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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Online Education and the Traditional University

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Guardian is running a major report on the way online university courses - such as Coursera and Udacity - might affect traditional campus universities. If it seems at present unimaginable that the internet could "kill universities" (to use the Guardian's apocalyptic headline) try to think of a time when you owned 12 inch records, an Encyclopedia Britannica, and a library of books. If someone had told you that within ten years your entire music collection would be contained in the palm of your hand, that a volume would be added to your encyclopaedia every day, and that you would carry 10 000 books in your pocket, you would not have believed them. The internet has transformed our consumption of information in every other arena - why not in the consumption of learning?

After all, as the Guardian points out, the university is essentially based on a medieval model in which students attend lectures delivered by a "reader," who in the sixteenth century would read the contents of an expensive book out loud to them. Although today the best lecturers do not simply read from a textbook, but deliver a personal experience with a view to the wider aims of the course and a unique cohort of students, nevertheless the observation is a useful one. If a lecturer has his or her origins in reading one book to many, the natural twenty-first century extension is to send that same lecture to 100 000 students over the web, rather than 100 sitting in a lecture theatre.

As someone who teaches at an "elite" conventional university, and for the Open University (which pioneered the idea of distance learning), and who is developing a distance learning course for an international university, I have several perspectives to bring to bear on this issue.

To start with the conventional university. There is no doubt that the conventional university will survive in some form. At my first institution, students benefit from a rich cultural and extra-curricular life, live in small college communities which provide excellent pastoral support and opportunities for networking, and they receive intimate small-group tuition and assignment feedback one-on-one with a tutor. Such an apparatus does not come cheap, of course, and as such it is not one that is readily available at other, newer universities. The Guardian is right to argue that elite universities, which can attract students from wealthy backgrounds, will not be threatened by online delivery. Those which will be threatened are smaller or less prestigious institutions that attract a student who values education but without having the financial resources to pay for the best possible version of it.

Another significant point about conventional universities - which is something that by definition online courses do not want to replicate - is that they attract a narrow range of students with like intellectual abilities. This may be a challenge in some senses (the risk of elitist bias in selecting students from private education) but is also a university's greatest asset. Knowing that I am teaching an elite drives me to prepare more, to think more, than I might otherwise have to do; similarly, students who have previously excelled at A-level in an average class suddenly realise that they cannot rest on their laurels in an outstanding one. I can prepare materials that stretch a small group of students with shared abilities, and do not have to worry about leaving behind those who are markedly less competent in a subject. Online courses may be badged as democratic, reaching out to all, but this universality is a weakness as well as an asset.

Conversely, as I know from the Open University, the challenge of delivering online education to a broader spectrum of students is that when students interact, the "best" or "loudest" ones can dominate, and discourage those who may be less capable or confident overall, even if they are still working at their personal best level. The Guardian applaudingly cites the case of a Google hangout for a Coursera course taught by taught by Mohamed Noor, a professor at Duke University, where students were peer-helping each other. One student was singled out for praise for his contributions to those who had asked questions or posed problems. As a tutor, I would certainly acknowledge such an engaging student. But I would be more worried about those who did not participate because (wrongly) they lacked confidence. One cannot simply make discussion boards available and let students get on with it, peer-supporting each other, because those who "get on with it" are likely to be those who are least in need of support. And from a tutor's point of view it is not possible to build the confidence of an individual student when moderating a forum of 10 000 classmates.

In a more general sense, this aspiration to engage with the otherwise disenfranchised is one the Open University has had as its core raison d'etre: the OU picks up students to whom traditional education has been unavailable for whatever reason (financial, domestic, intellectual) and enables them to realise their ambitions through intensive and personalised tutor support. However, the OU has recently increased its fees to £5000 for an equivalent full time year. This is a lot more than the free or low-priced courses currently offered through the likes of Coursera. Yet long before the advent of other online courses, the OU was already making its course materials freely available online via Open Learn. Far from reducing enrollment, the facility has actually benefited the OU - and numbers continue to look healthy even with the increase in fees.

The fact that students enroll with the OU despite their being a free OU-lite version online suggests an important lesson for the new online universities. Students seem to recognise that the OU offers more as an experience than the sum of its textbooks. Indeed, the fact that they pay to study is probably an important motivating factor which is not present if one can dip into a course for free.

The OU's support systems - such as discussion boards, tutorials, and telephone support - are very intensive to run, and they develop uniquely from year to year depending on the cohort of students. As a tutor, I have small (20 or so) tutor groups, and I can deliver immediate and personal advice. Most of my work (and enjoyment in that work) is when students contact me with problems, whether personal and intellectual, and we work together to resolve them. The OU year (equivalent to half a full time degree year) on the modules I teach is gruelling: nine months of studying 16 or more hours a week, with seven or eight assignments and exams throughout it. I could cite many, many cases where for various reasons students would drop out, without my interventions.

By contrast, online courses allow students to consume bite-size topics, rather than asking them to study intensively towards a complete degree over a sustained period of time. My strong suspicion is that students do not study online courses as they would at the OU, where many are aiming for a more general and widely transferable qualification. I also suspect that even if completion rates for individual online courses may be good, the model is not scaleable to offering full degrees without corresponding tutor support in the background. Such support is costly and is a highly specialised profession that cannot simply be outsourced to a call centre: if you do not understand free indirect style, press 1; if you are having difficulty with childcare and studying, press 2.

My third experience with online education is as a course developer for a distance learning institution abroad. I have written a textbook on Modernism - again tailored specifically with distance learners in mind - and am now preparing the online lessons (mini lectures) and assessments (quizzes and discussion boards) that parallel the more traditional study book. My experience here illustrates another challenge to the idea that the university could be demolished altogether. The Guardian thinks of universities from the perspective of teaching, but they are also research institutions. I would not have been able to write my textbook, were I not already an established researcher and writer. Similarly, I wrote it with an imaginary student in my mind, pictured from hundreds of face to face and online tutorials in small groups. Coursera courses are undoubtedly good: they are after all delivered by lecturers from Princeton or Edinburgh. However, those lecturers are rooted in experiences of face-to-face teaching and direct research in the subjects they teach. Digital technology may have enabled back-room rappers to create music and reach a wider audience, but the recording industry still needs studios and producers. Similarly, the physical structures, and teaching and research dyad, of the conventional university are needed to allow quality online courses to be constructed upon them.

Online courses hold a great deal of promise, especially in enabling the developing world to access education. However, I do not see online as supplanting traditional universities: both will continue to coexist. Students need good teachers to enthuse, support, cajole, get cross, tease out, build confidence. I suspect that lectures (or in the case of the OU, the textbook) as the basic unit of course delivery will certainly move more to be online. Universities may indeed pull lectures from the likes of Coursera rather than from their own lecturers. But the creation of a degree, a syllabus led by the university's unique research, and most importantly tuition which responds both to the diversity and shared abilities of a small student group, cannot be digitalised or outsourced. Sure I can use Coursera to learn how to wire a circuit board or program a search engine or discern iambic pentameter. But this is not the same as being an electrical engineer or a computer scientist or a literary critic. Only universities can make students into graduates.

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Posted by Alistair at 9:27 am

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