Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Australian Unviersites Can Offer Low Cost On-line Courses

In "Pay-per-use will keep low-cost rivals at bay" (The Australian, October 30, 2013), Professor Jim Barber, Vice Chancellor of the University of New England suggests that federal regulations are preventing Australian universities offering low cost on-line courses. He suggests that the Australian Tertiary Education Act (2011) is being interpreted by regulators in a way which measures inputs, not the education outcomes and this disadvantages efficient on-line providers. Also he argues the Higher Education Support Act (2003) requires universities to charge international students the full cost of their education. However, I suggest that neither of these laws preclude universities from offering low cost, on-line courses.

Four years ago I proposed an on-line course at the ANU, with no lectures, no examinations and no requirement for attendance. Many of my colleagues said that such a course could not be approved under the university's rules. So I looked at those rules and found they were much more flexible than folklore suggested. It was certainly much easier to have a course approved which followed the then standard pattern of face-to-face lectures, tutorials and a final paper examination. However, I just had to explain how I would meet the required standards, in a slightly different way and the course was approved.

In part this was a process of mapping what the usual inputs for a course were, as well as the expected student outputs. As an example I looked at the number of hours of lectures and tutorials a student typically was expected to attend and the amount of material (translated to pages of notes) they were provided with. Also I looked at the amount of assessment usually carried out, in its various forms. I then provided an equivalent amount of content to the students, activities for them to do, support from staff and assessment.

As a former public servant I was award of the difficulty of being seen to be doing something different, so I also made sure my on-line course fitted onto the standard university timetable and used the standard evaluation process.

I suggest Professor Barber could apply the same approach to have low cost, on-line programs approved under federal legislation. It will need to be shown that their output driven measures of quality give results at least as good as the conventional input-driven methods. It will need to be documented in great detail that costs are being fully recovered for international students, even though the fees are lower than for conventional courses. This will require considerably more work, more development cost and some frustration, but is feasible.

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