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Online education requires more than technological innovation

By Tom Worthington - posted Thursday, 15 March 2001

The Internet was developed by researchers as a socially savvy tool for communicating academic work. It was then co-opted by business and government in a not entirely successful attempt to turn it into a tool of commerce. Even after the dot-com crash, e-business experts are still promoting a model of the Internet that is little more than a television shopping channel. This view is not only intellectually impoverished, but has financially impoverished many of those who followed it. Returning to the Internet's roots in academic discourse might provide insights in how to use it for business and support social and educational goals. A good place to start is with online education, which depends on a careful mix of academe and commerce. Australian academics had a significant role in developing the Internet. Those skills and experience can be applied to showing how to use the Internet for social and commercial goals in education.

What is a University?

The real University is not a material object. It is not a group of buildings that can be defended by police. ... What would happen is that the real University, which no legislature can dictate to and which can never be identified by any location of bricks or boards or glass, would simply declare that this place was no longer "holy ground". The real University would vanish from it, and all that would be left was the bricks and the books and the material manifestation. From Chapter 13 of "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance ", by Robert M. Pirsig.

Pirsig was arguing why a University is more than a group of buildings. In the age of the Internet we can go beyond this as a philosophical idea and conceive a university as a set of social relationships not associated with buildings at all. Modern organisations need have no physical existence. My own consulting company carries out most of its activities via the Internet.


Virtual organisations have had a bad press, through the collapse of dot-com companies. Ethical, useful virtual organisations are possible if the relationships between people in the organisation, and its clients, are carefully worked out.

University of Australia Online

The UAO will do two vital things for Australia: it will significantly expand the opportunity to study at university for thousands of Australians who would otherwise miss out; and it will make Australia a world leader in providing online education. From Address - National Press Club by Kim Beazley, 24 January 2001

While sitting in the audience during the Leader of the Opposition's press club address I downloaded a copy of the background paper from the ALP web site using a wireless modem and transmitted a brief report about it to the online community when he was finished. Rather than a general statement of principles and broad direction, which everyone (including the Prime Minister) was expecting, this was a specific detailed proposal for a "University of Australia On-line" (UAO).

Labor proposes to create 100,000 new on-line undergraduate places by 2010 to be serviced by existing Australian universities. Fees for these would be halved (presumably reflecting the lower cost of on-line teaching) and free university preparation courses would be provided. One claimed benefit is that academics will receive revenue for courses sold to other institutions. This will open some difficult issues of intellectual property ownership that universities have been avoiding. UAO would commission content from existing universities and have an Institute of On-line Teaching to help design better courses. This will be needed as the average academic will not have experience in on-line content creation.

Labor points out that such a UAO would provide access for low income, single parents and rural people. This assumes these people have Internet access at an affordable price and can use it. It also assumes that Australia has the infrastructure to support this on-line access. This does create some opportunities for using Australian university expertise in networking.

One benefit not addressed in Labor's proposal is that good on-line education will benefit people with some forms of disability. If existing web accessibility guidelines are implemented, then the content will be usable by the disabled and the network requirements would be reduced for those in regional areas on slow Internet connections.


Labor should be commended for making a brave and detailed proposal. However, some questions remain: what will it all cost? Will resources be withdrawn from conventional courses? Will on-line students be second class? Will we open Australia to competition from cut-rate overseas universities? Will one big government-mandated on-line university stifle innovation and entrepreneurial efforts from existing institutions?

A University is More than Rote Learning

The Australian National University (ANU) is an established University and so is taking a cautious approach to online learning. This semester will see the first coordinated use of online instruction with the WebCT package. This is a web-based system, which is commonly used in universities for creating and delivering computer-based training material. While this is the type of system envisaged for the ALP's University of Australia Online, but there is a very great risk in assuming what it delivers is everything a university does.

Training packages, such as WebCT, are run from a central web server and accessed using a web browser. This creates a very convenient system for those who have an Internet connection (even a slow one will do) and know how to work it. The designer and students need no special software, just a web browser. External course material, such as lecture notes, can either be imported to the system so it is held on the central server or linked to and kept separate. This makes the adaption of existing material easy.

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This is an edited extract from an address to the Connecting Society Conference in Canberra on March 7. For the full transcript, click here.

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About the Author

Dr Tom Worthington is a Visiting Fellow in the Department of Computer Science, Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology at the Australian National University, an author and independent IT consultant. He is also a member of the On Line Opinion's Editorial Advisory Board.

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