Mass learning must mean web-based study

We have all the elements needed to make online courses succeed, but institutional inertia at well-established universities stymies progress, argues Laurence Brockliss

November 24, 2016
James Minchall illustration (24 November 2016)
Source: James Minchall

Despite what sceptics about university expansion might say, more need not necessarily mean worse. But if expansion amounts to just more and more of the same, then it can do.

The UK is a prime example. At the turn of the 1980s, there were some 500,000 students in full-time higher education. Although this was a sixfold increase since the eve of the Second World War, it still accounted for only 13 per cent of 18-year-olds, and was relatively low by Western standards. But by 1995-96, the number of full-time students had risen to more than a million, and in 2011‑12 it peaked at more than 1.7 million, accounting for 49 per cent of 18-year-olds.

But, as is usually the case, public financial support did not expand commensurately. Amounting to about 0.8 per cent of gross domestic product in the 1960s, it rose to 1.2 per cent in the mid-1990s but then fell back and stands at about 0.9 per cent today.

The financial shortfall has been met largely by transferring costs from the public to the private purse, and not just in teaching: much research is supported by private charities and foundations, and institutions compete for donors to support new buildings and underwrite academic posts. The rest of the deficit has been made up by eroding staff-to-student ratios and, outside Oxbridge, all but abolishing small-group teaching.

Meanwhile, the emphasis on research has encouraged academics to take as much research leave as possible. Nor is it clear that the teaching excellence framework will do much to redress the balance given that only the very weakest institutions will lose out financially and that international league tables will still be primarily research-driven.

Yet new technology offers the possibility of developing an entirely different type of mass higher education, well beyond the experiments with flipped classrooms. At a fraction of the present cost, undergraduates, if not postgraduates, could study far away from their host institutions, accessing books, articles, lectures, demonstrations and debates at any hour. They could be brought together frequently via Skype with their peers and teachers in one-to-one conversations and group tutorials, topped up from time to time with short visits to the parent institution. They could balance study with paid work and finish their courses as quickly or as slowly as they wished.

If this all sounds familiar, that is because it is. The Open University has been offering flexible distance learning since 1969, and there are plenty of examples internationally of institutions that focus primarily or exclusively on distance learning. However, they are rarely lauded for their high academic standards; in the US, for instance, the University of Phoenix was criticised in a 2012 Senate committee report into for-profit higher education for its high dropout rates and for appearing to have prioritised “financial success over student success”.

Various high-profile institutions have dipped their toe into the market for massive open online courses, the latest being the University of Oxford (“University of-Oxford launches its first Mooc”, 15 November). But it is staggering that the huge advances in communications technology have not prompted any established, mainstream player to adopt distance learning as a core activity. It is true that digital interfaces can still have their problems, both technical and pedagogical (“Distant and discontent: the downsides of digital learning”, Features, 18 August). But these issues will continue to diminish as technology marches on.

It is not difficult to understand the resistance. If the full potential of face-to-face web-based learning were to be exploited, many academics would have to increase their commitment to teaching at the expense of research: otherwise for students to be properly monitored and examined and for small-group Skype tutorials to become part of the course, there would be a need for more academics, not fewer. New methods would have to be devised to examine students in a way that employers could trust. And ways would have to be found to ensure that students continued to receive the broader social and cultural benefits of higher education. But none of these objections is insuperable.

What predominately stymies interest in online study is institutional inertia. The creation of a mass university system, begun 10 years before the invention of the web, has involved huge investment in buildings, equipment and administration. Were higher education to be delivered virtually, most plant not used for scientific research would become redundant and there would be a massive reduction in non-academic personnel. As the administrators are largely responsible for the five-year strategic plans presented to the funding bodies, they unsurprisingly prefer to steer clear of digital revolutions. Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas.

Yet if politicians and educationalists continue to insist that modern nations need an ever-growing army of graduates, it seems inevitable that the virtual university will become a significant player before long. In this era of high tuition fees, low wages and skyrocketing house prices, a well-regarded institution that developed a cheap, robust and trusted online system of education dovetailed to the needs and aspirations of school-leavers could scoop the pool.

Laurence Brockliss is professor of early modern French history at the University of Oxford.

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