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Hybrid learning, smaller classes: Could this be the future of Australian unis?

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Catherine Gomes, an associate professor at the School of Media and Communication, RMIT University, shares her perspective on Australian student mobility as well as the future of learning at Australian universities. Source: Saeed Khan/AFP

When COVID broke out, universities worldwide shuttered like dominoes and moved online. Australian universities weren’t spared and had no choice but to switch to online learning with little notice.

International students were told to return to their respective countries if they couldn’t support themselves. On multiple occasions, the government shelved student pilot plans that would facilitate their return to Australian universities, leaving students bruised. 

Despite the initial bumps and hiccups, things appear to be looking up. New South Wales and Victoria have announced pilot plans that would see the return of a small group of international students in December.

International students’ are expected to return to universities in ACT next year. Australia is also establishing a travel bubble with Singapore that could see students and business travellers travelling freely between both countries, before opening up to tourists.

Australian universities

The pandemic has left international students abroad feeling isolated, particularly during lockdowns and circuit breakers, says Gomes. Source: Patrick Hamilton/AFP

Reflecting on the future of learning at Australian universities

Catherine Gomes, an associate professor at the School of Media and Communication, RMIT University, tells Study International: “The last time the world experienced a pandemic was the Spanish flu — which was a century ago. At that time, there really were not many international students, so there has not been a template on how to proceed.”

She notes that the long-term effects and impact of a global pandemic on students, educators, service providers, stakeholders, economies, and sender and destination countries are yet to be felt and understood. “The key issues really are: about moving forward and rethinking the international student experience and keeping open in how we respond to such a global crisis that has disrupted our expectations and aspirations,” says Gomes.

Despite the challenges faced by both international students and Australian universities, those in the education sector have continued to learn from the pandemic about the international student experience. 

Gomes, a migration and mobility scholar, notes: “We realise that the study element is just one aspect of the student experience. Likewise, we realise that what students do after their degree, in terms of employability, is rising in significance.” 

Despite the challenges of online learning, she believes that hybrid learning will continue to be on the cards for Australian universities in the post-COVID era. “I do wonder if we are seeing the end of the ‘live’ lecture — which is something some universities worldwide have done away with,” says Gomes. “What I would like to see in remote study are smaller classes.” 

Plenty of research, including her own, has shown that teaching and engaging with students online is best with small and not large classes. “Teaching online is not easy. It is challenging from the educator’s perspective yet online learning allows an educator to still reach out to students who are unable to come to campus — which is a positive thing,” says the Singaporean.

Australian universities

Gomes notes that the digital experiences of international students are nuanced and often differ from those of domestic students. Source: Nikolay Doychinov/AFP

Online learning presented challenges to universities

In summarising a quote from the introduction of “Digital Experiences of International Students: Challenging Assumptions and Rethinking Engagement,” a book she co-edited, Gomes says many destination countries have scrambled to find solutions on how best to teach and engage with students who were unable to come to campus. While moving all courses online became a solution, it resulted in frustration by staff and students who were not prepared for complete e-teaching and e-learning.

There was an assumption that all students, whether domestic or international, would be able to access the material and learn remotely. Gomes notes that higher education institutions found that international students had different expectations and behaviours online, and that learning styles vary among international students. The digital experiences of international students, however, are nuanced and often differ from those of domestic students.

When it comes to online learning, one size does not fit all

Despite the wealth of opportunities that online learning brings, Gomes believes institutions must realise that “one size does not fit all” and work on engaging with their students who have different digital experiences. 

“For instance, international students may use the same digital platforms as domestic students but how they use these platforms differs (e.g. Facebook in Vietnam is used differently to Facebook in Australia). Moreover, ensuring that ‘live’ classes take into consideration different time zones for students studying in their home or third countries, is a step in the right direction,” she explained. It’s equally important to train staff to engage with students, she says.