In Summary

  • Analysis for The Australian by Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Professor Duncan Bentley, Swinburne University of Technology.

In Phaedrus, Socrates expresses misgivings about the use of writing in instruction due, in part, to the notion that it is an impoverished form of instruction in comparison with face-to-face dialogue.

Comparing written texts to paintings, Socrates complains that “they seem to talk to you as though they were intelligent, but if you ask them anything about what they say from a desire to be instructed they go on telling just the same thing forever”.

Fast-forward to now and policymakers and commentators worry that online education is a second-best option.

But the quality of instruction has nothing to do with the mode of delivery. Across the world, high-quality education providers can point to equivalent learning outcomes from blended and fully online learning. National quality agencies demand it.

Good teaching is good teaching — whether it’s on-campus or online. It is all about course design and the quality of the learning and teaching. And there are great advantages to online education. Where students could easily get lost in an impersonal lecture theatre, when done properly, online students are enrolled into small classes of about 20 to 25 students, not lecture theatres of 1000.

For both fully and blended online learners, the data and analytics mean we are partnering in the learning journey in real time.

Personalised learning means we can see how and when a learner engages and how best to help them succeed.

Personalisation extends to when and where students engage with the curriculum.

They can study at times that suit them, including fitting in part-time work commitments and other responsibilities.

It’s no surprise that 82 per cent of fully online education students at Swinburne are women, with an average age of 32. For many women hoping to pursue a career, online education is the only way to juggle work, study and primary-carer commitments.

For some rural learners, on-campus study is a practical impossibility. High-speed internet access has overcome this tyranny of distance which has precluded so many from higher education in the past. A recent study from the Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership confirms that online education has increased the diversity of the teaching profession in Australia.

Part of the opposition to online education is based on a confusion about what it is. Online education is sometimes confused with distance education, which has been around since 1858, when the University of London began offering degrees via post and, later, phonograph, wireless and television. Students were far away from their teachers and often lonely.

Today’s online students work with leading academics, tutors, peers, learning advisers and fellow learners across the globe, all brought together through vibrant and highly relational learning communities. This is what we call online education. Sometimes it’s fully online. For campus-based students, it is a blend of both ­online and face-to-face. The constant is the technology-enabled continuous collaboration and interaction. This is the opposite of distance education.

Online students are also succeeding at rates similar to their on-campus peers. The Grattan Institute recently found that the most critical determinant of student success is whether you study full-time or part-time. Part-time students often study fully online.

After the Grattan research controlled for other factors, the risk of dropping out of off-campus study was only 2 per cent higher than on-campus study. Work, children, family responsibilities and juggling study and life commitments mean that part-timers simply do not follow a linear progression from start to finish of their qualification.

While we must strive to achieve the lowest rates of attrition possible, we must not do so at the cost of access and equity. Some students use online as their first foray into higher education due to its relative ease of access and flexibility. These attempts must not be discouraged, nor should partial completions that can be immensely valuable for one’s employment prospects and sense of fulfilment.

We should also take steps to ensure those with cold feet do not incur a financial penalty for their curiosity. Swinburne students who have not engaged with their coursework by the census date are automatically disenrolled.

Critics of online education might heed the lessons of our predecessors. High-quality learning and teaching depend on us embracing technology and shaping it to the needs of learners and their future careers.

Online and on-campus education is not a zero-sum choice. Bricks-and-mortar university cam­puses will continue alongside the expansion of online education, with students moving between on-campus and online study as they need. Australia’s progress towards a knowledge-based economy depends on it.