from presentation training to video conferencing infrastructure.

Evolving course materials

Another requirement caused by the COVID-19-induced changes is a need to undertake a review of the course materials currently used by lecturers. Many materials were designed to be delivered in a face-to-face manner and are not suited to a virtual or remote environment.

Increasingly, lecturers and senior staff will also need to introduce different elements into the teaching mix. Rather than simply relying on one-to-many lectures delivered over video links, alternative learning approaches will have to be incorporated.

Examples can include interactive sessions where students are grouped together in virtual rooms to discuss a set topic and formulate a report for the class. In other cases, students might be set the task of observing events in their real-world environment and explaining how these relate to points highlighted in the course materials.

By evolving teaching methods and materials in this way, student engagement can be increased and learning outcomes optimised. Lecturers can also be confident that their course materials will remain relevant and engaging should current remote learning conditions remain in place for an extended period of time.

Improving assessment

The shift to remote learning has also changed the way in which students will receive timely feedback on their submitted work. It’s imperative that students receive feedback on their first assignment prior to submission of their subsequent submission. If students are unable to meet physically with staff, other methods need to be found so that they can receive guidance and direction on areas requiring improvement.

Increasingly, staff will need to take advantage of emerging ‘edtech’ tools that can help to automate the assessment task. These tools can handle much of the marking process and free lecturers to focus their time on providing tailored, higher level feedback for students.

Edtech tools can also assist in identifying cases of both plagiarism and contract cheating within pieces of work submitted by students. Both are serious problems, however they could potentially become more tempting for students forced to study in lockdown conditions.

Contract cheating, in particular, is an area in which edtech tools can add significant value. By monitoring the works of individual students over extended periods, sudden and unexplained changes in writing style and skill-level can be automatically identified and brought to the attention of academic staff. If a work is deemed to have been created by a third party, steps can be taken to discipline the student and ensure awarded markings are adjusted.

Ongoing changes

Clearing the disruptive changes caused by the viral pandemic are going to be present for an extended period. For this reason, tertiary institutions are going to have to constantly review their teaching methods and materials to ensure student bodies remain engaged, enthusiastic, and motivated to learn.

The ‘new normal’ in which Australian universities operate is very different from the conditions of recent years. However, with sufficient planning and ongoing adjustments, students will continue to graduate with the qualifications they require to succeed in the wider world.

Chukwudi Ogoh is assessments and feedback technologies consultant at Turnitin.

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