Online education at the coalface: what academics need to know

Online education may mean more stress and workload for academics, not less. Stressed academic image from www.shutterstock.com

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.

Problematic pedagogy

OK then, what about pedagogical implications?

The single most touted advantage of online education that gets rolled out regularly is that it increases access. More students have more access to more educational opportunities and from more institutions than ever before. And this is increasing at a phenomenal – and also laudable – rate.

Hard to argue with that kind of “opportunities for all” philosophy.

We can’t let all the details go unchallenged, though. There are aspects of online educational offerings that arguably provide diminished versions of face-to-face options. It would be remiss to not consider if it is better to have more people accessing lesser products, or fewer having access to the best?

For example, interacting with teachers and peers online via text-based conversations and asynchronously delivered material diminishes the experience that real-life interactions provide. Nuance, tone and body language are all lost.

People also learn by modelling behaviours – echoing other students – which once again is harder to do without direct interaction.

In a discipline like ours – science communication – learning, practising and receiving feedback on presentations is essential. We currently have no way to remotely simulate that in-the-flesh experience with an audience

We also know anecdotally that lecturers in areas that handle politically or socially more volatile subject matter are becoming more reluctant to share their thoughts and expert opinions in fear of these being taken out of context once they are released into cyberspace.

Students in such courses are getting sanitised content and a diminished experience because of the mere thought of online dissemination.

A better way

The view isn’t all bleak.

But we all know criticism is easy, and we are well aware that we could rightly be labeled as whining, recidivist academics (so far). So here are a few suggestions.

First, there’s no point in putting our fingers in our ears and making “la la la” noises whenever online education rears its head. The online educational environment, and incumbent student and managerial expectations, are well and truly here. We need to work out how to do it well for all parties.

We need to enhance institutional capacity to respond quickly to changing platforms and cyberspace trends. This must include systems allowing flexibility in platform choices. The current system where IT bureaucrats decide on single packages and platforms must be put out of our misery.

It’s critical to provide academics, technical staff and administrators reasonable time, resources and flexibility not to just come to grips with new techniques and tools, but to explore, learn about, and master them. This is no passing trend, and like anything complex, there is no long term advantage in taking shortcuts.

We should explore novel revenue avenues and disconnect from the old-fashioned, pay-for-course models that will struggle to cope with burgeoning online educational offerings that are available cheaply, or even free. It used to be said there’s no way to make money on the internet. It seems Google and Amazon didn’t get that memo.

Smart partnering will be essential in blazing a successful trail through the cyber-education-sphere too, and this will probably need to be linked to more sophisticated and routine use of crowd-sourcing. There’s no point in railing against Wikipedia and online collaboration. It’s here and it’s being used. Embrace it, adapt (to) it.

With well-researched, clearly articulated guidelines and resources in place, we academics can far more effectively explore the best ways to connect with our current and future students.

But, there is one more thing to consider before closing. Heretical and anti-progress though this may sound, there is nothing wrong with being a little circumspect about this online bandwagon.

Sometimes it will be right and proper to declare a course, a skill, a knowledge set or an experience suitable for the online world, but some won’t. We need to choose courses carefully before we put an “e” in front of their name.


The series will conclude next week with a panel discussion in Canberra co-hosted with the Office for Learning and Teaching and involving the Minister for Tertiary Education, Chris Evans.

We’d love you to take part: leave your comments, join the discussion on twitter.com/conversationEDU, facebook.com/conversationEDU.


This is part eleven of our series on the Future of Higher Education. You can read other instalments by clicking the links below:

Part one: Online opportunities: digital innovation or death through regulation?, Jane Den Hollander

Part two: MOOCs and exercise bikes – more in common than you’d think, Phillip Dawson & Robert Nelson

Part three: How Australian universities can play in the MOOCs market, David Sadler

Part four: MOOC and you’re out of a job: uni business models in danger, Mark Gregory

Part five: Radical rethink: how to design university courses in the online, Paul Wappett

Part six: Online education: can we bridge the digital divide?, Tim Pitman

Part seven: Online learning will change universities by degrees, Margaret Gardner

Part eight: The university campus of the future: what will it look like?, David Lamond

Part nine: Deadset? MOOCs and Australian education in a globalised world, Ruth Morgan

Part ten: Research online: why universities need to be knowledge brokers, Justin O'Brien

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