Universities have made online teaching the new normal, even as COVID-19 restrictions on public gatherings ease and despite evidence many students dislike the virtual education experience.
A survey of universities by The Age has found they are continuing to lecture online in many of the lessons that were remote last year, with on-campus classes mostly limited to small tutorials.
Swinburne University, for example, has confirmed all lectures in 2021 will remain online, with all tutorials and labs to switch back to in-person in semester two.
The Australian Catholic University has told students who do not want a virtual education this year to consider deferring their studies or even seek a refund.
The widespread embrace of digital learning has been slammed by some tertiary educators and by students, who resent being denied a face-to-face experience.
“I feel very sorry for students,” Swinburne senior lecturer in history and politics Julie Kimber said. “I just feel that they’re being totally ripped off and they know that they’re being ripped off.”
Universities including Melbourne, RMIT and Deakin have stuck with an online-only model for many lectures so far this year, while La Trobe has used the pandemic to accelerate longer-term plans to increase online learning.
In doing so, the universities are betting the bulk of students will forsake established models of tertiary education built around on-campus lectures, even if they don’t like it.
Australia’s tertiary education regulator, the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, analysed student experiences of remote learning last year and found many rated it poorly and did not wish to experience it again.
The report, based on a survey of 118 education providers, found a host of problems with remote learning including a lack of student engagement, inadequate interaction with staff and peers, and IT problems.
“In many cases, these proportions of disaffected students were between 33 per cent and 50 per cent of respondents,” the report found. “These are large numbers across the sector and present a problem if the transition to online study must remain well into 2021.”
The online migration comes as universities face what some believe to be their worst financial crisis in 60 years.
As The Age revealed this weekend, Australia’s strict border closures have left hundreds of thousands of international students stuck off-shore, punching an $18 billion hole in the economy.
Universities are sensitive to many students’ desire for an on-campus experience.
University of Melbourne vice-chancellor Duncan Maskell emailed all staff last week, telling them it was time for the resumption of campus-based teaching.
“There are no public health or regulatory restrictions to prevent a return to campus for students and staff, most of whom have made it very clear how important a campus-based experience is to them,” Professor Maskell wrote.
But separately, the university last month outlined to staff the second phase of its pandemic reset program, which detailed several measures to achieve potential savings, including adopting “opportunities for blended face-to-face and online curriculum”.
For third-year arts student Ruby Peer, this blended approach has meant having a semester one timetable devoid of on-campus lectures or even tutorials.
She doesn’t believe online lessons can match face-to-face teaching in quality.
“I think the level of education that you can deliver on Zoom is so vastly different to the level of education you can deliver in person and I’m surprised at the lack of commitment to deliver the highest standard of education possible at supposedly … the best university in Australia,” she said.
Her dissatisfaction has been mirrored in Group of Eight universities interstate.
Roisin Murphy, 20, is in the third year of an arts degree at the University of Sydney, which involves a mix of remote lectures and in-person tutorials.
“We’ve got crowds at the football and people dancing all over Oxford Street, yet I’m still watching pre-recorded lectures from years gone by,” she said.
“I think it’s pretty obvious that’s costing them a lot less money than running an in-person lecture.”
La Trobe University has been explicit about how the economic shock of COVID-19 has drawn it into a new embrace of online learning.
It’s strategic plan for 2020-2030 states: “The COVID-19 pandemic will accelerate the move to greater use of online delivery, either on its own or in mixed delivery modes.”
When La Trobe announced a series of course cuts and changes last year in response to the pandemic, it made the bachelor of arts a purely online course for students at its regional campuses.
The Bendigo campus-based bachelor of outdoor education was scaled back from 37 subjects to 10.
Senior lecturer Alistair Stewart, who was made redundant in the restructure, argued the degree was a casualty of La Trobe’s push for more online delivery.
“Students come to do an environmental education program where they get outdoors, but with the uni’s drive towards putting material online there has been pressure to scale that back,” he said.
La Trobe said in announcing its proposed cuts that the stripped-back degree would lead to better employment outcomes, student choice for majors and industry links.
Neil Selwyn, distinguished research professor in the Faculty of Education at Monash University, said if any part of the education sector was to reach a tipping point towards online learning in the pandemic, it was universities.
“Online learning was a big thing in higher education before the pandemic, so in some ways the pandemic accelerated moves that were already in place,” Professor Selwyn said.
“With schools, [remote learning] was a big shock and they weren’t ready so much and they have gone straight back to face-to-face, but … universities were ripe for this anyway.”
Professor Selwyn agreed many students craved a return to campus after 12 months of remote learning, but said some benefited from the choice of being able to study remotely.
“One of the surprising things out of the lockdown is how convenient it actually is for a student who perhaps is juggling part-time jobs, carrying responsibilities and for whom uni isn’t the only thing that they’re focused on.”