Thursday, October 18, 2012

Online Education at the Coalface: What Academics Need to Know

English: Online Learning
Online Learning (Wikipedia)
by Dr Rod Lamberts, Deputy Director, Australian National Centre for Public Awareness of Science at Australian National University and Dr Will J Grant, Researcher / Lecturer, Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science at Australian National University, The Conversation:

FUTURE OF HIGHER EDUCATION: We continue our series on the rise of online and blended learning and how free online courses are set to transform the higher education sector. Today, ANU’s Rod Lamberts and Will Grant look at the issues academics face in the online learning revolution.

Australian academia has not yet come to grips with how best to handle the swings and roundabouts of online education. The full picture is not yet understood, and many of the implications are still being explored (including in this current series).

In the debate around business models and international competition, the teacher can all too easily be left out of the discussion. But academics are the ones who will be at the coalface of online education - so we need to have a say in what happens next.

24/7 academia

One of the most pressing concerns in the move to online is the expectation of availability. Sending an email to a lecturer on Sunday is perfectly reasonable. But is it reasonable to expect a response that same day? We strongly believe it isn’t, but many of our colleagues feel an obligation that trumps their right to non-work time.

The problem of work encroaching into leisure time is not new and not unique to academia, but with the rise and rise of online education, there are now more ways than ever for this to occur.

If we have a customer service mindset (as is increasingly common in the sector), then we should be available whenever we are in demand. However, this change in student expectations is not being met with commensurate changes in work place conditions and expectations.

If we decide not to run with a customer-service model (although arguably that horse has well-and-truly bolted …), then expectations need to be set out clearly, and be understood and agreed to by all parties - students, staff, and university executives.

Online workloads

In the early days of online education at our university, people often talked of “just putting a course online”. The implication - indeed expectation - was that you “just” grabbed existing lectures and readings and “posted them on the web”. Assessment just somehow translated across, and if you had labs or tutorials, you just worked out how to do them online.

There was also a common understanding, apparently, that running a one semester course online was easier - in fact constituted less work - than doing a face-to-face version of the same course. Sadly, we still hear both of these misconceptions. But we know very well that they’re a load of bollocks.

In fact there is often more work associated with online education than a traditional course. Take an online discussion board as compared to a face-to-face tutorial for example. Moderating a two-hour classroom discussion between, say, 15 (or even 30) students in a physical classroom takes 2 hours. Moderating an online equivalent for the same 15 students takes immeasurably more time.

You have to read all student comments, consider all the responses to these comments in the potentially multiple discussion threads, and offer meaningful, contextually relevant and useful input for each student involved. We guarantee this is not a two-hour job.

Innovation the answer?

Of course, people increasingly cry, the solution is to be innovative in your delivery and course structure so that you take advantage of the opportunities that online education avails us. Wonderful in theory, but let’s test this in practice.

First, the technology required to support true interactive online classroom discussion - that is, simulate a face-to-face classroom experience - is expensive, complicated, and rare. It costs tens of thousands of dollars to put the basic infrastructure into a classroom that seats 30 students, and this is not including the need for large bandwith, reliable connections, and students who have a suitable infrastructure at their end.

Second, tertiary education institutions have a lot of bureaucratic inertia. Major changes to a course might take 12-18 months to work their way through university approval processes. This is an eternity - if not two or three eternities - in cyberspace. Meanwhile, the platforms and tools for delivery are constantly changing at a pace that larger organisations are currently ill-equipped to manage.

Third, as lecturers we are usually obliged to use prescribed platforms (e.g. WebCT, BlackBoard, or Moodle) to create, deliver and manage our online offerings. It’s also worth noting that institutionally adopted tools are often far less intuitive to use than commercially focused competitors.

Even ignoring that ours may not be the best tools for the job, the time it takes to become adept in their use is not genuinely factored into workloads. Yes, training is available in these platforms, but that just means we must de-prioritise something else to be able to attend them.

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