Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Prospering in 2021: Hoping for the Best But Preparing for Worse to Come

My counterpart, The Research Whisperer, has posted a moving reflection on Surviving 2020. Their work has been a bright point of light in a dark year. In Canberra, where I live, the bush-fires were followed by a hailstorm which tore through roofs at the ANU in January 2020, fortunately without casualties, and then there was COVID-19.

In some ways COVID-19 was the least unexpected of these disasters. Singapore colleagues had pointed out to me years before how they ran drills to practice teaching online, in the event of another SARS-like outbreak closing campuses. In 2016 I warned my colleagues in Canberra, they should be ready with an online options. I predicted most teaching would be online by 2020 (something I would have preferred to be wrong about).

Restrictions and campus closures affected the computing discipline, and my own area of educational use of technology perhaps least of all. There was the sudden need to put years of trying online technology into practice on a large scale, give both new tutors and old professors a few tips how to teach online and find every web camera available.

Like many in higher education I worked to keep things going, only to then be told of rationalizations. Fortunately I will be continuing to help teaching. I might have also found a new role coaching at hackerthons

Canberra's lock-down was relatively short and mild. Even so, the sense of isolation was high and the novelty of hours of Zoom wore off. But years of investigation in how to teach international students online at a research university if they were suddenly kept from campus paid off. The technology and pedagogy worked as expected.

There have been some pluses. Virtual conferences worked well, and were cheap, compensating for the loss of social contact and exotic venues. The many innovation start-up competitions and hackerthons I mentor transferred seamlessly online and I moved from coaching teams to coaching the coaches. Despite these online experiences it was wonderful around the end of the years to attend a few face to face, socially distanced, events.

Some of this experience I summed up in a  six part series "Higher education after COVID-19 at Maskwacis Cultural College in Canada:
  1. Responding to the Coronavirus Emergency with e-Learning
  2. Open Content for e-Learning in Response to the Coronavirus
  3. Online Assessment with e-Portfolios in Response to the Coronavirus
  4. Tools to engage students online.
  5. Mentoring student group work online.
  6. Higher education after COVID-19: Not business as usual
In my last talk for Canada, I cautioned against seeing COVID-19 as a "White Swan" event: that is something completely unexpected and only obvious in retrospect. A respiratory pandemic was expected and some universities, particularly in Singapore, had prepared for it. We need to now prepare for the next likely event, which is a deterioration of geopolitics in our region, with the sudden loss of most remaining on-campus international students.

Having been through a series of disasters, I suggest we should not be complacent. Australia was fortunate the bushfires, floods, hailstorms, and pandemic were one after the other, and our region of the world was relatively peaceful. Consider if during 2021 there are natural disasters and military conflicts, stretching national resources. At the same time an adversary may use cyber-attacks to disrupt power and telecommunications, while using fake news to incite civil unrest and promote the spread of COVID-19. Under these conditions all our international students will likely want to, or be forced to, return home. Even if the region remains stable, there will be increasing competition for students from campuses in their own country, offshore and online, including from China's Education Action Plan for the Belt and Road Program.

Australia's traditional allies, particularly Canada, also present a challenge. In 2013 I enrolled in Canada as a graduate online student, after investigating the Australian options. The paperwork to enroll in Canada was easier than Australia, the program at least as good and slightly cheaper.

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