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Online students and “on-campus students learning online” - is there a difference?

On-campus students online

In a recent interview with the University of New England’s (UNE) ex Vice-Chancellor Jim Barber, he talked about the disruptive threat of MOOCs to the Australian higher education system. The threat was largely being ignored by what he perceived to be blinkered and risk-averse educational leaders and governance boards. It was not clear from the interview what he saw as the solution but part of the issue was around the dilemma posed between cheap online education epitomised by MOOCs, and the increasingly expensive and traditional on-campus version. Even without confounding the issue with the idea of MOOCs, Barber observed that:

“(In theory) you really could jettison UNE’s entire on-campus operation, get rid of enormous cost and run a fairly lucrative (on-line) operation. But the sort of damage that does to the (Armidale) region for the foreseeable future is unconscionable”

The interesting part of this is that even Barber makes a distinction between students who are online and those that are enrolled in on-campus courses. We all believe to a greater or lesser extent that students who come onto a campus are engaging in activities largely different from those who access the university only through their computers.

The problem is, the difference between online and on-campus is becoming increasingly blurred. On-campus students spend an increasing amount of time using their computers and accessing content through the Internet. The amount of time a student might directly interact with lecturers and other teaching staff is usually defined as contact time and this averages around 3 to 4 hours a week. This means that the majority of their time that they are spending studying even as on-campus students is actually online. At UWA, like other universities, our libraries are now being converted into studying spaces that are constantly full of students plugged into their computers. Even during the so-called contact hours, students are multitasking with their laptops open taking notes and checking other sources of information.

Proponents of on-campus university education will argue that students will also be engaging with each other on team work and projects and socialising. This is true, but they will like all young people, be simultaneously interacting with each other via social media and messaging. Again, what was once limited by being physically co-located has now shifted to making where you are, far less important. Add to this the fact that a large number of students don’t now bother to actually come onto campus because they are working or find the effort of travel too much, the difference between online and oncampus narrows.

There are obviously things like laboratory work that can only currently happen in a physical setting on-campus. But even these are now being challenged as large class sizes and consolidation of teaching make them impractical to run anymore.

We usually do not acknowledge the fact that our students who are enrolled for on-campus courses will actually spend only a fraction of their time in that physical space and even then, the significance of it being a university campus will be simply the place they happened to be when they were online. We usually care about how our physical spaces look and what amenities are available but never notice poor wireless networks frustrating students trying to work online or worry about the less than professional online content provided to them for use in their studies.

Jim Barber is right to worry about the threat that MOOCs pose. For our students, the online world is now second nature even if they themselves are not fully aware of it. Most would not readily admit to the relative amounts of time they spend learning online versus non-online. The move to an education system that was driven by the use of MOOCs would not be that great a leap for them.

On the other hand, when academics assess the threat they compare the quality of online with what they falsely perceive to be a largely mythical on-campus experience.

That is not to say that being on-campus to do online courses is a bad thing. UWA for example has a beautiful campus with increasingly attractive learning spaces for students to do exactly that.

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32 Comments sorted by

  1. Mark Amey

    logged in via Facebook

    Yes, universities that aren't offering moocs should be very afraid of them. They allow potential students sample a subject, without enrolling in a semester, they showcase the teaching styles of the lecturers involved and bring kudos to the unis who do them well. The real payoff is that students may end up enrolling in paying courses!

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  2. Gavin Moodie
    Gavin Moodie is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Adjunct professor at RMIT University

    Many universities have been offering for some time what in Australia and the UK is called blended learning and what in the US is called hybrid courses. Ironically, it is the elite mooc providers (and other laggards such as UNE) which are rather late to the blended mode.

    We will see, but I suspect that dependent learners such as school leavers will continue to need face to face interaction and support to keep them on track. Some of us wagged lectures decades before personal computers became ubiquitous, let alone before the current information and communication revolution. But we still needed the occasional tute or lecturer's prod us to keep on task, notwithstanding that all the curriculum was available in distance education materials.

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  3. Sue Wilson

    logged in via email @uon.edu.au

    As a proponent and consumer of on-campus university education, an important element of my on-campus experience is the engagement with others. However, it is somewhat ageist for the author to assume that all students are young people, and that they will be “simultaneously interacting with each other via social media and messaging”. It could be argued that such interaction with technology demonstrates a lack of true engagement with study, and that students’ lack of motivation to come onto campus both…

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  4. Nicholas Sheppard
    Nicholas Sheppard is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Computer Scientist & Teacher

    That libraries-cum-study spaces are "constantly full of students plugged into their computers" suggests to me that said students *do* value the physical spaces provided by universities, whatever else they might be doing on-line.

    And is the Vice-Chancellor of any campus-less UNE really going to run the whole thing from a mobile phone in his/her bedroom? :-)

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  5. Julie Crews

    Ethicist at Edith Cowan University

    The key to successful online learning is how well the students are engaged with the lecturer and other students. One of the issues is that there is a myth that online teaching is easier and less demanding. It is if all you do is post up the material and leave the students to their own devices except assessing their assignments and returning them. Universities often do not have quotas for online enrolments.There would be a riot if on-campus lecturers had 80 students in a seminar. In my experience students are not so much concerned about all the latest technology being used online. They just want to know that there is someone there to assist them and they can have simple discussions via online portals such as Blackboard or MOODLE.

