Tuesday, January 27, 2015

University costs are a symptom not the problem

In "Stop the uni cost disease" (Online Opinion, 22 January 2015), Steven Schwartz, former VC of Macquarie University, says "Modern technology ... has had little influence on teaching and learning". He claims that lectures "remain ubiquitous". Perhaps that was the case at  Macquarie, but is not everywhere.

I gave up giving lectures in 2009 and have been teaching primarily on-line since then. I teach with a Learning Management System, to communicate with students and for them to collaborate with each other on-line. This does not require much bandwidth or computing power, but what it does need is a deep understanding of learning.

Steven Schwartz is wrong to claim "It takes the same amount of time to deliver a one-hour lecture as it did in the 19th century.". Research shows students can't pay attention for an hour, so recorded video lectures are generally much shorter than an hour (seven to twenty minutes). Students are encouraged to work actively, to cerement the knowledge.

As Steven Schwartz suggests there is a risk of uni­versities being distracted by seeking income. But my impression is that Australian universities understand they are there primarily to research and teach.

It is possible to produce distance eduction courses (as has been done for decades) with less staff time for deliver, but they are a different experience for the student.

As Steven Schwartz says students rank the UK Open University (OU) very highly, but this caters to a different market and provides a different experience to campus based institutions. Also OU was doing this before the Internet and its success does not depend on digital technology, but on careful design of distance education. Without administrators and academics trained in how to do it, this form of education does not work.

Online learning will replace most face-to-face teaching (about 80% within five years). But this will require significant resources for universities to accomplish. It would be a mistake to see this as a way to cross-subsidize small group learning and study abroad.

Australian universities need to learn to teach primarily on-line or most of their Australian and international students will be lost to overseas institutions, within five years.