COVID-19 has disrupted all aspects of daily life. “Lockdown” measures and physical distancing initially proved effective in limiting widespread community transmission within Australia, although ongoing vigilance and nuanced responses remain crucial. As with many industries, the tertiary education sector has been seriously affected: by loss of international students (and their fee contributions), by the rapid transformation of the structured university learning environment, by the increased stress and isolation for students and staff, and by the very sudden move to online course delivery. For some Australian universities, degree programs and courses, including at UNSW, this transition fortuitously built on decades of distance and online education. However, for our course, moving teaching from lecture theatre presentations and classroom-based tutorials to a wholly online format, happened overnight with minimal anticipation or preparation. This was a major challenge with a steep learning curve for our team.
The course, an Introduction to Global Development (ARTS1750) commenced in mid-February with just over 100 students registered. For many students, domestic and international, this was their first Term at university and one of their first three courses. A significant proportion of our students (slightly over one third) were international – some enrolled to complete their degree at UNSW, others in Sydney as part of an exchange program. The students were diverse including numerous students from the USA, Europe (UK, Ireland, Spain) and from Asia (China, Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Japan, Cambodia).
By the fourth week of term, the response to the emerging coronavirus pandemic saw restrictions on movement, and physical distancing in place; the usual bustle of student activity was replaced by a silent university campus. Teaching staff had to rapidly transform planned lecture-tutorial student engagement with online delivery. Here we reflect on the challenges we faced in ARTS1750: the strategies we developed and emerging insights. What were the shortcomings and opportunities? Can we better understand teaching development in times of disruption? What can we learn for the future?
The Impact on Participation and Peer-to-Peer Learning
As a discipline, global development draws on expertise and insights from around the world: histories and geographies, theories, practices and policies, understanding of contexts and communities, over time and place. Part of this rich learning experience comes from peer to peer and student led learning, positioning students as reflexive resources for themselves and others. Peer learning, group discussion and consultation are crucial in development: they encourage self-reflexivity and constructive, critical approaches. In face to face settings, it is easier to engage with students: facilitating peer to peer interactions through group work, critical debate and discussion of readings. Small group settings offer students an opportunity to engage more naturally with other students, local and international, to exchange ideas, and share their diverse experiences and insights.Shifting to online learning exposed significant barriers (and some opportunities) to engaging international students. Many international students, and most exchange students, were recalled by their home universities due to the impending closure of international borders, and perceptions and assumptions of physical safety. Over a 2-4 week period (mid-March to mid-April) students faced significant decisions about whether they were able to continue with their studies, return to family, be able to survive without part-time work, or were in a position to continue their studies despite, at times, sub-optimal living and internet arrangements. Nobody knew how long the pandemic and associated disruptions would last.
Our course team made every effort to keep our students engaged and to support them in completion, as originally planned, but now with the added challenge of rapidly adjusting to online teaching. Time zone differences made participation in synchronous learning more difficult, especially as we decided to keep original tutorial times, given that each student had his/her own planned timetable and adjustments would likely have knock-on effects. Some recalled students were forced to self isolate on arrival; one student reported having to stay for two weeks in a basement room with poor internet. Those with language barriers faced further difficulties in conversing online compared with face-to-face in small groups.
While asynchronous teaching would have been desirable, this would have required extensive changes to how the curriculum was set out, tutorials delivered, and would have required additional time and funding to support casual/contract staff which was not available. Tutorials, largely structured around discussion, became more difficult for students experiencing slow internet, those isolating with young children or other family members, those in shared accommodation, and those with sub-optimal IT facilities – working off their telephones or without proper microphone or video facilities. For students unable to participate in the face-to-face virtual tutorials, alternative discussion forums were established online in Moodle but these could not replicate the richer relationships in the classroom.
While online education provides an opportunity to engage with students far and wide, the peer to peer learning model significantly informs how we structure courses and reflect on teaching practice. In this case, understanding what worked for and between students and what did not, allows us to re-evaluate course learning structure. Strengthening and future-proofing development studies will require a focus on highly specialised digital education.
