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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

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39 Comments sorted by

  1. Craig Savage

    Professor of Theoretical Physics at Australian National University

    Evidence is critical to this debate, and it is coming in. Using the Khan Academy online learning is a central reform in certain California Schools, and the evidence is that it is working well: see Khan's new book and http://www.khanacademy.org/coach-res/case-studies/v/los-altos

    In the university context, a rigorous study was published this year that compared student learning of first year university statistics in standard lecture based courses with that in blended courses in which all the content…

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    1. Dennis Alexander

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Craig Savage

      Thanks Alasdair for an article that reminds us that technology is a tool in pursuit of certain ends. Also thanks to David for reminding us of Kolb and Honey and Mumford. Nearly twenty years ago, in a training environment I applied Kolb and Honey and Mumford specifically in design and delivery and assessment of training. My experience with Kolb was excellent, Honey and Mumford disappointing - data destroyed on leaving the employer.
      Craig, the intro page to the study you cite an link also contains…

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    2. David Lamond

      Adjunct Professor of HRM & International Business at Victoria University

      In reply to Dennis Alexander

      Hi Dennis, you've also reminded us of the way the bean-counters have broken the effectiveness-efficiency nexus in the interests only of input/output ratios. Let's start with what works (effectiveness) first before we go down the less cost (efficiency) track. We need to strive to be cost-effective (in everyone's interests) rather than just cheap.

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    3. Craig Savage

      Professor of Theoretical Physics at Australian National University

      In reply to Dennis Alexander

      The argument for using automation to increase the cost-effectiveness of introductory university teaching, is to free up teacher time for higher level interactive teaching.

      Sal Khan calls this using technology to "humanise the classroom".

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    4. Jack Arnold

      Polymath

      In reply to Craig Savage

      Hi Craig. You could check out the remarkable work being done teaching Law by eLearning at the ANU Legal Workshop, especially the Grad Dip Legal Practice. The key is having staff who are computer literate and genuinely interested in the progress of their students, however geographically distant & whatever the standard of their Internet connection.

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    5. Jack Arnold

      Polymath

      In reply to Dennis Alexander

      Hi Dennis. You make some good points.

      Sadly, it has been my local observation that the principal reason is to pay for the overburden of professional tertiary administrators who have flourished among the select few of numerous academics who are bored with their speciality & seek to impose themselves, at great personal financial gain, upon university administration.

      At present there are many VCs & pro-VCs etc who are making a greater salary package than the Australian Prime Minister, yet their contribution is no more than a government departmental head.

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    6. David Lamond

      Adjunct Professor of HRM & International Business at Victoria University

      In reply to Jack Arnold

      Hi Jack,

      Ouch!

      Money has been diverted from classrooms and research for a whole variety of reasons, but let's put that to one side for the sake of this conversation, as takes us away from a focus on Alasdair's contribution - reminding us about the importance of being student and staff centric when it comes to learning and teaching: ensuring we have the staff with the requisite skills and commitment to creating learning experiences that are crafted with cognisance of the diversity of our students (and here I'm not just referring to age, gender, ethnicity, SES, etc, but also learning styles, previous learning experiences, etc).

      Anyway, one thing we certainly agree on is your observation that one of the keys is computer literate staff concerned for the progress of their students.

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    7. Jack Arnold

      Polymath

      In reply to David Lamond

      Hi David, nothing personal. Just when I started tertiary studies there was a VC, part-time Faculty Deans/Heads & a few various voluntary Committees that managed the university. Gradually over time the bureaucracy grew to outnumber the academics ... and so the cost cutting reduced the number of academics below the number of bureaucrats so that there are now about 4.5 desk jockeys for every academic. (Well, they had to protect the bureaucratic jobs managing the institution, didn't they?). Consequently, academics became slaves to an increasing burden of paper warfare to justify the bureaucratic empires. Checkout the predictions made by Parkinson's Law.

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    8. Jack Arnold

      Polymath

      In reply to Craig Savage

      HI Craig, thank you for your interesting contribution.

      It is the process best described as "institution ageing" in which bureaucratic pyramid empires are built to justify the salary aspirations of some self-important employees, especially those at the top of the pyramid.

      One manager requires at least two underlings otherwise there is no status to being the manager because there is nothing to manage. One underling could easily be erroneously confused as being the boss, and that is an untenable situation.

      Check it out in better detail in the work by Parkinson, including Parkinson's Law, and his other titles in organisation management.

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    9. David Lamond

      Adjunct Professor of HRM & International Business at Victoria University

      In reply to Jack Arnold

      And no offence taken - I should have put a :-) to denote that. Yes I do remember those days and I've been on both sides of the battles to which you refer (mostly from the School/Faculty perspective). Are we better institutions today for all the additional "accountability" mechanisms that have been instituted? Well .....

      Again my thanks to The Conversation for providing us with this forum, where we can read the series of contributions on the future of higher education and then have this kind of discussion, exploring the multiplicity of perspectives that have been proffered.

