Im­pact of on­line ed­u­ca­tion ex­pan­sion ‘muted’

THE (Times Higher Education) - - NEWS - [email protected]­ere­d­u­ca­

The ex­pan­sion of on­line higher ed­u­ca­tion has ben­e­fited only a sub­set of stu­dents around the world, who have been con­demned to sub­stan­dard out­comes, a con­fer­ence has heard.

Richard Gar­rett, di­rec­tor of the Ob­ser­va­tory on Border­less Higher Ed­u­ca­tion, told a Mel­bourne fo­rum that, de­spite decades of “hype”, on­line learn­ing has ex­erted rel­a­tively mi­nor in­flu­ence on global higher ed­u­ca­tion pat­terns.

“On­line is hardly new any more,” Mr Gar­rett told the con­fer­ence or­gan­ised by the Ter­tiary Ed­u­ca­tion Qual­ity and Stan­dards Agency, Aus­tralia’s reg­u­la­tor. “We’re fi­nally at a point where we can mar­shal some ev­i­dence about the true im­pact of on­line on the big is­sues that higher ed­u­ca­tion faces.”

Mr Gar­rett said that on­line ad­vo­cates rou­tinely made “big claims” about its trans­for­ma­tive po­ten­tial. “Has it im­proved ac­cess, and for whom? Has it re­duced costs, for the con­sumer or the in­sti­tu­tion? Has it im­proved out­comes?” he asked.

“We need to ask these tough ques­tions of on­line be­cause it is get­ting ever more large and main­stream.”

Mr Gar­rett said that on­line ed­u­ca­tion has cer­tainly had an im­pact in vol­ume terms, with an es­ti­mated 4 mil­lion Amer­i­cans – in­clud­ing around 15 per cent of un­der­grad­u­ates and 30 per cent of post­grad­u­ates – study­ing fully on­line. Other coun­tries like Aus­tralia are ex­hibit­ing the “same mo­men­tum”, he said.

US data have sug­gested that in­sti­tu­tions with sig­nif­i­cant on­line pro­vi­sion tend to at­tract high rep­re­sen­ta­tion from some groups, in­clud­ing women, black Amer­i­cans and peo­ple aged over 24. But on­line in­ten­sity has ap­peared to de­ter Asian-Amer­i­cans, His­pan­ics, whites and men.

“Fe­males are al­ready over-rep­re­sented in higher ed­u­ca­tion,” Mr Gar­rett told the con­fer­ence. “On­line is ex­ag­ger­at­ing that over-rep­re­sen­ta­tion and doesn’t seem to be do­ing any­thing about male un­der-rep­re­sen­ta­tion.”

He said that the dis­par­ity is most ev­i­dent among un­der­grad­u­ates with dis­abil­i­ties. At in­sti­tu­tions with lit­tle on­line pro­vi­sion, they en­rol at al­most the same rate as able-bod­ied stu­dents, but at mostly on­line in­sti­tu­tions they are un­der-rep­re­sented by more than 25 per cent.

This con­tra­dicts as­sump­tions that on­line ed­u­ca­tion is more ac­ces­si­ble for peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties. “If it’s or­gan­ised in a cer­tain way, it can be. But peo­ple with a dis­abil­ity are much more likely to go to a tra­di­tional school with per­haps a wider ar­ray of fa­cil­i­ties and sup­port ser­vices,” Mr Gar­rett said.

US, UK and Aus­tralian data have also shown that in­ter­na­tion­ally mo­bile stu­dents over­whelm­ingly pre­fer at­tend­ing over­seas uni­ver­si­ties or their branch cam­puses to tak- ing their on­line cour­ses. “Back in the late 1990s and through the Mooc boom, peo­ple kept say­ing on­line is go­ing to break down ge­o­graph­i­cal bar­ri­ers,” Mr Gar­rett said.

“But it just doesn’t match the real and per­ceived im­mer­sion, net­work­ing, mi­gra­tion and em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties that in-coun­try and to some ex­tent transna­tional ed­u­ca­tion em­bod­ies.”

US data also pro­vide scant ev­i­dence that on­line ed­u­ca­tion re­duces costs. Un­der­grad­u­ates in mainly on­line in­sti­tu­tions have seen a slight re­duc­tion in tu­ition fees over the past seven years, but this has been in­suf­fi­cient to pre­vent a steeper rise in av­er­age fees across the board.

Mean­while, in­tensely on­line in­sti­tu­tions con­sis­tently achieved sig­nif­i­cantly lower com­ple­tion rates than mainly face-to-face col­leges.

Mr Gar­rett said that many aca­demics main­tain that “good” on­line teach­ing is more ex­pen­sive than tra­di­tional de­liv­ery. “That may be true, but there is counter ev­i­dence that through care­ful re­design of teach­ing and learn­ing, you can have the mag­i­cal com­bi­na­tion of higher qual­ity and lower cost.

“If on­line can’t pro­duce lower un­der­ly­ing cost and hold qual­ity con­stant, what can?”

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