At the start of February, when the Australian Government closed the borders to China, there was still a glimmer of hope that the situation could be contained. But in the first month of autumn, when the virus became pandemic, sweeping through Italy and France and on to the UK, the US and India, it was clear we had all entered a new world – a world where a lot of what we took for granted, socially and economically, had changed for the foreseeable future.
A world of restricted travel, one without office meetings and Friday night drinks, without celebrations and graduations, and ultimately, without what we believed was at the core of being at university – on campus life and face-to-face teaching.
As an “essential service”, UniSA stayed open throughout the pandemic lockdown with libraries and labs available to students – but on campus lectures and tutorials were no longer an option.
Opening the door to full online learning and for some, a small revolution in teaching practice, had to be effected in less than a month. The learning material covered in hundreds of lectures and tutorials, practical workshops and experiments, had to be assessed to see how it could work in a new context.
Could work from home include learn-at-home for all? Could the University maintain quality and consistency for its students and balance their safety and their success?
The short answer is yes, but as with most things disrupted by the pandemic, the challenge has been bracing, and occasionally inspiring. In some instances, it has acted as “proof of concept” for innovations that otherwise might have remained on the backburner.
UniSA Chief Academic Services Officer Professor Marie Wilson says the sheer size of the task was daunting given the rapid time frame for transition.
“Our relationship with thousands of international students who had returned home to be with family for the holidays was changed in an instant,” she says.
“Immediately we had to work out how to stay connected to these students and what we needed to do to keep them engaged with their studies, even though they would not be able to return to Australia to start the new academic year.
“A crisis brings out the best in people, and the collaboration to set new study plans, arrange for international online delivery and maintain consistent support for students arriving to quarantine in Adelaide, and communication and support for those who were barred to travel, was fantastic.”
And soon enough, the challenge was not simply about international students affected by the travel restrictions but all students and all staff.
About 25,000 UniSA students in Australia, in addition to more overseas, and more than 3000 staff, traded campuses and offices for learning and working on laptops and PCs in their own homes.
The workload for UniSA’s team of IT support officers skyrocketed from about 300 calls a day, to just short of 1000, as the entire university community grappled with remote desktops, new software, reconnection issues, slower internet speeds, and the additional tools that make working-from-home possible.
But while the learning curve was steep – and Zoom overloaded – teaching staff and students just dived in to keep classes going. Between 17 March and 30 June, UniSA’s Teaching Innovation Unit ran almost 80 professional development sessions attended by more than 800 staff and backed up by about 280 one-on-one online consultations. Researchers worked to maintain projects and publications wherever they could, and UniSA repatriated almost 100 staff and students, including researchers in the field, and students on exchange.
Reflecting on the academic year so far, Course Coordinator for Professional Writing and Advanced Professional Writing, Charlotte Chalklen, says dealing with so much change and uncertainty has been challenging.
“I'm not going to lie, when we shifted to teaching online, there was some stress and scrambling,” Chalklen says.
“Although I felt confident I could adapt to online delivery – I already had external classes set up and had developed another course for UniSA Online – I was worried students would disengage and that not being on campus would stymie the working relationships I rely on for support and camaraderie.”
Months on, she says most of those fears have been allayed.
“Students have adapted admirably and the Learnonline [suite of software applications used to deliver technology enhanced learning] and IT support help lines have been heroic in solving tech glitches as they arise,” Chalklen says.
“I’ve gone from being a Zoom novice to feeling entirely comfortable with the medium – conducting tutorials, meetings, a media conference and even a three-hour writing workshop remotely.
“There have been some real gains. I feel more confident about my ability to communicate, educate and empower online; I’ve embraced a more creative and flexible approach to teaching and learning methods; and I have saved a lot of time in not having to commute.
“Moving online has changed my approach to teaching. I have learned what is good about each mode of delivery. With Zoom and online learning forums, you don’t get the same cues that you would by being in a room together. But there are advantages when reviewing student work because is it’s easier to consider the material objectively, not considering everything you know about the person and the group dynamic so much. On the other hand, less of that unspoken information to work with can make communicating and decision-making more laborious.”
Having entered Study Period Five with students now back on campus and blended learning and social distancing the norm, Chalklen says it is working well.
“The smaller face-to-face student groups are actually more engaged; there’s more incentive to turn up and make the most of that time, and students also have the reassurance that if they’re sick and can’t come in, then all the material they need is online, and I’m just an email or Zoom away if they have any questions.”
For researchers at UniSA, the impacts of COVID-19 may be felt long after the restrictions have lifted. The battering to the economy will have a flow-on effect for years, with the potential to restrict not only government support for research, but also investments from philanthropists, business and industry.
Associate Professor Nayana Parange, Amber Bidner and Professor Eva Bezak (pictured L-R) are facing the likely closure of a unique research project that is not only collecting data on health outcomes for pregnant women in regional and remote areas, but also educating remote health care professionals to carry out first trimester ultrasound scans for these women.
Identifying that women across the vast isolated reaches of Australia often skip the all-important first trimester scan because of poor access to prenatal sonography services, the team took a close look at the issue. This revealed that about 40 per cent of remote health clinics did not use ultrasound in antenatal care; and of those that did, ultrasound was only intermittently available when trained professionals visited. Many women had to overcome travel times between three hours and up to two days to access ultrasound services.
Until the outbreak of COVID-19, the team had been bringing remote area health and allied health workers to SA to undertake training and education in how to carry out the scans.