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  6. Manuel Jose Oyson

    Lecturer (Law), Central Queensland University

    That is a wonderful piece and quite appropriate, especially for academic staff of Australian law schools. Even now, there is still a lot of apprehension about online learning, especially online law courses.

    We are currently keeping a close eye on possible changes and greater regulation of law courses as a consequence of the recent speech of the Hon. Marilyn Warren, Chief Justice of the Victoria Supreme Court. She expressed her apprehensions about the disappearance of the traditional, face-to-face…

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  7. Jay Wulf

    Digerati at nomeonastiq.com

    My ' on-campus' experiences entailed a lot of drinking and exploring the student body. Something that is hard to come by online.

    I do however find the 'MOOCS' label dismissive.

    With the increased quality content and variety of courses from sites such as (https://www.khanacademy.org/) the sole advantage a university will offer to the undergrads is really only a recognisable piece of paper and a photo in a funny hat at the end, which arguably is the *SOLE* reason many students 'do' university…

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  8. Russell Hamilton

    Librarian

    David, let me take you back to the UWA campus in 1970: at the front was the University Bookshop, always full of students browsing for whatever was new - you weren't going to find Carlos Castaneda in the Reid Library. Because you called in yourself, or accompanied a class mate who was going there, you got into the habit of browsing in bookshops, and knowing that university classes didn't cover everything.

    The bookshop was next to the Ref - the perfect coffee shop to spend time discussing the world…

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    1. David Glance

      Director of Innovation, Faculty of Arts, Director of Centre for Software Practice at University of Western Australia

      In reply to Russell Hamilton

      I, and a number of students, still do the things you describe. So yes, there is an advantage to being on campus and participating in all of the activities and opportunities it has to offer - but there are many who don't, or engage with life in other ways - through work or mostly through their social lives.

      One could also argue that the same applies to staff - interesting to see how many actually work from home for example - for me - I love being on campus.

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    2. Russell Hamilton

      Librarian

      In reply to David Glance

      True, there always were people who couldn't or didn't want to take advantage of the whole university experience - but isn't there something about the whole experience worth celebrating and promoting?

      So when you say "but there are many who don't, or engage with life in other ways - through work or mostly through their social lives." it makes me wonder if you equate those 'other ways' as being a sort of replacement for the campus experience.

      This will sound old-fashioned, but shouldn't a university experience be about being introduced to the best in life? You could waste a lot of time following 'other ways' when, in your formative years, you could have the benefit of being immersed daily and bodily in a campus experience designed to promote students to grow in the deepest and roundest way.

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    3. David Roth

      Postgrad History Student

      In reply to Russell Hamilton

      Thanks for that blast from the past, Russell, it brings back fond memories. I studied at UWA in the 1960s.

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    4. David Roth

      Postgrad History Student

      In reply to David Glance

      I don't see how MOOC or other online courses will replace small group tutorials and seminars or actual contact with human beings. There was a failed attempt to do that at my current Uni.
      "There are obviously things like laboratory work that can only currently happen in a physical setting on-campus. But even these are now being challenged as large class sizes and consolidation of teaching make them impractical to run anymore."
      So how are science students going to complete their studies without doing any prac work (and tutorials)? Watch someone else do it online?

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  9. Stephen Pinel

    Educator at Unity College & CQU

    I work part time for a regional university in Queensland in an online environment, contracted as a course facilitator (tutor) for external students in both the Engineering and Education faculties. This work happens entirely off-campus, and I have regular contact with my students via email, Moodle and on the phone when necessary. My day job is as a teacher, (formerly an engineer), and I consider myself to be fairly proficient in eLearning in a secondary education environment.

    I studied engineering…

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  10. John Zigar

    Engineer, researcher

    I believe that online learning is superior to on-campus learning mainly due to the fact that you don't waste your time on campus, listening to boring lectures which can be read up in 5 minutes and so on. I studied at Monash and then later with an overseas university. Due to the time saved from travelling, my marks improved as did my understanding of the subject matter. This is because I could commit more time to studies and when and where I wanted to. There are study courses where attendance may be required (e.g. medicine during an autopsy) but generally, save yourself the travel. My wife is currently studying and she finds it a joke that she has to attend a single lecture twice a week. Classic waste of time.

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  11. Jonathan Marshall

    Founder

    You do not need a university for students to connect and collaborate.

    I went to Sydney University where I could spend hours travelling to get on campus of connect with a group of students in my course at a local cafe saving several hours a day of transport. All the lecturers were online and to be honest most of the tutors were grad students only doing the job to pay their bills so not all that motivated.

    To my mind you definitely do need the face to face interaction but that doesn't need to happen on a distant campus. Perhaps set up sections in every Gloria Jeans for students to meet and use the wi-fi ...OH they are already doing this !!!!!

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    1. Russell Hamilton

      Librarian

      In reply to Jonathan Marshall

      I completely agree that most/all of the vocational training part of many courses can be done online, and perhaps better online.

