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What will universities of the future look like?

or how lockdown influenced the development of distance education.

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on education forced educational institutions to develop the online learning format using all available resources: technology, experience, flexibility and creativity. Will the change be radical and what new opportunities will it open up for students?

What are the challenges of distance learning

Many universities developed distance education even before COVID-19 pandemic.

When we went in lockdown it became clear the transition to online education is inevitable but it caused a lot of difficulties:

  • Not all educational institutions are technically ready - most educational materials are not digital, it takes time and effort to transform educational materials online, teachers have no experience in online education.

  • Access to adequate computing equipment, difficulties learning a new software (Zoom or its equivalents), slow internet speeds at home compared with what would be available in face-to-face experiences.

  • Not all teachers know how to work with distance education services.

  • Approach to distance education is not consistent and varies from one teacher to another. Some would provide materials for self-study and check tests, others would write lectures and send links to students, and others give lectures in real time, as they would in a classroom. Most of the students find it difficult to switch between different educational formats.

  • There is a significant number of issues associated with online learning for particular disciplines. For example, laboratory work requires special equipment and is not easy to simulate in a virtual environment. Music practice and performance – the difficulty in practicing orchestral or other performance pieces with other students and performing in choral groups using Zoom or its equivalents

  • There is a lack of "live" communication between a teacher and a student. Moving to remote teaching has meant that teachers could not interact with students, see their expressions, or have 1:1 conversations to monitor student progress as they normally would in a classroom setting. This resulted in some teachers identifying that it was difficult to provide differentiation to meet the individual needs of students.

  • Not all universities have a single teaching platform, so teachers and students choose the communication channel that is simply convenient and is easy to access.

  • Issues of equity were raised for a range of reasons, including parental support, access to resources and devices. Teachers feared that the pandemic and consequent remote learning will have had the most negative impact on vulnerable students.

According to the results of the Australian Education Survey, only 49.45% of teachers reported that all of their students had access to devices, 15% of all primary and secondary teachers reported that their students always attended online classes at the designated times. Only 2.4% of all teachers reported that their students always completed all work assigned at home. 52.63% of primary teachers from state or territory capital cities, 56% from regional areas and 30.43% from rural areas reported that they strongly agree to somewhat agree that their students were well prepared to engage in learning online in the home environment.

Advantages of distance learning

All the challenges listed above can be overcome, use of online teaching and assessment has just begun and its efficacy is yet to be demonstrated. There are various opportunities emerging from the shift to remote and online education format. They are:

• flexible access to materials, like lectures and tutorials. A growing number of universities and higher education schools are offering online versions of their programs for various levels and disciplines. Online education enables the teacher and the student to set their own learning pace, and there’s the added flexibility of setting a schedule that fits everyone’s agenda.

• The opportunity to study from other cities and even countries. No accommodation and travel fees.

• Development of soft skills: independence, a sense of responsibility, discipline and motivation. Organizational and time management skills improvement

• It has been observed that student engagement has improved in some instances for students who would normally be disruptive and for those students who would be affected by disruptions in class. Improvement in student work was also observed, although teachers noted that this could be due to parents having significant input and editing student work.

• Teaching and learning remotely also allowed for more creative approaches. Teachers reported that online platforms had been beneficial for differentiating learning and allowed for greater efficiencies in setting and preparing work for students online.

• Another benefit emerging has been the improved partnership with parents and carers. Teachers identified that parents and carers have become more aware of their child’s learning, their capabilities and the areas that challenge them. The increase in communication and support from parents and carers has strengthened school-home partnerships and is seen to be a great success.

The future of distance education

The distance learning format is here to stay regardless of the many hurdles and difficulties. It will continue to be a fundamental element of education. The concept of traditional education has changed radically within the last couple of years. Being physically present in a classroom isn’t the only learning option anymore — not with the rise of the internet and new technologies, at least.

Distance education is gaining popularity around the world. The University of Cambridge, for example, has suspended full-time study programs for most of 2021. Instead, the university switched to COVID-safe distance learning.

Working from home will be the new normal for millions of workers around the world in the future and distance learning is a great opportunity to learn how to work effectively in this format.

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