WHEN former Macquarie University vice-chancellor, Steven Schwartz, is asked to characterise the potential from the online education revolution, his answer is simple and exciting: university courses that are better, faster and cheaper.
Australian universities have an excellent reputation, but despite a doubling of student numbers over the last 20 years, teaching has been a distant priority to research. Over a third of students are not satisfied with teaching according to official surveys, a figure 50 per cent higher than in the UK. Employer dissatisfaction is high on some dimensions and almost half of all academics believe that standards have dropped.
We rightly have a focus on quality teaching in schools, but at the tertiary level there is barely a debate despite clear opportunities for improvement.
Enter the online revolution. The last two years have brought about a quantum jump in the quality and availability of online content with the global brands such as Harvard, MIT and Stanford placing end-to-end courses on the web for free. Over four million have subscribed for these courses already.
This and other technological developments have the potential to significantly improve the quality of teaching by replacing large, passive lectures with interactive, customised online content from the best universities in the world including Australian ones.
The US Department of Education says blended and purely online courses are delivering better outcomes than face-to-face. And this is just the beginning. Unlike face-to-face courses, open online content is open to scrutiny to students and experts alike, which will foster continuous improvement.
As well as quality, there is the benefit of speed. Australia’s million university students are almost all limited to studying for only half of the year. The 26 week academic year was traditionally designed to accommodate a professor’s research schedule, but many students have the capacity to learn faster and online content can facilitate this. There are opportunities for greater productivity of university assets, as well as getting people into the workforce more quickly.
Finally, there are cost benefits. The US National Centre for Academic Transformation has worked with hundreds of universities to redesign courses using technology and greater standardisation. The average cost reduction has been 39 per cent, with no diminution in quality. Australian universities start from a much lower cost position than those in the US, but there are still avenues for efficiency gains.
The prospects for better, faster and cheaper courses are tantalising, but what will make it happen?
While many Australian universities are already adopting new methods, there are few incentives to aggressively and systemically improve teaching even if the tools are available. The global university rankings are driven by research, so this has naturally become the focus.
It is still difficult for overseas providers to get accreditation in Australia, which weakens competitive pressures. Moreover, Labor has introduced regulatory hurdles which stifle innovation according to many university leaders.
The Coalition’s Online Education Working Group is working on policy measures with the aim of ensuring that Australian students can benefit from all that these global developments have to offer. Our aim is not to be prescriptive to institutions, but to create a framework to ensure that teaching and learning is as good as possible.
If we get it right, then perhaps Steven Schwartz’s vision will be the reality.
Alan Tudge is chairman of the Coalition’s Online Higher Education Working Group.