Sunday, April 07, 2013

Stealth Innovation for University Education

How do you speed up the implementation of e-learning, while maintain high educational standards? The worry was that initiatives such as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) may distract from the need for universities to have staff who know how to teach and design courses. The temptation is to think you just need some web designers to customize the pre-prepared educational content purchased (or obtained free) from elsewhere.

The urge for the teacher-less university is reminiscent of the proposals for 5th generation programmer-less computing almost thirty years ago. It was thought that computer programs would write themselves, so programmers would not be needed. The reality was that easy tasks could be programed by non-programmers, but computer programmers with very advanced skills were still needed for the hard tasks. The advent of programming languages for non-programmers resulted in poorly written programs by untrained personnel. In the same way, web tools for e-learning may result in poorlydesigned online courses.

Many university academics receive little education in how to teach and have none in how to design online courses and may never have completed a formal on-line university course. How then can universities have staff who can teach in and design on-line course?

The typical university student needs to be on campus for about one quarter of their program, with the balance of their education on-line from any location. One possibility is Australian students undertaking part of their education at Australian government funded Asian universities. This form of blended learning could provide the students with a balanced education, useful in a connected world, with Australian universities producing suitable courses. Alternatively Australian universities might be reduced to agents for off-shore campuses and courses.

The future of Australian university education should be decided, in part, by the educators. Those who claim to be "professionals", in any field, have a responsibility to act in the public interest, setting standards and policies for the profession and then implementing them. As an example of this in 1995 I outlined for IT professionals how Internet policy was developed and implemented in the Australian Government ("Internet in Government - for IT Practitioners"). A process similar to this is described by Paddy Miller and Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg  in"The Case for Stealth Innovation" (Harvard Business Review, March 2013).

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