Australian Financial Review
“A thousand year old industry on the cusp of profound change”. This is how global business consultants Ernst & Young describe the changes hitting our tertiary sector as a result of the digital revolution.
It is a dramatic statement, but is probably right.
For a thousand years, the university model has been largely the same: students have gathered to a single location in order to connect with a scarce knowledge source. Initially it may have been a rare, handwritten book. Following the introduction of the printing press, learned professors became the scarce resource. Even today, most learning is organised around the timetable of lecturer and classroom availability across a 26 week academic year.
The internet may change all of this. Online learning can occur anywhere at anytime and potentially lower costs to students. It is happening already and the trend is unmistakeable.
This is an exciting development that has repercussions for our institutions, our students and our economy.
The task for policy makers is to set a framework to capture the potential opportunities of online learning without being prescriptive to institutions. Tony Abbott has established a Working Group which I chair to assess this precise question.
Our starting point is a belief that the growth of online learning will be overwhelmingly beneficial for Australia, but will not be without its challenges.
Online learning completely breaks down the usual barriers to entry of time, space and distance, giving hundreds of thousands of people in this country and globally the opportunity to participate in higher education.
The power of the online environment is not just viewing a lecture on youtube as has already been occurring for some time, but having customised, highly interactive content which enables students to complete coursework at their own pace, and at a time and location of their choice.
For many students juggling work, family and social life, convenience is key. They expect to be able to work, learn and study whenever and wherever they want. Online learning delivers this and other opportunities for students – in particular, in more easily accessing the best learning from around the world.
These principles of affordability, convenience and choice will guide our policy formulation in this space, but not at the expense of quality.
There is a spectrum of quality among courses offered by Australian institutions already, and this would be replicated in online and hybrid offerings. The available research from the United States which examines how outcomes compare is promising. But how should accreditation be managed and student standards assured?
No one suggests that all courses will go online or that it will be the end to face-to-face learning. All number of models will develop and evolve over time. Indeed it may be the catalyst that reverses the homogenization that resulted from the Dawkins reforms.
The other potentially enormous opportunity is from complementing our existing $15 billion education export industry with online offerings.
Over the next decade or two, the demand for education from our region will continue to expand. The OECD predicts the middle class in the Asia Pacific to grow six-fold to 3.2 billion people. This presents an opportunity to help meet the needs of those international students with the desire and drive for higher learning but not the means to afford to study at a campus abroad.
Most of the measures that the Government has introduced over the last five years have focused on the traditional “bricks and mortar” learning model. The review of university funding, for example, did not explore online learning and the potential efficiency gains it could make.
University of New England Vice Chancellor, Prof Jim Barber, suggests that the new university regulator, TEQSA, is “obstructing innovation in online delivery” and therefore putting our competitiveness at risk.
Others have suggested that there needs to be a more coordinated national marketing effort to capture the growing Asian demand for higher learning, both for online as well as on campus study.
These are the some of the issues that the Coalition Working Group will explore.
Traditional higher education environments are important, but the challenges and opportunities of the future must be considered carefully and strategically.
If Ernst & Young are right, and we are on the cusp of a thousand year change, then we had better be prepared.
Alan Tudge is a federal Liberal MP and chairman of the Coalition’s online universities working group