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Learning and Teaching: Post COVID-19

Rachel Wells

Before COVID-19 forced the temporary closure of higher education campuses around the globe, there was increasing discussion at RMIT about the role of blended learning – combining online and face-to-face learning experiences – to bring about improved student satisfaction and outcomes.

At RMIT, “figuring out what that blend of learning would look like over the next few years,” was high on the agenda for 2020, according to Professor Sherman Young, the University’s Associate Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Education

“My thoughts have always been that you use the platforms and technology you have available to their best advantage,” Professor Young explains. “So the elements of learning that are best delivered face-to-face, you deliver face-to-face, and the elements that are best delivered online, you do online.”.

Then COVID-19 came along.

With campuses closed due to social distancing restrictions, and face-to-face teaching no longer an option, Professor Young and his team were tasked with leading the University-wide transition to delivering 2500 courses purely online.

“It pretty much happened in the space of a week to a week-and-a-half,” Professor Young says of the rapid move to remote learning in late March.

It was a transition expedited by the fact that all of the University’s existing courses already had “an online presence” on RMIT’s Learning Management System, Canvas.

“The thing that we have to remember in all of this is that we didn’t start from scratch,” Professor Young points out. “So, when RMIT moved to Canvas a few years ago, we made sure that every single course had a Canvas presence… and we also developed a set of baseline requirements that each of those courses had to have before they went online.”

“It was fairly simple stuff, but what it did mean is that when we did have to pivot quickly to online, we had a base to work from,” he explains. “Some courses had an amazing online presence, and others were absolutely barebones, but they were all already there, which meant we didn’t have to build 2,500 courses from scratch.”

“Instead, we had to develop them further so that they could become the only place that students engaged with the course, rather than just one of the points that students engaged with the course”.

Professor Young says the other key element to the swift and successful move to online learning, was the flexibility and adaptability of students and of staff, who were offered a range of professional development opportunities to upskill for online teaching.

”It really was a testament to the skills and capability of our teaching staff, the Studios team, and the ADGs in the Colleges, as well as our students, that they managed to adapt and adapt so well and so quickly.”

“Was it perfect? No. Did we get largely a really positive response from our colleagues? Absolutely… And I think our students understood the context and speed at which this all happened – so we’ve had some good, constructive feedback and we’ve learnt a lot of lessons along the way,” Professor Young says.

By the time RMIT’s Melbourne campuses closed in late March, RMIT Vietnam was already several weeks into remote learning. The move to online came after a decision by the Vietnamese government to close all education institutions to students in early February, for just one week, and then another, looked likely to stretch on indefinitely.

Jake Heinrich, the former Director of the School of English & University Pathways (SEUP) at RMIT Vietnam, and currently the Executive Director for RMIT Training, based in Melbourne, says it took them a week in mid-February to transition all their english language classes to online.

By Monday, February 24, the School of English & University Pathways had commenced teaching all its english language courses online.to 1500 students from across three campuses – Danang, Hanoi, and the Saigon South campus in Ho Chi Minh City.

Mr Heinrichs said the sudden and unexpected move to online teaching, which involved more than 100 teaching staff and just over 30 support staff, had “broken down a lot of barriers” to online and remote learning that had previously existed in Vietnam.

“I think everyone involved in this learnt some really valuable lessons,” he explains. “As educators and as holders of pedagogy, it’s created a belief… and a good case study, that there really is a different means by which we can connect with students, and for students, as well, it has led to an understanding and a belief that actually talking to a teacher via the internet is a perfectly reliable source of exchange.”

He believes the experience has also highlighted potential opportunities for RMIT Vietnam and SEUP, such as the possibility of offering its courses in the provinces and in hubs outside of the main campuses, without the need for a physical teaching presence in those areas.

“I think we have a case study now that we can move on and that shows that there is the potential to reach a lot more people in a lot more places,” Mr Heinrichs says.

At the same time, he says, the transition to online learning has also highlighted some of the “idiosyncrasies” that need to be considered when delivering online or blended learning in countries, such as Vietnam, in the future.

“You have to remember that in Vietnam, you often have three generations of people living in the one house, and there are often no quiet spaces or bedrooms that people can just scurry into to work,” he explains.

“Our experience of teaching online over the past few months has enabled us to get a real understanding of our students and their various domestic situations and the sorts of nuances and considerations around learning environments that you have to consider when you’re thinking about blended learning and online learning in the future.”

Professor Young agrees that the online teaching experiment brought about by COVID-19 has offered some valuable insights into the benefits and pitfalls of online learning and what the right mix of blended learning might be in a post-COVID world.

“I’ve always said that our students are largely living online for a lot of what they do outside of education… and so there has been a longer term ambition to think about what the blend of online and on-campus teaching delivery would look like in the future,” Professor Young explains.

He says the current situation has given the University an opportunity to look at each discipline and explore how “the appropriate mix of face- to-face and online experiences can be of most benefit students.”

“What COVID-19 has done is accelerate some of our thinking around blended learning and our understanding that online engagement is just as important as on-campus engagement… we were just working to a much longer timeframe.”