As Covid-19 spread rapidly throughout the world, the Australian university year was just beginning. Student introductions had been made, course material had been outlined, but deep learning had not been initiated.

As swiftly as Covid-19 took hold, so did the need for Australian academics to restructure their courses from on-campus to online delivery, while attempting to maintain enriching learning experiences. For too long, many Australian universities had been selective with the courses offered for online delivery. Often, courses offered online were developed as mere replications of their on-campus counterparts. For many Australian tertiary educators, online course delivery was no longer a contentious option, but an immediate requirement.

Many talented and highly regarded academics were suddenly unprepared to reframe their courses through a solely digital environment. While some accepted the challenge and capitalised on what the technology could provide teaching delivery, many others ignored the plethora of research regarding online teaching, and reverted to foregone instructional teaching and assessment practices.

During conversations with colleagues, the overpowering focus appeared to be survival: survival in one’s job, survival of entangled personal and professional responsibilities, survival in adjusting to a whole new way of existing. One way to survive was to retreat into safe teaching spaces such as teacher-led instruction, and essay-based assessment.  The student experience dimmed at double the pace, as students too grappled with their own survival; within and external to learning commitments.

For some academics, the changes were a challenge they had unintentionally been preparing for. Many courses offered to ‘traditional online students’ had well-developed asynchronous tools, and synchronous learning experiences, packaged with an overarching emphasis on student engagement. These courses utilised functions, such as timed release of content, hurdle tasks, knowledge and achievement quizzes, and contained short lecture videos to highlight key concepts. Others new and accepting of the challenge reimagined their courses through the lens of an opportunity to diversify; demonstrating the need for reimagining delivery, rather than trying to teach the same face-to-face content through a computer screen.

Courses that were restructured without reverting to comfortable instructor-led teaching and learning, positively influenced the experience of ‘forced online students.’ Student learning was guided through interactive discussion forums and tutorials, skill development occurred through various digital mediums, and learning was presented across an array of platforms.

As Australia moves out of the initial Covid-19 depth with the easing of restrictions, and semester one’s end draws ever closer, the future of university teaching and learning remains as clouded as the past few months. Some colleagues are naturally preparing for continued online delivery, while the ‘digital resisters’ continually refresh their email inbox in hope of the elusive green light to return to the ‘old normal.’

Despite this, overall there appears a deeper respect for online learning and the self-determination and intrinsic motivation students must possess to navigate this learning experience. Achieving this understanding Australian academics have the potential to propel the future of tertiary online education during the pandemic and beyond.

Samantha Vlcek (PhD Candidate) and Scott Pedersen (Senior Lecturer), University of Tasmania, School of Education.

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