After nearly three weeks, the controversy around the Budget has barely abated. Opinion polls tell us it’s the most unpopular Budget ever, perceived as unfair and littered with broken promises. That’s one thing about opinion polls: politicians can no longer resort to the sanctuary of the Silent Majority; however well informed, the Majority, these days, is loud and clamorous.
It’s a tricky situation for a first term government delivering its first budget, not helped by the fact that senior ministers, from the prime minister down, are apparently not across the detail. This was most starkly shown by the prime minister’s assertion, between winks, that current fee arrangements would be preserved for currently enrolled university students. This is true for students enrolled on 13 May (Budget Day) but not necessarily for students enrolled after that date, who are subject to whatever universities decide to charge when fee deregulation kicks in on 1 January 2016.
Education minister Christopher Pyne sort of saved the situation, when he challenged universities to grandfather current fees arrangements for currently enrolled students, saying that it will be up to universities what fees they charge students from 2016. True, but that involves a potential cost to universities in that the Commonwealth subsidy per student is to be cut by an average of 20% (is that a broken promise in terms of a fee increase or a cut in funding – or both?).
Deakin University, followed by Griffith and Victoria universities, have since come to the party, to the extent that current fee arrangements will be preserved for students enrolled up to the time that they determine their fee structure. Should the announced Budget measure stand, you would expect that these universities would factor the 20% cut into the equation.
But it’s difficult seeing the measure standing as currently proposed: the government has the problem of getting it through a rancorous Senate, and the good senators will no doubt have noted vice-chancellors lining up to condemn the inequity (or is that iniquity?) of it all. The Group of Eight, whose members will be significant beneficiaries of fee deregulation, was moved to issue a terse statement (129 words) declaring its “unanimous” support, despite mutterings from vice-chancellors of some of its own member universities, albeit the Group acknowledging “there are some aspects of the (reform) package which would benefit from further consultation”. That undoubtedly cheered up Christopher Pyne no end.
Never mind: at least the government has acted decisively to save Peppa Pig.
Virtual communities can provide an alternative to the on-campus experience but, as yet, there is little evidence to suggest that virtual engagement with peers and with content matter experts can provide the same benefits as being immersed in the intellectual culture on campus, writes Jason Lodge of Griffith University.
And do read this related essay by Kate Bowles on the creation of the space – or part of it, anyway – that the University of Wollongong occupies – For Leon Fuller.
Much hype and discussion has surrounded the evolution of online higher education over the last few years. Technology has now reached a point where it is conceivable that an education experience on the internet can be comparable to one on a university campus. However, just because it is conceivable does not necessarily make it so.
The learning that occurs differs markedly across disciplines and domains of knowledge. For example, it is relatively easy to comprehend how basic level accounting could be effectively learnt in a virtual environment.
It is not so simple when considering advanced surgical techniques. It would be a brave soul who would trust a surgeon trained using wikis, instructional videos and virtual classrooms.
While these might be extreme examples, there is undoubtedly a large market for flexible delivery of university education, and many universities now
offer online degree programs. This is true even for the many institutions not traditionally associated with “distance learning”.
Implications for learning
The growth in the online delivery of programs raises several questions when considering the implications for learning. The first of these is about the quality of these programs compared to the programs offered on campus.
While arguments about quality often get sidetracked about the relative benefits or shortcomings of particular technologies for delivering an educational experience online, the real issue is educational design.
In general, a quality educational experience is not limited to a particular time and space. The trick is to design the best possible learning experience using the tools available, whether they are virtual or physical. The foundation for this is provided by the evidence of effective online and in-class teaching techniques.
Attempting to compare or equate one with the other or to “just add technology” to a course designed to be delivered on campus makes no sense. The best ways to engage students in a classroom do not neatly translate to the virtual world and vice versa.
Each delivery mode requires careful consideration of the possibilities provided by it alone, not in terms of how it simulates the other.
Coming to campus
The second question is then about the value of coming to campus. If a quality learning experience can be delivered online, why would students make the effort and take the time to travel to campus at all?
In the same way that the online experience provides flexibility and a learning environment that can fit with students’ busy lives, coming to campus provides real but different advantages.
The issue with the delivery of on-campus programs is that universities are just coming to terms with what the internet means for engaging students in learning in classrooms. This has come about because of the increased competition created by the proliferation of flexible learning options and the increased availability of information online. If students are going to come to campus, their time is not best spent having someone talk at them for hours on end.
The inefficiencies of the traditional transmission model of education are most obvious when considering the significant drop in lecture attendance observed by many lecturers. The “flipped classroom” approach, where students engage with content in their own time and use class time for activity-based learning, has emerged as a response to falling lecture attendance.
