More online learning is not the answer for students or universities

Ian Bushnell 12 April 2021 14
ANU graduates

ANU graduates. The University prides itself on offering a full campus experience. Photo: Australian National University.

Politicians have a habit of being dazzled by new shiny things, particularly anything hi-tech that may solve a political problem.

For Federal Education Minister Alan Tudge, universities can wean themselves off their financial reliance on international, mainly Chinese, students by moving courses online.

After successive Coalition governments have shrunk real funding, leaving many universities little choice but to develop a lucrative market in international students, Mr Tudge now has concerns about the extent of the sector, particularly the dominance of one source country that is proving problematic.

With the pandemic closing international borders, the sector, which was worth more than $1 billion a year to the ACT economy, has been devastated, but Mr Tudge believes universities should fill the gap by deploying the power of the internet rather than expecting a return to business as usual post-COVID-19.

Putting aside the various issues around university funding, access and the international student market itself, simply pushing courses online and relying on the internet to deliver them is fraught, similar to public service agencies and businesses vacating their offices for Zoom-led operations.

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While the internet allowed study and work to continue from home during the social restrictions and lockdowns, the experience had its ups and downs. It sparked a fierce debate about productivity and the importance of human connection.

Many universities, including the ANU and University of Canberra, already conduct courses online. The experience for many students is very different from the pre-internet era when campus life, as much as what happened in lectures and tutorials, played a pivotal role in their education.

Many students now have full-time jobs and minimal requirements to even be on campus.

Students used to complain about overcrowded lectures and the lack of a relationship with lecturers and tutors. Now courses can have hundreds of remote students who will never meet the people teaching them.

They still come out the other end with a degree, but one wonders what may be missing.

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Can the Zoom tute or online lecture provide the same qualitative experience offered by the Socratic tradition and the interaction of ideas more readily attained in face-to-face learning?

Can it offer the deep learning that a university is supposed to confer and provide the space for one’s own ideas and preconception to be challenged?

The danger is that fundamental educational standards can be eroded, and universities become degree factories spitting out workplace widgets that ironically might not even be adequately prepared for a role.

Online learning may suit some subjects and not others, and ANU Vice-Chancellor Professor Brian Schmidt, responding to Mr Tudge’s comments, noted that science-based degrees require on-campus lab work.

He also stressed that a whole-campus experience is a key component of the ANU’s pitch to students.

Then there are the sheer logistical issues of synchronising online activities when there are students in different locations around the globe, the internet’s own capriciousness and vulnerability to power outages, and being subject to government control, such as with the Great Firewall of China.

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Some on-campus students complain that hybrid degrees inhibit their ability to make in-person follow-up inquiries or elicit further advice from lecturers as all students need to be treated equally and have equal access.

Some online students also report higher stress levels and a sense of isolation.

If they follow Mr Tudge’s advice, the temptation for universities is to maximise earnings by multiplying online courses and enrolments at the expense of on-campus offerings.

There is no doubt that the internet has changed business practices and the very idea of the university. It has opened up access and made education possible for more students, especially for those in remote locations.

But an over-reliance on it, just like in other settings, degrades the human experience and fosters dissociation.

If anything, in this increasingly hi-tech world, the teacher-student relationship, from kindergarten to university, should be fostered even more. Before expanding online courses, perhaps there should be more research into the student experience, the quality of learning and the eventual outcomes, including when graduates enter the workforce.

The internet, like wine, can be a good servant but a poor master.

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14 Responses to More online learning is not the answer for students or universities
HiddenDragon HiddenDragon 8:29 pm 12 Apr 21

The attractiveness, or at least acceptability, of online learning for international students will surely depend on whether there is still some connection between study at an Australian university and the potential for migration to Australia.

Janet Mulgrue Janet Mulgrue 7:53 pm 12 Apr 21

I did my masters by correspondence before the days of online study. I found it great as I was also working full time. I was able to do a full time study load and work full time. Worked really well for me.

Anissa Jones Anissa Jones 6:51 pm 12 Apr 21

An article written by a non-teacher commenting on educational practices. What’s wrong with this? Hrmmm

Could it be he has no experience in actual teaching and is relying on his own memory of school as both a student and a parent?

Maybe I can do brain surgery then? I’ve had migraines and a near stroke. That qualifies me right?

Daniel Duncan Daniel Duncan 4:07 pm 12 Apr 21

They will still charge an arm and a leg for a recording

    Fiona Beryl Fiona Beryl 6:25 pm 12 Apr 21

    Exactly! Otherwise a combination of face-to-face learning and on-line components would be a great idea for under-grad studies.

Nick Anderson Nick Anderson 10:57 am 12 Apr 21

100% agree online learning sucks. It’s not the same and it’s much harder to remain motivated

Acton Acton 8:43 am 12 Apr 21

All good points, but should also include the dangers of Chinese Government influence on campuses and their attempts to control debate, freedom of expression and academic course content. This is done by threats to funding, threats to family members in China, withdrawal of travel permission and use of Chinese student organisations to intimidate uni studends, media and administration. All documented in ‘Silent Invasion’ by academic author Clive Hamilton. Essential reading.

Jenny Lawrence Jenny Lawrence 7:26 am 12 Apr 21

Alas, designed well online learning can be better than the on campus experience. But between pressure to publish and little training in teaching sudden moves online are only going to produce exaggerations of whatever teaching skill exists.

    Margaret Edwards Margaret Edwards 7:37 am 12 Apr 21

    Jenny Lawrence i have done 2 degrees online through the University of New England. We get lectures and tutorials the same as any on campus university. The lectures are recorded and posted online and tutes are held on Zoom. All library access is online and the library posts books when we need them. Or we can order a chapter to be copied and emailed. For a mature age person it is the way to go. I gave even done research units under a supervisor thus way.

    Belinda Maiden Belinda Maiden 7:50 am 12 Apr 21

    Margaret Edwards But not so great for students straight out of school who need the social connections with peers 😕

    Margaret Edwards Margaret Edwards 8:04 am 12 Apr 21

    Belinda Maiden I agree there, though. But for mature age students, it is great.

    Jenny Lawrence Jenny Lawrence 8:17 am 12 Apr 21

    Belinda Maiden if your model for who uni students are is only focussed on school leavers you're missing the majority if the cohort.

    Judith Scerri Judith Scerri 11:18 am 12 Apr 21

    Margaret Edwards only thing is you miss out on group discussions and interactions which have been proven to be extremely important in learning. In theory it's achievable through zoom, but in reality it is very difficult.

    Kriso Hadskini Kriso Hadskini 6:43 pm 12 Apr 21

    I am a mature learner and hated the masters I was studying when it turned to e-learning so I quit. I am also a teacher, like everything to do with education, different learners need different styles of input. Nothing to do with age, everything to do with learning styles/personality.

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