When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, there was only one direction for universities to go: online.
Despite sitting for years under the bright lights and promises of the digital highway, online education was just an option, but not yet a central proposition.
It was, in fact, a daunting proposition for many institutions and some senior academics. For years there have been myths, fears and concerns swirling around online education. They focussed on perceived lack of academic rigour, concerns about inferior learning outcomes, cheating, and employer attitudes to online qualifications.
“At Australia’s newest university, online education has always been on par with face-to-face learning. Why? The university was designed so that every student has a choice to learn when and where they choose,” Torrens University President Linda Brown said.
Brown describes the institution as a greenfield university conceived and designed post-Google, post-Amazon and in a very different way to any of Australia’s existing universities.
“Online was never considered a supplementary addition. It had to be part of the offering from the beginning. It had to carry the same status and promise, the same quality as the face-to-face learning option. The model has never and could never be about maintaining the status quo,” Brown noted.
All of Torrens University’s programs are designed to be online first, passing through the same regulatory and accreditation processes as face-to-face programs. All subjects are designed requiring the same amount of study time, study methods, peer collaboration as well as providing live interactive components. Even before COVID-19, many Torrens students already did hybrid learning – some online and some face-to-face.
“In early March we made the decision to swiftly move all of our 19,000 students fully online,” Brown said.
“For our staff and students, online education is part of how we work, how we live, how we connect and create communities. It is fundamental to quality higher education, and invariably it will and has become essential, like it or not.”
The Vice Chancellor of Torrens University Professor Alwyn Louw believes now is the time to move on from the longstanding debates about the value of online education.
“As a nation we must shift the paradigm, and focus instead on the quality and accessibility of online education,” Professor Louw said.
“We must move away from the perception of online learning as involving someone who is in isolation, forfeiting the benefit of direct access to a lecture, and receiving a message they must memorise.”
Both Brown and Louw talk about education for everyone and responding to the expectations of students and industry.
“Online education is connected to a universal mission grounded in a key United Nations Sustainable Development Goal – inclusive, quality education for all,” Brown said.
Trish Powers, a senior lecturer at Torrens University who is also writing her PhD about the online experiences of students, says in an increasingly uncertain world where education remains critical, technology has allowed for smooth transition and continuity for students.
“In this unforeseen and unpredictable landscape, technology has offered credible solutions to an unprecedented problem,” she said.
This is not to say it has been easy for higher education staff and students across Australia, and indeed around the world, to transition fully online. Many were primarily focussed on face-to-face teaching and learning. As concerns about coronavirus grew, Australian higher education institutions moved swiftly to online teaching.
For Professor Louw the expectations extend beyond simply providing education with digital components.
“As we engage more deeply with online teaching and learning, we’re taking progressive steps in the learning experience of students to prepare them for the world of work and a new type of society”, Professor Louw said.
“When the world is drastically changing, to think you are going back to a static teaching and learning environment is counterproductive and somewhat ignorant.”
Torrens University proudly champions this approach, extending the opportunity to study online well beyond a student’s graduation date. Once students graduate, Torrens University offers many opportunities for continuous, life-long learning used by professionals, mid-careerists, the return-to-work workforce and the many who are catching up or exploring new horizons. This includes the offerings of On-Demand Short Courses.
But advocates of online learning are also keen to point out that online learning is not just about learning on digital platforms to obtain a qualification, a diploma or a degree. It also helps build crucial and highly valued skills in the labour marketplace.
Paul Brafield, General Manager of Design and Creative Technology at Torrens University, points to the employability skills and community building aspect of online education.
“Online learning should also be recognised as a valuable mode of connecting with others. This of course supports learning, but it also builds knowledge in a digital context – which is increasingly becoming the norm,” Brafield said.
“This is not just true for learning, but also for the world of work. Knowing how to operate independently, interact, communicate, complete tasks and deliver in an online context is an increasingly crucial employability skill across all sectors. In fact, it is vital.”
Torrens University opened its doors to students in 2014. From the very beginning, it has boldly described itself as Australia’s international university, with a focus on employability. The focus on online learning allowed the university to aim high and cement its reputation as a student centred university.
“Online extends your community, providing access to those not just outside the large centres but people all over the country and beyond. Students are able to develop a global perspective,” Brafield said.
Creation of community and community impact through education are central tenets of the ethos of Torrens University.
“People and community are the central focus of our online offerings – both within the university itself and within our short courses,” Powers said.
“For our university students, the priority of student centred learning has been, and continues to be the development of online communities and classes designed to leverage technology tools and instructional models that actively engage students in each part of the learning process.”
At Torrens University, the pride around successfully transitioning all students to one hundred percent online teaching and learning is palpable. While there was some initial trepidation among staff who were focussed on face-to-face teaching, the near seamless transition came as no surprise to those driving the recent move.
“Our expertise in online delivery existed before the pandemic and will continue after it’s over. The impact of online delivery will endure even after the immediate period of virus prevention is over,” Powers said.
“Students and lecturers will have collectively experienced a more interactive, real-time and innovation-oriented learning experience.”
Across the higher education sector in Australia and internationally, there is broad agreement that a new benchmark has been set, especially in online education.
Professor Louw is keen to point out that innovation will be Torrens University’s main game.
“This is our future,” he said.
“We must never become a benchmarking institution. We must continue to be an innovation institution. If benchmarking is the norm, you’re following everyone else’s norm.
“The moment you innovate, you are challenging everyone else to improve. Why would you want to benchmark?”
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