Online has to mean switched on

The push for a smarter country will mean there has to be big growth in e-learning. By Malcolm King.

Next year the federal government will remove the cap on domestic university enrolments as it aims to lift the number of 25- to 34-year-olds with a degree from 29 per cent to 40 per cent by 2025 – that’s about 217,000 graduate completions.

This will be in addition to the 50,000 undergraduate students enrolled in universities in the past two years. It’s expected that mature-age workers will also go back to university and learn new skills as the government drives its anti-age discrimination agenda. Online learning will play a crucial part in the success of these ventures.

Larry Kamener, a senior partner of the Boston Consulting Group in Australia, said in The Age recently:  “The change is on in higher education. Online course offerings are growing rapidly.”

Even so, online learning in Australia has been relatively disappointing. In the ’90s a number of universities built online programs with a ‘‘build it and they will come’’ attitude. Most didn’t – with the exception of Deakin University.  Prospective students voted with their feet to attend classes in person although many also enrolled in mixed mode classes – a combination of face-to-face and online learning.

In the early 2000s at RMIT I oversaw the building of a major online master’s degree in business communication. The faculty had high hopes for it. It took 18 months to build and required all of the administrative duties of staff, who were teaching in other programs, to service the new program. They said it was like building the Great Pyramid of Giza from scratch.

In the end, the online degree did quite well but it never reached the targets the university hoped for. Lack of recurrent funding and limited bandwidth saw its demise as ‘‘a noble experiment’’. Some of those early adaptor problems may have been solved, but when I talk to academics and prospective students today, there are still niggles that online learning is still a simulacrum of face-to-face learning or what they called real learning.

There are still some issues. One is the availability of good content. Many RTO’s and especially TAFES and small private training organisations still simply upload documents or PowerPoint displays – text heavy documents which could be found in a book – and call it online learning.

There is still the vexed question of copyright. RTO’s own the material, even if it was created using a lecturer’s specialist knowledge. This issue goes to the heart of the proprietorial understanding of what constitutes knowledge, its relationship with research and teaching.

Population demographics are mirrored in large organisations. It is a healthy environment to have younger tech-savvy millennials (or Gen Ys) working with content and context-wise boomers. Unfortunately, some of the postwar generation find online learning too complex or foreign. Not only do they not understand how to access the material but also they pine for the old days of face-to-face delivery.

The boomers are not alone in feeling there is no sense of place in the online world. How important is sociability in a learning environment? I suggest that much depends on what one is learning. Mathematics lends itself to online study where as writing or history doesn’t. The arts and humanities in general terms are narrative rich disciplines, which require debate best found in seminars, tutorials or in a pub.

As student enrolments climb, university audits will be closely scrutinised by the new Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) to see how students react, not only to potentially larger class sizes, but the quality and standards of online learning.

Students’ most common complaint is the lack of pedagogical training of online instructors. This is a criticism based more of older style teacher-controlled, didactic mode. It’s a valid criticism. How do teachers recognise the need to intervene in discussions? How successful are they at recognising potential intervention points? What style of facilitation is appropriate in the context of e-learning? How do teachers promote independent learning within the module? Many teachers and lecturers will need new training.

At the centre of much online learning is a theory called constructivism. It suggests that learning is an active process with learners building their own knowledge rather than just absorbing knowledge passed on by a lecturer.  Learner-centred teaching places the onus fairly and squarely on the student. Which is good f the students know what they want to know but bad if they don’t know what they don’t know.

Some advocates for online learning dismiss people like me who compare the outcomes from class learning, or face-to-face learning, and online learning. I recognise that this is complex and lends itself potentially to the worst kinds of instrumentalism. Even so, if you went to the Three Little Pigs Real Estate Agency and they showed you a house of wood and a house of brick, you would compare their strengths and weaknesses before handing over the money.

At its worst, e-learning reminds me of a line out of James Joyce’s The Dubliners, “Mr Duffy lived a short distance from his body. He developed a life style which did not require his presence.” At its best, online learning will drive education and training well in to the 21st century.

Malcolm King runs an educational PR business and was the former head of content media at RMIT.

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