Dr Cathy Stone and Monica Davis have surveyed Australian rural and remote students who report they have difficulty accessing online courses during the COVID-19 lock-down. This has implications for Australia's education export industry, as well as equity for domestic students.
While only a small sample, two-thirds of the fifty-five asked, said their Internet access was insufficient. The researchers conclude that regional and remote students were disadvantaged as a result, and point to the valuable work being done by the Regional University Centres.
However, the average Internet speed reported by students in the study was 4.5 mbps, which is more than adequate for a well designed online course. Unfortunately many universities had not put in place an on-line contingency for the real possibility students could not get to campus and so were not prepared for COVID-19. Also university had not trained their academic staff to teach online, even though this is how the majority of university education was delivered in Australia was delivered, before COVID-19 closed campuses.
In February I evacuated my university office and set up to deliver courses online from home. Conscious of the limited Internet access and equipment available to students, I decided to use my low bandwidth, high latency 4G wireless modem, and a $300 low power laptop. My Internet account operates at around 4.5 mbps and has a limited data cap, after which it is shaped to 1.5 mbps. Even so I found this adequate for providing documents, videos and live video conferences.
However, while I am able to provide e-learning suitable for low speed broadband, I have the advantage of years of training in how to design and deliver online courses. In 2016 and 2017 I warned Australian universities that students may be unable to get to campus in a crisis. Last year refined my learning design to allow a fast switch to online delivery, if needed. In February I activated that option for COVID-19, with only minor changes.
While higher speed Internet access for students would be helpful, I suggest efforts should focus on quality design of online courses. Training university academics in how to design and deliver online courses can provide a quality experience with current bandwidth. Also just increasing Internet speed will not make up for other deficiencies in online courses.
Australian universities are also delivering online courses to International students who cannot attend on campus. While moves are underway to get students to Australia, this will take time*. At present students are forming views of Australian education based on their online experience. Higher Educaiton will remain mostly online, so this is critical to Australia's education expert industry. In the longer term, university education, and in particular international education, will be increasingly offered online. Australian universities and academics, need to invest in doing online education well, not only for Australian regional students, but to keep our export industry viable.
* It happens I took a short course at Australian Defence College on how to get people to Australian in a crisis, when working at HQ Australian Defence Force.