Online learning threat to varsity, polytech

The implications of a boom in the number of students securing their education online will not spare Dunedin's tertiary institutions and they will need to ''sharpen their act'' if they want to continue to thrive.

That is the message from Otago Polytechnic chief executive Phil Ker and Prof Kerry Shephard, from the University of Otago's Higher Education Development Centre.

Mr Ker said the delivery of courses on the web was already transforming tertiary education overseas and before too long, New Zealand would experience a similar shift.

''It's the most rapidly growing form of education delivery in North America,'' he said.

The growth was occurring in both the provision of free online courses and ''full service'' courses where students enrolled with an institution in an ''online equivalent of a face-to-face option''.

People in the second category paid as little as a third of the cost of enrolling in an equivalent course at a traditional campus.

Mr Ker said the growth of both types of delivery would eventually shift some of the focus away from the ''bricks and mortar'' model as growing numbers of students learnt online, instead of in campus lecture theatres.

''I don't think we will see anything like the growth in bricks and mortar campuses that's been happening [up until now],'' he said.

The shift to online learning meant Dunedin institutions, like those in the rest of the world, would need to sharpen their act if they wanted to continue to attract large numbers of people to study at ''physical campuses''.

''If we don't want it to have a negative impact, then we have got to sharpen our act. We are going to have to really get our act together, in the sense of having compelling programmes, with features in them that say in a very crowded market, `come to us'.''

Prof Shephard, who specialises in ''eLearning'' among other subjects, shared a similar view, saying the growth of online education would provide universities with a ''wake-up call''.

''This is going to provide a bit of a wake-up call for universities to be mindful about what they do ... which is different from the sort of things that these massive online courses can offer.''

This meant they would need to ''add substance'' to the claim that ''face-to-face'' education at universities had advantages which large online courses could not easily replicate.

Prof Shephard said aspects of the existing university model gave it advantages. These included the staff-student ratio and the ''traditional quality assurance process'' universities offered.

Asked if universities would also need to offer some courses using the online model he said:''I think that's not only necessary but it's inevitable.''

He said it was too early to say how much of an impact online learning would have on the tertiary sector.

''In a way, the real question is are we going to have a progressive change or an absolute revolution? My guess would be a progressive change.''

Mr Ker said Otago Polytechnic had already responded to the challenge presented by online learning by setting up an online-only course of its own, which it would be offering for the first time this year.

This was part of a wider initiative called OP Online. The institution planned to scale up the number of online courses it offers over the next few years. The polytechnic would be spending about $500,000 on OP Online over the course of this year.

''OP Online is about us developing our online learning business in terms of qualifications that you can do wholly online without ever having to come to the polytechnic.

''We figure we should be part of ... [online learning] both for defensive reasons and because if in fact there is a growing worldwide market for online learning we may as well be part of that,'' he said.

The polytechnic risked losing out to other providers if it did not provide online courses itself.

''The question is will, for example, a North American college or university decide that the New Zealand market is worth targeting?''


Learning and teaching online

I have friends involved in both teaching and studying online courses.  In both roles they have compulsory periods of attendance at a "real" study place, often making use of university or college premises during vacations, just as the Summer School does. 
This is for many people the best of all worlds.  For family, work or financial reasons they cannot take full-time courses - they have to fit their study time around their other commitments.  But meeting in person adds value to the online discussion forum sites, and emailed personal help from teachers. 
Today many students work while they study full-time.  In the past many put the story the other way around - they took a unit (paper) or two while they worked full-time  with, if they were lucky, co-operation from employers who allowed them a small amount of time off to attend lectures and sit exams, otherwise they had to sacrifice a few hours' pay.
Some chose courses with lectures they could rush to at top-speed after work by legs, bike or bus, few having  private cars in those days.  

Online learning

In the 90s, online learning was regarded as impossible for many subjects, and there are limitations yes, but let's face it most students enjoy coming together face to face to learn. Blended learning is still preferred by most students wanting a qualification. What the open online 'revolution' will do is give people more choice in what they learn. But if you want to be a hands on professional working with people, the blended model, is here to stay - people need real people most of the time, not avatars which are okay some of the time. However, I believe that for a sound digital future (and it is here to stay unless the power goes out) we all need to learn to communicate more openly and to share and collaborate.

A good model of online learning using social networking and a connectivist model of learning can promote this. Online models where open content and self-paced learning is the priority will not succeed. Humans are social beings so they will need online interactions and guidance from inspiring and knowledgeable teachers and peers. However, financial models imposed by tertiary structures may preclude this, and so students will miss out on a great learning experience, and may as well just buy a textbook and learn from that . . . not much fun. Isn't it the people who make learning fun, not just the content?

Online learning not new

It is a pity that this article reads as if online learning is a new concept. It is not and has been around since the Internet was conceived. What the article does not make clear is that the worldwide rush to provide open online courses that anyone can take free of charge (and pay for accreditation only) is threatening the conservative fabric of tertiary institutions - enrol, pay, learn and obtain a qualification.

Online or actual learning

Poly and Uni should advise which courses can be delivered online. I suggest those that need to remain campus based include Community Studies fieldwork, counselling, caregiving, anthro/archaeology. Med School will not take to this either, unless proper examination is replaced by phoning in diagnoses.