The rapid switch to virtual learning reveals new benefits for students.

UNSW Business School academics have had to pivot quickly in response to the COVID-19 restrictions. They discovered benefits to the new ways of virtual learning, for themselves and for students.

Associate Professor Will Felps says that academics were concerned about maintaining a high quality education for students in Sydney and overseas. Their concerns informed the response to COVID-19 social isolation restrictions.

“The Business School has been teaching a few courses online for a while anyway, so we have a Digital Learning Team who were already looking into technologies and best practice. We have one of the world’s best MBA online programs with AGSM,” says Will.

“We teachers had to learn so much, so fast. And the Digital Learning Team was there to hold our hands.”

The School of Management instructor says there has been a big transformation in how he teaches his courses. While Will acknowledged that there are a range of challenges that everyone is facing, there are a series of benefits that come out of working exclusively online.

1. More interaction

During classes on campus you get face-to-face interaction, which is great – if you’re an outgoing person.

“Student participation is important. If students are engaged, it helps them to remember the material and helps me to understand where the students are at. But students usually wait their turn to contribute, and it’s normal for a few extraverted people to dominate conversations,” says Will.

“But in our online classes, people can use chat functions or discussion boards to be contributing simultaneously. It’s possible to measure participation in a more reliable and auditable way.

“This means it’s easier to assign participation marks fairly. We can identify people who are disengaged and need more attention. There’s even software that can automatically send offers of encouragement and support to students who appear disengaged.”

2. Tutorials in your timezone

It’s no secret that travel bans have kept a proportion of our students overseas, and that UNSW has shifted its education model in response.

“This could mean that some international students would have to take classes at very odd hours. For example, a student in Delhi would have to wake up at 5am for a 10am class in Sydney. This is far from educationally ideal,” says Will.

His solution was to develop asynchronous classes that can be done anytime from anywhere.

“I like that I can make PowerPoint video lectures that students can watch at their convenience. And, if they don’t understand something they can rewind and re-watch that specific part.

“This is great for accommodating students in different time zones and for those without robust internet connections. We also create a sense of community with video presentations, discussion boards, peer feedback, self-scheduled collaborative activities, and team projects.”

3. No more exams?

Perhaps one of the trickier considerations our academics had to make was related to exams. Human supervision is the reliable standard of ensuring academic integrity. While accounting students may have to adapt to online exams held with Examity eye-tracking software, most Business School courses have foregone exams completely for term one.

So how are students assessed? It depends on the course but could include open-book quizzes and more skill-based evaluations, like presentations or interactive assessments such as negotiations.

“In my case, every week my undergrad organisational behaviour students have to submit a video reflection, where they summarise the material and apply their own opinions to it. I think students may learn even more from doing video reflections than they did from exams,” says Will.

4. Groupwork isn’t the same

Will recently conducted research on best practices in leading virtual teams, along with Virginia Kane, a director at Nous Group and AGSM MBA. They found that the rules that apply to face-to-face teams don’t necessarily apply to virtual teams. Will has adapted his research to the needs of studying online – particularly in group work.

“For example, when communicating virtually it’s easier to misunderstand each other. So more effort needs to go into making sure everyone is on the same page,” says Will.

Video technology allows leaders and teammates to pick up on non-verbal cues. Also, the research says it’s better to unmute your microphones in video meetings (of less than ten people). Why? It fosters team morale and cohesion. You can hear each other laughing at jokes - and background distractions remind everyone that they’re not just talking to a machine.

You can download the 10 evidence-backed tips for students working in virtual teams.

5. More time for life

Bachelor of Commerce student Karrie Chen says that online study has freed up a lot of her time.

“Studying online just cuts things like travel time, and time moving between classes, that you previously would have to allow for,” she says.

“It’s usually hard to find the time in your day to pick up some of your hobbies. But now everything’s online, I can hang up on my tutorial call and hop right into a BSoc meeting. Then hang up on that and hop right into a hobby, like dance.”

Make the most of your studies during COVID-19 social isolation

Read how our students are making friends online. For more useful information visit Transitioning to Online LearningPeer-Assisted Study SessionsIndividual Learning ConsultationsCounselling Services and How to Study Effectively Online.