A recent article in a major newspaper the “Death of the dotcom degree” described the failure of ‘virtual’ universities (The Sunday Age 20090222). While I can’t disagree with the core of the article, that online learning as delivered by most universities around the world is unpopular, I do challenge the reasons they gave for this being so. While the article blames the product I would lay blame squarely with the providers who develop the product.
Our universities have failed dismally in the development of online learning. Yet writing off online education at this point in time is equivalent to looking at the technology of the car in 1900 and concluding that this will never evolve into anything. The problem then was exactly the same as we have now. Universities and other online providers have seen a change in the medium but failed to change the form or the message to exploit its possibilities.
At the turn of the 20th century car makers were doing the same thing. They modelled the objects of the new paradigm on the familiar of the old. They called the car a horseless carriage. It took a generation to ‘get’ the difference between a horse and a car. We are in an equivalent space with online learning now.
The paper quotes Clifford Stoll, one of my favourite sceptics, with describing online degrees as third rate. I couldn’t agree more. The lecture-essay learning management systems developed 15 years ago still dominate. They are true horseless carriages in that they were designed to deliver the existing antiquated teaching and learning model with ‘modern’ technology.
My daughter is at university this year and by all accounts the online subjects she is taking are still seen as a way for the university to avoid funding qualified and experienced staff, to avoid funding adequate technology infrastructure and to avoid the redefining of themselves as a 21st century business. In other words online is seen as a low cost means of faking modernisation. Hence third rate product.
So let’s look at some of the elements of the modern online degree product.
The business model is still predicated on the top down delivery of information and units of knowledge. It still treats the student as an empty vessel to be filled up. We also have no way to charge you other than via a price per unit of knowledge hence you have to do them all to graduate which ensures the institution’s cash flow. I have managed training organisations for twenty years. I know this model well. The bricks and mortar, single career degrees, and low volume models are quaint and expensive nostalgia. The jobs of the future are going to be online, generalist and heavily dependent on interaction with new ideas, new people and new threats and opportunities. We need to increase the quantity and the quality of our education systems. A challenge that will fail with existing business models.
Even the specialist ‘virtual’ universities such as Universitas21 aren’t performing well since they are really just a distribution network for the same tired old product.
The teaching and learning practices are dumbed down to support the current business model. With an ageing, technology ignorant, population of teachers they deliver the product in the only way they have known - mainly chalk and talk with some added interactive elements icing the bland cake. You can get away with this on campus but not online. It will take a generation for education to come to grips with the possibilities of today’s technology and changing learning requirements even if we stood still. Only by absorbing the technology and the changing socio-cultural trends can one consider how they might be used/needed for learning in the 21st century. They can’t just be bolted on.
Technology, as usual, is both the solution and the problem. As it has done since the invention of the wheel it presents us with the joy of possibilities and the pain of change. As part of the recent Horizon Report we looked at the possible new technologies coming into teaching and learning in the next five years. However I just don’t see the infrastructure nor the cultural change occurring to support these technologies. Institutional administrators who are ignorant of teaching practices let alone technology will not invest in either. Better to stick with what you know - bricks and mortar. http://www.nmc.org/news/nmc/nmc-releases-horizon-report-focused-emerging-technologies-australia-new-zealand
And that brings me to the people. There is an old saying in business that if you can’t change the people then change the people. I said it in my masters thesis 13 years ago and I still haven’t seen it happen - the best way to build the online university is to go down the road and break new ground, with a new vision, new culture and new people and embrace new technology and new business and life realities. Existing universities have the power yet neither the knowledge nor the will to develop high quality online learning experiences and products. Hence the whole sector is held back through this subconscious collusion to maintain the status quo.
So until universities actually put their minds, hearts and budgets to really embrace online learning their product will be continually third-rate and students will be served up ill-fitting, out of date horseless carriages while being told they are really very modern, functional and safe cars.