In the past weeks there have been daily reports of universities putting all their coursework material online. In some cases institutions have had to cancel classes for a week to free up capacity as universities around the country grapple with the impacts of coronavirus (COVID-19).
One such report began by saying that teachers at a large university "are being given crash courses in online teaching".
A senior academic at another substantial university has posted material for his colleagues, amounting to a Beginner's Guide, with reassuring messages not to be frightened of teaching online. No one can criticise this because the immediate interests of students are paramount.
But the general public, many of whom have had to learn fundamentally new ways of working, might reasonably wonder what universities have been up to since the internet arrived.
The higher education sector now has a choice: revert back to old ways when the coronavirus (COVID-19) challenges are over or use this as a watershed moment for transformative change in higher education. And if so, we could look forward to reconstruction, not return, in four areas.
The first change should be to the passive lecture, which is still the standard way of content transmission and less effective for learning than the alternatives now available. Many students cease to attend lectures after the first week instead choosing to watch them at home and the 50 minute format is much longer than all the scientific evidence on attention span.
The lecture made some sense, economically and socially, when students were not expected to engage actively with the content. But it is a relatively recent format, and it could be retired.
In the 18th Century, Dr Samual Johnson, according to his biographer Boswell, declaimed its arrival:
People have now-a-days got a strange opinion that everything should be taught by lectures. Now, I cannot see that lectures can do so much as reading the books from which the lectures are taken. I know nothing that can be best taught by lectures, except where experiments are to be shewn. You may teach chemistry by lectures: – You might teach the making of shoes by lectures!
Let 2020 mark the death of the dull lecture.
The second area of focus should be diversifying international student markets. Everyone has known about the degree of reliance on a small number of countries and the obvious reason this has manifested is that fees are too high. The middle classes of most countries are priced out of Australia. Universities charge what their market will bear, and China has the most means and willingness to sacrifice.
Let 2020 be the year Australia welcomed countries at different stages of economic development, and prided itself on affordability.
The third area of focus is cost. Education is too expensive. As other sectors have transformed their operations, moved to new work practices, stopped building iconic structures (on their own balance sheet), the change in universities has been marginal. Non-academic cost could be brought down significantly with decisive leadership and experience from other parts of the economy. Governments would be impressed, domestic students could be saddled with less debt, and international students would show their gratitude in later life for lower fees.
Let 2020 be the year that Australian universities seriously transform the way they operate and stop tiptoeing around obsolete ways of doing things.
Finally, student experience. There is a lot happening in the sector, to map student journeys and improve service, but universities are a long way away from the customer experience (CX) strategies that other sectors have had to develop to survive. The technique of personas or archetypes is used in recruitment, to target particular kinds of prospective students, but it could be extended throughout the learning period. With a clear handle on different types of students, who have different needs and abilities, teaching and academic support could be tailored specifically for their learning, rather than one-size-fits all.
Let 2020 be the year when customer experience meets student experience.
Now may not be the right time to lose focus on the immediate needs of students and staff, but there must be enough bandwidth to make a simple resolution.
We should not go back to the status quo ante coronavirus.
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