Conversation: Professor Kevin Ashford-Rowe, PVC (Digital Learning) QUT
With students around the world effectively locked out of school and university campuses as a result of the Covid pandemic, institutions had to move quickly to ensure that student learning could continue. Spear-heading QUT’s rapid online transformation was Professor Kevin Ashford-Rowe, one of Australia’s leaders in the field of digital education. We sought his views and the learnings to date.
We have witnessed an enormous uptake in online learning over a very short period of time. How would you summarise what has happened across the sector?
Very simple! Five years progress in five weeks!
Of course there has been a drift to online over the past few years and technology has been increasingly used to improve student access and engagement. The student of today is not the student of 20 years ago and naturally universities had already recognised this. But effectively what we have seen this year is that technology and online learning has been both promoted and sped up in a way that could never have been foreseen.
Do you think that this change is permanent or will universities revert to more traditional ways of teaching once we have worked through the current pandemic?
This change is definitely permanent. The trend was happening and inevitable, but it has just moved more quickly. I think however, what we will see is that some universities will be more successful in the new environment and others will struggle. The whole world is moving in an increasingly digital direction so it would be a foolhardy university to try and move against this trend.
There will be some universities that can always attract students for a pure on campus experience, although I note that Cambridge University will remain fully online until at least 2021, so maybe even the most prestigious will also change. Universities really should be leading in the digital world so while there will be some face-to-face interaction Universities will definitely be changed forever.
Where have you seen the most innovative approaches?
The innovation has really been across the board with some great pockets of innovative thinking in the US, the UK and Asia – for example Malaysia is doing some very interesting things.
I think what is particularly interesting is the technologies that we are innovating with. It is with the extended reality environments and tools where we are seeing the most progress – so here we are talking about the augmented reality and virtual reality technologies. The cost of these technologies is moving to the level where we can start to use them at scale and this will revolutionise the teaching experience.
At a global level, where do you see Australia in terms of digital learning and which other countries are leaders?
I have long been of the view that Australia punches above its weight when it comes to technology based and online learning. Australia was the pioneer of distance education; the School of the Air was the first true distance learning platform and we started this in 1951. Then some of our regional universities like UNE and USQ were distance learning leaders in the higher education sector. This history meant that we didn’t actually have the big cultural shift that many other countries faced.
In looking at the anecdotal evidence and also just the number of Australian academics who are leaders in the field, you would definitely say we are up there with best and ahead of many.
From a human perspective, how have faculty coped and adjusted? What have been some of the greatest challenges?
I have a great deal respect for how the academic community at QUT and Australia-wide has adapted over the last couple of months. They have changed their mindset and continued to deliver a quality teaching experience. Yes, some people have found this easier and others have found it a little more challenging, but you only have to look at the student feedback which has been overwhelmingly positive and appreciative. I had an email from a student yesterday saying that they were very grateful that the University and faculty were obviously doing everything it could to put the students first.
You mentioned in a recent article that to engage with students through online learning, QUT had sent boxes of rocks to geology students. What other unique initiatives have you seen used to connect to students in our new online learning world?
While it is a nice example, actually there have not been too many instances where we have not been able to adapt the technology to a particular situation or need. One of the things we have increasingly realised is that the technology is pretty good and there are not many deficits or things you can’t actually achieve.
A good example is exam assessment. We have been able to use technology in a range of ways to get to a point where we will not need to have any face-to-face exams this semester. Twelve months ago you could not have envisaged this.
Even with some sceptical colleagues we have been able to re-design the assessment to ensure that it works with the technology and delivers authentic outcomes. Some of these methods of assessment are better than what we had previously – I don’t think there is any going back!
About Kevin Ashford-Rowe
Professor Kevin Ashford-Rowe is the inaugural Pro Vice-Chancellor (Digital Learning) at QUT. He leads the Digital Learning Portfolio (DLP), located within the Learning and Teaching Unit. The DLP supports digital learning approaches and technologies throughout QUT and directly leads both the Curriculum Design Studios and the Next Gen Learning initiative. His research interests relate to authentic assessment and digital learning.
Rohan A. Carr