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What students want and how universities are getting it wrong

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, Victoria University’s…

Online education might not cut it for students who want quality learning and more access to staff. Student 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, Victoria University’s Alasdair McAndrew looks at how the student has been overlooked in the rush to online education.


Do the phrases “blended-learning” and “virtual classrooms” fill you with excitement, or are they the kind of buzzwords that produce a resigned fatigue?

Whether you’re a “technopositivist” or a “technoskeptic”, it’s clear many universities are getting it wrong when it comes to e-learning – neither considering the needs of the student or the teacher.

They assume a good online education will just happen, and that both staff and students will rapturously embrace these new technologies – whatever the quality of access or learning.

In the immortal words of author, Douglas Adams: “We are stuck with technology when what we really want is just stuff that works.”

A skeptical eye

E-learning has been defined by D. Randy Garrison: “as electronically mediated asynchronous and synchronous communication for the purposes of constructing and confirming knowledge.” While “electronically” could easily be replaced with “online” – you get the general idea.

Although I love technology and gadgets of all sorts, I am not uncritical of online learning, and remain unconvinced of the grandiose claims made by e-learning proponents.

For a start, there is a widely held assumption that because online learning is “A Good Thing”, all staff and all students will want it and want to embrace it. However, the purported benefits of e-learning for students are balanced out by some serious disadvantages, including problems of access, less time face-to-face with teachers and doubts about its effectiveness.

Where’s the evidence?

For the moment, we don’t yet know if online education actually gets students learning. There are hardly any studies which formally evaluate the effectiveness of e-learning on a large scale; almost all consider small sample sizes in a few subjects only, and come to conclusions which generally fall short of being ringing endorsements.

For example, a report of a large meta-analysis released in 2010 found that “on average, students in online learning conditions performed modestly better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.” But this statement was modified further – it was not necessarily the learning environment which was responsible for the “modest” success, but the extra time and attention which came with it.

In a 2009 paper, researchers tried to evaluate online education using a set of learning objectives known as Bloom’s taxonomy. They concluded that “individual and instructional factors do not have a significant effect on e-learning.” In effect, from their (very small) sample size, they claimed that e-learning was no worse than conventional learning and teaching methods. Again, this is a very meagre claim.

Better access needed

Another unfounded assumption is that the institution’s infrastructure will support online education, and that all staff and students will have equal and unfettered access.

However, as has been discussed in this series, not all students have unfettered access to the internet at all times and places. Online learning can easily discriminate between the haves and the have-nots.

Even at my own university, which has a particularly heterogeneous student cohort, there are students (including a prize-winner) who couldn’t afford mobile phones of any sort, and plenty more without smart phones. Many students can only access the internet at the university.

There is plenty of criticism aimed at online courses now for this reason. But the problem will only increase as more students attend post-secondary education, including those from refugee families and other digitally poor backgrounds.

What students want

Remarkably, educational policies are usually written by those who are the most removed from actual teaching. That’s how we get the curious disparity between what students want and need, and what university managers think will be good for them.

Writing in 2009, researchers Limniou and Smith found that staff assumed that online courses would help time-strapped students, and also “strengthen the students’ background knowledge”, whereas students actually wanted more interaction with the teaching staff and more individual feedback.

Another recent study of online learning found that students want interaction and personal connection, as well as more use made of mobile devices.

Universities meanwhile have a rather touching faith in videos, and email. But there have been few attempts to encompass mobile technologies, like smart phones, 3G/4G networks.

There is a growing interest in the use of such technology, unfortunately referred to as “m-learning”, but it is as yet in its infancy.

An academic complaint?

You might think from much of the above that I’m a reactionary curmudgeon who believes that education has gone downhill since the days of chalk and slates. This is not so. I am a passionate believer in using whatever tools, technology, practices or processes will help to engage students and encourage their learning.

What I don’t believe in is the willy-nilly throwing of technology in the general direction of staff and students, and the totally unfounded assumption that technology, in and of itself, will enhance student learning and engagement.


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 thirteen 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

Part eleven: Online education at the coalface: what academics need to know, Rod Lamberts & Will Grant

Part twelve: A little bit more conversation: the limits of online education, Shirley Alexander