ONEAfter two years of online learning, not only were students looking forward to saying goodbye to “Zoom university”, many staff were also hoping for a return to campus and a bit of normalcy in 2022.
“Being surrounded by students who are passionate about this thing that you are also passionate about gives energy,” says Tito Ambyo, a journalism teacher at RMIT. “And now, especially if you’re in a classroom where students are not turning on their camcorders, it’s tiring.”
But what counts as “normal” on university campuses has changed during the pandemic – and a return to campus does not necessarily mean relief for teaching staff.
When international students began arriving in Australia in December for the first time since closed borders locked them out of the country in March 2020, many faculty members were busy planning the adoption of hybrid teaching models next year with both personal and online learning.
The National Tertiary Education Union says the proliferation of dual learning is leading to the exploitation of university staff, who are not being adequately compensated for the extra time and effort they put into taking into account both personal and online students.
The president of the union, Dr. Alison Barnes, says a union survey showed that the focus of online learning has led to markedly increased workload and an increase in unpaid hours. This, combined with the lack of support from universities, has affected the balance between work and private life among teachers as well as their ability to relax outside working hours. “Members have reported increased stress and anxiety, and many have suffered from burnout in the workload,” Barnes says.
Socializing is a skill in the workplace
The staff also has other concerns. Ambyo attributes in part to his online teaching fatigue the amount of extra time he spends watching on screens, but he also worries about how to protect the intellectual property rights of teaching materials shared online amid increasing levels of casualization and cuts.
“[The university] basically can kick you out and use your online teaching materials, ”he says. “I also think there’s that fear of what that means[s] for the future of our careers. “
Elizabeth Brogan, a nursing lecturer at the University of Technology Sydney, says that online teaching also makes it difficult for relationships to develop between students, which in turn can prevent them from acquiring the skills they should have gained from their time at the university.
“[Students] do not build the peer-to-peer relationships where they can talk to their friends in the classroom, ”says Brogan, adding that interpersonal communication skills are part of nursing education. “Nursing is a very social workforce,” she says.
Brogan is also concerned that not all students have good internet connections, which can create accessibility issues.
There are also benefits to online tuition. Ambyo has found it better to engage introverted students. And he says digital technology can enrich educational content.
Diarmuid Cooney-O’Donoghue, an Asia-related subject tutor, agrees, saying students are more comfortable accessing materials and notes, while using tools such as Zoom Breakout Room to guide students in discussions.
A PhD candidate researching academic freedom and the Chinese Communist Party’s influence on Australian campuses, Cooney-O’Donghue says online tutorials can also encourage international students to participate in discussions on sensitive topics.
“When discussing human rights in China or something like that, if it’s personal, there’s no way to hide,” he says. “But if it’s online, you can delete who that person is, and there are benefits to students being able to discuss something without having their identity revealed.”
Nevertheless, Cooney-O’Donghue does not believe that the benefits of online education outweigh what is lost through personal interaction. “I just think it’s a lot harder to give good feedback to students when they’m not in class,” Cooney-O’Donghue says. “You do not know who they are and often the students do not get involved as much.”
Jan Sam, a resident of Melbourne and psychology student, has found online learning a double-edged sword. Sam, a 23-year-old Malaysian international student living with a disability, found that the shutdown significantly increased their difficulty walking.
In March, when personal tutorials were available in their subjects, Sam chose to continue studying online as they worried about their safety when traveling to campus.
But online learning created a new accessibility problem for Sam, who has auditory treatment disorder: they could not follow what the teachers said in pre-recorded lectures without closed captions, and they could not immediately understand the tutors’ instructions on Zoom.
Sam hopes that online learning will still be an option as universities embrace the new Covid standard, albeit with some improvements. “If online learning is to continue, there should be closed captions. There should be subtitles so that students can read what the tutor and teachers are saying.”
If it’s all online, why go to a local university?
Education experts say that regardless of online or personal classes, higher education education should be tailored to the needs of students.
Andrew Norton, Professor of Practice for Higher Education Policy at ANU, analyzed the results of the Student Experience Survey, an initiative of the federal government. It shows “only fairly small declines” in satisfaction with issues related to teaching under Covid-19, he says.
“I think part of the problem is online teaching that is carefully planned and has all the right technology is actually pretty good,” Norton says. “But what many students experienced last year – probably to a lesser extent this year – was that courses that should have been delivered on campus for a few weeks were delivered online instead.”
Norton says reductions in government funding for higher education could encourage universities to offer larger classes, which could push them to turn to online tuition to reduce costs.
Glenn C Savage, associate professor of education policy at the University of Western Australia, says universities need to offer more support to teachers to develop online teaching skills.
“I think universities are becoming much more aware that there is online learning, and then there is good online learning, and that’s very different things,” Savage says.
As they use a hybrid of online lectures and personal tutorials, Savage says universities risk losing students. “If things move too much online and students lose touch with the materials, the space on the campus, and so on, I think students will start thinking, ‘Why do I go to my local university when I can go to another university? ? ”
The CEO of Universities Australia, Catriona Jackson, says before the pandemic that Australian universities already offered both face-to-face and online courses.
“The mix of a rich variety of options will continue, with high-quality teaching and unique student experience highly at the heart of any decision.”