Why a return to ‘the old way’ is not relevant for all learners

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COVID-19 has been incredibly disruptive but it has also been a catalyst for innovation, forcing us to think critically about the future.

COVID-19 has been incredibly disruptive. There have been many challenges throughout, and it has forced us to confront some very important issues such as mental health, domestic violence, and work life balance. However, it has also been a catalyst for innovation, forcing us to think critically about the future.

For higher education, this has been particularly confronting: challenging us to break from the status quo of deeply engrained, century old traditions that may no longer be relevant. Australian higher education institutions moved entirely online. But this was regarded as thrust upon them.

Back in 2014, when I first started as President of Torrens University, Australia’s first new University in twenty years, we did not want to be exactly the same as other universities. Yes, we met (and continue to meet) the same, rigorous standards set by TEQSA as other prestigious universities in Australia. But we pride ourselves on being different. Not better, but different. We created this new university to increase access to education, to put industry and students at the centre while ensuring every one of our students is an international citizen. To give students a choice.

From inception, we built hybridity and online education into our DNA. We knew that this was critical to give students a choice and flexibility. In traditional higher education, online is often considered second class, not up to the same academic quality and student experience standards as face-to-face. So we invested to ensure both online and face-to-face delivery modalities were equally academically rigorous and offering a high quality student experience. Students would choose how and what they wanted to study. Methods of learning would not be limited by opening hours, availability of teachers or timetable, or whether they wanted to do a full degree program or upskill with short courses, MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) and microcredentials.

Today, all of our programs are all designed to be place agnostic. You could study globally and across geographical boundaries – in and outside Australia. Our On-Demand Short Courses offering to the public is one such example of this. They are flexible and relevant learning tools for Australians and people around the world to upskill and expand their knowledge base.

In March 2020, like many, our leadership was faced with a very important decision to close campuses and go fully-online. This decision wasn’t a question of if or how or even why? It wasn’t a question about online versus face-to-face. It was a question of when. Our aim was to keep our teachers teaching and our students learning. But we grappled with how to remain connected with industry and community, and to ensure our students get a return on their investment. How do we balance care and hope?

Our response to move all 19,000+ students to fully online was swift, focused on keeping students and staff safe with little to no disruption to their learning. Student, staff and our communities’ safety was non-negotiable.

Now we are in June 2020. A critical question for higher education providers around the world to consider is this: what will the new ‘normal’ be? At Torrens this has been an evolution not a revolution.

I want to suggest something radical. That this debate misses a crucial point. The question shouldn’t be one of online versus face-to-face. The question should instead be one of how we can best foster and create exceptional communities in which everyone, not just ‘smart kids’, can participate – one where through the availability of choice, not only individuals prosper, but so do entire societies.

What can I imagine moving forward? That we only get better at hybrid learning. That we boldly continue to create hybrid solutions between online and face-to-face opportunities that build pedagogically effective learning environments – mixed with industry immersion, work-related learning, and an unwavering commitment to internationalism, being Here for Good and providing education that makes the world a better place.

This approach comes back to an original promise that we established in 2014. That promise feels more relevant now than ever before: everyone has the ability to choose how, where, what and when they learn.

We also recognise that our approach to hybridity is not right for every institution or student. That to truly give students this choice, we have to work together. We have to continue to work towards a university ecosystem that judges not only on prestigious research, but on other metrics like employability, innovation, and social impact. We need other universities to push themselves to innovate and diversify – some should be excellent in research, some on particular fields of study, some with stunning campuses while other fully online. Not better, but different.

And we need our regulators to become more inclusive of universities that don’t fit a common mould. This does not mean lowering the standards. Universities in Australia for far too long have relied on prestigious research as the benchmark for quality. Indeed this is a central and important pillar for universities, there is no arguing that. However, universities should not be judged with such narrow standards. This impedes innovation, and limits a student’s choice. Alternatively, institutions should have an opportunity to be judged on metrics that are important to their students. They should be judged on their ability to provide choice to a student and meet the educational needs of the student through different delivery models. Otherwise, we will end up with mediocrity.

This means recognising that the future of higher education depends on choice. And if we don’t adapt, we will be left behind.

At Torrens our aim is to create an agile university that puts students and industry at the centre – fulfilling our promises of employability, choice, edge and purpose and increasing opportunities through access, value and quality.

Our students have shown enormous resilience and adaptability in recent months, working with us through the challenges to ensure we deliver on our pledges.

As a public benefit corporation and Certified B Corporation we will balance being Here for Good with a sustainable return of investment for our shareholders and stakeholders. We are aware it’s your future, your choice.

You can read more about why everyone should do short course on our Torrens University blog.

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