From education to employment

Online learning has created challenges that universities and students must overcome

Peter Nikoletatos, Group Industry Director of Education at TechnologyOne

Digitally transforming and safeguarding student journeys in pandemic times 

Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, higher education institutions have done what they do best, sharing knowledge to digitally transform university life. But online learning has created challenges that universities and students must overcome, writes Peter Nikoletatos.

I was in the UK visiting university clients as part of TechnologyOne’s Global Mobility Program when Covid-19 took hold in March. As the severity of the virus became clear, I had to head back to our headquarters in Brisbane, Australia.

The pandemic threw up different challenges for universities in Australia and the UK because it hit the countries at different points in their academic year. In Australia, the new university year had just started, while in the UK, students saw their second term end prematurely.

In Australia, institutions had to take a week or two off to make their classes, content and curriculum available online. They also prioritised getting their employees connected from home to ensure they were able to help students before resuming teaching. In the UK, universities needed to rapidly re-engineer many of their courses – such as medicine and engineering – mid-term, so they could continue online.

It’s clear that Covid-19 has accelerated digital transformation in universities. 

Thankfully, a significant portion of institutions already offer distance and online learning programmesfor international students and adult learners, but the challenge has been supercharging it for the entire cohort.

Perhaps a bigger challenge for universities has been shifting their workforce from campus to home in a matter of days. As a leading provider of enterprise resource planning and student journey software in Australia, New Zealand and the UK, TechnologyOne saw a huge spike in academic institutions looking to adopt software-as-a-service technology, which allows staff to carry out the university’s enrolment, finance, student care and human resources functions remotely.

Many universities had to develop bespoke measures out of necessity so they could stay afloat during their first term in lockdown. But academia has been quick to embrace and share new lessons. These range from how best to run an admissions and enrolment programme online to encouraging student participation in a virtual teaching environment.

It is clear that digital and blended learning creates challenges for students and teaching staff alike:

1. Digital Divide

First, there’s a technology-equity issue. We might all be in the same storm with Covid-19, but we’re not in the same boat. Education is often a great leveller, making it easy for bright students to shine on campus. However, students and staff from less socially privileged backgrounds may not have access to the same laptops, smartphones and connectivity as their peers.

Likewise, there are spatial disadvantages; it’s harder for students to study if they’re confined to a small space or are sharing with family members or flatmates. If you live in a more remote or rural area, there is also the potential for connectivity issues.

2. Social Isolation

Second, the move to a remote teaching world is creating challenges around well-being, mental fatigue, cyber-bullying and the changing roles and responsibilities of the educator.

Until now, most universities’ pastoral care has been predominantly on campus. They’ve been able to monitor student well-being through tutorials, attendance at lectures, access to university wi-fi and libraries, as well as involvement in extracurricular clubs and societies. These connections provide an insight into how engaged a student is likely to be. Coronavirus means students are missing out on the bustle of campus life, in many cases being confined to their room instead, leading them to feel isolated and lonely.

In terms of digital equality, universities have begun to redesign courses with social inclusion in mind. The University of Edinburgh has invested in laptops to loan to students who need them, as well as designing courses to support both “synchronous” (live) learning, and less broadband-intensive “a-synchronous” learning. Taking inspiration from pre-existing distance-learning courses, the university has discovered it can help students structure their day more productively, enabling them to rewatch lectures and access course notes and modules whenever they want.

The Australasian Council on Open, Distance and e-Learning is at the forefront of online teaching, and the pandemic has prompted a welcome sharing of best practices to help the education community.

When done right, digital learning can bring many benefits and break down barriers to access. 

This is creating more opportunities for those who can’t study full-time, as well as opening new revenue streams, in the form of micro-courses, for cash-strapped universities.

Ensuring well-being is a much newer and harder challenge. The meteoric rise of social media means there are ever more sources competing for your attention. Some content can be helpful, but other aspects can be unsettling and even dangerous. The increasing instances of radicalisation, sexism, racism, trolling and bullying seen online, especially against women, people with disabilities and ethnically diverse students, is worrying.

It’s an issue that tertiary education is very conscious of, leading institutions to invest in monitoring and pastoral support. Equally, technology providers play an important role in tackling these problems. Social media companies use algorithms to serve up commercially profitable content, but those very same digital analytics tools should also be used for the greater good.

I’ve been fortunate to hold the post of chief information officer at a number of leading universities across Australia, and it’s clear that institutions have access to hundreds of digital applications and data sources that can provide valuable insight into student and staff well-being.

At TechnologyOne, we’ve invested significant effort into analytics during the pandemic. As part of our contribution to the education sector, we are providing our clients with the tools they need to identify new issues and adapt. This includes improving the automation of processes to free up thinking time, as well as analysing and aggregating data sources to identify areas of concern.

Technology partners must now work even more closely with educational institutions to combine technological innovation with the sector’s knowledge of teaching and learning. By sharing insight, we will be better positioned to create healthier and safer digital learning spaces.

Peter Nikoletatos, Group Industry Director of Education at TechnologyOne

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