Rapidly increasing numbers of coronavirus cases internationally, and now in Australia, have the nation’s universities rapidly scaling up and testing different remote delivery strategies for students.
Universities are no stranger to online education, but the virus outbreak is testing their ability to deliver exams and more hands-on subjects.
The initial outbreak of the disease in China posed a significant risk to the lucrative international student market, particularly for the Group of Eight universities which share in more than 60,000 Chinese students affected by travel bans and lockdowns.
Compounding the issue is China’s ‘Great Firewall’ which the University of Melbourne has confirmed is still blocking popular platforms like Vimeo, One Drive, and a raft of Google services including YouTube, Gmail, Hangouts, Drive, Docs, and Sites.
The Learning Environments team at the University of Melbourne has compiled resources for teaching staff covering which platforms are available in China, including its new whole-of-university Kaltura video management system.
The team also strongly recommends that lecturers record their lectures rather than stream it due to potential bandwidth issues in for overseas students.
Southern Cross University (SCU) was, fortuitously, piloting Examity’s remote invigilation system in its health courses its domestic online students scattered across the country,
Deputy vice chancellor (academic) at SCU, Associate Professor Erica Wilson, said that when the Chinese travel ban went into place earlier this year the university didn’t have much time to come up with a solution for its students stuck in China as its summer courses approached exam time.
Wilson admitted to iTnews that, being a smaller university, SCU didn’t have “huge numbers” of Chinese students affected - of the 7000 exam sittings worldwide for its summer term, 84 were slated for 24 students from China.
“Understandably, they were quite anxious,” Wilson said.
“We were concerned about the Great Firewall and data speeds.
“We didn’t know if they needed VPNs [virtual private networks], but from our pilot we knew they needed a webcam, Chrome and Windows.
“Some weren’t able to meet those requirements.”
The Examity platform also requires students to sit tests in private rooms with no other occupants, panning the webcam around the show the online invigilator there were no other people or study materials at hand.
Part of the problem was that in some places where lockdowns went into effect, students simply couldn’t go out and buy or rent a suitable webcam or computer.
Additionally, SCU’s Blackboard team had to rapidly work to make sure its learning management system could link to Examity’s system to record answers and data as they weren’t part of the initial pilot program.
“We were working in very difficult circumstances.”
Despite that, Wilson said the system worked great and 20 out of 24 students successfully sat their exams. The system is now being prepped for a wider rollout ahead of the start of semester one.
While it will mostly help SCU cut down on the cost of setting up remote exam centres for remote students in small towns like Brewarrina and Bourke in northwestern NSW rather than its campuses in south east queensland and the NSW north coast, “four months down the line things could change change very rapidly with coronavirus”.
Complementing online offerings
Meanwhile the Australian National University is spruiking “remote participation” - whether that be online learning or dropping in to a different university for face-to-face courses.
“You may be able to enrol in online or face-to-face study at another university either in Australia or in China and credit that course back to your studies here at ANU,” the university said in an FAQ for students.
An exhaustive list outlines which courses students can remotely participate in and how to enrol, with some like its Biology 1: Evolution, Ecology and Genetics course requiring students to complete a “delayed practical experience” when students return to campus.
The provision for international students outside of China to complete remotely participate at other institutions could also prove useful as the virus spreads to other countries including South Korea, Italy and Germany.
As Australia starts to see its first cases of person-to-person transmission of coronavirus, however, the return to campus may be significantly delayed. Already institutions like the University of Technology Sydney are considering shutting down their Australian campuses as part of their pandemic preparedness plans.
The Sydney Morning Herald reported UTS is working closely with NSW Health and may partially or fully close its campus on the advice of health agencies.
The SMH said alternative arrangements such as online learning, private study or altered teaching periods could be on offer if closures do come into effect at UTS.
The World Health Organization is currently reporting over 89,000 cases of coronavirus have been confirmed across 67 countries.