It’s a brave new world for higher education in Australia. We will soon have an open market and an overall reduction in government expenditure per student. This means universities will need to find alternate sources of revenue or find ways to make savings.
While it has been well documented that fee deregulation will likely lead to increases in student contributions, universities will also be looking to increase student numbers and reduce their operating costs.
One seemingly simple solution for many institutions will be to push degree programs online to compete more broadly and attempt to gain a greater market share. With increasing financial pressure placed on universities, technologies are also likely to be seen as providing opportunities for cost cutting. Why pay a professor to be in a lecture theatre when students can just learn from a computer at home?
One of the expectations behind deregulation is that universities will now have freedom to innovate. The assumption is that universities can be open to innovate in a competitive market while still maintaining quality. Is it realistic that universities can cut costs while simultaneously expecting to provide greater flexibility and for students to pay higher fees?
Technology as a cost saving measure
There are many ways technology can be used to deliver courses and programs. The most obvious is that it can be used to replace the knowledge transfer function traditionally fulfilled by lectures and tutorials.
While lectures are relatively inexpensive given the large teacher to student ratio, delivering content online is seen as an even cheaper alternative. Students completing degree programs online don’t require classrooms or other facilities, meaning staff and infrastructure costs will be reduced.
Technology can also be used to simulate peer-to-peer and student-to-teacher contact. New technologies allow students to get more personalised learning including automated feedback and adaptive tutoring.
In each of these cases the major selling points are not just about the flexibility these tools provide but the potential to save money. The quality of the learning experience might therefore not always be the top priority when these technologies are implemented.
The reality of learning online
Many new technological tools, while innovative and revolutionary, were not developed for educational purposes. Most are devices or applications repurposed from business, communications or entertainment uses. Despite this, there is a seemingly endless procession of shiny new tools claiming to enhance learning, leading to misconceptions that computers can at least partly replace teachers or replicate the on-campus experience for less money.
To design and effectively deliver high-quality online degree programs, knowledge of the content, the technology, and teaching itself is necessary. It isn’t effective to just bolt new technologies and innovations onto existing pedagogical approaches. Using new tools often requires a complete redesign of learning activities, assessment and the broader curriculum. As new ways of communicating online become available, it is necessary to constantly revisit how to make the most of them.
Complex design problems need to be overcome in order to deliver quality online learning, and will continue to need fixing in the future. The associated and ongoing costs of this design and development tend to be overlooked in the enthusiasm about the potential of new technologies to reduce costs and increase the flexibility of course offerings.
Pay more get less?
The marketing departments of institutions will make claims about both the flexibility and quality of their online offerings. These claims will seem particularly appealing to students if they think the higher price means higher quality.
The quality of the learning design could become a secondary consideration for institutions behind cost reduction and hidden beneath this illusion of quality. A situation could therefore occur where students pay more, or at the very least have increased debt, but actually get a poorer quality education.
If innovation is to occur in higher education, it needs to be as a result of teaching and tools which improve learning, not just because they reduce cost, increase efficiency or are packaged with higher fees and the illusion of quality. Now more than ever institutions need to invest in ongoing, evidence-based design and development which enables students to learn in the most effective ways.
As it is easy for students to spread word of bad experiences in online courses, it is only a matter of time before institutions offering substandard online courses become known for it. If courses are not designed and delivered effectively, a short-term gain in market share could come at the cost of long-term reputation for delivering quality higher education.