“Our research is not only uncovering the impact of lack of access to scans on maternal and infant health, but also educating an army of health workers to fill the service gap,” Assoc Prof Parange says.
“Post this initial study, we were hoping to continue a program to bring that education to more workers who could take their skills to some of the most isolated regions – but we know our funding sources are likely to dry up.”
The drastically altered funding environment hangs heavy in the research community but while there will be losers because of the downturn, some researchers have been able to direct skills and expertise to serve markets where COVID-19 has created new demand.
Researchers at the Future Industries Institute have supported local industries to divert production to in-demand health and safety equipment such as face masks, offering testing services to ensure high standards of production.
And there will be ongoing demand for expertise, planning and research into areas such as mental health, aged care, new technologies for and knowledge about online teaching and learning, marketing effective health messaging and of course in developing treatments for COVID-19, an effective vaccine, and preparedness for the next pandemic.
Prof Wilson says if nothing else, 2020 has been an unforgettable year.
“With the pandemic on top of many of other changes and innovations at our University we have been adapting at every turn,” she says.
“Seven months on, and COVID-19 is now no longer novel; it is a disruptive feature of our operating environment that will be layered with economic and political challenges for the rest of the year and into the next.
“We’re back on our UniSA campuses, socially distanced and observing all the health and hygiene protocols.
“Zoom is our new meeting ‘room’ and we’ve replaced large crowded live lectures with online versions, while we focus on the workshops and interactions with students that make a difference to learning and future careers.
“We’ve learned that we are agile and innovative and willing to give 110 per cent to make things work for UniSA and its communities.
“What was novel is now normal, and the pandemic has taught us that there are few time and space barriers to learning.”
LOOKING BACK TO MOVE AHEAD
By Jasmin Teurlings
It’s still hard to fathom how more than 25,000 UniSA students managed to transition their studies entirely online within a matter of weeks. But this unimaginable situation took place more than six months ago now — and for many students looking back, the study period proved to be a surprisingly rewarding experience.
Among them is mature age Speech Pathology student Tania Savelli, who found the transition to remote study a welcome relief.
During the initial outbreak Tania was also rearranging her own business to comply with the government’s new COVID-19 restrictions on top of her own study load.
“I found the transition to remote learning very easy and in some ways more convenient as a part-time student, business owner and parent,” she says.
“I had my six-year-old son at home with me during the day as well, so I was very fortunate that I didn’t have to miss any of my tutorials.
“I enjoyed the extra flexibility online study afforded me and I would love the option to choose between online or face-to-face delivery in the future.”
However, UniSA students didn’t just study from their homes in South Australia, they studied from all corners of the globe — including first-year Accounting and Finance international student, Xinyi Xu.
Although international border closures prevented her from leaving China and heading Down Under, Xinyi hasn’t been discouraged. Instead, she has used the opportunity to fully immerse herself in Australian university life — albeit virtually.
“At first, I was very anxious about the online journey because I wasn’t sure what to expect from it,” she says.
“But there has been a lot of support from UniSA with studying, networking and socialising.
“The UniSA Student Association has a lot of clubs arranging weekly or monthly events online where you can meet like-minded people.”
In the meantime, Xinyi is looking forward to her eventual move to Australia where she plans to launch her own student club.
It has been a similar experience for onshore international Master of Arts and Cultural Management student, Livia Abreu.
“The transition to online learning was quite challenging for me but everyone was very considerate to check in on how we, as international students, were coping,” she says.
Unfortunately, Livia lost three months’ work at the height of the pandemic, but in the interim she applied for and received a grant from UniSA’s $10 million Student Hardship Fund, in addition to assistance from other support programs.
“The Student Hardship Fund was extremely helpful and made all the difference supporting my living expenses,” she says.
“The international student services team were also very helpful when my internship was cancelled, and I was unsure how it would impact my studies and visa conditions.
“I also contacted the finance team who were very supportive in providing me with a payment plan option for the semester as well.”
Despite the disruption to her studies, Livia sees the forced downtime as having a positive impact on her grades last semester.
The same was true for second-year Journalism and Professional Writing student Thomas Basso, who credits his results in part to the tremendous support provided by his lecturers and tutors.
“My tutors were very conscious that this period was a stressful and anxious time for some students and as a result they were more accessible and flexible with assessments and deadlines,” he says.
“Overall, I think they adapted their teaching styles remarkably well given the abrupt change.
“In many ways I liked how our program reflected the ‘real world’ of journalism, as professionals were working under the same circumstances and challenges as us.
“I definitely think learning to study and work online is an important skill which I suspect will only become more significant post-pandemic."
UNISA STUDENT HARDSHIP FUND COVID-19 APPEAL
UniSA’s most vulnerable students have been impacted by the COVID-19 global health crisis in ways no one could have anticipated. Many have lost their part-time work, they’re cut off from family nationally and internationally and they’re having to adapt to online delivery and massive disruption.
As well as making every effort to provide flexible education solutions for these students, UniSA has established a $10 million Student Hardship Fund.
Since April 2020, UniSA has awarded more than $9 million to onshore international and domestic students experiencing significant financial hardship. UniSA is continuing the fund to support students with grants of up to $500.
UniSA is asking the community to support students who are significantly disadvantaged by the wider economic impacts of COVID-19 by making a donation to augment the hardship fund. Many alumni from across the globe, as well as UniSA staff, have donated already. Donations can be made through UniSA’s Alumni website.