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Signing in and Dropping Out: Coronavirus and the Virtual University

It was made with little thought but a good deal of high-minded urgency: Evacuate your office, take what you can, and prepare for the virtual world. Fill in a form, tell us if you actually pinched the office computer. This was the message that was sent to academic staff across Australia in the second half of March. Australian universities were effectively going into lockdown as a response to directives by the federal and state governments. The objective: to plan for the Virtual University.

For the most part, the execution was typically shabby. In one university’s case, a mere 24-hour notice was given to all staff, a feeble account that meant that much material remains in offices, inaccessible except through lengthy pleas to security staff. In this hurried exercise, no allowances were provided to assist the move of necessary equipment and supplies. In other cases, there were delays in implementing the “shutdown”. Campuses remained opened in some instances, though various parts were sealed. Libraries at the University of Melbourne, by way of example, were open even as staff were discouraged from coming onto campus.

The university lockdowns have given a push along to the cost-cutting iconoclasts of higher education. Imagine a world where the wings of a teacher are clipped, making that misnomer called student-centred learning an absolute? Forget the fogey in the front, musing on the Socratic method of instruction, the peripatetic walk. Welcome the person before the screen, with a domestic backdrop. What a cosy world.

Often ignored in online teaching is not the method but the implication, that grand vision which envisages the elimination of the in-class pedagogue who needs space and podium. The same goes for students who are told that they will have a particular experience in class, their physical presence being necessary along the way. With universities looking at every chance to minimise costs while pretending to deliver a certain quality, of course, the policy here is clear: coronavirus is an opportunity to clear the decks and thin the ranks.

The courses of a virtual university are cheaper to deliver and a blessing to the tyrants of the property services wing of the university. Higher education institutions, certainly in Australia, have shown a legendary indifference to students. Far better to have a bloated Human Resources department that serves as bullying dragoons for University management. Best listen to what they say in Property Services because they know all about the learning and research environment. (An example of such deep learning from the drones in PS is the dogmatic, and continued embrace, of open planning as a suitable environment for teaching and research staff.)

Those backing the Virtual University have suddenly found themselves in clover.  Psychologists Annie Ditta and Liz Davis at the University of California, Riverside, have made a splash by creating online tutorials using the video conferencing service Zoom.  They insist – and here’s the rub –on “bite-size pieces” in how to use Zoom and cognate facilities. Fittingly enough, online tutorials on how to use an online instruction or communication service are themselves trimmed of fat and length. “It would be easy to go on for 25 or 30 minutes in one lecture,” suggests Davis, “and that’s too much.  People will tune out.” And, perhaps, drop out.

Then come the words of wisdom from those who speak, not from the summitry of teaching but from the low point of management speak. Pauline Taylor-Guy of the Australian Council for Educational Research and Annie-Marie Chase of the Australian Council for Educational Research have fighting words in The Conversation. They are convinced: “When done right, online learning can actually be as effective as face-to-face education.” There you have it; conviction, writ large, no debates accepted, especially the contrary view that some courses should never be taught online.

These wise heads, who may well have lost connection with what an actual classroom looks or feels like, with the tart smell of the whiteboard or the worn appearance of chairs and desks, take a shot at the Australian university system for not having “upskilled their staff to deliver this kind of quality online education.” Many university instructors merely upload material to online learning platforms, rather than engaging them. And, silly creatures, they have no experience of “online course design and pedagogy.”

But Taylor-Guy and Chase are quick to reveal their angle. Not giving “intensive upskilling to lectures to deliver online classes and support effectively, they might see students disengaging and dropping out early.” Ways of keeping interest are available: the use of online discussion boards, chat rooms and the replication of “small group work in tutorials.”

A far better appraisal would be to suggest blended environments and the good eggs, few as they are in higher education will consider this in a post-ravaged landscape of COVID-19. Till then, it is worth reflecting that the online platform has become an often brain-deadening pre-requisite for any course. What’s not on it, does not exist. I platform, therefore I exist. To use a whiteboard and expect students to actually take notes is now considered something of a mild heresy, if not an anachronism deserving of the rack. The decline of note-taking as an art is lamentable, and to be mourned alongside the introduction of such terms as “workshopping” and “lectorial”.

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3 comments

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  1. New England Cocky

    in Australia since 1955, the University of New England at ARMIDALE NSW has developed a world leading External Studies Programme across many faculties. Indeed, in the early 21st century the UNE Law Faculty was the biggest in Australia having about 1200 students located across Australia and the world.

    This development was impeded historically by Australian metropolitan universities concerned about loss of face-to-face students.

    Even so, in the early 1970s the English government sent out a team to discover how to organise and run an external university programme that grew into the UK Open University. Later, in the 1980s, other Australian universities recognised the enrolment potential for External Studies and developed the Australian Open University that exists today.

    The UNE model has been astoundingly successful. Individual progressive lecturers and some departments have embraced distance learning to enormous effect.

    The Australian National University Legal Workshop developed independently from UNE in the 1990s and individual lecturers at ANU demonstrated the effectiveness of distance learning with imaginative, realistic teaching programmes exploiting the technical potential of the Internet world.

    The major impediment to on-line learning is the reluctance and indeed failure of established education administrators and teachers to grasp the reality of what can be achieved with properly constructed on-line learning programmes. For some teachers, losing their dominant position in a classroom of kids is more important that the academic achievement of the kids.

  2. Josephus

    It is not all roses NEC. I have watched lectures that consisted of powerpoint slides with a short text beneath, rendering students passive and assuring a lazy one sided monologue, quite the opposite of the Socratic dialogue that alone makes university experience worthwhile. I have witnessed too the death of non sporting student clubs. Long ago there were thriving social events, building upon the students and staff within a particular knowledge area but sometims combining different areas, thus encouraging mutual learning and the expansion of horizons. Now isolated individualism is the go, worst for overseas students but damaging for all, just as the current isolation can be during this Plague Year.

  3. New England Cocky

    @Josephus: As an Armidale resident I found that combining internal lectures with external schools was the optimal solution. In the noughties, the lectures were attended by disinterested fresh out of high school undergraduates who had access to the material on the Internet and only attended lectures because there was nothing better to do. In contrast, lectures at the external schools of adults with a keen interest in the material and a wealth of personal experience to share with anybody willing to listen, were very exciting.

    Previously as a freshman in the 60s I participated in the now too long lost student organisations putting together regular social events and political meetings while shunning the rugger buggers and gym jocks. But at that time we were fighting the Holt, Gorton, MacMahon LIarbral Nazional$ misgovernment to get us out of Vietnam and to end the conscription lottery, which happened with the election of the Gough Whitlam Labor government.

    The rot you mentioned began in the early 70s when the student body was cowed for some unknown reason, losing the zest for confronting the university administration and their many idiot unthinking policies.

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