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    10. Mat Hardy

      Lecturer in Middle East Studies at Deakin University

      In reply to David Lamond

      And not to defend the burden of bureaucracy, but I have also experienced the days when a lot of the high level managerial stuff fell upon senior academics within say, a department. And many of them were just not up to it. They may have been great researchers, but fiscal, HR and administrative leadership was not their forte.

      Having said that, I think we have gone too far the other way now.

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    11. Mat Hardy

      Lecturer in Middle East Studies at Deakin University

      In reply to Craig Savage

      Oh I agree. And as I mentioned elsewhere, you get someone who is Pro-VC for teaching or whatever, and they haven't taught for 20 years.

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    12. David Lamond

      Adjunct Professor of HRM & International Business at Victoria University

      In reply to Craig Savage

      I don't think Mat was saying that Craig. Indeed, around the world, many high flying teachers and researchers enjoy excellent conditions. In my HR classes over the last couple of decades, when I get to the session on performance management, my argument consistently has been that beyond reasonable minima, people should be rewarded according to their contribution to the organisation and not their place on an organisation chart.

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    13. Jack Arnold

      Polymath

      In reply to Craig Savage

      No good reason. Indeed, one could make a case for reducing the salary packages of senior administrators at VC & pro-VC levels.

      For example, a Director of a government Department makes about $250,000.00 a year with a staff of over 1,400 person spread geographically across the state. This is the size of a small regional university, like University of New England. I am advised that the UNE VC receives about $800,000.00 while personal assistants to the VC (whatever title) are reported as receiving about $400,000.00.

      Then the recent MLC case in Melbourne reported the Principal as receiving $700,000.00 and a debate about other expenses. A state school Principal receives about $140,000.00

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    14. Linus Bowden

      management consultant

      In reply to David Lamond

      David

      It was people like me who conned the universities into creating whole new layers of criminally overpaid, yet underqualified, non-academic bureaucrats in the universities, whose main job was to continue to employ outside consultants, like me, for millions of dollars. Having recently returned to university for study, I was horrified by the Frankenstein I had helped create. In fact I think I even wrote this:

      "Reminding us about the importance of being student and staff centric when it comes to learning and teaching: ensuring we have the staff with the requisite skills and commitment to creating learning experiences that are crafted with cognisance of the diversity of our students."

      I'm surprised you can still get away with this nearly 20 years later.

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    15. Linus Bowden

      management consultant

      In reply to Jack Arnold

      It's not just that layer of $250-1 million a year Pro-Vice-Deputy-Assistant Vice Chancellor of Diversity and Indigenous Technology and Knowledges Director type bureaucrats, but the Kafkaesque labyrinth of minions involve in "Policy", "Strategy", "Equity and Diversity", "Environmental Strategies", which divert tens of millions of dollars to value-destroying politically correct empires, and the ambitious emperors who oversee them.

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    16. David Lamond

      Adjunct Professor of HRM & International Business at Victoria University

      In reply to Linus Bowden

      Hi Linus,

      Confession being good for the soul, I trust you feel better after that.

      As to my earlier comment, no, you didn't write it - for better or worse, it's all mine. It's a view I've held consistently since I first started teaching in 1976.

      Here's hoping you have an enjoyable and productive student experience, consistent with your investment.

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    17. Walter Adamson

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Craig Savage

      Good links, thanks, and they show (a) how this is unstoppable, and (2) that this is just the smallest tip of the iceberg. We are at the Internet 2000 stage of this.

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  2. David Lamond

    Adjunct Professor of HRM & International Business at Victoria University

    Thanks to Alasdair for his contribution and to Craig for the important reminder that it's an evidence base that should be driving our conversation and decision-making. We need to resist the temptation to fall into one of two camps, where we adopt an either/or attitude rather than a more multivariate appreciation.

    In this regard, I'm reminded of studies from my earlier days as a psychology student where the received wisdom, based on a variety of meta-analyses, was that psychotherapy was pointless…

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  3. Jack Arnold

    Polymath

    Thank you Alasdair for an interesting overview. It reminds me of the debate about 20 years ago regarding styles of learning; visual, audio, kinetic.

    Regardless, after too many years in various education establishments I observed that the best "learning environment" included a good looking compassionate female who would praise the students for 'getting it right'.

    Then, there was the early eLearning data from the 80s that showed that eLearning was preferred by many students because the computer did not abuse them when they got the 'wrong' answer. The computer just sat there waiting for the student to try again before progressing. This result is enhanced when a correct answer gives a computer response, say a star burst, or commendation, as used in computer games.

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  4. Mat Hardy

    Lecturer in Middle East Studies at Deakin University

    "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."

    Yes! Yes! Yes!

    I observe the working groups and committees tasked with e-learning reform and see almost all of them haven't been in a classroom for years. Or else they're "Teaching and Learning specialists" who think that something they did with a class of 12 Masters of Education students would be a good idea to roll out to 150 1st year students across two campuses and enrolment modes.

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    1. Linus Bowden

      management consultant

      In reply to Mat Hardy

      One of the best ways universities could add value at low cost is to employ a platoon of bulldozers to raze the Education faculties, and sack all these "Educators".

