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Online learning has its time in the sun, as Unis cope with COVID-19

Published:19 March 2020

Online learning will have the chance to prove it is more than just a stop-gap as leading distance education universities show how much can be achieved without face-to-face lectures.

That’s according to CQUniversity academic Dr Brendan Jacobs, an online teaching specialist.

Dr Jacobs says COVID-19 has shown that the universities which are firmly focused on the future have been able to provide workable and proven solutions for the present.

“While many employees have been encouraged to work from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, not all sectors of the community are equipped to do so,” he says.

“Surprisingly, one sector which could reasonably have been expected to adapt to this challenge is higher education, but many of the most world’s most prestigious universities are closing their doors.

“A Dean at Harvard University recently stated that ‘remote teaching is an important and powerful tool in our contingency planning’.  Harvard faculty have been encouraged to ‘sign up for a Zoom account and complete training no later than March 20’.

“The irony here is that online teaching is not an ad hoc practice but a rapidly growing sector of the higher education market with distinct and highly developed pedagogies that have been evolving for decades.

“The various universities which have embraced technology to address the needs of students in the online arena have traditionally done so to cater for students who are in remote locations or have schedules which are not conducive to traditional office hours.

“For these universities, the impact of COVID-19 has been mitigated by existing technologies specifically designed for online learning.

Dr Jacobs says it has been over 25 years since Alison King’s seminal (1993) article From sage on the stage to guide on the side, but teacher-centred practice is still the prevailing norm, despite many attempts to change to a student-centred model.

“To put this another way, perhaps the status quo reflects a focus on teaching (i.e. what the teacher does) instead of learning (i.e. what the students do).

“My role at CQUniversity Australia involves unit coordination and online teaching for a cohort of students spread across the country.

“Fortunately, this University has been innovating in this area for over 20 years – in fact it has offered distance education since 1974 - so working from home using online technologies is business as usual.

“Meeting the needs of current students and striving to improve the student experience might lead to changes in public perception about universities and how they cope in times of crisis, particularly for institutions which can’t rely on tradition.

“Although this crisis is far from over, COVID-19 has shown that the universities which are firmly focused on the future have been able to provide workable and proven solutions for the present.”