Online learning – the future of education?

By Anthony Doesburg In Technology

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Online learning - the future of education?

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The core of any student’s education was once the 3Rs: reading, writing and arithmetic. But in the 21st century, educators are just as likely to be talking about the 4Cs: critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity. In this new way of educational thinking, teachers and students are connecting through the “cloud”: the international network of servers that can link digital devices almost anywhere on the planet. The aim is to build, collaborate, share and manage lessons through a multitude of media – trading chalk and blackboards for digital tools that foster collaboration and interactive learning.

In New Zealand, some institutions are already embracing this trend, but questions remain about just how profound an effect it will have on our educational sector. One example is Moocs, or massive open online courses, which are bringing content from the world’s most prestigious universities to people anywhere there’s an internet connection. Moocs began appearing about five years ago, but failed to get much attention outside higher education. But that changed earlier this year with the launch of two ventures, Coursera and edX, involving leading institutions, mostly in the US. Coursera is a Stanford University-led effort that offers free courses from more than 30 universities, including Princeton, Ohio State, Johns Hopkins and the universities of London, Edinburgh and Melbourne. It was launched in April. A month later, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University announced edX, with the University of California Berkeley joining in July. EdX is a not-for-profit initiative that aims to “reach out to students of all ages, means and nations” with the modest goal of reinventing education through interactive web-based courses.

So far, edX offers just a handful of mostly computing-related papers, but Coursera covers a much broader range of subjects. Among the nearly 200 papers listed on its website is everything from archaeology to animal behaviour. Nearly 1.5 million people have registered on the site. The thing that has been missing is the credential that goes with the course: the piece of paper that proves a student has met the mark and with which they can impress a prospective employer. Now that is also changing, with the news last month that, for a “modest fee”, edX students will be able to sit exams supervised by education company Pearson, which has testing centres around the world, including in New Zealand. The two organisations say the arrangement will give the online courses more value in the real world, resulting in better employability and career prospects for learners. This follows a similar agreement in June between another online course provider, Udacity, and Pearson.


If it sounds like a bonanza for those eager to soak up courses from top teachers at otherwise out-of-reach universities, what does it mean for local institutions? The University of Auckland is well aware of the trend, says vice-chancellor Professor Stuart McCutcheon. But would Auckland join Coursera, as near-neighbour the University of Melbourne has opted to do? “I don’t think we’d spurn any opportunity. But we’ve thought carefully about the nature of the education we offer and we’ve committed to research-led, primarily face-to-face education with the support of technology. At the moment, that model is viable and I think it’s what our students want,” McCutcheon says. Steve Maharey, vice-chancellor of Massey University, which has decades of experience of long-range teaching and hundreds of thousands of extramural graduates, hints that the former agricultural college could get involved in a Mooc-like venture, although he doesn’t expect free online courses to suddenly turn higher education on its head.

Online learning - Massey University vice-chancellor, Steve Maharey

Steve Maharey, photo David White

Perhaps not overnight. But University of Canterbury e-learning team leader Herbert Thomas says Moocs and associated developments are producing a “constantly changing” higher education environment. Canterbury is adapting by revising its use of technology in teaching – partly a response to the earthquakes – and by collaborating with overseas and local institutions on courses and qualifications. “Moocs don’t pose a direct threat to bricks-and-mortar universities. But what they do – and a lot of people don’t realise it’s not as simple as one replacing the other – is make planning a lot more complex,” Thomas says. “We can’t possibly conceive what kind of environment will evolve. A lot of the literature suggests there might be a 20:80 split, with 20% of students wanting a full on-campus lifestyle experience at a top university and 80% of students studying online because it’s cost-effective.”

So far, online courses are mostly springing from university computer science departments. But their lower cost is also giving the trend impetus. “A huge driver, and one that seemingly has no effect on us but actually does, is the cost of public higher education in the US,” says Thomas. “It has grown out of proportion to other sectors of the economy.” The knock-on effect for New Zealand is that as the online environment grows, it will inevitably catch up with us, he says. “If we were isolated from the rest of the world, it might have happened quite naturally here in five, 10 or 20 years, but now it could happen very quickly.” EdX and Coursera are not the only such courses already available. Udacity is enrolling online learners in more than a dozen computing and maths papers, and OER (Open Educational Resources) university aims to create “a parallel learning universe” based on freely available course content. Several New Zealand institutions, including Canterbury, are OER university partners. Even Apple, which worked out before anyone else how to make money from online music sales with its iTunes Store, is in on the act with iTunes U, which claims to be the largest digital catalogue of educational content. The universities of Auckland, Waikato and Otago and the Southern Institute of Technology are among 1000 institutions in 26 countries that make content available to anyone with a device that runs iTunes.


