Digital learning down-under

Professor Michael Sankey – Griffith University

1 November 2020

Digital learning has evolved somewhat differently in Australia than it has in many other developed nations, primarily because of the physical distances involved on this sizeable continent. This has led to, on average, Australian institutions being bigger than those in the UK and US, and this has also led to them having to cater for more diverse student populations. As a result, out of sheer need, technology has been used to solve many of these issues for a good 20 years now. Because of this, institutions in Australia have been better placed to leverage these technologies to augment traditional teaching modes in times of Crisis. For example, it would be rare now (probably no existent) to find a University in Australia that did not have an online version of their course/unit/subject, in some form, on a Learning Management System (or VLE in the UK), and this fully aligned to their Student Management System (SMS). This for many years now (up to 10 years) has also been aligned with other fundamental, or core learning and teaching tools, like lecture capture systems, ePortfolio systems, synchronous virtual classroom software’s (Zoom, Blackboard Collaborate, O365 Teams) and other cloud-based technologies. These are represented here in the Technology Enhanced Learning Ecology.

This maturity in the virtual space has meant that Australian institutions have been able to evolve reasonably quickly into the newer forms of course provision, such as online short courses, micro-credentialling, MOOCs, etc. Aligned with this has been the greater need to understand the student behaviours in these newer learning environments, primarily through data, and to align this with the more traditional forms of learning, and the data collected around retention, transition and engagement. 

Most (if not all) universities in Australia routinely monitor student engagement analytics, both at the Program level and more recently down to the individual Course/Subject level. However, these analytics do not generally provide a complete picture, as the learning environments in which students are engaging-in and vary considerably from institution to institution. Typically, we see a good use of the learning analytics being generated from the LMS/VLE and these being aligned with student enrolment data being generated out of the SMS, which provide a reasonable picture of engagement. In many cases, these are now seen through institutional dashboards that may be accessed by teaching staff and administrators. However, with the advent of more cloud-based systems running as a ‘software as a service’ (SaaS), the data being generated by these (and the schemas used) do not necessarily map well to one another, meaning there is still a need to access data from a number of systems seperatly (typically up-to between 6-10) to get a clear picture of what each student is doing. This space is maturing, but not as quickly as one might hope. 

Maturity in the digital space was initially forged by the major distance education (DE) institutions in the sector (CSU, USQ, CQU, UNE, Deakin, ECU, Flinders, CDU), that entered into the fully online realm as early as the late 1990’s (20+ years ago). It is a more recent phenomenon (the last 8-10 years mainly) that the traditional face-to-face institutions have been pushing fairly aggressively into the traditional DE market. This has largely been facilitated by the advancements in the LMS/VLE systems, that have developed more innovative and reasonably consistent engagement tools, that were initially used to help their traditional face-to-face student base, but know used for all students.  The main features of these newer systems allow institutions to provide a level of consistency to things like communications, networking and the provision of a repository for course materials and readings.  Once each institution had reached this level of maturity, it became evident that they could then use these same systems to compete for more of the traditional DE market.

This also led to the rise of a number of private providers (OES, KeyPath, Future Learn, Pearsons, etc) being able to offer a third-party service to universities to run their fully online offerings, rather than these more traditional Uni’s having to support both forms of delivery, while still progressing their brand in the market. 

The advancements in technologies has also allowed the private HE provider market to blossom, particularly with boutique post-graduate and specialty offerings for what was a burgeoning international market (on hold at the moment).  These same advancements have also allowed for the breaking-up of traditional course content into smaller chunks, or micro courses. Initially facilitated by the MOOC movement, led by some major international providers (Coursera, EdX, etc.), Australian institutions have now developed quite considerable offerings in this space and are, more-so, now being encouraged to expand this offering by the Federal Government.

In more recent times, advancements in collaborative tools, virtual classrooms, peer-based learning tools and streaming video technologies, AR/VR, simulations and AI driven chatbots, etc, have led to some really interesting learning scenarios that have been further inspired by the ubiquitous nature of mobile technologies. This has released learning from being restricted to a time and a space, as students can connect to things like live streamed lectures and the like from their homes, on the bus or even while working. 

Probably the most significant of these shifts, in approach, has been the advent of online ecologies such as Office O365 and Google and the social media elements they have developed. These ecologies have really taken the notion of collaboration out of the hands of the traditional LMS/VLE. It will be really interesting to see how this space evolves over the next few years, as major multinational companies like Microsoft and Google look to develop ecologies that will take students from K1-12, through to HE & Post-Grad, and then through to the workplace. This is linked with their developing approaches, or aspirations, to credentialling people across the lifespan. Already, quite a few universities in Australia are moving quickly with O365 (particularly) and primarily with their ‘Teams’ ecology to create engagement spaces at the course/unit/subject level, to augment the traditional LMS/VLE features. This is because Teams is more akin to what is called a productivity tool. A tool that is now heavily used by business and corporations to facilitate engagement within the workplace. It is felt, by some (including myself), that this new focus on ‘productivity’ is a means of better preparing students for the workforce, by using the tools and systems they will use in the workforce to also mediate some or all of their learning. The jury is out on this at the moment, but it is an interesting shift over the last 12-18 months.

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