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Online opportunities: digital innovation or death through regulation?

A flexible online learning environment is what Australian university students want, so what’s getting in the way? Student image from

FUTURE OF HIGHER EDUCATION: The rise of online and blended learning and the development of free online courses is set to transform the higher education sector. We’ve asked our authors how to remake the university sector so it can best respond to this revolution.

For two weeks, we’ll be running a selection of their responses. The series will conclude later this month with a panel discussion in Canberra co-hosted with the Office for Learning and Teaching and involving the Minister for Tertiary Education, Chris Evans.

The steady measured progress of innovation in higher education has been replaced with an explosion of new ideas. The change is both exhilarating and frightening. Each day there are new innovations, as more and more experts explain where these changes might take us.

New ideas are flourishing around Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs, badging, portfolios, assessment, and other ways of extracting value and efficiency from the digital learning experience. Just six months ago most of us had never heard of MOOCs, but if you search for this very odd acronym now you get a flood of results.

Much of the digital innovation so far has come from the United States, but what about Australia? There are some urgent questions around whether we, too, are able to nurture innovation.

Regulation and restriction

There is, at the moment, a reasonably rigid regulatory environment for Australian universities: the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) is the regulator and the Australian Qualifications Framework Council (AQFC) sets the framework within which we must operate.

There are rules, for example, about the volume of learning and the time required to receive an award. But will these rules matter with the transition to online self-paced learning?

Currently incorporating new technology within this regulatory framework is difficult. For example, I’ve been trying to get digital badges to count towards the testamur; and using micro badges as a way to build interesting portfolios for those who do not want whole degrees. Shoehorning some of these innovations into the Australian Regulatory Framework is testing.

And what if they don’t fit? There will be risks in trying out new ideas and providing students with a better flexible, mobile education. But the bigger risk might well be sticking with the old paradigm. Our students may look elsewhere for other institutions, whether they be here or abroad, online or face-to-face.

How TEQSA, the Standards Panel and the AQFC get up to speed on these new disruptive innovations must be a consideration for anyone about to launch their own MOOC or looking to reconfigure their award content and accreditation.

Challenges ahead

There are two other challenges that I see as potential barriers to Australian-driven innovation.

The first is the short supply of venture capital to test new ideas. For example, Coursera, the current darling of the new disruptive environment, was started through venture capital in the US. It enabled them to develop a stylish and flexible new learning platform which has set a new standard.

Coursera, along with other groups like EdX have an exclusivity that means prestige is assured. So far, only top ranked universities can join, which means only a few institutions from Australia. Like the very rich who marry within a small cohort of similar families, with MOOCs the Ivy League and the Sandstones are likely to only partner up with each other.

While it’s a good signal that our best institutions are accepted into companies such as Coursera, what are we, the large majority who actually educate the wider population doing to develop and foster our own new teaching and learning tools? The game is slowly changing with some MOOC platforms becoming more flexible about who they partner up with. But we need to find ways to access capital and soon, or risk being left behind.

Risky business

The second challenge is risk aversion, which in a way comes back to regulation. The appetite to try the new, to innovate always has some pain. Introducing new things into a class of second year students is sometimes met with howls of despair and the associated drop in satisfaction recorded in our evaluation systems.

As education institutions, we have become slaves to getting a “good” score. We need to be braver. This does not mean being fool hardy and it does not mean using our classrooms, in the cloud or on location, for hasty experiments.

But it does mean we should be looking at ensuring our students learn in ways that will demonstrate their skills and enable them to be successful in the new economy.

Our old ways will not wash anymore and if we don’t change, our students will go elsewhere. The cloud, which enables international providers to engage our students for education and credit, is but a click away.

Will Rogers famously summed it up: “even if you are on the right track, you will get run over if you just sit there”. The paradigm shift is occurring and we all, educators, regulators and governors, need to be thinking and innovating with an increased appetite for risk - or we will be run over.

We’d love you to take part: leave your comments, join the discussion on,

This is part one of our series on the Future of Higher Education. You can read other instalments by clicking the links below:

Part two: MOOCs and exercise bikes – more in common than you’d think, Phillip Dawson and Robert Nelson

Part three: How Australian universities can play in the MOOCs market, David Sadler

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