Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Belshaw's World - the online myth

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on 14 September 2011. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011.

I spent the first six months of this year working on a new on-line service delivery project.

The project aimed to streamline certain aspects of professional practice, and especially the preparation of certain types of more complex documents.

I am not a tec head. I focused on the way the system needed to operate if it was to meet customer need, leaving specific technical solutions to others.

As part of this, I spent a fair bit of time looking at other offerings that were competitive in one way or another with what we wanted to achieve. There were some interesting offerings in the marketplace, but none really delivered an integrated solution.

We faced two key problems in our attempts to define a better approach.

The first was to properly understand just how professionals worked when carrying out the specific tasks that we were interested in. For our system to work, we had to make it easier for the professional to do their work across a whole document preparation process that might involve multiple steps spread over time, with varying interactions with clients and other professionals.

This is not as easy as it sounds. Most on-line systems expect people to adjust to them. It is far harder to adjust systems to people.

The second problem was to define the best interface between customers and our system, taking work processes into account. Again, this is not as easy as it sounds.

The interface needed to provide a seamless experience in which the customer could access information from a variety of sources, seek help as required and write and edit, all within the one interface. The system also had to be easy to use since most customers were not especially computer or internet savvy.

In the end, we had to put aspects of the project aside because the costs and technical difficulties associated with the translation of the functional requirements into a working system were too great for the available budget.

This experience is relevant to a number of discussions taking place in education, including issues associated with external teaching.

I follow a number of educators on Twitter and via blogs who are absolute enthusiasts for the use of new and especially on-line technology in teaching. I admire their enthusiasm, but cannot fully share it.

Part of my problem is just time. I am hard pressed to do what I’m doing now, let alone learn how to use the latest system. However, it’s more than that.

One of the problems that we faced in the project I talked about lay in the gap between those concerned with the business and operational requirements and the technologists and advanced users.

I am not sure which was worse. Advanced users wanted bells and whistles, while the technologists often opted for specific solutions that they liked in advance of the discussion on work processes. We see both at work in the education arena.

To my mind, the key to success in effectively utilising new on-line technology in education lies in what we call fitness for purpose, taking into account both the limitations of technology and the needs and capacities of those on both sides of the system.

One of the big myths of on-line delivery is that it’s cheaper and faster. That’s not necessarily so.

In education, content still has to be prepared. Further, preparation of that content normally takes more time because of the need to modify it to fit on-line forms. Once on-line it can be accessed by more people, but the initial input time is still greater.

In education too, a whole series of processes still have to be carried out. Assignments have to be marked, queries answered, students supported.

Some of these processes can be automated: common student queries can be answered at a single point; forums can be used as a vehicle for discussion; simple tests can be used to test basic knowledge. Still, my experience suggests that the actual time input costs involved in supporting the on-line student can be greater than the equivalent internal student.

Don’t get me wrong here. I am not saying that on-line education is a bad thing, especially for students who for reasons of time or distance cannot access full time on-campus study. However, I do think that unrealistic expectations are sometimes attached to the process.

Chatting to my daughters who are internal students at Sydney universities as well as to those studying fully on-line including UNE students, I don’t think that any of the universities have actually mastered the use of the internet.

Probably the biggest difficulty is the same one we struggled with in the project I described earlier, creating a system that links to work or study processes.


Denis Wright said...

An online degree does not give the experience of a university education unless it has a strong residential component. It's that black and white to me. It may give them AN experience, but it's not what anyone who has gone through a real uni education would recognise. As you know, Jim, I have been at the forefront of using technology to aid learning. But it doesn't replace it.

Jim Belshaw said...

I generally agree with you Denis, although it is horses for courses.

On-line is good for the acquisition of information and for certain types of self study. In some cases, on-line may be the only choice that people have in study. But of itself it can never provide the type of experience that you and I would think of as a university education.

I follow a number of on-line enthusiasts on twitter. I feel that the enthusiasm for the additional things that technology allows blinds them.

While I was not explicit on this in the column, I really worry about Jim Barber's enthusiasms. It's not either/or in all this, but working out the best approach that actually meets student needs taking student constraints into account.