Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Online Degrees Are Official

Edmon de Haro writes in the New York Times that "... information technology is poised to transform college degrees" ("Online Degrees That Are Seen as Official", 5 March 2015). However, this happened about twenty years ago, when paper-based correspondence distance education evolved into e-learning, at places such as Open University UK (OU) and University of New England Australia. Up until recently the teaching institutions which offered on-line degrees  posed no threat to prestige research universities, but the likes of Harvard, Stanford and M.I.T. are now scrambling to catch up by offering "MOOCs" (which is a Canadian term).

Walter Perry, first Vice-Chancellor of OU detailed  the struggle for acceptance, lessons learned in supporting remote students and the transformation to on-line education in his 1976 book "The Open University: History and Evaluation of a Dynamic Innovation in Higher Education". OU also published a series of books about how to design, run and cost on-line courses.

For the last four years I have been an on-line university student at institutions in Australia and North America. The courses I am doing about how to design on-line courses are not new and in some cases have been run for more than a decade. It is at times amusing, and times frustrating, to see MOOC developers at prestige research universities learning to designed e-learning courses by trial and error, when they could simply sign up for a course and learn to do it properly.

There seems to be at times a willful ignorance, as if to read the results of decades of research on on-line education would force MOOC developers to admit that most of what they are doing is not new. In some cases this seems to be a matter of ego: a science professor at a high status research university can't bring themselves to enroll in a teaching course at a low status college (where the best on-line teaching is done).

The problem now is not how to design low cost courses, we have known that for decades, or how to assemble them into degree programs. The problem is how to market such courses, without them being seen as a cheap and second rate option. It is in this area which MOOC proponents have made some advances, by taking the on-line eduction already routinely run by teaching institutions and giving it the marketing gloss of prestige research universities.

While the USA struggles with how to produce a viable on-line education system, Australia already has a solution, combining the strengths of our two higher education systems: Vocational Education and Training (VET) and universities. Several Australian universities now have arrangements with VET. Students do bridging and introductory units at VET before transferring to university. This way VET gets students (and some of the prestige of university) and the university gets students educated at low cost and well. The university also gets the benefit of VET's nationally standardized courses and recognition of prior learning procedures. Unfortunate this system is under threat from a few rogue VET operators (not associated with universities) who are exploiting the students and threatening the reputation of the sector.

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