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The when and how of online education

By Dirk Flinthart - posted Saturday, 31 March 2001

The question of online universities is not one of whether or not they can succeed; it is rather a question of when they will be implemented, and how effectively. The potential advantages of online education, particularly in the area of economics, are simply too great to be ignored. A system which allows one lecturer to reach thousands of students; which can do away with capital-intensive lecture theatres and libraries; which requires no parking spaces, no toilets, no cafeterias, no gardens or green spaces - surely, such a system is every penny-pinching Vice-Chancellor's fantasy.

The answer to the question of "when" is equally simple. It is "right now". Already, it is possible to undertake a fully accredited PhD entirely online. Universities around the world offer online courses and subjects. Granted, the technology is still in its infancy. Granted, there are questions of security, equity of access, and copyright. These are just details. They will be resolved. The Internet is already an important adjunct to the conventional real-space University campus. It can only grow more important as the bugs are ironed out of the system. The real question is whether or not the Internet will be used effectively in online education. Unfortunately, the answer at present is not encouraging.

In order to use the Internet to best advantage, it would seem logical to utilise the specific strengths of the Internet. These strengths include:

  • Asynchronicity: unlike a real-space classroom, there is no requirement for students to be at a particular place at a specific time. Students can log on where and when they like, and use whatever hours they happen to have free in order to pursue their studies.
  • Many-to-many communications: In a conventional class or tutorial, only one person can speak at a time. Limitations of class size and venue prevent that one speaker from reaching more than a few hundred listeners at best. On the other hand, the distributed nature of Internet communication means that every voice can be heard by every listener, facilitating vastly greater levels of involvement by students.
  • Information-rich environment: Unlike a conventional classroom, where a limited number of questions can be dealt with by the lecturer or tutor, the Internet provides an environment where students can quickly and easily pursue answers to their own inquiries. Coupled with the two previous qualities, the student body itself becomes an extremely useful tool, creating a shared body of knowledge and meaning.

Sadly, few if any universities are taking full advantage of these strengths. Concerns about the ongoing role of lecturers and/or tutors have ensured that the classroom-standard transmissive model of education - in which the professor acts as a conduit or a repository of an accepted canon of material - continues to dominate online education. Likewise, courses continue to be set around specific texts to the exclusion of the vast body of material available online. And of course, little if any effort is made to encourage - or even allow - students to become co-operative co-learners, creating their own body of knowledge.

In essence, universities are attempting more or less to recreate the classroom experience on-line, probably because the classroom model of delivery has been in place for the last seven hundred years. However, a fraction of a second spent on rational thought raises the question: just how relevant is a seven-hundred-year-old model of education to a form of communication which has been in widespread use for only a decade?

After seven hundred years, it should be plain to everyone that the best possible classroom is precisely that: a classroom, not a computer. Attempting to recreate the classroom experience in the world of cyberspace is every bit as stupid as designing electronic speakers to resemble the human larynx. Online tertiary education will ever be more than an adjunct to the physical campus until the model of delivery is altered to draw directly on the strengths of the online system, rather than to cling to the traditional forms which do not work efficiently online.

And so, the question becomes this: are our hallowed institutions of education capable of examining their own traditions, and of embracing the changes necessary to deliver online education in an effective manner? Or will they simply be bypassed and rendered obsolete by new, low-capital, hi-tech organizations built up by people without a vested interest in the real-world ivied halls of academia?

Time will tell.

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About the Author

Dirk Flinthart is a writer and student who lives in Tasmania.

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