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Digital is in our DNA – online learning during the COVID-19 crisis

Life as we know it has changed. Work has changed, education has changed and for the time being, our freedom to move around and do what we want has been restricted.

Deakin has been offering online education for many years and prides itself as a leader in the field. This meant that when the entire University had to shift off campus a few weeks ago, both staff and students were relatively prepared.

The decision to move everybody to the Cloud was a rapid response to the global coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. It not only safeguards the health and wellbeing of the wider University community, but also ensures education can continue in the face of this crisis.

Kerrie Bridson, Associate Dean Quality and Accreditation at Deakin's Faculty of Business and Law says that, in a nutshell, Deakin has always been ready for an unprecedented situation, where exclusive online delivery would become a necessity.

‘In times like these, Deakin embraces disruptions and change and the creative and entrepreneurial skills at the heart of the institution flourish. New ideas emerge and take us to the next level of superior digital experiences, which bring the world to our students and let our students shine and succeed,’ she says.

Managing a seamless transition

Although challenging, this significant change in teaching delivery has been largely experienced as seamless for both students and staff.

Aileen Loi, General Manager at the Faculty of Business and Law, explains that as a fully inclusive University, extending online flexibility to on-campus students has been relatively easy.

‘Our Cloud Campus already was our second largest campus with in excess of 15 000 students at all times. It has thus always been important for us to have the technology, platforms and student experience to ensure great learning outcomes and maintain high student satisfaction online, as well as on campus.’

Loi further emphasises that so far, feedback about the transition has been mostly positive, with students commenting on how consistent the technology platforms and extended support has been.

‘We’ve also had comments on the great online support programs we have for students, including the Successful Minds program, which has a strong focus on mental health and resilience during these rapidly changing times,’ Loi says.

Staying connected online

Providing an innovative learning environment for many years, Deakin’s Cloud Campus has all the necessary tools and credentials to offer students and staff the flexibility needed in these uncertain times. Now more than ever, it offers on-demand learning and responsive support staff anywhere, anytime.

Assoc. Prof. Bridson says that the current generation of learners already engages with a range of interpersonal communication tools to interact with their educators, classmates and broader family and community.

‘Life really hasn’t changed that much when it comes to interaction and we have seen more students engage and support each other and their communities through this global crisis,’ she says.

Previously an on-campus Bachelor of Commerce/Bachelor of Laws student, Madison Halge explains that she experienced a smooth, and well-supported transition to online study amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

‘Deakin has established open lines of communication with staff and students, consistently informing us of all changes, keeping us connected and offering one-on-one support. They have shown that being in isolation does not mean we are shut-off from one another,’ she says.

Similarly, Bachelor of Commerce/Bachelor of Laws student Elizabeth Tintaru says that while there’s a potential negative of moving entirely to online study, by which some may feel a bit more isolated due to the lack of face-to-face interaction, Deakin has done a good job in mitigating this.

‘Online elements such as the discussion boards within unit sites and attending seminars in real-time through Blackboard Collaborate, fosters a sense of connectedness with both academics and other fellow students,’ she says.

Keeping agile in an evolving situation

In reality, adjusting to this new normal translates into units with classes, as well as seminars being replaced with pre-recorded online lectures or livestreamed sessions via Blackboard Collaborate or Zoom for example. It also means that many on-campus services have moved online and can now be accessed remotely. 

Assoc. Prof. Bridson says that over the past three years, Deakin has been advancing the production and recording of classes to Netflix-quality-like standards.

‘We call the investment in course renewal ‘Cloud first’, as it puts the learner in the Cloud at the centre of our design and delivery techniques. This focus ensures we make the most of the best digital tools, videographers, digital designers, instructional designers and multimedia gurus to bring our classes to life.’

‘More specifically in law for example, you can watch the enactment of key case law to fully experience the discipline theory and its practical applications. COVID-19 didn’t make this happen – Deakin believes this is the best way our students can learn,’ Assoc. Prof. Bridson adds.

What was also clear from the start of this crisis, is that this change would be a real test of not only technology, but also team work and collaboration. In terms of uptake and outcomes, Loi says that at a management level, the University has been impressed by the commitment and agility of its students and staff during this period.

‘Students have been very proactive in engaging with the online platforms and our staff have done an incredible job in shifting face-to-face education to an online environment,’ she says.

Halge also reiterates that Deakin’s intuitive system, which students and academics already find familiar, has reduced anxiety concerning online study and minimised any margins for error.

‘We can still attend class, engage with our tutors, and complete our course with no interruption. As a final year student, knowing that I can complete my last two trimesters as planned and without disruptions is a significant relief,’ she says.

Emphasising support systems

While for students changing their entire study set-up in times of uncertainty is not easy, Deakin has endeavoured to help with the transition by providing consistent communication and easy access to technology and support services.

Halge and Tintaru both say they have been continuously offered help and access to a number of resources.

‘There is financial supportflexible academic considerationscounselling and the development of a guide focusing on looking after student health. Deakin has also modified existing policies to deal with our current circumstances, considering the effect this global pandemic can have on our mental and physical health,’ Halge says.

Tintaru adds that student services, such as Student Central and Student Advisers are available online and via the phone, which she has found really helpful in terms of being able to call if she has any enquiries about her course or enrolment.

The COVID-19 FAQ’s, which are updated often, have also been a great source of information to keep me up-to-date, ever since the end of Trimester 3 of 2019, when the situation was initially developing.’

With exams and assessments being a big part of the academic life cycle, Deakin has also put in place processes to ensure this aspect does not cause undue stress for its student cohort.

‘We have never relied on a single exam to evidence what our students know, so this current crisis is a pivot for us in many units about how to deliver final summative assessment items in new and creative ways to enable our students to demonstrate what they know without any additional stress or anxiety,’ Assoc. Prof. Bridson explains.

Embracing the challenges

As the situation continues to change rapidly, Deakin acknowledges the concern and uncertainty this is creating and is determined to continue exceeding students’ educational expectations during these difficult times.

The challenge ahead will be to ensure the continuation of the University’s internationalisation agenda. This includes a range of advanced programs in other countries, which are intended to ensure students study with Deakin, but have pathways and opportunities to immerse themselves in international short programs and trimester exchanges.

Assoc. Prof. Bridson says that Deakin wants to foster its students to experience learning in practice around the world.

‘The current travel bans present us with an opportunity to be entrepreneurial and find on-shore, Cloud-based options to continue this goal but in new inventive ways. The current world crisis is a live case study for our students to engage with and reflect on ethics, responsibility and sustainability initiatives and how our graduates can make a difference in the world.’

Loi reiterates this message by emphasising that we are living in times that remind us acutely of how important individual contributions are to the whole of our community.

‘Our ability to do the right things, stay calm and remain connected will be one of the truest reflections of our strength as a society,’ she says.  

To learn more about Deakin’s suite of premium online course offerings, and to join its community of 60 000 online learners visit the Deakin website.  

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