Saturday, April 4, 2020

Plan a Gradual Return to the Classroom with Blended Learning

Most educational institutions had to scramble to convert courses for online delivery due to the  COVID-19 Coronavirus. Those educational institutions which were already providing large scale e-learning, and those who took my advice in 2017 to be ready with online learning in case of a crisis, have had less difficulty. A more orderly move back to the classroom can be planned, when the virus is under control in the next few months. This could use blended learning, with on-campus components gradually added to the blend. However, the online components should be retained for all programs, in case of future emergencies, and to cater for individual student needs.

It is not feasible to set a deadline when all classes return to "normal" campus-based teaching. Rather than having all students stop online learning at once and return to campus on the same day, stagger it over weeks, or months. Students would be on campus initially for only a few classes. Some students will be unable to return for medical and other reasons. 
With a gradual return there would be fewer students on campus, allowing for easier social distancing. Further COVID-19 outbreaks are possible, until a vaccine is widely administered. If there is a further outbreak, the decision to move back to online learning would be much easier. There would be no difficult decision to declare a campus "closed". Instead the on-campus options would be swapped out and the online equivalents used, for as long as is required. This could be done just for a particular group of students who may have had contact with a person found to be infected, rather than closing the whole campus.

Australian institutions should include online learning, as part of permanent contingency planning, as was done by some institutions in our region years before the current emergency.

Blended learning will also better suit student needs and the reality of how they now study. The idea that most university students were "full time" and  "on-campus" was a fiction. Even before COVID-16, most students did not attend most lectures, in the typical Australian university program. Many students have families, or jobs, or both, competing for their time, making them effectively part-time students, studying mostly online. The opportunity can be taken to redesign programs, to provide blended learning. 

The distinction between on-campus and online students can be removed, along with full and part-time, domestic and international. The typical student will likely study 20% on campus and 80% online. But students should be allowed to choose the blend which suits them. Courses and programs can be flipped, with a design for online delivery, plus some campus-based elements added were appropriate. If Australian universities do not offer these options, domestic and international students seeking them will be required to enroll at overseas institutions.

Professor Marginson of Oxford University, has suggested treating online learning as a different product with a "separate pricing structure” (Coronavirus: global student flows to suffer ‘massive hit’ for years, Ellie Bothwell, Times Higher Education, 26 March 2020). However, offering cut-price online degrees could risk the reputations of institutions, and countries, for quality education. Blended learning, could incorporate some online learning, but be seen to be a quality product worthy of the full fee.

Australian higher education policy should be changed to accept blended learning as the default, for both domestic and international students. Australia should focus on quality education for all students, wherever they are. This will reduce the burden from unworkable regulations, which have been waved during the current emergency. It will also provide a competitive advantage for Australia in a more competitive international education market.

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