Monday, April 12, 2021

Is less online learning the answer?

Ian Bushnell
Ian Bushnell in "More online learning is not the answer for students or universities", suggests the internet "... can be a good servant but a poor master" (RiotACT, 12 April, 2021). He warns that moving courses online is not going to be a financial bonanza for universities looking for new international markets, and can make learning more stressful, dehumanized experience.  However, I suggest online learning can provide academic and student outcomes as good as a classroom, with adequate resources and staff training.

Online courses may be part of the solution to over-reliance on international students from one country. But this will require an understanding of what students in the region want from education and how to provide it, including the right balance of online and classroom education. However  it takes years to learn to train staff to teach online and to establish international partnerships.

Australian universities may not have long before the next crisis hits. So the sooner they start, the better equipped. There is no need to start from scratch, as Australian academics have spent years looking at how to provide international online courses to the region, while maintaining the human element.

The online lecture can provide a similar quality experience to a face-to-face one. But lectures are only one form of form of teaching and other more engaging ways work well, both in a classroom, and online.

The risk is that if Australian universities don't provide education where, and when, the students want it, they will get it elsewhere. It is not just international students who could be lost to overseas competitors, it is Australian domestic students as well.

The campus experience can be engaging, but I suggest can't be relied on as a key driver for student choice. Rather this should be offered as an attractive option, like leather seats for a car: get 'em if you can afford it, but this doesn't determine which car you buy.

The logistical issues with online courses around the world were solved years ago. Similarly, digital educators learn techniques to overcome technical problems and to assist student access. Two of the original categories of distance students were prisoners and military personnel on deployment. For obvious reasons, these groups have limited Internet access, but can still be online students.

Online students can have better access to staff and resources than on campus. Students can have high stress levels, both online and on campus if an effort is not make to help them make friends and feel part of the instruction.

Unfortunately online courses are not a money-spinner for universities, as most of the cost is in staff, which you need online or on campus.

The internet has not changed the idea of the university, which was never a place, but an experience. Over-reliance on campuses can  limit access to that experience. Before abandoning the progress made with online courses, I suggest academics and policy makers look at the body of work which has been published, on what works and how this aids graduates entering the workforce.