This is an example of the ways in which educational design can be used to enhance the on-campus experience.
Benefits of a campus experience
While “flipping” classes is a start, the tangible benefits of being on campus continue to be what they have always been in a number of ways. Coming to campus provides an opportunity to be immersed in an intellectual culture. It allows exposure to legitimate expertise in a disciplinary area and the ability to test out new knowledge with peers.
With students having increasingly busy lives, it is not always possible for them to come to campus or have the kind of intellectual life that was traditionally associated with university campuses. That is the reality of the modern university student but is only just becoming the reality of the modern university campus.
Virtual communities can provide an alternative to the on-campus experience but, as yet, there is little evidence to suggest that virtual engagement with peers and with content matter experts can provide the same benefits as being immersed in the intellectual culture on campus.
It is folly to even attempt to make the comparison because virtual campuses provide different opportunities for students. Regardless, there is also the issue of exactly how much exposure undergraduate students in particular had with their lecturers.
The challenge for universities is to come to terms with this new reality. Online and on-campus modes of study are not equal and should never be considered so. Each has its benefits; each has its drawbacks.
Good educational design and good policy recognises the unique potential of each delivery mode and allows teachers and education designers to take maximum advantage of the benefits of each. The best possible learning experiences will not occur so long as we try to make quality online and on-campus learning look and feel the same. They don’t, and it is unlikely they ever will.
Jason Lodge is affiliated with Griffith University and Queensland University of Technology. He teaches subjects/units/courses both on-campus and online.
Arrow Energy has announced a two-year $780,000 commitment to provide Indigenous scholarships at all six Queensland-based universities.
The commitment is spread between $222,000 of tertiary scholarships and $168,000 of associated support programs each year, for scholarships offered at the University of Southern Queensland (USQ), Queensland University of Technology, CQUniversity, Griffith University, University of Queensland and James Cook University.
Arrow CEO Andrew Faulkner says the 25 scholarships being offered under the statewide educational partnership underlined Arrow’s commitment to improving the education of Indigenous students.
University completion rates for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students are significantly below that of non-Indigenous students. The scholarships are designed to address this imbalance by removing some of the barriers that might discourage high school students from progressing to higher education. This is a complete educational package that also includes mentoring, tutoring and peer support networks so students have the best support to achieve their goals.
The new scholarships are:
University of Southern Queensland: two engineering and one education scholarship; an Indigenous mentor for the scholarship students; a school-based component to encourage students into engineering and education; and support for the DARE (Dream Aspire Reach Experience) program which supports and motivates Indigenous young people in regional, rural and remote communities in southern Queensland to take up and sustain tertiary study.
Central Queensland University: two scholarships for students in the Bachelor of Engineering (Co-op) / Diploma of Professional Practice; two scholarships in energy related disciplines including engineering, geology, environment, health and safety and law; two scholarships in any tertiary program; support for EQIP (Education Queensland & Industry Partnership) Gladstone to help students become work ready.
James Cook University: two scholarships in energy-related disciplines; one scholarship in any tertiary program; a supporting school-based component to increase the number of high school students from the Bowen basin applying to and enrolling at university.
University of Queensland: two scholarships in energy-related disciplines; two scholarships in any tertiary program; and the First Year Indigenous Science Student Support Program to help up to 50 first year students entering into science-based degree programs understand the demands of university study, and develop the study habits and discipline required for successful outcomes.
Queensland University of Technology: four scholarships in energy-related disciplines; two scholarships in any tertiary program; support for the Go Further! QUT Experience program to encourage interest in tertiary education amongst Indigenous high school students.
Griffith University: two scholarships for students in energy-related disciplines; one scholarship in any tertiary program; support for the Hands Up! Tertiary Preparation Program which supports commencing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students to adapt to university life and improve their academic skills.
Leading higher education analyst Professor Simon Marginson has blasted the Grattan Institute report Graduate Winners that recommends withdrawing government tuition subsidies and allowing universities to raise fees. He says the economic assumptions contained in the report are “highly tendentious” and would be supported by very few international policy experts, although he expects the report to have influence within the political sphere seeking spending reductions.
Marginson said the report gifted future governments with justification for cutting funding for universities while increasing pressure on the nation’s deferred loan scheme. While the report acknowledged that a highly educated population delivered benefits beyond higher taxes, Marginson said it failed to identify or capture the full extent of the public benefit, saying, it has trivialised the notion of public benefit by picking thin, weak examples to measure and ignoring a very large literature of other studies. Australian National University economist Bruce Chapman, who devised the HECS system,says:
Grattan has positioned itself on the far right of this debate, adopting the position that there are almost no social or collective benefits of higher education and an educated society that are not realised as benefits to individuals.