How online study became the new norm

News Story by Curtin University - Tuesday 24 November 2020


Remote learning isn’t a new phenomenon – it has been used for centuries – but it wasn’t until recently that the majority of the world’s universities embraced the format.



Remote learning has a long and rich history. As early as the 19th century, US educational institutions offered print-based correspondence courses over mail if students were unable to attend classes in person. Then, in 1981, the now-defunct Western Behavioural Sciences Institute in California offered the world’s first online higher education courses, communicating to their students using an antiquated precursor to e-mail on a series of Apple IIEs with 48K of RAM.

Of course, today’s universities continue this legacy through more powerful innovations. Lectures are streamed online, students can join classrooms through video chat and many education providers deliver free online courses. Yet, some universities have been reluctant to embrace online study, because it lacks face-to-face engagement.

But everything changed this year, as many universities accelerated their transition to online study in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. By 19 March, a week after COVID-19 was declared a global health crisis, more than half of Australia’s 41 universities had substantially shifted to online study. Worldwide, 189 out of the world’s top 200 universities moved at least a quarter of their teaching online.

Professor Jill Downie – Curtin University Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic and Australia’s National Education Commissioner to UNESCO – says the shift to online showcases the pandemic’s paradoxical positive effect on the global higher education sector.

“We’ve made our education more interactive, and COVID has absolutely sped that up. Curtin had about 100 courses online before COVID, but we were able to have all our students studying online in a week or two,” says Downie, who first spoke about the topic on Curtin’s podcast, The Future Of.

“If you look at the other ‘gains’ from COVID, most universities say they’re not going back to weekly lectures. Many universities are moving from exams towards ‘authentic’ assessment.

“In the US, their projections of what was going to happen in the next 10 years in teaching and learning happened within three months during COVID. That’s the pace we’ve seen in the [global] teaching and learning space.”

Before long, more futuristic technologies will be integrated to help improve the online learning experience.

Spain’s IE University already has a classroom-like teaching facility for online learning called the WOW (Window on the World) Room, which includes a high-tech, 45 square metre curved wall featuring 48 screens with students.

In this room, tutors are able to receive real-time time feedback on their teaching performance through AI software that measures student attentiveness through the students’ personal webcams, and are able to conduct polls that instantly pair up students with opposing views to debate issues. The room can even project a hologram of the tutor into the classroom if they can’t make it in person.

Dr Zitong Sheng, an expert in organisational behaviour from Curtin’s Future of Work Institute (FOWI), says changes like these represent a paradigm shift in universities beginning to recognise the unique advantages that online study can bring.

“If we use online tools in a way that is not fundamentally different from what we would do in a traditional classroom setting, then the benefit is marginal. But, if we open up to the opportunities these clever technologies can create, then there is much greater potential to improve the education experience,” she says.
“Already, the format has given us clear advantages because students can study at their own pace. It makes accessing education less challenging for people who might have disabilities, live in remote areas or have significant personal commitments.”

Working alongside her colleagues, FOWI Director Professor Mark Griffin and research fellow Dr Keyao Li, and partnering with Cisco, Optus, and La Trobe University, Sheng recently contributed to the National Industry Innovation Network’s soon-to-be released white paper, titled The future of collaborative technologies in health and education.


Dr Zitong Sheng researched the use of collaborative technologies in higher education for the new National Industry Innovation Network.

For the paper, Sheng compiled existing research and interviewed senior practitioners about the use of collaborative technologies in the higher education sector, recommended best practices for using collaborative technologies and suggested areas for future technology development to create more benefits for the sector.

A recommendation from the paper is that we need to explore how collaborative technologies can be used to support not just student engagement but deeper industry engagement with teaching and research.

“Online collaborative technologies create a space for universities to better understand industry needs and for industry bodies to contribute to work-integrated learning. If we can better enable hands-on practice and mimic a real industry environment, education delivery will have more practical value in better preparing students for their future job. Collaborative technologies can help to merge the future of higher education into the world of work,” explains Sheng.
“Then there is the need to develop more virtual or collaborative environments like the Curtin HIVE and the FOWI’s Future Capabilities Lab (formerly the Industrial Transformation Research Hub), where industries can come and offer training through virtual reality, holograms or a simulation of some kind.”

Professor Downie believes these technologies will become more commonplace in the years to come.

“By 2050, holograms will be an everyday part of our classroom. We’ll have far more immersive, 3D online experiences,” she predicts.

Improving the teaching environment is one thing, but it’s trickier to speculate on how technology might help recreate the university social environment in the online space.

“What we found during COVID was that those who studied online when they weren’t planning to really describe that they lacked a sense of belonging,” says Downie.

“It’s really hard to replicate that feeling that you get coming onto campus face-to-face, meeting with your friends and having that cup of coffee, or sitting around, thinking about the problems of the world and how they should be solved. We’re working hard to recreate that online.”

Some conversations in the media have suggested that the shift to online study is only temporary, but Sheng’s research firmly disagrees.

“Most of our interviewed experts acknowledged that we were already in the midst of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and that we had started to use online collaboration tools – like Microsoft Teams, Google Docs – before COVID. COVID just pushed it forward and made it evolve faster,” she says.

“Now people’s expectations have changed. The higher education sector is not going back.”