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?
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.
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.
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