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.