After two years of online learning, it wasn’t only students who were looking forward to farewelling “Zoom university”, many staff were also hopeful of a return to campus and a bit of normality in 2022.
“Being surrounded by students who are passionate about this thing that you’re passionate about as well is energising,” Tito Ambyo, a journalism lecturer at RMIT, says. “And now, especially if you’re in a classroom where students don’t turn on their video cameras, it’s tiring.”
But what counts as “normal” on university campuses has changed during the pandemic – and a return to campus doesn’t necessarily spell relief for teaching staff.
As 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 busily planning the adoption of hybrid teaching models next year. Some universities, like Curtin University and the University of Tasmania, have ditched all in-person lectures in favour of online broadcasts. Others, including the University of Melbourne, will provide both in-person and online learning.
The National Tertiary Education Union, says the proliferation of dual learning is leading to the exploitation of university staff, who aren’t being adequately compensated for the extra time and effort they are putting in to cater to both in-person and online students.
The union’s president, Dr Alison Barnes, says a union survey showed the pivot to online learning has led to significantly increased workloads and an increase in unpaid hours. That, combined with a lack of support from universities, has affected the work-life balance of teaching staff as well as their ability to disengage during non-work hours. “Members have reported increased stress and anxiety, and many have suffered from workload burnout,” Barnes says.
Socialising is a workplace skill
Staff have other concerns too. Ambyo partially attributes his online teaching fatigue to the amount of extra time he spends looking at screens, but he also worries about how to protect the intellectual rights of teaching materials shared online amid increasing casualisation and job cuts.
“[The university] basically can kick you out and use your online teaching materials,” he says. “I think there’s also that fear of what that mean[s] for the future of our careers.”
Elizabeth Brogan, a nursing lecturer at University of Technology Sydney says online teaching also makes it difficult for relationships to develop between students, which could in turn prevent them from acquiring the skills they should gain from their time at university.
“[Students] don’t build those peer-to-peer relationships where they can talk to their friends in the classroom,” says Brogan, adding that interpersonal communication skills are part of the nursing undergraduate curriculum. “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 benefits to online teaching too. Ambyo has found it better for engaging introverted students. And he says digital technology can enrich teaching content.
Diarmuid Cooney-O’Donoghue, a tutor in Asia-related subjects, agrees, saying it’s more convenient for students to access materials and notes, while he can use tools like Zoom breakout rooms 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 join discussions on sensitive topics.
“When you’re discussing human rights in China or something like that, if it’s in person, there’s no way to hide,” he says. “But if it’s online, you can blank out who that person is, and there are advantages for those students to be able to discuss something without having their identity revealed.”
Nevertheless, Cooney-O’Donghue doesn’t think the benefits of online teaching outweigh what is lost from in-person interactions. “I just think it’s much harder to give good feedback to students when they are not in class,” Cooney-O’Donghue says. “You don’t know who they are, and often students don’t engage as much.”
Jan Sam, a Melbourne resident and psychology student has found online learning a double-edged sword. Sam, a 23-year-old Malaysian international student living with disability, found the lockdown significantly increased their difficulty in walking.
In March, when in-person 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 issue for Sam, who has auditory processing disorder: they couldn’t follow what lecturers were saying on pre-recorded lectures without closed captions, and couldn’t immediately understood tutors’ instructions on Zoom.
Sam hopes online learning will still be an option as universities embrace the new Covid normal, albeit with some improvements. “If online learning is continued, there should be closed captions. There should be subtitles so that students can read what the tutor and the lecturers are saying.”
If it’s all online, why go to a local uni?
Education experts say regardless of online or in-person classes, higher education teaching should be tailored to the needs of students.
Andrew Norton, a professor in the practice of higher education policy at ANU, analysed results of the Student Experience Survey, a federal government initiative. It shows “only fairly small declines” in satisfaction with questions related to teaching during 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 a lot of students experienced last year – probably to a lesser extent this year – was courses that were supposed to be delivered on campus for a couple of weeks were delivered online instead.”
Norton says reductions in government funding for higher education may encourage universities to offer bigger classes, which could push them to turn to online teaching to reduce costs.
Glenn C Savage, an associate professor of education policy at the University of Western Australia, says universities need to offer more support for teaching staff to develop online teaching skills.
“I think universities are becoming much more aware that there’s online learning, and then there’s good online learning, and they’re very different things,” says Savage.
As they adopt a hybrid of online lectures and in-person tutorials, Savage says universities risk losing students. “If things move too much online, and students lose that connection to the materials, space of the university 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 chief executive of Universities Australia, Catriona Jackson, says before the pandemic, Australian universities were already providing both face-to-face and online courses.
“That blend of a rich range of options will continue, with high-quality teaching and exceptional student experience very much at the centre of any decision.”