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    2. Andrew Smith

      Education Consultant at Australian & International Education Centre

      In reply to Mat Hardy

      Education sector is quite hierarchical and a radical yet simple way of assessing or evaluating existing or new teaching/learning methods or technology is to ask students.......

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  5. Fred Pribac

    logged in via email @internode.on.net

    There is something tremendously valuable about a face to face human interaction with a teacher and all the nuance and to-and-froing that that brings - so that when the "penny drops" it can create not only a profound lifelong understanding but even a friendship.

    Online learning is a fairly mundane tool that can deliver content but (at least as I have experienced it) it seldom produces those deeper moments of realized humanity.

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    1. Jack Arnold

      Polymath

      In reply to Fred Pribac

      Hi Fred. Try the ANU Legal Workshop Industrial Law course. Fully on-line, even to discussions with the lecturer at 0200 hours. Addictive!!!!

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    2. Fred Pribac

      logged in via email @internode.on.net

      In reply to Jack Arnold

      Thanks for the recommendation. Your enthusiasm suggests that your online course is a whole lot better than the couple I have tried and the dozen or so I have looked at. Either that or ... are you the provider? :-)

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    3. Jack Arnold

      Polymath

      In reply to Fred Pribac

      heheheheheh ... perfectly acceptable skepticism. Just a very satisfied student who immensely enjoyed a hands on, role playing memorable learning experience.

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  6. James McCluskey

    Editor at The Conversation

    As a student I am happy someone is actually looking at it from our perspective. I am told exactly what I think and how I study. I want lectures and I want face to face time. Technology has assisted my study in amazing ways, recording of lectures and online material, for example. But just because students arn't turning up to lectures doesn't mean they are viewing it online, more often then not it just means they are lazy.

    Why I have to be explained in week one 'Guys this isn't how I wan't this unit taught but...' is ridiculous. Actual lecturers and tutors know best. Talk to them and then students, not accountants or far flung researchers with vague notions on how my generation studies via facebook and twitter.

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  7. Bronwyn OBrien

    Admin Assistant

    I am currently studying on line, with a few face to face workshops in between, and it has both advantages and disadvantages.
    The biggest advantage for me is that, being unemployed at the moment, I can't afford to fork out $10.00 for a trip to the campus every day so doing the course at home is economical. There are two main disadvantages for me, one is that I cannot afford some of the technology required to complete one unit so I have to occasionally go to the campus anyway which can slow the…

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    1. Rob Crowther

      Architectural Draftsman

      In reply to Bronwyn OBrien

      I work from home.

      The remedy to your lack of acknowledgement is to timetable your Uni and broadcast it to those who matter. They will initially ignore it but with reinforcement they will get the idea.

      Also, adopt a technique from when Noah was a boy. Turn the phone off.

      On a broader issue, why are you allowing your study time to be interrupted by a phone in the is first instance?

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    2. Linus Bowden

      management consultant

      In reply to Bronwyn OBrien

      Hi Bronwynne. Yeah I imagine if you are young with no financial reserves, it would be much cheaper to study off-campus. Doesn't Centrelink treat off-campus and on-students the same way?

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  8. Martin Dickens

    Student

    Indeed, from a student's perspective, it is clear that universities have slowly become more and more consumed with the idea of online learning. Whilst I do not oppose the advantages of new technology, I am increasingly concerned by the reliance many subjects at university now have on e-learning. Over the course of my undergraduate degree, i have spent a great amount of time talking with students and engaging in deep research into how technology has slowly replaced traditional face-to-face learning…

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  9. Peter Sommerville

    Scientist & Technologist

    This is a complex topic. I can only speak of personal experience.

    What is e-learning? It has never been clearly defined. But it is not a modern concept.

    Some of us are old enough to remember the correspondence schools of the air that operated in the 50's & 60's. that was a form of e-learning.

    Some of us are old enough to remember learning Latin, French, Mathematics and English by correspondence - a rudimentary precursor to e-learning.

    The original CRC for Sheep & Wool which operated…

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    1. Jack Arnold

      Polymath

      In reply to Peter Sommerville

      Hi Peter ... Uhm ... UNE External Studies was established in about 1955 and required attendance at compulsory course residential schools. This was relaxed about the mid 90s to attract more students & counteract the rise of other tertiary external programmes, often staffed by UNE staff or students from the External Studies Grad Dip programme.

      Indeed, the UK Open University came to Armidale in the early 70 to learn how to run an External Studies programme.

      From hard experience spending too long in academia, my preference was for the External School courses because I was mixing with a diverse range of experience, often with major practitioners in the field of study. Consider a lecture in Industrial Law where one of the students is an Organiser for a major trade union who quite politely corrects the relatively inexperienced lecturer when they made an error.

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  10. Christopher White

    PhD candidate at La Trobe University

    I was immediately reminded of this quote:

    “There are two kinds of fools. One says, "This is old, and therefore good." And one says, " This is new, and therefore better.”

    ― John Brunner, The Shockwave Rider

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