Teaching and Learning Forum 99 [ Contents ]

Can online education serve two masters?

John Gammack and Val Hobbs
School of Information Technology
Murdoch University
Although economic rationalism apparently lies behind much of the current pressure to offer education in online modes, there are undoubtedly many pedagogical benefits potential in online delivery. Equally, there are many drawbacks, which can often be psychosocially significant, though financially intangible. The issue of online education can be considered against a wider re-evaluation of the role of universities in society. Are the commercial requirements of online delivery fundamentally incompatible with the pedagogical benefits we would wish? Although online learning environments can facilitate both instructive and constructive modes of learning, it is questionable whether we can reconcile all the stakeholder requirements involved. Assuming that, whether motivated by commercial or pedagogical interests, online education is here to stay in some form or another, our dilemma is as follows. Can we simultaneously satisfy the requirements of pedagogy, fiscal masters, and our moral obligations to humanity? Or is it all too hard?


The familiar discourse of economic rationalism engenders pressures to offer teaching services in online modes. Viewing knowledge as a commodity, distant markets as legitimate targets, students as products adding value at workforce entry level, and teaching as a process to be made efficient leads to proposals for online education apparently based primarily on fiscal attractiveness, and marketplace survival.

Several benefits from a pedagogical perspective can also be enumerated. These include widening of access, diversification of modes of communication among learners and teachers, currency and updatability of materials, attractiveness of (and hence engagement with) multimedia products, audit trails for assessing participation, increased availability of information and other, perhaps international, learning resources, and so on. These may require closer, contextualised examination to determine whether the benefits are real or always desirable, but if technology is neutral, there are real pedagogical opportunities to be considered.

At the same time, drawbacks can explicitly be identified against particular teaching philosophies, which counteract superficially attractive benefits. Loss of peer group and teacher intimacy, the untransferable charismatic qualities of episodic experiences, reduction of holistic learning materials to electronically transmittable forms, dependence on computer literacy and accessibility, loss of the extracurricular possibilities of campus settings, a monoculturalist ethos, equity issues, and many other financially intangible characteristics of education, are just some examples. A considerable literature has emerged that critically discusses these issues (e.g Mason, 1994, Noble, 1997), and as IT educators we are surely unlikely to be bewitched by hype in evaluating the realistic possibilities of the technology.

The role of university education

The parameters of the online education debate are familiar enough in the literature, and particular positions for or against technology use may be argued from standpoints of teaching philosophy, business case, sociographic or demographic trends, experience and anecdote, and from educational research. All of these contributions are no doubt useful but it remains likely that online offerings will continue to feature in tertiary education, whether for educational or purely vendor-related motives. Generally however the issues may be polarised against a background struggle between the "monastic" and the "secular" character of Universities, and their perceived role by society. In this context the role of online education becomes conditioned by a larger discourse in which it is referenced to the two horns of a dilemma. Crudely put, if Universities are primarily geared to training the global workforce in a free market, the logic of commercial business dictates the process. If they are instead places where each generation can develop their thinking skills, moral awareness and knowledge base with a community oriented mission endorsed by the society they serve, other criteria apply. William Saroyan refused his Pulitzer Prize on the grounds that commerce had no place in patronising the arts. Is there still a place for such nobility, or is a University's traditional function an anachronism?

Perhaps it is not presumptuous to suggest that as humanitarians we have a societal duty to ensure that higher education will be provided to timeless standards. As educators faced with powerful, maybe inevitable, forces we consider it critical to ensure effective pedagogy is not forgotten in implementing online education. As IT professionals we have the skills and knowledge to critically assess and utilise the technologies involved, and can confirm that they require significant resource commitments (Downes, 1998). As systems specialists we have many tools to discover and analyse the stakeholder requirements, examine conflicts of interest, ensure ownership of the productions by those involved, and to implement new ways of working in sensitively handled change management exercises. But as victims of forces beyond our control we are obliged to collude in the commercialisation of higher education as dictated policy.

Employers want bright learners with developed thinking, and other generic skills. Students have the traditional motivations, but perhaps a keener eye on specific employability than previously, and the same needs for intimacy and peer support they have always had. Governments want increased numbers going through the system. Managers want productivity and profits, efficiency and effectiveness. Institutional representatives are concerned with reputation, ideology, and distinctiveness. Vendors want sales and accreditable product lock-ins. Educators have motivations from joy of learning to excitement of ideas to development of potential. And so on.

In this session we would like to begin to explore these and other motivations which apply in contemporary higher education, and whether the changes to working practice implied by online provision can be reconciled with satisfying all of these.


Downes, S. (1998). Creating an Online Unit for The First Time: The Road That Is Wide and That Leads to Destruction. Proceedings of Western Australian Workshop on Information Systems Research, (WAWISR-98) Curtin University, November 30th.

Mason, R. (1994). Using Communications Media in Open and Flexible Learning. Kogan Page, London.

Noble D.F. (1997). Digital Diploma Mills: The Automation of Higher Education. http://www.firstmonday.dk/issues/issue3_1/noble/index.html, York University (accessed November 26th 1998).

The authors are respectively Senior Academic and Programme Chair in the Information Systems programme at Murdoch University, Perth, Western Australia. Murdoch University has a significant commitment to online provision, and already runs numerous units in this mode, detailed at http://www.murdoch.edu.au/online/ Murdoch is consistently the highest ranked public University in Australia for good teaching.

Please cite as: Gammack, J. and Hobbs, V. (1999). Can online education serve two masters? In K. Martin, N. Stanley and N. Davison (Eds), Teaching in the Disciplines/ Learning in Context, 135-137. Proceedings of the 8th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1999. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1999/gammack.html

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