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Australian universities must take the on-line learning lead

By Fiona Stewart - posted Saturday, 31 March 2001

It was General Electric chairman Jack Welch who once said: "When the rate of change outside exceeds the rate of change inside the end is in sight". While Welch wasn't speaking of universities, he might well have been since it's this predicament that universities, globally, find themselves facing.

While the new economy may be hype to many, to those in the "business of learning" - a sector that by 2010 will be worth $US4.5 trillion ($8.9 trillion) - it represents a massive opportunity. Rising to the challenge is the most important task of any smart country.

Yet it's our universities - those which should be showing leadership - which are complaining the most. With their self-acknowledged inability to perform due to a lack of government funding, these once-respected institutions are looking decidedly worn.


The debate on the decline of standards is evidence enough. So is the undercurrent of academic hostility to the commercialisation of knowledge - intellectual property - and to globalisation through a shift to online learning.

Ironically, perhaps, it's these latter two demands that could prevent Australia's "sand stones" and "green fields" from becoming the archaeological digs of the future.

It's now commonplace to acknowledge that the new knowledge society has radically altered the way knowledge is produced, valued and sold. While business has been faster to catch on, change in universities has been a pocket approach.

Yet where movement is afoot, exciting times are ahead. Importantly, these instances show the direction of the road ahead.

Take Deakin Australia. As the commercial arm of Deakin University, this corporate university provides learning to an impressive list of blue-chip clients in Australia and around the world. Enrolling companies rather than individual learners, Deakin Australia's enrolment of more than 40,000 learners has already superseded its traditional counterpart.

But it's the nature of what Deakin Australia delivers that shows what it takes to be successful as a new economy operator.


With the cost of training now reconfigured as an investment in learning, Deakin Australia is indicative of thousands of corporate universities the world over which provide customised, workplace-based learning that is modularised, immediately applicable and directly relevant to the skill set of the knowledge worker. Rather than trashing their brand through public declarations of poverty and staff discontent, non-traditional providers are busily developing real world solutions and increasing their brand vibrancy. It's this vibrancy that has technology at its heart.

Central to the learning demands of a knowledge society is the need to access learning at one's own pace and place. This could mean learning at lunch time, at home tonight, or in 15-minute segments before breakfast each day.

It's also essential that the learning is "just for me". Moving beyond the pedagogically inefficient one-to-many lecture style of old, it's the flexibility of e-learning that's now seen as the way of the future.

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This article was first published in the Australian Financial Review on 21 March 2001.

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About the Author

Dr Fiona Stewart is Director of Realworld Research and Communications and is a consultant to corporations, universities, TAFE and schools in educational futures and e-learning. Fiona Stewart is co-author (with Philip Nitschke) of Killing Me Softly: Voluntary Euthanasia and the Road to the Peaceful Pill.

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