Our Approach to Curriculum and Assessments
Aspects of the curriculum changed and the implications of the coronavirus pandemic became a key feature of a number of tutorials and lectures. The pandemic revealed inequalities in different societies, the availability (or lack) of services, the adequacy of systems, different approaches to governance, human rights implications and the role of civil society. This unique real-life, real-time learning experience was valued by students and enabled them to engage critically with current events while reflecting on the implications for development. Guest lectures were retained for a number of topics in which impressive early career researchers were assisted by our team to upload materials to Blackboard Collaborate, to deliver their lectures in real time and to manage the lively online chat and discussion that accompanied the unfolding lectures. Both guest lecturers commented that this worked smoothly and that the chat facility and support with using sli.do and online videos helped engage students, allowing them to raise questions or note comments throughout lecture delivery. Team members posted additional resources and responded to comments; the lecturers dealt with remaining issues and queries. While often lectures felt more engaging, significantly fewer students actually attended the live lectures. No doubt there were many reasons – internet problems, time constraints, opportunities to view the lecture recording in one’s own time, and perhaps the reduced attendance requirements we instituted in adjusting to student stress.
Despite the many challenges, student resilience was high. A student recalled home to the USA commented: “The most challenging part was being in America. I felt a large disconnect from the class due to the time difference...besides this I still learned so much from the course and grateful for the opportunity to continue my studies online.” (Anonymous, shared via MyExperience survey).
The opportunity to test different types of assessments allowed us, as educators, to consider how we might better teach global development in an online environment. Student feedback via post-term evaluations noted that assessing knowledge through tests was not as valuable for their learning as exploring development issues in greater detail through in-depth critical writing and essays. An online two part (multiple choice questions plus short answers) time-limited test revealed a range of student difficulties in completing their tests and uploading their answers within the online environment. High levels of anxiety were present where students experienced erratic internet upload speeds. Much time was spent liaising with students to determine if they had completed the work but not managed to upload it – in which case we did so on an individual basis.
Two other assessments: a reflection on course learning, and an essay, both offered opportunities to reflect on pandemic-related experiences. The essay topic focusing on the pandemic as a reflection of development challenges and constraints proved the most popular of seven options. Integrating experiences and reflections on COVID-19 allowed students to reflect critically on their understanding of development in theory and practice, and to consider the inequitable patterning and response to COVID-19 as an exemplar of contemporary global issues, in real time. How countries have dealt with COVID-19 in part reflected systems of governance, equity of access to services, and how state actors engaged with non-state actors.
What does this mean for the future?
COVID-19 offered numerous learning opportunities while also imposing significant constraints. Some students were forced to drop the class; at least one student was hospitalised with illness, possibly COVID-related, and more than a handful reported considerable stresses and strains that we as course organisers, did our best to alleviate. University counselling systems were available and course completion requirements and deadlines were made more flexible and responsive to student needs.
The shocks and stresses to teaching caused by COVID-19 initially forced, and then encouraged us, to think about our teaching: the balance between longer lectures and shorter tutorials; the structure of learning; the role of online vs. face-to-face opportunities; mechanisms to engage international students and those from non-English speaking backgrounds, and the importance of linkage to real-time events if we are to understand the depth and implications of different approaches to development.
We were able to make some adaptations, and to identify others that would benefit the course in future. We note that equity issues, the digital divide, and engaging international students requires thoughtful education practice and a more dynamic engagement strategy, including asynchronous learning opportunities. Most importantly, maintaining the integrity of teaching material and experience requires a syllabus and plan to mitigate risk and future-proof teaching for those of us who are not digital education experts. Drawing on these learnings, universities need to mainstream these solutions to ensure they are adaptable, stronger and well equipped for future crises.
Throughout, however, we noted the resilience of our students and their desire to complete their courses, maximising the investment they had already made in university education at UNSW. Their understanding and application of the theories, concepts and practical implications of differing models of development shone through. They grasped debates around services, systems and institutions, actors, organisations and interests, the longstanding impacts of colonialism and racism, and of the real-time limitations of different choices and approaches to poverty, wellbeing, and “being the best that we can”. Their insights into the features of a ‘good society’, one that more equitably enhances lives and livelihoods, remain with us.