A little bit more conversation: the limits of online education

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, Shirley Alexander from…

Communication is a vital skill for university graduates, but in the move to online education we could be selling students short. Communication 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, Shirley Alexander from UTS looks at the limitations of online learning.


If you have listened to the debate so far about online education, you’d think learning was simply about content. Of course, universities teach the “hard skills” of a particular discipline – what a lawyer knows about law, or an engineer knows about building design.

But the silence on what the transition to online learning will mean for all-important “soft skills” is deafening.

What are soft skills?

Soft skills broadly involve communication, social ability, problem solving and other personal traits.

Increasingly, soft skills are high on employer’s check lists. They want university graduates with expertise in their chosen field, who can also communicate well, manage change and think critically. This world of work expects graduates to solve complex problems, and communicate ideas often in global teams across cultures.

It’s a harsh reality but those who have the technical skill but lack this social intelligence will be left behind.

Discipline-based learning

Graduates can learn a lot through Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and other online learning programs. But ultimately, the development of communication skills and many other soft skills is best achieved face-to-face.

At the moment, most universities aim to do this with a “statement of capabilities” – a list of skills from beginning to advance level that students should have achieved by the end of their degree.

Let’s take the soft skill of spoken communication for example. The University of Technology, Sydney’s Faculty of Law has identified advanced communicators as those who are “highly effective in using the English language to convey legal ideas and views to different audiences and environments”. Those with basic skills are able to report back after a court visit for example, while advanced communicators can effectively advocate within a court room setting.

On the other hand, the Faculty of Engineering and IT aims to graduate students who will be competent at working across disciplines to solve a design problem. In this case, students will need to be able to communicate effectively as a “leader of diverse teams within a multi-level, multi-disciplinary and multi-cultural setting.

Although students in both disciplines are developing spoken communication skills, they are doing so within the specific professional contexts. What is common to both groups is the way in which they progressively develop these skills. First through modelling and looking to others; then through participation in exercises and receiving feedback; then practice and reflection; and finally, assessment.

Where does online learning fit in?

Using the example above of the Law program, students might be able to use MOOCS or online learning programs to read about communication in Law and even to watch online videos of highly competent lawyers modelling effective advocacy. But MOOCs cannot allow for students to practise these skills themselves and then to receive feedback on their performance.

For most situations, the nuances of communication mean that the practice should be carried out in the most authentic context possible. In the case of Law for example, most universities have a Moot Court to ensure an authentic experience. Students in Engineering and IT faculties increasingly have access to groupwork rooms that are designed to mirror those in contemporary workplaces.

An example of a workspace suited to developing ‘soft skills’. Anna Zhu

Work arounds

Online courses can only go so far in teaching soft skills to graduates. Students need the opportunity to practise and receive feedback on their performance in an authentic context, by an expert who can provide meaningful feedback.

Some have suggested that online students could submit video performances to groups of online peers who would respond with helpful comments. For this to be effective, peer learners would need to be committed to spending the significant amounts of time necessary to provide such feedback. These peers would also need to have a level of expertise themselves, including the ability to provide useful critique.

Other alternatives might include students seeking this level of feedback from the workplace or other mentors.

The future of online learning and teaching

For these reasons, the future of higher education undoubtedly lies in a hybrid learning experience – blending online and face-to-face learning.

Online would work for some parts of a course. For example, engineering students might access personalised learning material, simulations and activities on engineering mechanics or circuit theory.

But on campus, they would engage in social, active learning activities which promote deeper engagement with that content, at the same time as developing soft skills.

These face-to-face learning activities would challenge their current understanding of the world, help them link new concepts to what they already know, and ultimately develop new understandings.

Students' university experience should play a critical role in the development of these difficult soft skills. Frankly, any university that can be replaced by a MOOC, should be.


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 twelve 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