All views and opinions expressed here are entirely my own and do not represent TU Dublin in any way.

Entries in Online Learning (2)


Is the future online? 

Earlier this week the online education provider Hibernia College launched a range of new undergraduate programmes in creative computing and business. This is a significant move for a college that has made its name in teacher training and has become the leading provider of primary teachers in the country. When it started some ten years ago it was in the face of considerable opposition from the established colleges and a general scepticism about the likelihood of success for a private fee paying school. The Irish Times suggests the latest launch:

will test the growing market for private third level education in the Republic.

More significantly, I believe, it will test the market for online education. There is nothing particularly new in distance education but it has never had a particularly high profile here. Oscail, the DCU distance education programme, has been offering degrees since 1982. The Open Universitiy also has a base here and many other higher education institutions have some form of distance, remote or outreach offerings. More recently we have seen the rise of the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) with proprietary systems such as Moodle or Blackboard and the use of platforms such as Second Life. Until the arrival of Hibernia uptake by students has been modest. Nevertheless, a survey of five higher education institutions in 2008 suggests that students don't believe that lecturers make good enough use of their VLEs.

Closer examination of what precisely is being described by terms like online, distance, remote, blended and elearning is important. For example, the Hibernia, Oscail and Open University offerings are exclusively by distance. They are not based around a campus and delivery is by correspondence and over the internet. Typically, however, there is a programme of tutorial support at study centres. In addition, live online tutorials via the web are becoming a feature of this provision.

But much of what is described as online learning, or elearning, is designed to supplement traditional delivery. Whether it is simply making lecture notes and PowerPoint slides available online or moderating online discussions outside normal class time, allowing students to review recorded lectures or referencing some of the excellent material already available on sites such as You Tube, Vimeo or TED. Clearly the intention is not to replace traditional delivery.

Bigger claims have been made by some. Last month I wrote about the MIT and Harvard Edx partnership which issued 7,000 online students with certificates recently. The Australian online academic publication The Conversation recently posted an article titled Virtual campus: online universities are the future of higher education. The discussion comments following the article are worth reading to get a sense of the diverse opinions held by academics. Many still mistrust the impact of technology on education.

My own direct experience of using distance and remote strategies on DIT's Visual Art degree delivered in Sherkin Island off the west coast and delivering the module Virtual Environments: Is one life enough? lead me to believe that one of the principal benefits of harnessing technology is the widening of educational opportunity. Those once isolated from participating, whether through economic, geographic, political or personal circumstances, can now access education—should we wish to provide it in this format.

So, back to Hibernia's success over the last ten years. It seems to indicate a very definite market for private higher education—a message unlikely to be lost on the Minister for Education and Skills who is determined to generate additional income streams. It also appears to identify a demand for flexible delivery—something we constantly talk about in higher education circles and a topic to which I will return.

There is a final significant element to the announcement—the decision by Hibernia College to seek validation from the University of London. I don't know the reason for external validation nor whether Irish institutions were considered or approached. Either way, it highlights the importance of reputation in higher education. Not only institutional reputation but national reputation. We have always prided ourselves on the calibre of the Irish educational system: in fact we have developed a brand Education in Ireland that is managed by Enterprise Ireland (meaning the brand is aimed at the export market). Brands need to be nurtured and protected. No doubt the new Qualifications and Quality Assurance Authority is watching with interest.


Why pay for education? 

In the autumn Harvard and MIT expect to welcome 500,000 new students who will take courses delivered on their newly launched edX plantform. Of even greater interest is the fact that the courses will be available free to anybody with a computer and internet connection – no admission requirements either.

Stanford, Princeton and other universities in the US are also offering courses online. Stanford professors Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig deliver an Introduction to Artificial Intelligence to 160,000 students in over 190 countries. This is offered free also.

So, what's the catch? Well, other than the fact that students don't earn credits or receive a university certificate, there doesn't appear to be one. The principle appears to be that knowledge for its own sake should be freely available to all who seek it. If the universities continue to provide this knowledge without charging then the conclusion must be that the fee being paid by traditional students is for their parchment – and the value it carries in the employment market.

There is a significant philosophical principle underlying this development. In effect, it appears to decommodify education while acknowledging the cachet of reputation. For example, being a graduate of Harvard opens doors that would otherwise remain firmly shut. Thus it seems reasonable that those who can afford to join the club should have to pay for the privilege while those who are simply interested in becoming knowledable are free to do so availing of what is presumed to be the best teaching in the world. There is something of the Age of Enlightenment about it with gentlemen amateur scholars pursuing knowledge for its own sake.

But, is it really as simple as that? Will the online experiment remain free? Is the demand sustainable? Will fee-paying students continue to value attendance on campus? 

Thrun suggests that in fifty years the world will have only ten institutions delivering higher education. At the current rate of take up on his module that seems a reasonable prediction but it would put education, the development of society and the discovery of new knowledge in the hands of a very few – giving them unprecedented power and a means of control never envisaged before. Nevertheless, it is a very real possibility. Harvard Professor Clay Christensen (The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education From the Inside Out) argues that the standard model of university education in the US …

… has become unsustainable. To avoid disruption, institutions of higher education must develop strategies that transcend imitation. They must also master the disruptive technology of online learning and make other innovations.

He goes on to remind us that …

… the job that students and policymakers need done is the bestowal of the insights and skills necessary not just to make a living but to make the most of life.

 How do online courses address the latter part of the job? How, indeed, do for profit institutions address it? These questions are set to become increasingly important in Ireland as the Government develop their National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030.