Much of the discussion to date about the University of Australia Online (UAO) has focussed on the goal of increasing student access to higher education. However, the other goal of the UAO is "to make Australia the world-leader in online education". Is this achievable?
Australia is acknowledged as a leader in distance education. We also have experience in software and multimedia production. The question is whether these two qualities can be easily combined to produce world-class online learning. Unfortunately, there is already evidence from within Australia to suggest that this is not an easy step.
Professor Shirley Alexander and her colleagues conducted a review in 1998 of federal government grants to universities in Australia for the development of innovative learning materials. Many (but not all) of these projects involved significant use of information and communication technologies (ICT).
The findings were sobering. A significant number of projects failed to achieve their desired outcomes, and most projects could not demonstrate improvements in student learning.
Many projects involving ICT were plagued by technical problems, poor project management and implementation problems arising from a misunderstanding of student approaches to learning. Although some projects were successful, very few have been used beyond their original development context, and I am not aware of any which have become an independently operating commercial success.
Why has it been difficult within universities to capitalise on our strengths in distance education on the one hand, and software and multimedia production on the other?
There are several reasons for this failure, including lack of sufficient resources, limited staff time, uncertainty over intellectual property and a failure to take a "Business Case" approach to new ventures. A crucial further problem is the lack of skilled people who can operate at the interface of content and curriculum, instructional design and technical development. I refer to these people as "Educational Designers".
Educational Designers have expertise in analysing the teaching and learning context of courses. They can dispassionately examine not just the academic's understanding of their teaching role, but also the different ways that students approach and understand a course. Having understood this context, Educational Designers can recommend alternative methods of course delivery and assessment, and explain the strengths and weaknesses of these from the point of view of both teacher and learner.
Educational Designers need not use ICT, but in recent times this has been one of the most pressing concerns. Educational Designers who do work with ICT require additional experience in the areas of project management and online development. They should understand how to manage a team of developers to ensure a timely outcome according to specified technical and educational criteria.
Most importantly, they must work with academics to understand the content area, and how this can be best communicated to students.
They will often provide new insights into teaching based on a keen appreciation of likely student misunderstandings. In a sense, they act as a student themselves when working with the content expert, and reflect on this experience to assist them in developing worthwhile student learning experiences. This type of self-reflection is often difficult for academics, as it can be many years since they moved from a novice to expert understanding of their discipline area.
Educational Designers need to be aware of the limits of different technologies. Some views of online delivery are little more than the use of video conferencing over the Internet. Educational Designers, however, would consider a much wider range of potential options, from self-directed web learning modules, to simulated classroom discussions via a chat room, to information/data retrieval and analysis, to critical reflections via discussion board postings over an extended period, to online self-assessment exercises with rich feedback.
Discuss in our Forums
See what other readers are saying about this article!
Click here to read & post comments.