Saturday, September 21, 2013

Remove Barriers to Australian On-line Universities

Professor Barber, Vice Chancellor of the University of New England (UNE), is reported to be suggesting changes to regulations to make it easier to set up new Australian on-line universities. Rather than create new on-line only, teaching only universities in Australia, I suggest that the barriers which separate distance/on-campus, full-time/part-time, coursework/research should be removed for all higher education. All students and universities should be funded and treated the same. A university might decide to specialize in one area, such as on-line education: there should be no special rules to prevent this and no need for special rules to encourage it. Current rules should be "flipped" so that part-time, on-line, life long, multi-institution learning, incorporating coursework and experience/research is assumed the norm. This would still allow for less common full-time, on-campus intensive programs, specializing in coursework or research.

It is not clear what Professor Barber thinks is holding up creation of an Australian on-line only university, or why UNE could not simply expand its on-line offering to satisfy the perceived demand.

UNE was a pioneer in distance education, with its "Armidale model of Distance Education", being adopted by the UK Open University (UKOU). The UKOU received very generous special funding from the UK Government to be established, but then went through the same registration process as other universities. If there are barriers to on-line unviersites in Australia, these should be removed. But the spcial access to resources which UKOU received (including special access to a BBC TV channel) should not now be needed, due to the much lower cost and ubiquity of communications technology.

Australia previously had Colleges of Advanced Education (CAEs), which were teaching only institutions, offering courses at an educational level above those of Technical and Further Education (TAFE), but below unviersites. In the mid 1990s the CAEs became new universities, or campuses of existing ones. As universities the former CAEs are required to carry out research as well as teach.

New Australian Government's Position on Online Education

The Prime Minister, Mr. Tony Abbott, then leader of the federal opposition, made an Address to Universities Australia Higher Education Conference in Canberra, 28 February 2013. He started by referring to his studies at Oxford University and his time boxing there (but did not mention Oxford has been offering on-line courses since at least 2009).  Mr Abbott expressed a wish for Australian universities to take advantage of online learning and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), however no funding or other support was proposed for this. A Coalition Online Higher Education Working Group, was formed to look at how "... online technology improve existing campus-based teaching with all the benefits of interaction, in the classroom and beyond...". In response to an e-mail request from the working group chair (Alan Tudge MP, now Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister), I prepared a responses to the online higher education topics, suggesting:
  1. Online learning will be integrated into most university courses, with blended learning (on-line plus classroom), using the "flipped classroom" model being  the norm
  2. Online learning is lower cost when used with large volumes of students. However, this requires a high initial investment in course design and highly trained staff. Most Australian university academics are not currently qualified to design or deliver on-line courses.
  3. Global choice of online courses will be limited by accreditation requirements. There is likely to be a flood of poor quality, unaccredited courses. 
  4. Online learning allows for learning while employed and in remote areas. However, being a student is still hard work and requires considerable amounts of time. 
  5. Institutions will require staff to be retrained in online pedagogy and use of technology. This retraining can make use of online technology and a stepwise approach.
  6. Online learning can enhance quality and standards through more detailed and frequent monitoring. However, measures to prevent cheating by students will need to be enhanced. Also teaching staff and students will require explicit training in how to communicate online.
  7. The learning technology already being introduced to universities and vocational institutions can be ungraded for larger scale use. In particular, Australia is a world leader in learning management systems, by virtue of the locally developed Moodle system, which could be enhanced.
  8. Current accreditation processes for domestic courses will require minor modification for online courses. International accreditation will require government or industry agreements. Work by the Australian Computer Society in accrediting global professional qualifications can serve as a model.
  9.  Governments can assist Australian providers by removing barriers which prevent online courses from being undertaken by students. Government can also set an example by allowing their own staff to undertake online courses and teach in them. As an example, the online engagement courses proposed by the Department of Finance for all Australian Public Servants could be delivered online by Australian tertiary institutions.
  10. Australian institutions can be encouraged to join international partnerships for online course creation.  
  11. Visa restrictions which limit International students undertaking online courses should be relaxed. Currently an international student is expected to be on campus for about three quarters of a full time course. This should be reduced to one quarter.
  12. Australian experience suggests that all university courses will be delivered at least in part online, with the typical student spending about 25% of their time in a face-to-face class and 75% online. Undergraduate degrees will have more face to face components, and  postgraduate courses less. This will result in a drop in Australian students on campus, but allow for millions more online from our region.  
  13. With most education online, Australian and international students will be able to choose courses from anywhere in the world. Retaining a proportion of the Australian students and capturing part of the international market will require maintaining Australia's very high standards for accreditation. A national course recognition program, so students can combine courses from multiple Australian universities, would be useful to promote "Brand Australia". The Australian government can also fund Australian academics to reach out to the region.
  14. Australian universities are already reconfiguring their campuses with accommodation and "learning commons" to suit the new blended learning. Campuses are being redesigned to be pleasant places to be, not just study.
  15. No specific regulatory barriers exist, with online courses being covered by existing regulations on education. However, it would be useful for the Australian Government to advance bilateral and multilateral agreements on mutual recognition of educational standards. Support to professional bodies to advance standards for disciplines would also be of assistance.

