In "E-learning: Supplementary or disruptive?" (Telecommunications Journal of Australia, February 2013), James Barber Vice-Chancellor of the University of New England, concludes with the hope that "Australian universities embrace the opportunity that the NBN provides before it becomes a threat to them". However, I suggest the evidence in the paper supports the use of lower speed communication, suitable for mobile devices. Concentrating on the use of the NBN's higher speed fixed infrastructure would lock Australian universities out of most of the education market and in particular the Asian professional education market.
Barber reviews progress with electronic learning over the last two decades and its effectiveness. They cite research showing e-learning produces better results than traditional classroom instruction, but blended learning (classroom combined with e-learning) is better than e-learning on its own.
Barber traces the idea of open courseware back to MIT's decision in 2001 to uploading course materials, but notes ‘Massive Online Open Courses’ (MOOCs) only became commonly discussed in 2011 with Stanford's robotics
course. This was quickly followed by the establishment of Udacity in 2012, then coursera.org
six days later and then edX two weeks after. What I found curiously absent from this analysis was any mention of Open University UK, which had been offering free on-line courses since at least 2010, using its own and others free open source software.
Barber describes the rapid proliferation of mobile devices, particularly in developing nations such as India and its use for education. The paper provides a very good overview of e-learning development and I agree with the findings, apart from one point which is not supported by the evidence presented. Barber ends with the hope that Australian universities make use of the NBN. However, the NBN is not designed to support mobile devices and will primarily provide fixed fiber-optic connections.
If universities design their e-learning for the NBN's fixed high speed fiber, then students using mobile devices and some on the rural and remote wireless NBN connections, will be excluded. In addition this would exclude Australian universities from providing courses on-line to students in the Asian region, using mobile devices. Instead I suggest universities should aim to support lower speed connections. Lower speeds can be accommodated by careful course-ware design and this can support an updated form of blended learning where the class is synchronized with asynchronous communication.