Australia sharpens focus on distance

May 16, 2003

Are online mega-universities the future or are local courses with internet support a better option? asks Geoff Maslen in Melbourne.

James Norman doubts he could have graduated with an information technology degree without the internet. Norman is a former Australian airline pilot who has spent four years studying online, gaining distinctions and high distinctions in the courses he completed. For medical reasons he had to find a new career. Online study fitted his lifestyle, which involved extensive travel. "I only needed to take my laptop and I was ready to study on the road. The presentation online was good and the only drawback was sometimes having to wait for responses from my lecturers to questions - but that's part and parcel of all study."

Norman is one of more than 14,000 students taking courses through Open Learning Australia. The OLA was established a decade ago and acts as a broker to provide online and traditional distance-education units devised by staff at 20 of Australia's universities so students can combine subjects from the different institutions to earn a degree. Janet Baker, OLA's manager of strategic projects, says more and more courses are available online, as well as with conventional print materials. Many degree programmes are now offered wholly online.

A survey conducted for the federal education department found that in 2001 more than 200 fully online courses were available from 23 of Australia's 40 universities. Nearly a third were delivered only via the web. A report of the survey says subjects such as management and commerce, education, health and information technology are more likely to have fully online units. This may be because most web-based courses have been devised for postgraduates, many of whom are "earner-learners" such as Norman.

"Subjects requiring practical and laboratory work, such as creative arts or the physical sciences, are less likely to provide online education," the report states. "Possibly because these do not lend themselves as easily or because students do not have ready access to the necessary technology."

All universities in Australia use the web to some extent for teaching and learning, the report says. More than half of all units offered have content available on the web, although fully online units represent only a small percentage of the total. The move to e-learning has been helped by Australians' near-universal access to computers and the internet. More than 95 per cent of university students make regular use of the internet and 84 per cent have a computer at home.

But online courses developed without proper regard to appropriate pedagogies and student needs "are destined to fail", the report warns. It also notes that online learning does not necessarily offer a cheaper alternative to more traditional study.

Yoni Ryan, a Queensland University of Technology academic who has written widely about e-learning, describes the hype and euphoria surrounding the online learning rise as an "e-education bubble". Ryan contrasts this bubble with the high-profile failures since the dotcom crash such as New York University Online, the American Open University and other initiatives that are struggling to survive. She notes that in some cases, such as Universitas 21 Global and UK eUniversities Worldwide, it is too early to draw firm conclusions.

There are the success stories of borderless higher education, including the University of Phoenix Online and University of Maryland University College, as well as learning platform providers Blackboard and WebCT.

In Australia, as well as boosting the number of online units for local students, universities are marketing online courses overseas. Figures compiled by international recruiting agency IDP Education Australia show that of the 160,000 foreigners enrolled last semester, nearly 11,000 were studying for Australian degrees in their home countries through online or standard distance education programmes. As with foreign students on campus in Australia, the major source markets are Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysia, although more than 700 Canadians also study online.

An IDP spokesman says there is growing interest in e-learning in India as well. But many Asian countries, with their expanding populations and need to join the global knowledge economy, have also begun moving to online programmes. Singapore allocated S$1 billion (£353 million) to a lifelong learning endowment fund in 2001 to provide an annual income of S$40 million for innovative projects. The first of these is national IT literacy scheme.

PurpleTrain.com, an e-learning subsidiary of Informatics Holdings, a training and education provider listed on the Singapore stock exchange, now offers 300 online courses. They range from certificates and diplomas to bachelor and masters degrees, and attract 40,000 users across Asia, including Malaysia, Hong Kong, China and Vietnam - countries from which Australia draws a majority of its foreign students.

Academics at RMIT University say one scenario that has excited and terrified Australian education planners more than any other is the development of the global online mega-university. In a paper at a conference on transnational online education, Christopher Ziguras and Fazal Risvi say that fully online delivery means a worldwide distance-education market where geographical access limitations are overcome and prospective students can choose between courses provided by different nations.

"This scenario has sent universities scurrying to create their own versions of such institutions through consortia such as Universitas 21 and the Global Universities Alliance," Ziguras and Risvi say. "Such institutions would draw on the collective strengths of their members to create online programmes."

But the academics note that online global delivery has failed to capture the imagination of students in the way it has excited senior administrators. They say that while global online courses are technologically feasible and offer huge investment returns to some providers, educational and cultural factors are hampering their growth.

"In the development of transnational distance education in Southeast Asia, Australian institutions have learned the value of local presence, local partners and local teaching staff. There has so far been limited demand for stand-alone offshore distance education  internet-supported face-to-face programmes are continuing to grow at a rapid rate."

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