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Tertiary education online requires further study and thinking

By Carolyn Allport - posted Thursday, 15 March 2001

Higher-education staff are among the most "wired" people in the world. The origin of the Internet in US military-related scientific research based in universities, and its quick spread across university departments meant that higher-education personnel were at the edge of the new technology. In many cases it has been staff who have pioneered the use of online education, persisting in arguing for quality delivery with interactivity. Australia’s strong tradition of distance education has encouraged higher-education institutions to continue to provide students with access to higher education away from the bricks-and-mortar campus. But is online learning the face of the future, or will it be, like distance education, simply one of a number of different learning environments from which students will package their own education?

Online learning has "arrived" in higher education at the same time as universities are being squeezed by reduced public funding with a resultant increase in the commercialisation and corporatisation of our universities. The convergence of communication and information technology and the emergence of "info-tainment" has also blurred the role that formal education plays in our society. As costs rise, and public funding falls, online education seems a way of educating more people for less cost. We need to evaluate such assumptions.

The first important question is: do our students want to learn online? Survey material from overseas suggests that while students are avid users of the web, they overwhelmingly desire a campus-based experience, particularly since many school leavers do not have the independent self-directed study skills and motivation required. Even among older students, preference is for face-to-face or mixed-mode education, and retention is higher where elements of the campus-based education are part of upgrading or extending qualifications.


Student interest in online study often reflects the competing demands of paid work and the inability of students to fit in with the campus timetable. Although much is made of access by disabled students, isolated students or students confined to home, there is little evidence that these groups will be the dominant users of online or multimedia-based education. Students have voiced their disquiet about being constituted as consumers and are also concerned about maintaining quality when universities see on-line learning as simply quick-fix cash. They have the right to expect that staff involved in the teaching-learning process will have high levels of competency and experience.

Just as in traditional distance education, success with online learning depends upon adequate levels of staff support and overcoming student isolation. Putting a course on the web does not guarantee that learning takes place, any more than a library on campus guarantees learning. Previous experiences of computer-based learning materials have made teaching staff cautious about the impact on critical thinking and the discursive nature of higher education. The immediacy of the web has also raised important issues for assessment procedures – a number of sites now offer student essays and notes for purchase, and there is a lack of confidence in the increasing tendency towards "cut and pastiche" student work.

Generating materials is also costly. One Australian university estimated that the production of 12 high-quality CD-ROMs for language training consumed 36,000 project team hours and cost $A3.3million. This does not include the need to update material in order to provide "state of the art" learning. A recent estimate by one of Australia’s leading distance education providers suggests that the cost of transferring an existing course onto the web is around $70,000 for a unit constituting 25% of a full-time student study load, without the high degree of interactivity online study demands. Finally, there is continual debate about the differences between information and knowledge. As one writer so aptly warned "Will the wise person of the future be someone who knows nothing but can find anything?"

Finally at a global level, there are concerns that increased use of online learning could actually exacerbate existing differentials between regions. E-learning and the "virtual" university depend upon high levels of connectivity among students and staff and the ability of universities to sustain high investment and maintenance expenditure. The digital divide is a real one, both across national borders and within affluent countries. It has been estimated that the Internet reached less than 2% of the world’s population in 1998. Even within the US, a digital divide remains – the Historically Black Colleges and Universities are lagging behind in offering students access to computing resources and in taking advantage of high-bandwidth technologies. Income and geography are powerful forces in determining the information rich and the information poor. As educators, we have a moral responsibility to ensure that old barriers to access are not replicated in cyberspace.

The profits from online learning will largely be repatriated back to first-world countries. The vast majority of Internet servers, web pages, information and education resources emanate from North America, and are in English. Little attention has been given to the needs of multilingual communication, and there has been only slow progress in developing effective cross-lingual search engines. In Asia, seen to be a key market for the export of education, concern is rising that exporting students and importing courses present a very real threat to student’s loss of identity, culture and family values. If we are to utilise new communications and information based technologies, then we need to develop ways of globalising without colonizing.

Issues For Staff


While higher-education staff are active users of the Web and Internet, and are keen to ensure that their students make the most of the online environment, they also have concerns about the importance of ensuring that online education is of the highest quality and is driven by similar academic standards to that of more traditional education modes. This is particularly important now, as IT and communication companies are seeking partnerships with universities to deliver online courses, taking them outside of university governance structures and locating them in the market.

To deliver online education, most universities usually need an IT partner to provide the technical platform, with responsibility for curriculum staying with the staff at the university. Other ventures, particularly those that are internationally based, are based on a different type of partnership – one that sees the private communications or IT company actually have control over the curriculum.

Impact on staff work

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About the Author

Carolyn Allport is National President of the National Tertiary Education Union.

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National Tertiary Education Union
Universitas 21
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