How online education technology is solving the travel bans crisis for stranded international students

Derek Welsh|March 10, 2020

A significant proportion of international students are unable to travel to commence their first university semester due to the coronavirus travel lockdown. This not only jeopardises their academic year, and is causing immense stress and anxiety for students, but the flow-on effect of the lockdown is also putting billions at risk in Australia’s wider economy as a result. In this post, I’ll explore how the crisis is placing the spotlight on remote education technology as a solution.

In a world where international travel has made us more mobile and interconnected than at any time in living history, a crisis such as the coronavirus outbreak and its knock-on implications highlights our vulnerability. No sector is being left untouched by the travel bans, and not least education. International education is Australia’s fourth largest export; in 2019 it was worth $36.7billion.

As of 4 March, the global death toll from Covid-19 or coronavirus was 3,190 and 2,981 of these deaths were in China, where the outbreak began. Meantime more than 94,000 people have been infected in more than 80 countries.

From China more than 265,000 students are enrolled to study in Australia – including school students, university attendees, and those taking VET and English language classes.

According to an estimate from credit ratings agency Standard & Poor’s, Australia’s top universities stand to lose around $3billion in tuition fees alone.

Since news of the coronavirus outbreak first emerged in December 2019, travel bans and lockdowns around the world have stopped hundreds of thousands of international students from either being able to return home to the universities where they were studying, or travel to another country to begin courses.

Around the world, universities with Chinese branches have been forced to close campuses or have scrambled to shift their entire semester to online technology solutions.

In Australia, in February 2020, with only weeks to go until first semester, 97,968 international higher education students were unable to enter the country and start their study, according to the Department of Education, Skills and Training.

Technology as a solution

While universities are no strangers to distance education, the crisis has seen Australia’s institutions rapidly scale up and speed up online education delivery and digital transformation strategies to meet stranded students’ immediate study needs.

This is particularly the case for the Group of Eight (Go8) universities which are the most exposed to the impact of the crisis, sharing in more than 60,000 Chinese students unable to enter Australia in time to start the semester. Faced with the risk that about 30 per cent of these are now considering to go to other countries, according to an ABC interview with Go8 CEO Vicky Thompson, universities are turning to online solutions.

The CEO of Universities Australia Catriona Jackson has also said: “Obviously, it’s a very complex situation… so universities are offering as many options as they can.”

The shift to online education has also been happening for Chinese universities. Professor Hamish Coates, of the Institute of Education at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, has been working remotely from Melbourne, teaching his enrolled students around the world. In just a few weeks, the university has shifted into almost fully digitised operations.

As a result of this crisis “higher education will be more interconnected”, he told in Times Higher Education. “Online learning is the big winner from this – across all education levels.”

Secure and academically-sound exams and standardised tests

Online delivery and remote online proctoring solutions mean that higher education institutions can offer students assessments and exams from wherever they are.

Online proctoring is when an online exam or assessment is digitally supervised and administered via the internet and the test-taker’s web camera. It’s made possible by a combination of AI-assisted software and an inbuilt web camera.

It means that online education and certification providers – who are already virtual teachers – can now be virtual invigilators, able to remotely identify and certify candidates, no matter their location.

Candidates’ identification is checked via facial scanning, while AI-based remote proctoring also supervises for fair, cheat-free tests, flagging and recording any suspicious behaviour while the test is running.

Such technology offers an invaluable solution for students who are unable to physically travel to an exam hall, and means that in a crisis such as the current coronavirus outbreak, students caught out by travel bans or in self-isolation can keep the same exam schedule as their on-the-ground peers.

Reliable, equitable exam delivery

A robust assessment delivery application offers an uninterrupted exam experience, even for distance students in remote locations with poor internet connectivity. The software, which runs like a normal web browser, automatically reconciles students’ answers and ensures that the flow of the exam is not interrupted and no work is lost, even amid internet drop-outs.

Such applications have proven to make it possible to deliver assessments around the world and offer immense opportunity to universities which want to offer students access to academic exams from outside of Australia.

Online learning platforms: eliminating geographical boundaries

By placing academic courses onto cloud-based platforms, universities and higher education institutions can allow students to access them from wherever they have an internet connection. And not just course material – but webinars, virtual lectures and online exams.

Cloud-based online platforms defy the limits of geographical boundaries, and can be scaled to virtually limitless numbers of students. They also allow educators to centralise, consolidate and administer teaching.

The University of Sydney is offering online learning for most of its units. Lectures will be recorded and made available for download, tutorials will be run virtually and its learning management system (LMS) will be used to share learning resources.

Australian National University is also offering online study as a solution to those impacted by travel ban, making lectures, tutorials and readings available for students to download. These courses will be flexible for on-campus participation and remote participation.

This has major and obvious benefits of students being able to start the academic year remotely even if they’re in quarantine or self-isolation. What’s more, such techniques can also even encourage more engagement than face-to-face teaching.

Diana Laurillard, Professor of Learning with Digital Technologies at the UCL Institute of Education, the education school of University College London, said: “Every student has the chance to ask a question in an online webinar. That’s not the case in a lecture. The online space can be much less of a challenge than face-to-face.”

The future

It’s likely that the higher education sector will be facing the effects of the coronavirus crisis long after the outbreak itself is stemmed and resolved. Whatever decisions institutions make, it’s clear that digital transformation has emerged as an essential part of the modern higher education offering. Access to education is one of the most valuable global assets. By eliminating the limitations of geography, tools such as online assessment, remote exam proctoring and cloud-based learning platforms mean that education can be delivered anywhere a student has an internet connection. This arguably makes such education technology tools a critical insurance policy for economies around the world.

Read more about our how our solutions are helping educators accelerate their transition to digital amid the coronavirus crisis or contact us today.

About the author

Derek Welsh

Chief Operating Officer, Janison

View more blog posts