Anyone with an appetite for learning should be grabbing it all with both hands, says Dale Stephens, a Californian college dropout. Stephens, who has created, which is highly critical of formal education, encourages self-directed learning as an alternative to expensive – and what he claims are flawed – university degrees. As more people gain degrees, he says, these become worth less. What’s more, institutions churn out subservient graduates who “forget how to pursue their passions and become afraid to take risks”. The inflationary effect is real enough, says Bill Anderson, the University of Otago’s director of distance learning. “I think it’s fair to say that with more and more people acquiring bachelor’s qualifications we’re seeing some credential inflation.” For example, whereas teachers today require a bachelor’s degree, the minimum qualification used to be a diploma, and before that a certificate. And that’s not the end: there is mounting pressure for the entry point for the profession to be lifted to postgraduate level. “That might be partly an illustration of the increased standard required of teachers, but I’m tempted to think there’s more to it than that,” Anderson says.

Stephens has written a manifesto to change the way people view higher education. The trouble with teaching institutions, he says, is they think a “dose of the prescribed curriculum” is all a student needs. “Institutions inherently have the belief that they know what is best for every person.” He sees the availability of course content online – and outside the classroom – as positive. “I’m only opposed to mandated course work, not course work in general. If a person wants to learn more about economics and chooses to take a course, I’m all for it. But if we drag students into a classroom and tell them, ‘You must study fiscal policy and production-possibility frontiers’, most of them will just go through the motions and retain little of the information they’ve been given.” Giving people the potential to act according their own will is more important than a degree, and the very nature of institutionalised education tends to inhibit this, Stephens says. Not so at Auckland, McCutcheon says. “My experience of seeing our students – and I see quite a lot of them in various situations – is that they are fantastically talented, clever, bright young things with inquiring minds and I don’t think we spoon-feed them at all. “They get taught paradigms, ways of thinking about things, and are provided with some content. But they are conducting their own research using libraries, the internet and other sources. When I look at the students around this place, I think they are at least as creative as we were.”


Stephens’s ideas are getting a wide airing, and that will shortly include an appearance in this country. He will be speaking at the Ascilite (Australasian Society for Computers in Learning in Tertiary Education) conference in Wellington in late November, organised by the head of Massey University’s teaching and learning centre, Mark Brown. Brown, whom Maharey has charged with “taking Massey into the digital future”, acknowledges Stephens’s message is resonating with many people. “His basic thesis, and one that has growing momentum worldwide, is why would students or learners choose to go to university or tertiary institutions these days when so much is available online?” The answer used to be to gain a credential. As well as the recently minted agreement between edX and Pearson, another initiative is open badges, led by non-profit software developer Mozilla. The idea is to award people who successfully undertake online courses the electronic equivalent of the badges Scouts stitch onto their uniforms. Mozilla badges are stored in an electronic backpack for displaying to potential employers.

Thomas believes the implications of the edX-Pearson arrangement could be drastic. “Other institutions will look at edX certificates – which, after all, are based on courses developed by Harvard, MIT and Berkeley – and say they might accept them as credit towards a course of study.” At the same time, some companies are accepting Mozilla badges as evidence that an applicant has the required skills for a particular job. But Moocs have other unanswered questions, Brown says. Early incarnations were guilty of a non-interactive “dump, dump, pump” approach to making course content available. “It is getting more sophisticated, but we know from the history of educational television in the 1950s and 60s that merely passively delivering video one-way without interaction is not a particularly effective form of learning. It doesn’t engage people.” Course pass rates are another issue. “These courses might attract hundreds of thousands of students but few people are asking how many complete them and it’s hard to get figures from the institutions. In New Zealand, the Tertiary Education Commission and Government are very focused on completion rates.”


Brown is confident of Massey’s ability to compete in the distance-learning market, in which it has more than 50 years’ experience and 250,000 graduates. Following the London Olympics, the university took the opportunity to boast of its reach: 52 members of the New Zealand Games team, many of whom trained overseas, were Massey students. Massey has spent millions of dollars since 2009 developing an online learning system, Stream. It has successfully delivered courses overseas on contract to the World Bank, and it is talking to an Indian institution about a possible collaboration. Canterbury, to a limited extent, is joining in the Mooc movement. Along with the Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology, NorthTec, Open Polytechnic and Otago Polytechnic, it is an OER university founding partner. Partner institutions undertake to co-ordinate tests and issue credentials for each other. “If anyone is confident that they have mastered a certain area of study, they can apply to one of the partners for assessment certification,” Thomas says. “So, you gain a recognised university degree and you can study at your own pace, for free.” Canterbury has also increased its commitment to online course delivery. But that’s
more a result of the earthquakes.

