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Source: Massey University

Provost Professor Giselle Byrnes.

By Provost Professor Giselle Byrnes

The current crisis has unsettled us all and we know that life, ‘post COVID-19’ will never be the same again. For those under extreme personal and family stress, a return to normal cannot come fast enough. But there are some aspects of our new life that we should not surrender, especially the advances those who work in higher education have made in teaching online. In this regard, I’ve been thinking about what I’m calling the ‘Rosie the Riveter’ effect, a reference to the World War Two cultural icon who, for many, symbolised the success of women breaking out of the home and into men’s roles.

The World War Two home front was not a million miles away from our present moment. In many countries, including New Zealand and Australia, the war was incredibly liberating for women who were required in essential industries and who, at a time of crisis, stepped into men’s traditional working roles. However, when men returned home at the end of the war, many women were very quickly thrust back into the traditional roles of homemakers, wives and helpmeets; the conservatism of the 1950s in the western world is thought to have been driven not only by the strong state-sponsored pro-natalist policies designed to boost the birthrate – for women to ‘stay home and reproduce’ – but also for men to reclaim their ‘traditional’ roles. Despite this, my grandmother’s generation looked back on wartime as something of a ‘golden time’ of liberation and freedom, albeit temporary.

What’s the relevance of this? Much like the situation that many women found themselves in post-war, there is a risk that in higher education there will be a reversion ‘back to normal’ once we get through the current crisis. My concern is that once we come out the other side, online teaching and learning risks being repositioned as a temporary and urgent fix, rather than a more permanent solution to assist universities reach out to learners who might not otherwise be able to access traditional on-campus learning. Those universities who have built their reputations entirely on ‘bricks and mortar’ learning experiences have much to lose if the gains we have made with online learning become permanent. As Kevin Carey argues in The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere (2015), in the US at least, the Ivy League universities will, when faced with online and blended learning modes, fight hard to retain the experience of on-campus college learning that underpins their status and brand.

Academic staff, even those who have never taught online before, are now teaching online and doing it very well. And this has been done in a very short timeframe. Business and government take note: universities are not the lumbering dinosaurs we are often depicted as and we can adjust and adapt as needed to support our learners. While the rapid shift to online teaching is in part driven by the urgency of maintaining the continuity of learning for our students, the innovation of academic staff and their creativity and willingness to pivot quickly needs to be recognised and applauded. I suspect too that now that even the most highly-ranked universities worldwide are embracing online learning, there is a new sort of respectability to online teaching that it may not have had in the past. In other words, ‘If they are doing it, then it must be ok’. Alongside this, there is the pragmatic recognition that ‘we just need to get on and do it’ with regard to advancing our digital capability.

Put simply, we need to change and we have; so let’s not go backwards. The current crisis has catapulted us all into new working and learning environments at breakneck speed. But the genie of online learning is now out of the bottle. How do we ensure, once we get through this crisis, that online learning is quality learning, that it has stickability and that it is seen as being as good as, if not better than, the traditional on-campus experience?