We could be forgiven for thinking animated online conferences is the only change to the higher education experience to come from the COVID-19 pandemic. Hardly a day goes by without a title being announced that another university will be hosting “conferences” in online-only mode. But online courses have drawbacks and much more potential for change in the wake of the pandemic. Our experiences in Australia and the UK have shown an important change: Academic decision-making has become more student-centered in response to requests for flexibility from students.
Flexibility is often understood as student preferences for learning styles. Some students see benefits in fully online learning and may decide to continue in this mode. The majority, however, expressed a strong desire to return to campus. But they want to retain the flexibility of online learning.
How can universities meet these expectations and correct the drawbacks of online learning?
Take the timetable as an example. For decades, schedules have been developed to maximize the use of expensive campus infrastructure. The students had to adapt their complex lives to this.
During emergency distance education, many students were able to choose an online course or watch a recording at a time that was convenient for them. Having experienced this flexibility, there is growing evidence of a demand for 24/7/365 learning access. Where is there? Do we really understand students’ “demands” for flexibility and are we making decisions in their best interests?
Such 24/7 flexibility implies a significant compromise for students. On the one hand, this means that they lose constant contact with the same peers when entering and leaving different classes.
Current schedules mean that students sometimes travel significant distances for a single hour-long lesson. It is not surprising that these students prefer to access a course remotely or later.
But could we use technology to create schedules that group lessons into fewer days to reduce total student travel time? In this way, a student-centered approach would fit into students’ lives rather than the other way around. At the same time, it would protect essential elements of the campus experience.
Think about what kind of post-COVID campus experiences students want. Students enrolled in academic institutions have often said that they missed the social environment during confinement. It is therefore not surprising that they are now looking for social opportunities to make new friends, network through social activities such as clubs and societies, engage with different perspectives and be physically located. within the university community.
Manage change in times of stress
A move towards more student-centered decision-making will have to cope with external constraints. One is the urgent need to find ways to cover the costs of education.
Governments around the world already had reduction in expenditure on higher education before the pandemic. The pandemic has left governments facing a difficult financial situation: the legacy of public debt and the economic recession resulting from COVID as well as rising student debt. They are now seeking to further reduce public spending on higher education.
Another challenge is the demand to prepare highly qualified graduates to overcome skills shortage aggravated by COVID. Employers look for abilities such as problem solving, resilience, social influence and stress tolerance, in addition to specific knowledge and skills.
To reduce costs, education may need to rely on open educational resources that are available free of charge or online content from commercial providers. But universities still need to make sure they design active learning experiences on campus to allow students to make friends, experience student life, and feel a part of the university community.
Basically, active learning experiences provide the environment for meaningful activity, whether online or in person. This can be supported by scaffolded learning to gradually develop students’ academic, metacognitive and professional skills from guidance through graduation.
Caring must be a priority
An additional dimension is the pastoral and benevolent role that universities play in the lives of students. Compassion has always been an important facet of education, but never more so than during the pandemic.
The academics spent long hours providing academic and pastoral care to the students. A UCL study provides evidence of the extra time (often unaccounted for) and emotional labor academics invest to support students online.
When we return to campus, care must continue. Students are always faced with uncertainties that cause them anxiety. Mental health is at an all-time low.
The additional costs associated with supporting students come at a time of great financial pressure on all institutions. Thus, student-centered decision making will be vital in determining how this care can be provided as an integral part of our teaching.
The big questions for higher education go beyond which parts of the student experience should be online and which should be on campus. The bigger question is how we can meet the demands for flexibility while preserving the social aspects that provide crucial academic and pastoral support while ensuring sustainability.
Adopting a student-centered approach to decision-making in higher education, informed by careful analysis of student experiences, could be a start.
Through Shirley alexander, Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Vice-President (Education and Students), Sydney University of Technology; Allison Littlejohn, professor and director of the Knowledge Lab, UCL; Rhona sharpe, Director, Teaching and Learning Center, Oxford University; Sue Bennett, education teacher, University of Wollongong, and Tunde Varga-Atkins, Senior Educational Developer (Digital Education), Center for Educational Innovation, University of Liverpool