E-learning team leader Thomas joined the university from South Africa just a month before the first quake. His original perception was that Canterbury was a face-to- face institution, with every likelihood of remaining so for years. But the quakes – and an overnight doubling in the number of students using online courses – caused a rapid rethink. The university’s teaching and learning plan was rewritten and is in the process of being finalised, a new information strategy and technology road map have been developed and a technology-enabled learning strategy is under way. “We’re not saying we’re no longer a face-to-face institution – we are, obviously – but there is a much greater focus on blended learning,” says Thomas. It’s more about flexibility, and about what suits student lives, he says. According to Otago’s Anderson, there’s no longer any need to question the effectiveness of online learning. “There are screeds of stuff written about whether e-learning or distance learning in its myriad forms works, and the answer is it does, if you do it right, and that’s pretty much the same for on-campus teaching.”

Online learning - head of Massey University’s teach and learning centre

Mark Brown

It’s a matter of using suitable teaching practices. “If you’re teaching in the online environment and using the appropriate pedagogies, then you’re going to get good results, but if you’re not, you won’t. The technology doesn’t necessarily have a lot to do with it.” Liz Norman, who directs Massey’s Master of Veterinary Medicine programme, says online courses demand specialised teaching skills. “One of the most important is being able to communicate in a friendly and encouraging way through text, and delivering effective feedback.” The trick to getting students “talking” online is to create an atmosphere in which they feel they belong, she says. One advantage for distance learners is they can readily interact with and support each other. “It’s also easier to keep an eye on students and check if they need help if they are not keeping up,” Norman says. “In the days when the first contact you had with students was when they sent in their first assignment, it might be too late by the time you knew someone was struggling.”

Although a major limitation of online learning is considered to be acquisition of manual skills, some surprising developments have occurred. In Norman’s field, a virtual veterinary clinic makes remote learning more lifelike. And a “haptic cow” developed in the UK – which electronically simulates what it feels like to stick a hand up a bovine backside to carry out a fertility test – is being used in several vet schools. It’s the kind of thing, says Brown, that gives established online and extramural institutions like Massey an advantage over Moocs. “This is a much higher-order problem- based form of online learning than merely putting videos and written content online.” Massey’s vice-chancellor promises there’s more to come: look out next year for the university’s first steps in an open courseware initiative, says Maharey. Will it be a Mooc called Massey?

Mooc point


A massive open online course, typically free and accessed over the internet. Millions of people are enrolling in them. Examples include:

Coursera: Launched in April by Stanford University with more than 30 other top institutions offering about 200 courses.

edX: Launched in May by Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University and joined by the University of California Berkeley in July. Offers a handful of computing, science and maths courses.

OER university: A collaboration of institutions, including several from New Zealand, that will provide courses based on open educational resources and certificates and issue qualifications.

Udacity: Started by a Stanford artificial intelligence teacher, it offers a dozen computing courses free, and charges for tests.

iTunes U: Apple’s free catalogue of hundreds of thousands of educational content items from about 1000 institutions, including four in New Zealand.


“Education should be a right, not a privilege, and I believe Coursera is a way to make that happen,” says Daphne Koller, Coursera’s co-founder. “Our goal here is to reinvent education worldwide and on campus through these technologies,” says Anant Agarwal, president of edX. What’s more, says University of Canterbury e-learning team leader Herbert Thomas, Moocs may be the only way of meeting demand. “People are saying if we had to build enough physical universities to accommodate the demand for higher education in coming years, we would have to open something ridiculous like three new ones a week. Obviously that’s not possible. There’s no doubt the only way it can go is online.”

Bricks, mortar & personal interactions

The University of Auckland faces up to the future.

The University of Auckland's vice-chancellor Stuart McCutcheon

Stuart McCutcheon, photo David White

The country’s biggest university isn’t running scared of the latest developments in online learning. Quite the contrary: as prestigious overseas institutions are putting resources into massive free, open online courses, the University of Auckland is considering spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a new campus. Vice-chancellor Stuart McCutcheon says the demise of bricks-and-mortar institutions has long been forecast, but Auckland doesn’t see that happening any time soon. “We could be wrong, of course – we could turn out to be dinosaurs. But the view we’ve taken is that our students are fundamentally gregarious individuals. “Graduates mention two things about the university experience: one is the great professors they had – not the great computers or Kindles or online courses, but the people who stood in front of them and taught them, who they remember with fondness all their lives.

