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Higher education institutions are contemplating how the future will look after the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated their digitalisation plans. Universities in Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong may have leaned on existing digital infrastructure in the almost overnight shift to wholly online learning and teaching, but the exercise has exposed a number of limitations and given rise to new expectations in how we deliver higher education. 

Make no mistake, educators and the staff that support them have done a wonderful job in navigating pandemic-led learning disruptions to protect student welfare and learning outcomes. Now that the dust has settled on the initial rollout of large-scale remote learning, institutions in Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong must be more strategic in their approach and prepare for a future of hybrid learning that combines the benefits of in-person and online modalities.

Educators across the region consistently tell me that students prefer the flexibility of hybrid learning. It’s a demand that coincides with the emerging flexible work movement students can come to expect in their future careers, reinforcing its relevance in education today. Here, I outline some key considerations for institutions in building a hybrid learning framework that meets the needs of learners and society at large.

The academic integrity factor 

Once the logistical barriers were more or less addressed in the shift to remote learning, including access to devices, internet and digital resources, concerns naturally turned to student performance - particularly during tests and assessment. Without the supervision afforded by traditional, in-person testing, how could institutions ensure fairness and prevent student cheating when conducting assessment online? There’s no doubt that securing integrity in assessment poses different challenges in a digital environment, compared to an in-person one. In a remote setting, we must think differently. 

Case in point, institutions have deployed a number of different measures including temporary suspension of exams in favour of more continual, low-stakes assessment, redesign of assessment to capture greater high-order thinking based on the assumption it is less prone to e-cheating, and adoption of remote invigilation to conduct online tests. It’s important to note that even prior to the pandemic, existing and emerging forms of academic misconduct were gaining traction in a digital era where ‘copy/paste culture’ and ‘homework help’ websites have become ubiquitous. This environment of unprecedented access to information online has presented tempting shortcuts in the learning process for some students, but there is nothing to gain in blaming the digital medium.  

Regardless of the mode of learning delivery, messaging around the importance of academic integrity should remain consistent, and is inextricably linked to student motivation. Inside Higher Ed’s Student Voice survey results in 2021 painted a complex picture of students’ perception of cheating and the intersecting motivations to cheat. ‘Pressure to do well’ was attributed as the top reason - according to 72% of students - and warrants a deeper look at not only the types and quantity of student workloads, but the tangible value we assign to integrity and originality. For instance, institutions should be meaningfully communicating to students that by cheating they are doing a disservice to themselves, a disservice to future employers - a disservice to everyone, really. Graduating without merit is likely to lead to some embarrassing situations once they hit the workforce and harm their chances of remaining employed in their chosen field. Discussing such pitfalls of cheating with students can be a key driver in shoring up personal responsibility and accountability for their learning. 

Of course, no one tactic alone will solve the problem of academic integrity breaches online - it needs to be a multifaceted strategy. Importantly, education providers need to avoid putting it in the proverbial ‘too-hard basket’, especially as the sector integrates hybrid learning as a fixture of the education system moving forward, in Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong. 

Student experience and satisfaction through hybrid learning 

The student experience is the linchpin of institutional success and cannot be discounted in discussions and strategies on academic integrity. It can be argued that many integrity breaches happen in part because students are dissatisfied with the learning and teaching experience, with the course itself or with the whole package, meaning they don’t see the point in doing the work and are more likely to ‘phone it in’ when it comes to their own academic performance. It prompts a rethink of the design of coursework and design of individual assessment within the course, guided by the fundamental question; does it foster student motivation or is it marred by mechanisms for an ‘easy way out’ or a shortcut to learning?

Most education professionals in Australia will be familiar with the Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching (QILT); a set of government-endorsed surveys to capture students’ satisfaction levels with higher education, towards driving quality improvements. QILT’s 2020 survey of higher education students in Australia found a sharp decline in how students rated the overall quality of their education experience compared to the previous eight years when ratings sat between 78% and 80%. We shouldn’t be entirely surprised by this outcome, considering that in the almost overnight pivot to online delivery, many universities had to take face-to-face courses and put them online without adjustment, which doesn’t necessarily work or translate well. A portion of teaching staff were not only underprepared, but underskilled in the delivery of online teaching or online anything, for that matter. 

It begs the question; how do universities reinstate those high satisfaction levels without reverting back to traditional, on-campus delivery as the default? Those methods are not realistic in terms of navigating future disruptions to learning, nor will they appease students that have been exposed to the flexibility of online learning. In my conversations with education leaders, the understanding is that students want more, and are asking for a combined, hybrid experience that offers the best of both worlds. Traditional in-person attendance can’t be beat for the social constructivist approach to learning that younger students in peer groups particularly rely on, while the online setting caters to student convenience and lifestyle commitments, including mature aged students, for whom on-campus learning may not be desirable or feasible for a variety of reasons. This flexibility is not a given to succeed, if technology is detached from pedagogy and academic staff are not building a digital modality that is fit for purpose. Investment in edtech, training of teaching staff are all necessary considerations to boost student engagement and satisfaction.

Changing expectations and practices are reaching virtually every pocket of the educational landscape. Check out Part 2 of this blog, where I discuss the increasing relevance of authentic assessment and real-world skills, considerations of equity and wellbeing, and some concluding thoughts on how institutions can attempt to pull all of this together in their strategic planning.

Check out Part 2 of this blog