Monday, March 13, 2017

Australian Higher Education at E-Learning Tipping Point

The University of Queensland,  Australian National University, University of Adelaide and Curtin University are offering 25% credit towards masters programs for those completing an on-line edX Micromasters. I suggest this indicates that Australian Higher Education is at the e-Learning Tipping Point, where on-line becomes the way most university students study.

In the 1990s I was a computer professional in the Australian Public Service. This was when the Internet went from being something experimental, which we were not allowed to use for official purposes, to a routine everyday tool. I was part of a cabal (as the media described it), working to have the Internet and the web approved for official purposes. This took years to accomplish, but it then just seemed to happen (One day I was asked why I was putting documents on the Defence Department Website, the next day I was asked why I was not putting them up faster). I was expecting a similar transition from classroom to on-line education to take place towards the end of this decade. However, the transition in HE seems to be happening faster than expected.

The University of Queensland,  Australian National University, and University of Adelaide are three of the Group of Eight (Go8) leading universities in Australia. By offering credit for edX Micromasters they are endorsing the use of e-learning for the second highest level of university qualification recognized in Australia (Masters). The universities have not directly recognized the Micromasters as a qualification, but have done so indirectly, by giving  25% credit for a Masters. This is similar to the process used for adopting the Internet in the Australian Government: from being not permitted, to an "interim" step.

The Australian Government had planned to implement the Government Open Systems Interconnection Profile (GOSIP), not the Internet. However, GOSIP never really worked, so the Internet was declared to be an interim measure. That interim measure than became permanent and GOSIP was quietly abandoned. This same approach will likely be used to implement e-learning in Australian universities: the proportion of e-learning in blended programs will be increased until they are effectively on-line degrees. My estimate is that by the end of the decade, the average student will be studying 80% on-line (up from about 40% today).

A Micromasters is not a formally recognized Australian qualification. However the universities have now set the precedent of recognizing the edX Micromasters as the equivalent of six months graduate study(one quarter of a Masters program). A six month graduate program is a "Graduate Certificate" in the Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF). So it would seem reasonable for these universities to award a Graduate Certificate to students who complete the edX Micromasters.

As an example those completing the ANUx Evidence-Based Management MicroMasters Program ANU are offered 25% credit for an ANU Master of Management. ANU also offer a Graduate Certificate of Management, which is made up of four courses from the masters, which is 25% of the masters. The edX Micromasters is 25% of the same Masters, which suggests it is equivalent to an ANU Graduate Certificate of Management.

Micromasters offered:

University of Adelaide

Curtin University
University of Queensland
While a Graduate certificate is the lowest level graduate qualification offered in Australia, any qualification from an Australian university is valuable to a student, and particularly one from universities as globally respected as UQ, ANU, Adelaide and Curtin.

One difficulty for universities will be dealing with the much lower completion rate for e-learning. On-line courses, which have small cohorts of students and a tutor have been run by universities for several decades. Experience shows these have a lower completion rate than face-to-face courses. So called MOOCs, which have hundreds, or thousands of students for each instructor, have a much lower completion rate than conventional e-learning. There are methods for engaging student on-line, which e-learning teachers are routinely trained to use. Also the lower completion rates on-line are not necessaries a problem with the courses, but a side-effect of the greater access to courses.

On-line courses are attractive to students who are unable to attenuated campus due to other commitments and those other commitments tend to intervene to prevent completion. Also students have less invested in a free, or low cost course, than a high cost face-to-face one. The students of my on-line ICT Sustainability course at ANU had a similar completion rate as for campus based courses. This could be partly because of the care taken to keep the engaged with the material, but also because they were paying the same fee as for campus based courses.

The Australian edX Micromasters is a significant development for Australian Higher Education. My suggestion that Australian university students will be primarily study on-line by the end of the decade has met with a considerable level of skepticism. I set out how this can be done in the book "Digital Teaching in Higher Education". Many assumed this would not be acceptable, especially not at the top universities, however, now it is.

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