Opening Doors for Interactive Remote Learning

Cliff Ashford, Director, Academic and Data Technology Services, Monash University

Cliff Ashford, Director, Academic and Data Technology Services, Monash University

The COVID-19 pandemic forced educational institutions across the world to close their doors, leaving teachers and students scrambling to adapt to the new normal—remote teaching and learning environments. In order to stay aligned with the scale and speed of this shift, schools and universities are ramping up their ability to deliver education remotely by leveraging the power of technology. Collaboration technology has gained a renewed focus owing to the strict lockdown and other edicts that made "remote learning" the only feasible way for educational institutions to continue operation. Against this backdrop, Monash University is making a difference through its excellence and innovation in education and research.

With a strong 60-year track record of creating a global impact through its outstanding research, diversity, breadth of alumni, partnerships, and connections, Monash has been paving the path for educational institutions to bring about a change in the industry. The company is home to a broad range of world-leading facilities and technologies, which strengthen its ability to offer new solutions and better outcomes. As the Director of Academic and Data Technology Services at Monash University, Cliff Ashford leads the research and education, data engineering, and online assessment and integrity domains to realize the company’s strategic goals.

"All in all, our academic skills and underlying facilities on the platform and a team of professionals who quickly understand and align with the changes in the industry help us navigate the challenges."

In an interview with APAC CIOoutlook magazine, Ashford sheds light on the significance of collaboration technology and its role in fostering an interactive remote learning environment.

Navigating the New Normal with Advanced Collaboration Technology

At Monash, a third of our student body comprises international students belonging to places like Malaysia and China. They continued their education not only remotely but also from different time zones. As such, we could not continue to deliver education without the help of technology during this period. Not giving up, we found a way to continue operations and provide education to students by going 100 percent online. We leveraged robust communication and collaboration tools such as Microsoft Teams to facilitate video conferencing and simulate workshops and other instructional scenarios to help learners interact with teachers in a remote learning environment. Thus, technology has been fundamental in our ability to continue operating over the past two and a half years.

Solving the Pandemic-Induced Challenges

One of the major challenges spurred by the pandemic for teachers is to learn how to teach in an entirely new fashion. Teaching over a video or conducting a group activity via applications such as Zoom could indeed be difficult than doing it in a classroom. Besides, assessment is of paramount importance in the remote learning environment for which learning analytics is the key. Our central learning management system is now much more heavily used for remote education than it was when students were taught in person. The system provides us with an ample amount of back-end information about what students access and when. In addition to this, the system also allows students to access and download video content and join a video or audio meeting created by other platforms. We can measure much more degree of accuracy and improve our educational process. We all have access to innovative tools, but what makes the difference is how we use them—we can use them for a good cause or bad.

On the other hand, substandard network connectivity deters our students from accessing learning facilities over broadband in a home environment, where everybody is sharing the bandwidth. As I said, some of the students are overseas, and they are using our systems from places that are thousands of miles away, such as rural China. We take advantage of cloud technology, setting up new networks in remote parts of the world. In this way, we can have a direct connection to Central China. Additionally, we ensure that our students have a minimum level of access to our systems by using cloud technology. All in all, our academic skills, our platform capabilities, and a team of professionals who quickly understand and align with the changes in the industry help us navigate the challenges.

Where Creativity Meets Technology

Being able to deliver multimedia content across a distance is a skill in its own right, and it is something that needs to be learned. You need to spend enough time working in order to learn how to make polished and professional videos to engage a group of people on a Zoom conference to offer them a captivating experience. From a simple slide presentation to drawing on their creativity by using innovative tools, our educators have learned how to deliver a richer experience for our students. We combine different technologies together to come up with something more creative. We also allow students to participate by critiquing each other's creations, thereby helping them understand and evaluate the content at a deeper level. Ultimately, collaboration and creative use of the tools are of vital importance.

At Monash, we knew shifting gears to online learning would be a challenge. To this end, we did not relax our assessment at all. To thrive in a pandemic-stricken world, Monash provides a robust remote assessment solution. We ensure that students are writing their formal exams under strict invigilation so that we can fully understand where they stand. As such, with our best practices, there is no decline in the educational value. We turned the COVID-19 crisis on its head by developing state-of-the-art quality assurance techniques to ensure high standards when it comes to remote education. Although our students will be back on campus from next year, we are continuing to leverage these techniques because we find them highly useful in assessing the performance of our students.

Suffice to say, it is not just creativity that has percolated in the realm of education due to remote learning, but also the adoption of the latest technologies. Pre-pandemic, the academic community was conservative and slow to adopt new technologies. But now, due to the crisis, it is highly imperative for educational institutions to rely on technology to remain operational. The aspect of creativity brought in by software tools has indeed enhanced the value of technology in efficiently delivering content in today's world of education.

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