Thursday, March 01, 2012

Near the e-Learning Tipping Point

In "The growing pace of online education" (29 February 2012), ANU Vice-Chancellor, Professor Ian Young, discusses the role of on-line education at a university:
"...History has clearly shown that such predictions of the death of the physical campus have been wildly overstated. ..."
Yes, I agree the campus will continue. It will evolve to incorporate on-line education. This is best seen in university libraries, which are evolving into "learning commons". Dusty shelves of paper books are being replaced with eBooks and comfy chairs. A good example are the new teaching and learning spaces in ANU's Hancock Building.
"... students want flexibility. They want to attend classes face to face one day, and access material online another. ..."
Students have always wanted flexibility, but it only in the last few years that we have had the technology to provide it and the educational research to show that such educational techniques deliver as good, or better, results than traditional courses.
"... many students say they find it more convenient to interact online and they get more opportunities to debate issues and interact online than they do in a face-to-face setting. ..."
Yes, my students find they have no where to hide on-line: they have to interact. ;-)

As an example, 24% of the assessment for the course COMP7310: ICT Sustainability, is for on-line discussion.

But for all the technological window dressing, such courses are conventional at their core: I give students guidance as to what to study, then send them off to explore; they come back regularly to discuss what they have found and then to demonstrate what they have learned, for assessment.
"... Online education also has the advantage of addressing the needs of working adults and our increasingly mobile community ..."
Education can also be made relevant to people's day jobs with Work-Integrated-Learning (WIL). As an example, those students with a relevant job have the option of writing their assignments as work reports in COMP7310. Students have contributed to the sustainability strategies of several local, state, national and international government bodies, as well as major corporations.
"What role should we be playing in online provision? ..."
The ANU has made a good start by providing support cells in the colleges. I have found the CECS Educational Development Group (EDG) of great value in refining my on-line courses.

More resources could be put into training staff in how to teach using ICT support. Obviously such courses should be offered on-line. Also a fruitful area for research is how to use on-line techniques for research supervision.

At present I am undertaking a Graduate Certificate in Higher Education. I have arranged to undertake half the certificate at USQ, with their on-line courses in assessment, evaluation and on-line pedagogy. Then I plan to blend this with work at ANU on research supervision.
"... this will clearly impact many of our activities in coming years."
In my view education is at a "tipping point" similar to that for the Internet in the mid to late 1990s. Within the next couple of years, a "course" will be assumed to be available on-line. Face-to-face contact will mostly be an optional extra and hopefully seen by the student as a valuable addition to their educational experience.

That may seem extreme, but I was an IT policy writer in the Australian Government in the late 1990s, witnessing first hand the transition from the Internet being an academic curiosity, to an essential tool. ANU played a key part in that transition and I believe that ANU will play a similarly significant role in the change to on-line education in Australia.

However, e-learning is not cost free. Apart from the expense in re-equipping university campuses with new computers, screens and networks, there is the issue of the energy these consume, the carbon emissions and e-waste generated. This is a topic I will ask my green ICT students to look into.

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