Top 5 higher education insights in Australia: Lessons from the pandemic

Nhi Nguyen
Rebecca LeBoeuf
Rebecca LeBoeuf
January 17, 2022
Table of Contents

The pandemic pivots over the last 2 years have restricted many educators to impermanent and last-minute solutions for teaching. As institutions move away from emergency planning and evolve strategic, long-term strategies, they work towards “the higher education we deserve”. The time for transforming education is now, as  institutions work to facilitate a learning environment where students are the knowledge owners, instructors become the facilitators, and faculties remain agile and flexible to any changes needed. Crucially, pedagogical technology is recognised to play a role in supporting educators drive positive educational shifts.

These changes have been especially apparent in Australian higher education. During our collaboration, we were able to hear from many instructors, faculty members, and university administrators, whose resilience and innovative approaches made the region a prominent driver of digital transformation. We have combined these sharings with the insights gathered from the 2021 ASCILITE Conference to identify 5 key trends, which we believe are, and will be, driving Australian higher education in the near future.

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1 | Emphasising transferable skills

Our collaboration with members of the higher education community revealed that in recent years employability and career readiness have moved to the forefront of course design and learning outcomes. In their article from the 2021 ASCILITE Conference, Contessotto et al. stress the importance of moving beyond core course content and helping students develop their professional identity with innovative pedagogical approaches.

While we are pleased to see the importance of transferable skills being recognised by Australian institutions, we observed that significant gaps in student career preparedness are left unaddressed, often due to a lack of time and resources. This is where technology-enhanced learning comes into play. By providing both teachers and students with a platform that facilitates collaboration, digital tools can aid teachers to support students in the development of  key employability skills and preparing them for the world of work while deepening the overall learning experience.

Deakin University successfully leveraged pedagogical technology to facilitate group evaluation in large scale courses, while developing students’ teamwork and leadership qualities. Using FeedbackFruits Group Member Evaluation tool, the instructors easily implemented self and group assessment within 6000 students from 40 units across multiple STEM schools. Students’ career-readiness skills were supported through these collaborative activities, particularly where received feedback substantiated skill acquisition and development, “the feedback you get from your team - this is evidence”. As for the instructors, the tool’s interface lessened the extra cognitive load and streamlined the assessment process.

2 | Promoting authentic self- and peer-assessment

To ensure both the effective comprehension of the course content and the development of employability skills, students require a high degree of support. To spot potential problems early and offer timely help, assessment needs to move beyond end-of-course summative grading, toward a formative, programmatic process. Based on our conversations with the members of the higher education community in Australia, authentic self- and peer-assessment is perceived as one of the most successful ways to measure engagement and ensure positive outcomes in the classroom and students’ professional future.

However, as Hicks, Linden, and Van Der Ploeg stress in their 2021 ASCILITE Conference paper, the capacity of educators to closely monitor their students’ progress in online environments is heavily dependent on the technology used in the course and becomes significantly lowered for large student cohorts.  Pedagogical tooling that facilitates detailed, authentic assessment and the exchange of quality feedback is essential to student success.

Our Peer Review tool, which enables students to provide feedback to their peers on deliverables, is being used by educators at the University of Adelaide to stimulate rich and reflective feedback on written assignments. Upon evaluation, the tool was noted to have inspired students to generate constructive, detailed, and actionable feedback, while having reduced the teacher’s workload at the same time. As a result, not only did the students’ work improve, but their feedback quality and communication skills as well.

3 | Establishing long-term strategy for flexible course design

It has become increasingly certain that flexible teaching will be the keyword for the first period of 2022 and beyond. While some institutions transition back to campus, blended and hybrid learning are not going away. “We need to be ready for the unknown”, as commented by Dian Schaffhauser in his summary of predictions for 2022 higher education. At any moment, faculties could be asked to make another remote transition, to adopt a hybrid or blended curriculum. And institutions need to have the flexibility and preparedness to accommodate different course modalities should the situation require. So how can universities cultivate such flexibility and preparedness?

The first step is to improve and better utilise the power of instructional technology. Over the past 2 years, institutions have been making do with the technology on hand without time to experiment and optimise its use to achieve their learning intentions. 2022 will be the time to improve upon and better utilise these technologies via organised professional training and knowledge sharing.

It is also the time to work on a long-term implementation of online/hybrid modes, rather than maintaining the makeshift strategies created during the first year of the pandemic.

4 | Emphasising inclusivity and accessibility in course design

One of the biggest realisations in higher education is the necessity of inclusivity and accessibility. The abrupt transition to distance learning really highlighted the learning barriers caused by differences in background, race, gender, class, ethnicity, ability and other social demographics . Though remote learning can make it harder to maintain engagement and interaction, it does allow teachers to offer students varied ways to engage with the course content. For example, pre-recorded lectures allow learners to follow the lesson at their own pace, at different time zones, and across varied geographical locations. In-person teaching, without doubt, remains a favourite mode of course delivery for teachers, yet many students actually report that they preferred online/hybrid modes. There are many aspects of remote education that are “worth keeping”, such as the benefits of innovative assignments (open book exams, group projects, podcasting, etc.), the ease of adding in-line questions or prompts to course materials to foster asynchronous engagement and interaction, or how feedback tools save teachers time facilitating feedback and grading.

As we approach a new teaching period, it’s important to incorporate accessibility and equity in every step of the course journey. The Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework is a well-known approach to make this happen. Furthermore, the use of  pedagogical technology needs to ensure that teaching and learning becomes more accessible to everyone.

Griffith University is among the institutions that addressed inclusivity early-on in their teaching. To facilitate effective group work and peer learning among 500 freshmen of different backgrounds, Dr. Fiona Baird decided to adopt FeedbackFruits Group Member Evaluation. Using the tool, Fiona was able to issue the assignment in which students worked together to produce, submit, and present an academic poster, then evaluate their group mates’ performance based on a feedback rubric. This implementation significantly increased students’ engagement and accountability in the group project: 493/550 students completed the course with “minimal need for support”. Fiona also remarked on how the tool’s transparent interface saved time processing individual feedback. Furthermore, the anonymity feature allowed students to feel more comfortable and open when giving and receiving feedback.

Where to go from here

The past 2 years have witnessed perhaps a decade’s worth of progress in higher education and in edtech. This period indeed presented us with many challenges, yet it allowed faculties to come up with important key learnings. The challenges faced by higher education are by no means easy to combat, but as long as institutions keep these insights in mind, the “higher education we deserve” will be more of a reality rather than just a fantasy.

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