There is no accepted model of online education, but a good one must put students first, writes Bryan Gould
E-education at university level is at the crossroads - or, more probably, at yet another in a long series of crossroads. One set of signposts points to a disenchantment with the internet in general (as evidenced in the recent fortunes of Nasdaq), to growing survey evidence that students find online learning their least favoured mode of tuition, and to the difficulties that some of the more ambitious plans have encountered in simply getting off the ground.
The other set of signposts shows the way to the advantages of open and flexible learning, to the continuing and pervasive influence of the internet in all that we do, and to the rising expectations of an online generation. These destinations seem so intriguing that many institutions will set out on this path even though they know little about the journey they are undertaking, the costs of getting there or whether the goal will be worthwhile. For many, these uncertainties are outweighed by the simple fear of being left behind.
My university has already graduated substantial numbers of students who have completed full three-year degree programmes online. We have 3,000 students enrolled in more than 100 online courses, and both numbers will rise sharply next year. We are offering New Zealand's first bachelor of e-commerce degree, and we have developed innovative methods for equipping and supporting students to study online.
It is important not to be dazzled by the technology, but rather to focus on well-established pedagogical principles. The key element is not the technology (which as it becomes better and cheaper is no big deal) or even the content (which is what you want it to be), but what might be called learning design - how the content is made accessible to students.
The point of e-education is to enable students to learn better. Technology makes it possible for students to take in information in their own time and at their own pace and to use their more structured time - the time spent with their tutor or with fellow students - for the more productive purpose of using their newly gained knowledge to explore and think about the subject.
E-education is not really about distance delivery, although it does have the advantage of making distance irrelevant. But there is always distance, whether it is hundreds of miles between the tutor and student or merely the distance between the lecturer and the back of the lecture theatre. Online learning does not just bridge the distance, it provides what we have long eulogised as "open and flexible learning" to students on campus as well as in remote locations.
I am fond of telling sceptics on my campus that they need not be frightened of these ideas as they have a long and distinguished pedigree. When I was a law don at Oxford University, we offered open and flexible learning, even though we did not know it. We employed an old technology - people took reading lists, went to libraries, picked books off shelves, read the printed page, then wrote their essays and discussed them with their tutors - but this was, nevertheless, open and flexible learning. The principles were the same: what the new technology makes possible is that we can offer open and flexible learning to a much wider range of people and do it more cost-effectively.
If the job is to be done properly, however, it must involve more than simply putting course material on screen. The secret to the success we have enjoyed with our degree courses is that they are designed as multimedia courses. The student does much more than sit before a computer screen. The emphasis is on interactivity and student support.
Done well, this type of learning can overcome some of the negative responses that online tuition increasingly evokes. It also produces some interesting and slightly unexpected benefits. Many of our online students are Maoris from remote areas who may, for cultural reasons, feel disadvantaged in a classroom but seem more willing to "speak up" in an online classroom.
We have been sufficiently encouraged to set up a strategic planning centre for e-education - the Waikato Innovation Centre for E-education. One aim of the centre is to identify suitable partnership prospects in the private sector. The expertise that we and other universities have developed and are developing is of considerable interest to private sector operators.
The private sector has so far been interested in the consortium model, in which a large number of universities pool their skills and knowledge and impress the market with their combined prestige. But it seems very difficult to develop an effective collaboration of this sort. Universities are notoriously bad at working together, and it is much easier to make progress when the expertise of a single institution is developed.
Commercial operators know how to customise their offerings to meet the hugely varied needs of learners in a wide range of learning situations. Universities, on the other hand, have unparalleled experience and standing in the business of offering courses carrying academic qualifications. It will not be long before there is a substantial crossover between these fields of expertise. Both the private and the university sectors will see advantage in offering professional or corporate online courses that carry the academic certification only universities can offer.
New Zealand, with its small size, high educational standards, readiness to accept new technology and high degree of internet usage, seems to be ideally placed to act as a test-bed for some of these ideas. Watch this space.
Bryan Gould is vice-chancellor of the University of Waikato.