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'The pandemic has built the case for us and accelerated our plans of blended learning models'

RMIT Professor and smart systems expert, John Thangarajah, talks about online learning, cloud-based tools, and his vision of the future.
BY BrainGain Magazine Staff Writer |   09-09-2020

John Thangarajah
Professor John Thangarajah; Image Credit: RMIT.edu.au

Professor John Thangarajah is Associate Dean of Computer Science and Software Engineering at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT). Passionate about innovation and leadership, Prof Thangarajah’s goal is to develop smart systems that have practical application.

BrainGain Magazine spoke to him about COVID19’s impact on teaching, learning outcomes and the future of the global higher education sector.

  1. How has the pandemic impacted your teaching and your students’ learning?

    We have essentially taken our teaching out of the physical classrooms and into virtual classrooms. Of course, you cannot deliver the content and engagement in virtual classrooms in the same manner as physical classrooms, however, if done well, the learning objectives can be achieved in both ways. They each have their own pros and cons. If done well, they can achieve the same high-quality teaching that we always strive for. The key is understanding how to do remote delivery well taking advantage of the many features that virtual classrooms afford.

     
  2. Have there been any welcome outcomes that the shift out of a reliance on teaching in person has resulted in? What have these been?

    We have seen students that normally don’t engage, engage in the classroom as the physical barriers are broken. Some students seem to be more comfortable asking questions on virtual chats than in physical settings. The flip side is that students that crave the physical classroom engagement had to adjust but having now gone through this for nearly 6 months now, both students and staff have adjusted well to remote ways of working. The ability to multi-task (studying and working whilst minding kids, for example), being able to schedule meetings easily and readily, being flexible in work hours, not having to waste time on public transport and so on, are many of the positives that we hear from students and also staff.

     
  3. How do you think the changes that have taken place now will affect how higher education will be structured in the future? 

    I think moving forward, we will embrace the positives from the remote delivery and combine them with the positive of physical classrooms delivering the best of both worlds, which I strongly believe will enhance the education sector. At RMIT, we were starting to embrace some of the digital practices over the last few years even prior to the pandemic and in many ways the pandemic has built the case for us and accelerated our plans of blended learning models.

     
  4. What changes would you like to see to the tools and systems that inform online/remote learning?

    This a tough one as I do not think there is a one size fits all tool. There are different tools for different needs. We use Microsoft Teams and Collaborate Ultra for delivery of live lectures, tutorials and workshops. There are many add-ins and plugins used for specific needs. MS teams is also great for collaborative projects especially when coupled with the Office 365 eco system as we do at RMIT. Again, it really is about knowing how to best use the tools available. As Computer Science and IT educators, we also integrate with cloud-based services like Amazon, GitHub, virtual lab environments, interactive notebooks, and so on. These are tools that we really should be looking at anyway combined with the physical hands-on teaching. Students are also becoming a lot more tech savvy these days so it is easier to make this transition today.

     
  5. Assuming that we may never really go back to life as it was before the pandemic, what do you wish for yourself as a teacher/university faculty member and for your students in the coming years?

    It is a given that we won’t go back to life as before and every single sector will be different in the ways we operate, including education. I am glass half-full person, so I see the positives and my wish is that we embrace the lessons learnt from this very unfortunate and unprecedented pandemic that has caused great harm to society, and build a better future that will not only see us recover from it in the years to come, but also take us to greater heights. If you think about it, this is the hallmark of humans. We have been through catastrophic disasters in the past, both natural and man-made, and have progressed to greater heights. I trust this will again be the case.
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