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Source: Massey University

Provost Professor Giselle Byrnes

Online and blended learning could be the future for universities but that doesn’t mean it’s cheaper to deliver.

Recently, politicians and students both here and abroad have been calling for a reduction in fees for courses and qualifications taught partially or fully online.

There have also been discussions around “fair trading” in terms of the higher education contract between students and universities. In other words, if students signed up for an “on campus” experience, then that’s what they should get. What underpins this argument is the assumption that online, blended or technology-supported teaching and learning experiences are inferior.

Notwithstanding the swift emergency shift to online delivery over the past three months, well-designed, technologically-enabled, blended learning experiences are every bit as rich, engaging and personalised as face-to-face, embodied learning. That is, when they’re done well.

With semester two set to resume in a matter of weeks, universities across the country are preparing for how they’ll cater to their students. And while each university is taking a slightly different approach to next semester’s delivery, they’re all progressing in a way that ensures a level of continuity for students while being mindful of the need to switch back to online learning should pandemic levels change.

While it might be ideal for all universities to have a single approach to next semester’s teaching, the reality is that we all have different cohorts of students, varying experiences in supporting distance learning, and a range of skills among academic staff. The independence and special character of each of our universities – evident not only in our mission statements and strategic priorities but in the distinctive suite of teaching offerings and research expertise at each institution – is also a critical part of the picture here. Put simply, one size can’t fit all.

All universities, however, are offering some form of blended learning across a spectrum from “light touch” to “high engagement”. Some have opted for a “blended” approach with online delivery for lectures alongside in-person workshops, laboratories, tutorials and seminars. Here at Massey, this won’t be new – we’ve worked in distance (formerly “extramural”), blended and online modes for many years now.

It’s worth noting here two key points that have mostly been lost in public discussions to date. Firstly, online and blended teaching isn’t cheaper to deliver. The investment needed to acquire, develop and sustain good learning platforms (most often known as “learning management systems”) isn’t insignificant. Universities need to prioritise this digital capital investment in much the same way capital funds are used to build and maintain physical infrastructures, such as lecture theatres and laboratories.

Alongside this, teaching in online and blended modes requires designing and communicating teaching materials in a way that leverages the technology rather than simply providing a digital replica of in-person teaching. This applies whether it occurs in a blended mode (part online and part in person), or if it’s synchronous (delivered in real-time) or asynchronous (delivered after the fact). It costs money to provide both the support and the academic development needed to ensure high-quality experiences. So let’s bury that old myth that “online teaching” equals “cheap and nasty”.

My second observation is that a key driver for providing online, blended and flexible delivery is to reach out to students who can’t, for a range of reasons, come onto campus and have a physical learning experience. Surely, given the civic responsibilities incumbent upon all universities, this ought to be recognised as a key factor in providing optimal flexibility for learners. While it may sound idealistic, reaching out to educate our fellow citizens should be a fundamental principle that all universities aspire to achieve. It’s about pairing excellence with equity.

The resistance to online lectures implies that the 19th-century one-to-many didactic style of teaching is the gold standard, and that assumption needs to be closely examined. Of course, if students experience anything less than a quality teaching experience, then they should question this; students deserve and expect premium learning from our country’s universities. But that would apply regardless of the mode of delivery. Seeking recompense simply for studying in a high-quality online and blended learning mode isn’t a valid claim in and of itself.

This article was originally published in The Spinoff.

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