The world of education has changed due to coronavirus. The question is, by how much? ReadyTech sat down with HolonIQ co-founder and managing director Maria Spies for a look at what the future could hold for learning in Australia in 2020 and beyond.
Maria Spies is a leading expert in trends shaping Australian and global education. As the co-founder and managing director of education intelligence firm HolonIQ, she regularly polls a global panel of education leaders around the world for their views on where the education market may be heading. From the impact of technology to structural trends and investment, Maria is involved in researching and interpreting the course of education into the future.
Maria has been an eye-witness to many of the changes being wrought by COVID-19. A global survey conducted by HolonIQ early in the outbreak in March 2020 found education institutions were expecting to be hard-hit by the crisis; 91% of respondents said they would be moderately (61%) or substantially (30%) worse off in the short term, while 50% of education institutions at that time expected to be worse off over the long term.
But where are we now? And what does the future hold? ReadyTech sat down with Maria to seek her views on how COVID-19 may shape the future of tertiary education around the world. Here’s 5 predictions that could help businesses get ready for what’s coming.
1: COVID-19 won’t change everything. But it will change some things.
The beginning of the COVID-19 crisis was characterised by cycles of fast-paced change on an almost daily basis for education providers. With the need to deliver learning online coming almost overnight, providers in the higher ed, VET and corporate learning sectors needed to move quickly and use the tools at their disposal to keep their operations running in a ‘contactless’ environment. While providers adapted, many digital technology companies have been the beneficiaries, with demand for technology solutions vastly increasing.
Maria says there is a difference between some of this fast-paced change and the larger, lower velocity changes taking place beneath the surface across the world. The question is, how fundamentally has the need for adaptation changed the way our sector will structure and deliver education and learning in the future? Maria predicts that while changes like online learning cannot be expected to remain at the same levels as have been required by a global lock-down, they also will not revert back to the levels they were at previously.
“Our education institutions have been in a better place than many others in the world to go online – even if the experience wasn’t what it could be. Depending on what happens with the coronavirus situation, institutions will open their campuses again and we will see a diminishing of demand in that respect. However, I think it will be a cycle. We’ve seen a spike upwards and we’ll see a roll downwards – but my expectation is it won’t roll back to the level it was. If you change your practices – from teaching habits through to institutional strategies – some of that is going to stick even if the environmental impetus goes away.”
The same may be said of the corporate world. “Many organisations have seen everyone from the boss on downwards working from home. In the past corporate cultures may have made it more difficult than easy to make this happen, but going forward the network of decision makers at the top will all have experienced this and will know firsthand both the benefits and the drawbacks. They will now be in a much better position to accept this into their organisations; so just like in the education sector, it will not be like it was before.”
2: COVID-19 may change the way we think about education funding
The Federal Government moved to support Australia’s shell-shocked higher education sector with a financial relief package in April. A core plank of the funding measures was to promote the delivery of short online courses in areas of national priority (like nursing, teaching, counselling, IT and allied health) through universities and private tertiary educators. While in the past funding for higher ed and VET did not attract funding unless it led to an accredited qualification (while corporate training was managed through the tax system), these measures throw open an opportunity to think differently about funding.
“Are these funding measures directly a result of coronavirus? Sort of. But they are also a market event that has introduced a forced change in perspective and world view on how we deliver funding and learning and what’s important. This directly affects the incumbent system. Will the Government broaden its perspective on how education is funded and what counts as education funding? What if there was funding available in certain priority areas? This may have a ripple effect into ways we think about funding not only for providers who are the new beneficiaries by also incumbents benefitting from existing models,” Maria says.
3: An acceleration of shorter courses and credentials can be expected in the future
COVID-19 could result in an acceleration of a trend towards more bite-sized, non-accredited learning, some of which could be delivered online. During the extended global lockdown, Maria says there has been a willingness from individuals in particular to embrace new learning opportunities as they take the opportunity to upskill – whether they are still employed or want to retrain after becoming unemployed. Whether it is via MOOCs, or other means, this spike in online learning (and general realisation of its availability and effectiveness) could pave the way for a more substantial footprint.
