Online lectures: here to stay?


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Law student and UniSA Academic Board member Isaac Solomon is awaiting the promised consultation on online lectures.

Polling shows most UniSA students find in-person lectures more engaging than online lectures, but university management is refusing to answer whether in-person lectures will return.

With a decision on the return of face-to-face lectures due in December, UniSA management is yet to engage in proper consultation on the issue, student representatives and staff say. This is despite the concerns of both parties and despite a requirement placed on management by the Academic Board to consult with students before any decision is made.

OTR polled 48 UniSA students to get the views of the student base on this topic. Asked which lecture format is more engaging, two-thirds (66.7 per cent) voted in favour of in-person lectures. But when asked which lecture format is easier to digest, 75 per cent voted for online lectures.

Student responses in the poll are wide ranging.

“I believe both options should be accessible to all students; however, having the choice to engage in in-person lectures is imperative to so many students who cannot connect to learning through a screen. There’s a reason people choose to study offline — for the exact benefit of learning from a teacher standing directly in front of you,” one respondent answers.

“I like being able to pause online lectures to catch up or rewatch content,” another respondent says. “However, I find in-person lectures much more engaging. So, I have liked the mixture of both.”

Another respondent replies: “I would prefer in-person lectures if it weren’t for time and travel constraints.”

Before COVID, most lectures were delivered in person but also recorded so students had the option to rewatch them.

This poll’s data, while not big enough to be truly representative of UniSA’s full student base, indicates no overwhelming position on students’ preferred lecture format. However, it does imply both formats are valued by students.

University management promised consultation

These opinions come almost a year after the last significant decision on online lectures. At a UniSA Academic Board meeting in July 2022, the issue of what to do with online lectures from 2023 and beyond was voted on. President of UniSA’s Student Association (USASA) Isaac Solomon, who is the elected student representative on the board, says the original proposal from the Academic Board was to have all lectures and exams stay online for an “indefinite” period past 2023.

“The proposal put forward outlined that all lectures and exams that were online during COVID would remain online with major adjustments being made to the quality and method of delivery,” Solomon says.

“This meant that all lectures would not be what internal and external students have had over the last two years with a ‘lecture recording’. Instead, it would be more similar to what UniSA Online students have had, which are high quality videos containing lecture content,” he says.

Solomon says he was concerned about the interim period between the current lecture resources and developing a new level of advanced online content.

“Developing that kind of high-quality content for all courses is not something that can just happen overnight. The university needs to be willing to allocate additional resources and set out a transition plan, but we currently haven’t seen evidence of either of those things.”

Solomon says he could not agree to the proposal put forward in the meeting as there had been no input from students. Instead, working with UniSA’s Provost and Chief Academic Officer, Professor Joanne Cys, he proposed a compromise that included three requirements:

Firstly, instead of having lectures and exams online “indefinitely”, the current arrangements would continue until December 2023. Second, during this time, all students should be given the opportunity to have a say on what their preferred arrangements are. And third, the university must actively seek feedback from students about any change to teaching and learning arrangements.

With Solomon’s insistence on consultation accepted by the board, there was a decision to keep online lectures in place only until December 2023 before a further decision would be made.

Additionally, the board decided to start work to “identify and address current issues and challenges experienced by students and staff, with a view to considering ongoing establishment of these teaching and learning arrangements”.

How can you tell if students are learning?

UniSA Creative Industries lecturer Dr Sam Whiting says delivering online lectures each week can have a negative effect on both students and lecturers.

“I’m quite opposed to online lectures to the point where, even though my courses are meant to have an online lecture, I book lecture theatres to deliver my lectures in person because there are state-of-the-art lecture theatres all over our university sitting vacant,” he says.

He says there is very limited consultation between the UniSA teaching faculty and management on the plan for online lectures.

“A lot of the consultation that we do doesn’t really get fed back into processes,” Whiting says.

“Most processes are set by people not actually doing the core work of teaching and research.

“The [student] outcomes that I have experienced firsthand [with online lectures] are pretty poor, because there is no expectation to be in class at a certain time and engage with material in real time.

“You can do synchronous delivery of lectures, [where] you schedule a Zoom call with your students and deliver the lecture online … that is not an ideal scenario because you end up just talking to a bunch of blank screens.

