Why Online Learning at UNSW Might Actually Be A Good Thing

By Jordan Daly

As a fifth-year student working full-time, I’m pretty excited for blended learning.

I’ve engaged with it in the past for accounting classes and it’s been great (well, as great as accounting can be).

You can engage with lectures and some course content in your own time – around work, family or other commitments – and on top of that, you get more face-to-face time with teachers (in accounting, we had 2 hour seminars as opposed to the usual 1 hour tutorial). .

In comparison to the usually enormous lectures experienced by first and second year students across UNSW, students will be granted more thorough and well-informed discussions in person (assuming they actually do their readings, engage with the material given online and attend their seminars, which, let’s face it, is not a given).

Lectures being delivered online also means they can be optimised. This means no waiting for chatty students to simmer down, no technical difficulties in the lecture theatre and no more disruptions by Socialist Alternative members or SRC candidates. Instead, lectures can be delivered seamlessly and accessibly.

Students with disabilities, such as mobility issues, will be able to access lectures comfortably. Additionally, students can control the pace of lectures, rewinding if they miss something, or Googling topics to gain greater depth of knowledge as they crop up. Blended learning offers greater accessibility and potential quality of education, as I discovered in my accounting course. As such, online learning shouldn’t be immediately discarded.

One of the complaints made about blended learning is that students hate group work, especially if it has online elements. It’s an unfortunate fact that in order to make a living after graduation, odds are, you’ll have to work in groups, mostly through email, phones and various information systems. I’m sorry if this is a shock.

If you view university as a vocational experience to make you job-ready and more employable, consider the ability to handle group work a practical and marketable soft skill to have.
UNSW has already begun the shift to blended learning.

Alex Patton, a member of the UNSW Education Collective and former Postgraduate Council President, notes that a biomechanics course he tutored and demoed for was moved online in 2016. Exam performance was improved, with the average mark moving from a credit to a distinction, even while being marked on the exact same scale.

So, clearly blended learning isn’t the bogeyman it’s made out to be.

Let’s talk about money.

In 2015, UNSW made a loss of almost $2 million dollars, not including extraordinary items. It may not seem like much, but in a time of Liberal government attacks on education and uncertain funding, it is significant. It’s not unreasonable to want to reduce operating costs if you can’t guarantee adequate revenue over a long-term period.

Reducing operating costs takes different forms.

Some faculties have been restructured, such as UNSW Arts & Social Sciences a few years back, and modernising education is another way to reduce costs on an ongoing basis.

Chancellery don’t restructure for shits and giggles, they want to make sure UNSW as a whole remains at the forefront of research and competitive as a teaching institution. This is especially the case if money saved on lectures can go towards other classes or research, considering that most courses don’t significantly change their content year-to-year.

If UNSW can continue to be the prestigious institution it is without any cuts, digitisation, or a change to the semester system, I’m happy to hear it. However, I’m yet to hear a pain-free solution to the issue of university funding that doesn’t involve a revolution, pie-in-the-sky economics or, at the very least, a change in government.

Even Plato was sceptical of new learning technologies, stating people “will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written” about books, but they’ve managed to stick around.

Let’s give blended learning a chance, especially considering barely any details have been released regarding how OpenLearning will change classes at UNSW, beyond the fact that a greater proportion of lectures and other activities will be delivered online.

The arguments being used against online lectures are the same I’ve heard used against lecture recordings; they’re reactionary, they’re tired and they’re still unconvincing.