      But it would be a pity if universities became just that and we lost sight of the value of the traditional university experience. UWA had a really beautiful campus and to spend a lot of time there was nothing like being in a Gloria Jeans.

      I think we need more good, cheap student accommodation on campuses to get around the travelling/parking problems.

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    2. Russell Hamilton

      Librarian

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      No, I didn't mean that. I meant all those university subjects where the content is easily, and more conveniently, presented online. It won't work for, say music students, who need to play together in groups, but it will be fine for studying history , or management theory etc. or many of the vocational subjects now taught at universities e.g. librarianship.

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    3. Gavin Moodie
      Gavin Moodie is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Adjunct professor at RMIT University

      In reply to Russell Hamilton

      I suggest that the major limitation to online and indeed any form of asynchronous study is not subject but student. Many students, particularly school leavers, depend heavily on their institution for the motivation and discipline to keep on track. This still seems to be provided best on campus.

      While asynchronous learning is possible for school pupils with intensive home support, no one is suggesting that this replace most face to face school education. Why should students be able to manage asynchronous learning so much better when they are only 1 year older?

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    4. Russell Hamilton

      Librarian

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      OTOH online programs might enable a closer tracking of the student's learning? Even when I was at university many students missed lectures and borrowed notes from others, turned up for exams and passed.

      If the student has to read online material, fill in a quiz at the end (all tallied automatically) any omissions could be picked up earlier!

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    5. Gavin Moodie
      Gavin Moodie is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Adjunct professor at RMIT University

      In reply to Russell Hamilton

      True, learning analytics can track students' progress more closely and are more available for online learning, tho they are reasonably available for on campus study since most subjects are blended online and on campus these days.

      But the main problem with asynchronous learning has always been its very high attrition, and that is likely due to lesser student engagement with their learning which in turn is likely due to their lack of interaction with their course.

      Some early warnings should prompt early intervention, but thus far more asynchronous interaction has not been found to reduce attrition much.

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    6. David Roth

      Postgrad History Student

      In reply to Russell Hamilton

      Can't agree with that at all for history teaching, Russell. Small group interaction to discuss ideas and the reading (i.e. tutorials and seminars) is essential. Also gives the tutor a very good idea of who has done the reading and thinking.

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    7. Russell Hamilton

      Librarian

      In reply to David Roth

      David, I thought 'small group interaction' had already disappeared from university education, so that's encouraging.

      Gavin is right about the motivation of actually sitting in front of your tutor. I had some ordinary lecturers and tutors, but you only need a couple of terrific ones, which I also had, to realise that there's an element of master/apprentice to any real education and that's likely to be easier done face-to-face.

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  12. Frank Black

    Fitter

    You said: "There are obviously things like laboratory work that can only currently happen in a physical setting on-campus. But even these are now being challenged as large class sizes and consolidation of teaching make them impractical to run anymore."

    This might be overstated - if a university wants to offer degrees in many well paying fields, they *must* have lab time.

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    1. David Roth

      Postgrad History Student

      In reply to Frank Black

      Quite right, Frank. Who is an employer going to hire first, a person who has actually handled laboratory equipment and performed experiments, or a person who has only watched it being done?

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  13. Belinda Ireland

    logged in via LinkedIn

    Using my current experience of a MOOC course as a gauge it will be a while before MOOCs are a threat to on campus learning. Between time differences, and perhaps lack of staff at the course provider, I have had both of my questions go unanswered. The experience has been highly frustrating and I do feel like a voice in the wilderness. As a student studying via on campus learning it is easy to rock up to the lecturers door, during the designated hours, and ask the question and receive a response.

    More funding and/or allocation of academics time would be required before MOOCs are an effective method of course delivery. (for people in the developed world who have choices).

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    1. Mark Amey

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Belinda Ireland

      Belinda, I've done four moocs in the last six months. Admittedly some were quite short, so wouldn't constitute a university subject, but the lecturers were engaging, and the tutor answered questions within a day. In one course all of the lecturers would have a round table discussion of the most common questions from the previous week.

      Pretty good for free courses, which piqued my interest, and stimulated me to enroll in a formal, on line university course. This is probably one of the main advantages of moocs, free advertising for unis that run them well.

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    2. Belinda Ireland

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      Im starting to think thats the trick though, to adapt to the incoming flow of information without expectation of return communication or clarification, learn as much as possible within the constraints and move onto the next potential learning opportunity. Not particularly efficient but still more informative than watching the telie on a Tuesday night.

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    3. Belinda Ireland

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Mark Amey

      Ah you've been lucky. Or I;ve been unlucky. Whichever. I'm about to start a second course with a different provider it will be interesting to see if they are "chalk and talk" or more interactive. I'm hoping for the later.

      I don't believe my experience with this particular course has created a negative or a positive opinion of this particular institution. The academic is certainly knowledgeable and I'm grateful the knowledge is being shared.

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  14. alan w. shorter

    research assistant

    I wish when I was an undergrad there were only 10-15 in a tutorial. Nowadays even at top GO8 universities, undergrad humanities tutorials can have 30 students. I never had a tutorial with less than 25 students enrolled. Usually a complete waste of time.

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