Tuesday, December 22, 2015

On-line Models for Research-Intensive Universities

In his Farewell to the Australian National University, the outgoing
Vice-Chancellor, Professor Ian Young, wrote of the challenges that a small research-intensive university faces. He also mentioned his interest in on-line education, a conviction that this will change the nature of universities and the assertion that universities are not equipped to make this change on their own. I suggest that the on-line education will not change the nature of universities, just some of the technology used. Universities can use specialist companies to assist, but should be careful to retain control of the educational process.
Professor Young wrote:
"The ANU model with its high reliance on government research support and a small student base is enormously challenged in the present-day environment. Despite my efforts it has proved difficult to diversify and this has limited what we could do. ...

I have long believed that online education will fundamentally change the nature of Universities."
Universities exist to provide a way for scholars to cooperate to carry out research and to teach. The Internet can assist with both research and with teaching, but I suggest this will not fundamentally change what a university does, just some of the way it does it. The Internet can be used to connect researchers together, on campus, to government and industry. On-line education can connect university educators to their students on campus and in the workplace, worldwide. This is an enhancement to what scholars previous did with paper publications for linking together their community and with distance education by post.

Research intensive universities can make use of  the Internet to broaden the reach of their research and education, without a large investment in additional campuses. Researchers need to meet their collaborators in person, but then can work together on-line. The typical university student will need to be in a classroom for 20% of their studies, but can do the rest on-line. A typical university should be able to increase the intensity of its activity five fold by use of the Internet, without a larger campus.
Professor Young goes on to say:
"... I will be involved, as a part owner, in two companies being set up to work with Universities as online implementation partners. These companies, one of which will operate in Australia and the other in China, will work with universities to place material in a quality online format, deliver the material and quality control the education. ..."
Using a company to package and deliver courses is one model, but not the only one and, I suggest, not the the one for most suited for Australian universities. Designing courses is a core skill for educators, not something to be outsourced to contractors. There is very little difference between the design of on-line and classroom courses. This is something educators can now learn as a routine part of their training. Similarly, assessment design and quality control are core educational issues, ot something to be outsourced.

There are some technical issues with preparing content for on-line delivery, but these can be dealt with by specialist educational designers employed by, or contracted to, the university. An on-line system is needed to deliver the content and universities are increasingly contracting the maintenance of these systems out to specialist companies. However, the university needs to ensure it retains control of its courses and content. Also the university needs to ensure that the students are their students, not clients of the contracted company.
Australia has had success with multiple university consortia for on-line delivery of courses, particularly Open Universities Australia. However, other consortia, involving universities and companies, such as "Universitas 21 Global", have had limited success.

An approach I have suggested recently is to design university programs the way major automobile companies design cars (as a Rolls-Royce Education). VW, BMW and other companies engineer a "platform" from which a range of vehicles are produced  globally. The platform defines the mechanical components of the vehicle, but not what it will look like. The platform can be stretched or shrunk to make difference size vehicles, in two and four wheel drive. The platform is designed to meet safety and environmental standards world wide. Low cost and luxury cars, SUVs and commercial vehicles are then mass produced from the one platform. The customer may not be aware that their luxury vehicle with hand stitched leather seats has the same mechanical underpinning as a mass produced car a one third the price.

In a similar way universities can produce an educational platform, from which programs and courses can be produced for global delivery. The platform can be shrunk to a certificate, or stretched to a professional doctorate. The platform can be designed for delivery purely on-line at low cost, with the option of face-to-face tutoring on-campus. Research universities with a good reputation have the advantage in using this model, with the subject knowledge to create courses and the brand name to market them.

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