29
Feb
2012

The growing pace of online education

Online education has been a growing part of higher education delivery in recent years. In fact, over the last five years, online enrolments in Australia have grown by more than 15 per cent per annum. That growth has led some commentators to make bold statements that online education will replace face to face delivery and the days of the physical campus may be numbered. History has clearly shown that such predictions of the death of the physical campus have been wildly overstated. I have no doubt that the on-campus experience will remain a central part of higher education, particularly for undergraduate students.

What is clear, however, is that improvements in software and increased bandwidth, together with the increasing move towards online social interaction, is changing how education is delivered. In many cases students want flexibility. They want to attend classes face to face one day, and access material online another. Similarly, they want to interact both with their peers and lecturers both face to face and online.

For a period of seven years, I was a Director of Open Universities Australia (OUA), the largest provider of online education in Australia. My time with OUA changed many of my own prejudices about online education. One of these was that online education must be less interactive and hence a poorer educational experience than face-to-face education. Surveys of students do not support this view. In fact, many students say they find it more convenient to interact online and they get more opportunities to debate issues and interact online than they do in a face-to-face setting. My conclusion is that you can have both good and bad online education just as you can have good and bad face–to-face education.

For ANU, our campus experience will always be a key element of our education. In fact, our strategic plan sees the residential experience as a key differentiator for ANU. Noting this, I still believe we cannot afford to ignore the opportunities that exist online. What better way to be a truly national university? There are already quite a few courses and programs that are online. The ANU College of Law is a notable example of the extensive use of online delivery of programs.

Of course, online education can also attempt to emulate elements of the broader campus environment online. For instance, virtual communities may be able to provide some elements of the physical communities that have been developed in halls and residences. Online education also has the advantage of addressing the needs of working adults and our increasingly mobile community. These are all interesting options which need to be explored.

I have asked Professor Marnie Hughes-Warrington, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic) to start to talk to groups across campus about how ANU should address these issues. What role should we be playing in online provision? This discussion will occur both through the University Education Committee and directly with Colleges. I hope that staff and students engage in this process, as this will clearly impact many of our activities in coming years.

Filed under: Staff, Students, The University
  •  4 Comments

Comment by Tom Worthington
March 1, 2012 @ 5:07 pm

In “The growing pace of online education” (29 February 2012), ANU Vice-Chancellor, Professor Ian Young, discusses the role of on-line education at Australia’s leading university:

“…History has clearly shown that such predictions of the death of the physical campus have been wildly overstated. …”

Yes, the campus will evolve to incorporate on-line education. This is best seen in university libraries, which are evolving into “learning commons”. Dusty shelves of paper books are being replaced with eBooks and comfy chairs. A good example are the new teaching and learning spaces in ANU’s Hancock Building.

“… students want flexibility. They want to attend classes face to face one day, and access material online another. …”

Students have always wanted flexibility, but it only in the last few years that we have had the technology to provide it and the educational research to show that such educational techniques deliver as good, or better, results than traditional courses.

“… many students say they find it more convenient to interact online and they get more opportunities to debate issues and interact online than they do in a face-to-face setting. …”

Yes, my students at ANU find they have no where to hide non-line: they have to interact. 😉

As an example, 24% of the assessment for the course COMP7310: ICT Sustainability, is for on-line discussion.

But for all the technological window dressing, such courses are conventional at their core: I give students guidance as to what to study, then send them off to explore; they come back regularly to discuss what they have found and then to demonstrate what they have learned, for assessment.

“… Online education also has the advantage of addressing the needs of working adults and our increasingly mobile community …”

Education can also be made relevant to people’s day jobs with Work-Integrated-Learning (WIL). As an example, those students with a relevant job have the option of writing their assignments as work reports in COMP7310. Students have contributed to the sustainability strategies of several local, state, national and international government bodies, as well as major corporations.

“What role should we be playing in online provision? …”

The ANU has made a good start by providing support cells in the colleges. I have found the CECS Educational Development Group (EDG) of great value in refining my on-line courses.

More resources could be put into training staff in how to teach using ICT support. Obviously such courses should be offered on-line. Also a fruitful area for research is how to use on-line techniques for research supervision.

At present I am undertaking a Graduate Certificate in Higher Education. I have arranged to undertake half the certificate at USQ, with their on-line courses in assessment, evaluation and on-line pedagogy. Then I plan to blend this with work at ANU on research supervision.

“… this will clearly impact many of our activities in coming years.”

In my view education is at a “tipping point” similar to that for the Internet in the mid to late 1990s. Within the next couple of years, a “course” will be assumed to be available on-line. Face-to-face contact will mostly be an optional extra and hopefully seen by the student as a valuable addition to their educational experience.

That may seem extreme, but I was an IT policy writer in the Australian Government in the late 1990s, witnessing first hand the transition from the Internet being an academic curiosity, to an essential tool. ANU played a key part in that transition and I believe that ANU will play a similarly significant role in the change to on-line education in Australia.

Comment by Jonathan Powles
March 6, 2012 @ 9:37 am

This is a very important and very welcome statement from the Vice-Chancellor. ANU has for many years struggled to address effectively the role technology will play in enhancing learning. Particularly for the National Universityt, our ability to use communications technologies to reach out to the nation at large is an important element of our strategic positioning.

ANU by 2020 is currently silent on the issue of learning technology. I believe we therefore need to develop a separate strategic document outlining ANU’s vision for online education

Comment by Charson
March 11, 2012 @ 12:57 pm

when will ANU also launch the OpenCourse program as MIT? It has many merits……….

Comment by Tom Worthington
March 18, 2012 @ 9:39 am

Administrative systems to support on-line students also can improve the service for all students. Processes designed for distance education students can also be used by on-campus students who are are occasionally away, or who are part time. They need not make a special trip to the campus to submit a form: they can do it on-line, or better still the processes can be redesigned to eliminate the need for a form.

One example of where ANU has already done this, and is leading other Austrlaian universities, is with electronic academic transcripts. Instead of the student having to turn up to collect their results, or wait for these to be delivered in the paper mail (with some universities charging an extra fee for delivery), ANU is providing certified documents online. The electronic transcripts are delivered via the web and can be used instantly to apply for a job: http://www.anu.edu.au/sas/graduation/certified.php

One area where ANU could improve its administration is with Customer Relationship Management (CRM). Each area of ANU handles requests from students separately. As a result the student may have to repeat their request several times to several different areas of the university administration. ANU’s alliance partner, the University of Southern Queensland (USQ), has a CRM system which hold student requests centrally and tracks progress on resolving issues. This is particularly useful for distance education students who are not on campus, but helps provide a better service to all students. ANU is helping USQ boost its research activities with the “Digital Futures Project”, perhaps in return USQ can teach ANU about CRM.

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Updated:  29 February 2012/ Responsible Officer:  Director, SCAPA/ Page Contact:  Director, SCAPA