The higher education sector in Australia is worth $25 billion, puts 120,000 people to work, and supports the learning of over one million students. Research is revealing challenges currently being faced by the industry, including budget cuts, high staff turnover, constraints on innovation, market saturation, and an evolving job market. One of the continuing survivors of these challenges is the online learning sector, which is adapting more quickly to the changing landscape. Australian education research is uncovering the areas that afford greater opportunity for growth and the areas that pose obstacles.
From digital technology to community engagement
COVID-19 has made it clear that fighting digital exclusion is more important now than ever. At the Monash University Migration and Inclusion Centre, research and centre manager Rebecca Powell and her team are digging into how organisations are using digital technology to engage diverse communities.
“Despite the immediate transition to online engagement, the majority of digital engagement practices focused on one-way models of providing information – often through websites and social media platforms including Facebook, WhatsApp, WeChat, and Instagram,” she writes.
In their research brief entitled “The role of technology to facilitate and support intercultural engagement,” her team illustrates what challenges companies face to stay connected with culturally and linguistically diverse communities (CALD), especially since the pandemic began.
Here’s what they found.
“Two-way, participatory engagement with community groups was limited, but there was evidence of innovative attempts to bring together people from different backgrounds. For example, one participant told us that their organisation’s weekly playgroup had transitioned to Zoom. The playgroup coordinator had set up their guitar, books and toys, and CALD families would dial in regularly for the session.”
The Inclusion Centre team notes that the findings from their research “demonstrated a strong transition to using digital technology to enhance community engagement, and a number of examples showed good practices that were shared with the research team.” Still, they found that digital exclusion “remained a critical problem for some groups.”
Generally, though, switching to online engagement has yielded many benefits and will continue to do so in the future. Rapid, up-to-date communication is easier, information more accessible, events are attracting a wider audience of participants, and staff and community end users are able to develop their communication and engagement skills on a personal and professional level.
Online learning as an opportunity
According to the Digital Marketing Institute, one big challenge for higher education institutions is to avoid outdated curricula: “Resolving it depends on the ability of department heads and individual lecturers to continuously identify areas for improvement or adjustment and implement changes quickly.”
One other option is to offer different ways to learn. This is where online learning can come to the rescue. “If learners are looking for flexibility, higher education institutions must think about how they can offer it. Online resources are a good place to start, particularly if they’re free. And for enrolled students, blended learning–involving several different methods of instruction–is recommended.”
The pandemic has afforded many lessons and insights into the way the education sector can and will change, and has even given it a firm push in the direction of greater connection and engagement through online learning. The next phase will be about navigating inevitable challenges of access and inclusion with grace and foresight. Australian education research will continue to reveal constructive ways of doing so.