“And they talk about the things they got up to in the social environment – the friends they made, the partners they acquired, the parties they had. Our fundamental position is students are driven by a desire for personal interactions.” McCutcheon says the university believes this desire will endure, and that a new campus on the former Lion Breweries site in Newmarket – a decision on which will be made in April – will bring students at its outlying Tamaki and Epsom campuses into closer contact with those at its city and Grafton facilities. Not to mention CBD bars and nightclubs. “Students don’t want to live in the more distant areas – they want to live in the centre of town, because that’s where the jobs and bars and theatres and sports facilities are.” It’s not just about their social lives. McCutcheon says the new campus will also simplify matters for students doing conjoint degrees in more than one discipline by centralising facilities and staff. That doesn’t mean the university is letting online learning developments pass it by, however. Hundreds of lectures are recorded and made available online and many courses – in pharmacology, nursing, public health and education, for example – are being taught largely online to hundreds of students.

Educational deviant

Dale Stephens has come a long way since his first day as an “unschooler”.

Online learning website founder Dale Stephens

Dale Stephens

A university degree is not worth having, according to Dale Stephens, a college dropout from California who will be lining up with leading academics in Wellington in November to prognosticate on tertiary education’s future in a digital world. The mere fact of the 20-year-old’s presence at the Australasian Society for Computers in Learning in Tertiary Education conference – for what event organiser Mark Brown of Massey University calls an impressive fee – perhaps proves his point. Wellington is one stop on a speaking circuit that this year has seen Stephens on the programme at more than two dozen events – including attention-getting TED conferences – in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and the US. And that’s a pared-back schedule, allowing him to put the finishing touches to a book, Hacking Your Education, that will be published by Penguin early next year.

At 11, Stephens informed his schoolteacher mother and engineer father he was going to get the rest of his education in the school of life. After his first day as an “unschooler”, he told his mother he had learnt more than he had in a year in the classroom. In 2010, however, he enrolled at a college in Arkansas. He didn’t stay long, leaving in the second semester. When a fellow student asked whether he would miss the beer and girls, he pointed out that both were also available in the outside world. Besides, he said, he preferred champagne and boys. Stephens is in demand as a speaker for having gone on to form, whose manifesto is a guide for “educational deviants”. It sets out to show those who shun university how to develop skills that are required for success. “The conventional path can be appealing, paved with security, certification and routine. But where’s the fun in conformity? To succeed, you must differentiate yourself through educational deviance,” Stephens writes. His message in Wellington will be that technology makes learning outside the classroom much easier than it has been. “We should use this technology to empower students to make their own choices and to engage in meaningful pursuits. It is now the learner, not the institution, that is in control of education.”

An apple a day

Institutions are embracing iTunes U.

Anyone with a device that can access Apple’s iTunes – a computer, iPhone, iPad or iPod – can dip a toe into the online learning waters. Beware, though – you could easily drown. As of January, 1000 institutions in 26 countries had content in iTunes U, launched by Apple in 2007. Between January and September, the 500,000 available content items were downloaded on average 28 times each. Three New Zealand universities – Auckland, Waikato and Otago – and the Southern Institute of Technology provide content. The range of subjects is vast. SIT goes hands-on with therapeutic and sports massage students, who are shown in videos using various techniques on members of the province’s Stags and Sting rugby and netball teams. “What’s the treatment for a groin strain?” host James McRobie asks injured Stags five-eighth Phil Dawson in one clip. Lots of rubbing, apparently.

Meanwhile, a University of Otago download gives a geological explanation – with TV footage – of the August 1979 Abbotsford slip, when an 800m by 400m chunk of Dunedin hillside lurched 50m, taking 60 houses with it. It was “a complete bloody disaster”, one of the affected residents reminds us. But there’s no need to limit your iTunes U learning to local institutions. Oxford University’s Marianne Talbot – who confesses she got her education at the Open University after being thrown out of school for being disruptive – will take you on “a romp through the history of philosophy”. Says University of Otago distance learning director Bill Anderson: “One of the lovely things about digital media is that it’s the sort of gift you can keep on giving without incurring huge cost.”

Like other institutions, Otago records many lectures – in particular inaugural professorial lectures – and they often end up in iTunes U. Paul Cowan, the technical support leader in the University of Waikato’s education faculty, says the medium is primarily promotional. But he is working with the university’s sports and leisure studies department to make a complete course available through an iTunes U app that is part of the latest software release for iPhones and iPads. “Instead of just being a podcast repository, the app lets you create a course, with readings, outlines and assessments.” Another purpose of using iTunes U, for which Waikato doesn’t have a specific budget, is to fulfil its role as a public institution. “It’s not a closed box. We do a lot of public lectures, we encourage people in the community to come to inaugural professorial lectures and we do a lot of colloquiums that we open up to the public. And this is just another way of accomplishing that.”

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One Response to “Online learning – the future of education?”

  1. Kajal Nov 3 2012, 11:17pm

    Online education is in its infancy but what an innovation it is. Online courses provided by the MOOCs are no doubt immensely helpful. At the same time technology has really helped in spreading education using virtual classrooms like I as an online teacher have successfully tutored students from all over the world.
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