Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Belshaw's World - online learning no teaching panacea

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on 26 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 for2009, here for 2010, here for 2011.

I wrote on on-line learning in my Express column of 14 September (The online myth) and had not intended to return to the topic so soon. However, Professor Barber’s views as reported in the Express (Online learning the real deal, 21 September 2011) concerned me.

I am not opposed to on-line learning, nor do I regard face to face and on-line as either or cases.

The best teaching mode depends on the purpose of study and on the student’s position. On-line is very good where access to information is the key requirement. Further, many students simply cannot access face to face learning; they have no choice. The best delivery is that which combines delivery modes in the best way taking individual positions into account.

In his support for on-line, Professor Barber appears to go much further than this. He seems to argue that on-line is best for all students in all cases. He also appears to argue that those of us who challenge the current dominant focus on on-line, who argue for a balanced approach, misunderstand young people.

In considering Professor Barber’s views, what does the evidence tell us?

The material I have seen suggests that around 29 per cent of students regard on line as the best form of delivery. This rises to 39 per cent among younger students with the strongest on line experience.

A recent twitter exchange among UNE’s own students on the role of lectures supports this position. The majority of students came down quite clearly in support of the lecture, largely because of the greater interactivity involved.

The majority of New England alumni studied as external students. If you look at the attitudes among them, a common theme appears to be the value placed on external schools, on access to lectures and lecturers, on interaction with other students in face to face situation.

Age does affect attitudes, but not quite in the way you might expect from Professor Barber’s comments.

UNE’s own students break into two age groups.

Those most dependent on-line delivery, the externals, are older. By contrast, those experiencing fuller face to face teaching, the internals, are generally young.

I stand to be corrected, but I know of no evidence that university choices among the Australian young are influenced by the standard of a university’s on-line offerings and services. By contrast, university selection among older students is so influenced.

Given that the majority of UNE students actually depend upon on-line delivery, what can we say about UNE performance in this area?

The UNE system is functional, but not especially sophisticated. In technical terms it has similar components and about the same level of functionality as the internal system my old consulting network introduced some ten years ago.

There are practical reasons for this.

One reason is that many UNE staff are not especially knowledgeable about the on-line world. They are also time short; it can be hard to find to time to learn new things, to prepare new types of content in new form, while still doing one’s ordinary job. Students, too, have varying levels of knowledge.

A second and broader reason is the one that I mentioned in my earlier post, the fact as I see it that no one has yet defined an on-line delivery system that really works in a mass education market beyond a certain basic level. It’s just very hard to do.

In saying all this, I do understand the challenges that Professor Barber faces and his enthusiasms.

We do need to debate the type of issues raised, but I think that it requires greater clarity in analysis

My concern with his remarks as reported is that they mixed things together in ways that didn’t necessarily make a lot of sense to me. There is no silver bullet that will solve all ills.


Le Loup said...

Sometimes online learning is all you can get. Our group has been contacted many times by students to help them with their studies. Local UNE students have been able to visit us for instruction.
New England NSW.

Jim Belshaw said...

That's interesting, Keith. You are right of, course.