Open Universities Australia

Australia has Open Universities Australia (OUA) delivering on-line courses. This is a consortium of Australian unviersites (some of which were previously CAEs). The OUA courses are delivered by the individual institutions and while the student can select from courses across several institutions, their degree is awarded by one and they have to meet the requirements of that university. OUA has introduced some short MOOC-like free open courses, but most of the on-line offerings are conventional ones in the format pioneered by UKOU.

OUA also has non-university bodies offering courses, including the Australian Computer Society (ACS). OUA offers the ACS course "Green ICT Strategies", which I designed (also run by ANU as ICT Sustainability and Athabasca University Canada as COMP 635).

Creating low cost education-only universities would in effect re-establish the CAE system. While universities promote the benefits of research informing their teaching, in practice there is little connection between the research conducted by advanced degree students and the coursework of graduate and undergraduate students. However, I suggest it would be better to reconnect research and education, rather than further separate the two.

Blend Separation of Coursework and Research

Australia has a bifurcated system, where advanced students enroll in either a coursework/professional or research degrees. The coursework/professional students are seen to be the exception, with pure research being the main product of the university. This division is enforced by government funding which pays for research degrees separately and more generously.

In my view this separation of coursework and research is harmful to the education of all students and holds back innovation. A better approach would be to have all students enroll in the same program, undertake initial coursework and the decide the mix of research and coursework. Government funding should not discourage professional masters and doctorates, as while these may have a smaller component of original research, what they do have is likely to be applied for economic and community benefit much sooner.

Assume Students Have a Life Outside University

Another useful reform to education would be to abolish the divisions between full time, part time, distance and on-campus students. Currently government and university rules favor full-time on-campus students. Universities assume a normal student is on campus and has no work or family commitments, and then makes exceptions for others. However, most students are working part time or have family commitments (or both) and can't be on campus all day, every day.

I suggest government regulations and university procedures should be flipped, so the average student is assumed to be distance, part time. The average student would be assumed not to be able to get to something at a set time on campus. Educational materials would be provided in a format suitable for distance mode, except where this is not possible.

This approach is analogous to the change in the way disabled students are catered for. In the past students were assumed to not have a disability and special arrangements would be made for those with a disability. However, most people have some disability at some time in their life and so the law now requires educational institutions to allow for this. Australian law requires educational offerings to be designed for those with a disability, except where this is not feasible. A university which simply waits for disabled students to ask for special access is acting unlawfully.

Education for Life

Another reform would be to encourage students to undertake education at multiple university and over extended periods.  At present it is possible, but difficult, to incorporate education from multiple universities. Government policies also make it difficult for students to study over extended periods. The system assumes the student will be at one university and do nothing but their degree and makes it very difficult for most potential students where this is not the case.

As an example, last year I undertook a Graduate Certificate in Higher Education at ANU. As I was interested in on-line distance teaching techniques, my supervisor agreed it would be useful to incorporate two on-line courses from University of Southern Queensland (USQ). The process of cross institutional enrollment proved prohibitively complex (on my reading of the rules it appeared impossible, as I was required to get the approval from each institution before the other). To bypass the problem enrolled as a professional studies student, bypassing the cross-institutional procedures and paying the full fee.

As an student at two institutions I was required to have two different student numbers and to pay two Student Services and Amenities fees  (one for a campus I have never seen). I was then required to pay extra for a printed transcript from one institution to present to the other to have my results credited.

An better approach would have Australian students issued with one student identifier for all higher education institutions, electronic results and an exemption from paying more than one Student Services and Amenities fee.

Another way that the realities could be recognized would be foAr institutions to allow  students to undertake further studies to build on their existing qualifications. Many Australian universities allow multiple exit points from higher degrees (Graduate Certificate, Diploma, Masters, Doctorate). But this is less common with undergraduate programs. Also articulation into a program is usually only allowed from the same university and same program.

The Australian Vocational Education and Training (VET) sector has standards applying to institutions which allow students more flexibility. However, these standards limit the freedom of each institution and are less appropriate for universities. After completing the GCHE, I obtained the equivalent Certificate IV in Training and Assessment, so as to teach in the VET sector. Some of the features of the VET process could be applied to universities, but many could not.

Australian Higher Education is Competing with the World

Australian universities value their autonomy and freedom from government regulation. However, they need to understand they are competing in a world market, not just for international students, but increasingly for domestic students. If Australian universities do not offer students the flexibility they need, then those students can enroll in universites elsewhere.

Changes to allow for more flexibility for domestic students will also help Australian universities to compete internationally. As an example, after completing my Graduate Certificate in Higher Education, I wanted to study and research the field further. However, the choice of programs in Australia is limited and restrictive, so I am looking to study on-line overseas.

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