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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.