By Miguel Mudbidri, ISEAA's Co-Chair
As a consequence of the COVID-19 Pandemic, the options for delivery of education programmes around the world has changed. Online learning has been forced to advance at a tremendous pace. The technologies and platforms like Zoom, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, Webex which once were known only to a few have now become more common. They have become for many a useful tool together with some tailor-made applications and software for institutions, universities, schools, colleges and language centres to better deliver learning outcomes remotely.
During the pandemic, where lockdowns varied from state to state, in most cases colleges transferred all their delivery online and Zoom became a household name. Everyone from school kids to university students were having classes via various video conferencing tools as teaching transferred entirely from the classroom to online learning. The classroom was replaced by a computer/laptop/ tablet on a kitchen bench without leaving the home. Many providers, especially those who had already started to introduce online learning experiences prior to COVID invested heavily to improve their systems in an attempt to deliver better products to keep students as engaged as possible. Others, maybe due to constraints, opted to just shift to replace the classroom delivery to a Zoom classroom format. The experience was entirely different for every student. Some thrived in this environment whilst others felt abandoned. Another issue which became apparent was that not all students had the same access to the required IT infrastructure (modern phones, laptops, computers and Internet connection, which varies wildly depending on the access one has from fixed NBN to Wi-Fi Internet).
For many international students who were stuck overseas in their home countries, the IT infrastructure created some disparity. For those podcast style classes time zones did not create an issue, but for live zoom tutorials or lectures, the time zone was an issue.
Australian providers however seem to have adapted rapidly to an online delivery and as the pandemic extended and online became the norm, students seem to have, in general, adapted to the new norm.
As a consequence of the rapid growth of online and remote learning technologies, the realization that for many providers there can be savings (in physical infrastructure, teachers and resources) along with the fact that it allows for a faster upscaling means that online learning will still be an option many providers will want to continue to offer. It also provides flexibility for students, particularly those who have to juggle their work, family and educational commitments. Time is a precious resource and many students have realized that travelling times, particularly in large cities can occupy a large part of the day. This is without going into the cost factor of transport, food and other on campus costs.
As Australia comes out of the Pandemic and face-to-face classes are starting to resume, students are faced with the reality of having to return to the classroom. Some are happy about this, as things are going back to normality, social interactions with peers will return and the campus life for many will bring back a better learning environment that also includes the social and networking opportunities that remote learning does not allow.
Many providers had, prior to the pandemic, also moved to hybrid models and/or blended models, where a mix of face-to-face and online learning was being provided. As a consequence of changes brought about by the COVID reality, this change has only been accelerated and broadened for most providers. Providers have embraced it as it allows the best of both worlds.
In my student days, I had experienced both the face-to-face model and online model of learning with on campus intensive sessions over a few weekends. Each model served me well at different moments in my life. The on campus was great when I was young and I can still remember my first years of university as some of the best times of my life due to the lifelong friends I made, the social interactions and the social experience. When I came to Australia, this format helped me adapt more rapidly to the Australian culture as the network that interacting with local students provides is priceless. As you mature and you have career changes or need to upskill, work and family become a priority and online learning becomes a better proposition. If the technology is available and all students have access to this, it becomes a great opportunity as it allows for education anywhere and at your own pace in many cases. It allows for more flexibility and gives the student more time for other priorities in their life.
For international students in Australia, those who hold a student visa, choice is limited to where and how they are allowed to study. All student visa holders will have condition 8202 -Meet Course Requirements, attached to their visa. However, this condition does not mention that students must attend face-to-face classes. The National Code is a legislative instrument made under the Education Services for Overseas Students Act 2000 (ESOS Act) and sets nationally consistent standards to support providers to deliver quality education and training to overseas students. Part C, Standard 9, defines the place and mode of Study that can be pursued by international students:
Courses delivered entirely by online or distance learning cannot be registered on CRICOS. Courses with a distance or online component can only be registered on CRICOS where the designated authority is satisfied that these courses meet the minimum requirements as specified in Standard 9.”
The National Code further explains that providers must monitor each student’s enrolment to ensure they:
take no more than 25 per cent of their course online or by distance education; and
are enrolled in at least one face-to-face subject in each compulsory teaching period.
These rules placed on student visa holders seem to be consistent with the aims of the program, for international students to come to Australia to experience fully an Australian education, engage with other students from Australia and around the world and to engage with the community. This hopefully will create bridges between cultures and increase the quality of Australian education, further promoting Australia as a destination for education, tourism and trade by creating networks among the international students and the broader Australian community.
One of the lessons learnt from the pandemic is that providers with their new online and remote learning delivery experience, can access new markets and new clients. This includes those who want to have an Australian education, without necessarily leaving their home country and those who do not require an Australian student visa. Here providers can increase their program offerings from short courses and vocational training all the way to full degrees and post graduate degree programs. It also allows for the education agency network of these providers to have more flexible courses to offer clients. Many providers have already taken early steps and Austrade has begun to engage with local chambers in the country to promote these opportunities. Australia could take a leading role in online delivery offshore; this would only help promote Australian education. It comes however with a warning; the delivery of these courses has to maintain engagement with students and a high quality.
The pandemic and Australia lockdown has created opportunities which all of us in the Education Industry in Australia, particularly in the international sector should take full advantage of. Definitely exciting times are ahead!