“We are seeing people looking at the universe of available alternative credentials online – like a two-week course in digital marketing – and putting that on their LinkedIn profile. I think we’ll see a spike and greater acceptance of those types of skills,” Maria says.
This could be part of a broader rise of a workforce skills consciousness, with a recognition that skills are transferrable across industries in times of both disruption and calm. “We’ve seen Qantas laying off a lot of people, and Woolworths hiring them as one example. We are seeing mass movements of talent, mass movements of bundles of skills from one industry to another.” Organisations that help map workforce skills and help individuals and organisations find the skills they need through skills matching ‘need to move faster’, Maria argues, so there are mechanisms to connect skills to jobs in more intelligent ways.
4: The way we engage with international students will change
Australia’s dependence on the international student market – especially in higher education – has left us disproportionately exposed to the impacts of the coronavirus. Thanks to local and global travel restrictions, Australia’s international students – participants in what was our third largest export – have in some cases been stranded in their home countries or forced to continue their learning online. “The shortfall won’t be made up by universities pivoting into blended and online learning and corporate training – so the question is what will happen to the international education and English language market.” Maria says the dynamics of the COVID-19 situation in the medium to long term remain to be seen.
Is it likely to change the way we interact and structure education for these students over the long-term? Will the future see more students studying at universities online? “If you take the standard international education story, you have to ask are kids flying in for migration purposes, or to gain world experience, English experience, a cultural experience, becoming worldly, in addition to their education. Could the future see them not doing a full three years – maybe there is an in between there – where something like 50 per cent of students actually do a hybrid, with a year or so overseas and the rest online or in some other form of blended model where they are in own country?” Maria asks. Universities may also engineer new forms of student exchange which are “more than a semester here and semester there”.
5: Educators will benefit from COVID-19’s forced embrace of online learning
The seismic shift towards online learning delivery born out of lock-down is an opportunity for education providers. “I think it is an opportunity to accelerate what was already a trend. Many were dabbling around the edges of these technologies – they acknowledged that online learning was growing but, since their core revenue was coming from face-to-face learning, there was a tendency to stick with that core model. I think now many may be able to accelerate that trend while not giving up on their unique set of objectives, their vision, their values or their pedagogy – their DNA. Because online is really just a delivery mode.”
Maria says she often hears from people who once did learning online and will never do it again because of a bad experience. However, the experience is highly dependent on the learning design, the teacher, the environment and the technology. “Social learning and technology has advanced so much and it can produce or support sophisticated pedagogical outcomes now – whereas it may not have been able to in the past. This is an opportunity for people to confront forced biases and embrace what’s possible without giving up their DNA. They can take a serious look at alternative ways of delivering learning that they wouldn’t otherwise have been forced to do in ways that a consistent with their pedagogical beliefs. They don’t have to give up the learning outcomes they are seeking because it’s online.”
The future starts with small steps
Many education providers have been embracing online learning during the current crisis. Maria says those who have gone from a face-to-face model to online learning are grasping some of the key differences – and one of those is students who more easily feel isolated.
“I was involved in developing an early online course and I was told the big difference is that teaching on campus is like a firehose – it’s a rapid, intense period of contact and dissemination of information – whereas online it’s like a dripping tap – you need to connect with students multiple times a day to give them a thumbs up, keep them on the right track. Things like having an ‘ask me anything’ session online daily can make a huge difference.”
One other element is structure. “You need to make sure it is much more structured than on campus – you need to say here’s what the week looks like, here’s what we’ll be doing on Thursday, because everything blurs into one at home. Students need structured routines.”
For some providers in the VET space, moving work or practice-based learning online will be more difficult and potentially more expensive than for a university, with some calls for more Virtual Reality-style learning to come to the fore. Whatever the uptake now, it’s clear that a series of small steps – and learning how to teach using these methods – are needed to move forward. “One opportunity in the world of professional development is learning design – we are way behind in terms of sophisticated, thoughtful online learning design; people don’t have the skills to translate teaching into these new delivery models. It’s a pity it has to happen so fast – we don’t want to just chuck content online and end up giving students a sub-par experience – that’s only going to result in everyone being turned off by it.”