Massey University Vice-Chancellor Professor Jan Thomas says the pandemic presents an opportunity to rethink the way we approach online learning, and discusses how universities can tailor education to a new generation of learners who have shifting social needs and expectations.
By Prof. Jan Thomas
For over a billion students worldwide, education in 2020 is unrecognisable from only 6 months ago. COVID-19 has had an unprecedented impact on the global education landscape, shutting schools and shifting everything from classes to graduations online. UNESCO reports that more than two thirds of all learners enrolled in education up to tertiary level worldwide have been affected by school and university closures.
Even though the restrictions have been eased in Singapore and across Asia Pacific, allowing some classroom teaching to resume, the effects of the pandemic have been far-reaching and will have an ongoing impact on the education landscape.
This crisis presents an opportunity for education providers to rethink the way we approach education. Rather than returning to business as usual, we have a chance to build a more resilient framework for learning that will empower a new generation of students.
Overcoming hurdles to on-campus learning
Over the past six months, campuses have closed or had access restricted, and international travel has ground to a halt. For many institutions worldwide, on-campus learning has been impossible, forcing them to rethink how they engage students and provide alternative arrangements to ensure the curriculum stays on course.
Even now, news reports have highlighted the concerns of Singaporean students enrolled in overseas universities who are unsure about their education options for the future due to ongoing travel restrictions.
However, for many students this has normalised a new approach to education that doesn’t rely only on the physical classroom experience. Technology has allowed lectures and graduations to take place virtually. Online learning platforms and conference services have enabled teachers and students to continue studying using tools that enable collaboration, conversation and individual engagement.
While online learning can’t recreate all aspects of the on-campus experience, there is evidence that it can be at least as effective as classroom learning, if not more so, particularly for older learners.
Research suggests students retain at least 25% more material when learning online compared to in a classroom. Online learning also enables students to learn at their own pace, giving them more control over the learning process and freedom to revisit problem areas. This could reduce learning time by 40-60% compared to in-person classroom sessions.
Online learning set for sustained growth
Figures from Research and Markets show that global digital education market is set to grow by USD 8.4 billion in 2020 to USD 33.2 billion over the next five years, at a CAGR of 31.4%. Asia Pacific has been earmarked for the fast growth during this period, driven by increasing connectivity, digital infrastructure and demand from learners.
Government and institutions are already looking at how to integrate online learning as a fundamental part of the curriculum at all levels. Under the National Digital Literacy Programme, Singapore’s Ministry of Education aims to make home-based learning a permanent and regular feature of education. At Massey University, over 14,000 students each year study with us online.
As we consider how to integrate technology into the learning experience, we also need to challenge our thinking about the right way for students to learn and re-evaluate our perceptions of how education should look. By doing this, we can better respond to transformation and disruption to create a more resilient education system.
Tailoring education for a new generation of learners
I am a big believer in high-quality online education that is pedagogically different to face-to-face didactic delivery. Using technology correctly means teachers can enable learning rather than deliver information, to create a student-centred learning environment. The role of educators is to create, advise, provide feedback, and engage with students.
Now is the time to shift our thinking about the ways students learn. Plenty of students love lectures but there are many other ways to learn. If students don’t want to or can’t come onto campus, they can still enjoy a learning environment that’s adapted to their needs.
New generations of learners want to co-construct their curriculum, and take on bite-sized pieces when they choose to. There are parameters, such as external accreditation, but universities must consider how they can provide the flexibility to make education more accessible and more tailored to student needs, and provide the right skill sets to serve society and build careers.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown the global need for evidence-based expertise. The free flow and exchange of ideas, expertise, and information is key to developing talents that can help to steer government agencies, public authorities, and businesses in future.
In a world where information is now just a click away and seemingly ubiquitous, and where the veracity of that information is often unknown, it has become clear that universities are not just purveyors of content; rather, they create and curate knowledge and information, interpret it and help to explain it.
By finding new ways to meet the changing needs of students, universities can play an essential role in training the next generation of experts to enable them to respond to major issues in society.
(Ed. Feature image provided courtesy of Photographer cottonbro.)