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?''

- vaughan.elder@odt.co.nz

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