Gary Martin, chief executive officer of the Australian Institute of Management WA, recently asked what gave a quality experience for Australian university students ("Creating an X-factor Experience", Business News, 22 August 2021). Professor Steve Blackburn and the team at ANU Engineering and Computer Science have answered that with "Teaching computer science in a pandemic". I suggest, as the video demonstrates, student satisfaction can be improved though personal attention, enhanced with technology.
For the last 18 months the narrative has been students, and staff, suffering though online learning. But it doesn't have to be that way. Well implemented systems, with trained staff, can make learning better, on and off campus. Students can be guided in how to work together, in person, and online, to enhance their learning, and as a foundation for a future career.
Professor Martin pointed to the latest Good Universities Guide, showing Bond University and Notre Dame Australia, beating the public universities for student satisfaction. He suggests the priority should be providing a "transformative student experience", but is not sure what that is, or how to provide it. The answer I suggest is in something he mentions later: a "personal experience", in the service the university provides, connections with students, academics, industry, and community. From the time the students first considers enrolling, though study, and as an alumnus, they need to feel a personal connection to people at the university.
The challenge for universities is to provide a personal connection with thousands of students. The solution, paradoxically, is better computer mediated communications. This requires well designed university systems, but more important is staff trained in how to administer and teach online.
For my latest university experiences, personal attention, at a distance, was the X-factor. I studied online long before COVID-19, at two campuses I have never seen, but where people made me feel welcome.
This welcome started long before enrollment. University of Southern Queensland had an excellent online pre-enrollment system. But at one point I typed in a question & my phone rang, as that was the easiest way to answer. I enrolled online shortly afterward. Through my study I never visited the campus, or talked face to face with staff. Even so it was a very personal experience, as the administrative and teaching staff were trained and equipped to work this way.
Because of time zones, it was not possible to have much real-time contact, when studying at my next institution, Athabasca University in Canada. I was in Canberra, on the other side of the world. Even so, they made enrollment & study a personal experience. This was far better, than most of my on-campus experiences as a student in Australia. Like USQ, Athabasca has staff qualified in, and expert at, the design, delivery, and administration, of education. Administrative processes and courses are designed on the assumption the student will be a long way away, rather than this being treated as a special case.
My topic of study was how to provide a good online experience for international students at Australian institutions. So I became an online student myself at an Australian vocational education provider, an Australian university and a Canadian university. This was while teaching professional development and university courses. The X-Factor I discovered in this were instructors who had been trained and educated in how to teach online.
Those Australian universities which can provide personal experiences, on and off campus, will prosper in the next decade. Those which instead invest in buildings with complex multimedia learning labs, will not. The key is to start with administrative and educational processes design for distance students, then add the campus experience. Unfortunately most Australian university have tried to do the opposite: modify campus based procedures and courses to make them online.
There are plenty of companies which can help universities set up quality administrative online processes (if not, the people at Canberra Innovation Network will help you set one up). But I am an educator, so lets look at education.
The student wants to complete their program of study as quickly as possible. This is one way Bond University excels: by providing speed without compromising quality. Students also want a vocationally relevant qualification, which is where Notre Dame Australia gains points.
Where the more traditional Australia public universities fall down is in failing to recognize students need both training and education. Concurrent with some of my university studies in education, I was undertaking did some training in the vocational sector to provide step by step instruction, & some education at university to provide deeper learning. But in practice I suggest both are needed.
This is very clear when teaching project management to computer students. They need step by step instruction, so they have a common language and set of techniques to work together. But they also need education in the subtleties of how to work with people, and in the process learn more about themselves.
The vocational sector has long offered learning in smaller chunks. The Australian government has been nudging universities in that direction with funding for undergraduate certificates.
Work Integrated Learning (WIL) was also a positive factor for me. I was able to use my work as the topic of assignments, and immediately apply what I was learning (I now teach this way to computer project students). For less mature students, I suggest "Life Integrated Learning" would help. Provide the sort of extra curricular activities universities traditionally offer, but integrate them into the formal curriculum (and give course credit). This can be done with e-portfolios.
I will be discussing the challenge of providing a personal experience enhanced by technology in my next webinar.
- Worthington, T. (2019, December). Blend and Flip for Teaching Communication Skills to Final Year International Computer Science Students. In 2019 IEEE International Conference on Engineering, Technology and Education (TALE) (pp. 1-5). IEEE. https://doi.org/10.1109/TALE48000.2019.9225921
- Higher Education After COVID-19, six webinars from August 2020, by Tom Worthington, for the Microlearning Series curated by Manisha Khetarpal at Maskwacis Cultural College, Canada
- Engaging students in the online environment, five webinars from February 2021, by Tom Worthington, for the Microlearning Series curated by Manisha Khetarpal at Maskwacis Cultural College, Canada
- Learning to Reflect Module Version 5.0: Hybrid Edition by Tom Worthington, for the module for the ANU TechLauncher program, 2018 to 2021.Extend the online course into the physical classroom: This is much easier than trying to take a classroom based course and put it online.