“There is something about delivering [lectures] online and being on a Zoom call that is far more draining, in terms of your energy, as an educator because you are teaching to an object rather than subjects. Therefore, you’re not getting responses in real time that indicate that your students are engaged.”

Law student at UniSA, Diane Lee, says while the online content of certain study areas at UniSA may be satisfactory for students, this is not the case for many other study areas, including hers.

Diane Lee says some of UniSA’s online law content is not at an acceptable level (Image: supplied)

“When you’re getting an online lecture, you have no opportunity to interact with your lecturer. Basically, in many respects, we have to teach ourselves … if there is something that I’m not sure of, sometimes I have to find a YouTube video because it’s just not clear what is happening in the lecture,” Lee says.

“A lot of the material [in law] is very technical and complex … in a lecture, you can ask the lecturer and say ‘I don’t understand this. Could you give me another example?’ Or the lecturer could read the room and see that the material is a little bit difficult to understand,” she says.

“Yes, we get our face-to-face workshops, but there is very limited time and there are certain things we need to get done … there is an assumption that we understand everything, but that is an assumption.”

Lee, who sits on UniSA’s Justice and Society Academic Unit Board as an elected student representative, says there has been minimal consultation with the university on the issue, and students expected to be able to go back to face-to-face lectures this year.

“We are paying a lot for our degrees, and I’m coming out of this feeling very half-baked,” Lee says.

“And if [UniSA is] looking at it from a branding perspective … If they are delivering a product that is bad, they are not going to get any takers. Also, they are not looking after their current students. They might have an eye on the future, but they are not looking after their current cohort.”

Dr Sam Whiting continues to advocate for in-person lectures (Image: Jack Trehearne)

Dr Whiting says he has already seen an increase in student engagement in his course since returning to booking his own lecture theatres.

“It’s just better. It’s better for myself getting to know my students and seeing them all in the same room, rather than just the ones I have tutorials for,” Whiting says.

Whiting says students tend to be much more engaged when attending in-person lectures because of their “immediacy”.

“Students know they will only have one opportunity to ask questions directly to the lecturer, and therefore are more engaged, leading to better teaching outcomes.

“There is a reason why, for thousands of years, this is the way that we’ve delivered information.”

Online learning does bring certain advantages, including access and flexibility for those who live remotely, need accessibility requirements, or have disabilities, Dr Whiting says.

“For all those students, online delivery is good. But I think that comes at the cost of the broader teaching and learning experience. And I don’t think that’s a trade-off that is worthwhile,” he says.

“Modern universities have become businesses, and student fees are a massive part of the revenue-making model. So, if you can cut costs and continue to increase your student numbers through access to broader markets of students through online delivery, then universities will be incentivised to do that.”

UniSA was contacted and asked three questions about lecture delivery going forward:

  • Has UniSA made a decision, at this stage, on the continuation of offering solely online lectures post-2023?
  • If so, what is UniSA’s rationale in making this decision?
  • What, if any, consultation has UniSA made with students and tutors regarding this decision? And have those consultations been seriously taken into consideration?

In response, Professor Joanne Cys offered the following statement:

“More than 80 per cent of the course activities in UniSA’s on-campus programs are delivered through face-to-face learning in tutorials, practicals, workshops, seminars, studios, and clinics.

“We continue to focus on in-person engaged activities while also responding to student demand for flexible access to digital course content that enables students to tailor access to their own timetable.

“Our Academic Units are continually creating and upgrading digital elements of course content to ensure it maintains a high standard. We are continuing to engage with staff and students, seeking their feedback as we progress this work.”

Regarding plans for online lectures, Solomon says transparency will be key in UniSA maintaining trust with its teachers and students.

“Having spoken with many academic staff members, people are not necessarily opposed to the idea of these high-quality online lectures, but the resourcing is currently not there,” he says.

“Creating online lecture content takes significantly more time and planning, especially to get it to a comparable level of quality. Staff are not necessarily being paid for this extra time or given the resources to transition online.

“The university needs to be very clear about what it wants to achieve here and that moving lectures online permanently isn’t actually a COVID measure as it has been passed off as in the past.”