Online Content Is No Replacement For Class Time

By Toby Walmsley

UNSW has recently announced a $100 million makeover of its online content delivery system. This system appears to be designed to replace the current Moodle and Echo system, with a new, tested platform called OpenLearning, including improved technology and diverse features.

This should be news to rejoice.

Echo and Moodle, although very useful, are quickly becoming outdated, and pose a variety of problems, depending on the technical competency of your course convener, the limitations of the program, and the required complexity of online content. Investing money in improving this technology should be a priority for the university.

However, the style in which the UNSW administration intends to implement this online delivery system is concerning – and you should be concerned too.

COMP1917: What was the test case and what made it successful?

The investment in OpenLearning is not without precedent.

The OpenLearning platform has been used extensively in the first year computer science course, COMP1917, to great success. Despite the wealth of online content, COMP1917 lectures are packed, with students often sitting on the staircases in the first few weeks of the lecture, and class numbers remaining unusually high throughout the semester.

The online component of the course constitutes nearly every assessable piece of content, and allows students to engage with other students learning the course in a genuine way. To me, this indicates how great online content complements lecture-style learning, instead of replacing it.

If online content was an adequate replacement for lectures, then I imagine that COMP1917’s lecture theatre would be empty every semester.

It’s worth examining why the online content complements lecture-style learning in COMP1917. At its core, COMP1917 is a practical course, intended to teach fresh students how to code professionally and thoughtfully.

The tool that the class intends students to learn is the computer – so a natural delivery method for that learning will be on a computer, more so than other subjects whose “tools” can range from electrical wiring to books.

You can simulate a computer-learning environment on a computer, but you can’t simulate a chemical lab – at least not without sacrificing educational quality. So the success of the online platform is at least partly due to its focus on computer learning.

OpenLearning has been used to help bridge the gap between content and practice. It does this by making the theoretical components of the computing lectures directly relate to coursework, in a way that has been highly tailored to the class, and consistently improved upon.

The quality of the online content, and course in general, is testament to the keen work of the conveners of the course in using online content and the appropriateness of the platform, not solely online content.

Why the proposed plan will not work

If the proposed plan was purely to give lecturers better tools for online content, I would be entirely applauding this move. But that is not the plan as outlined.

According to an Australian Financial Review article, the platform intends “to move 600 courses to a blended learning model in which online learning replaces lectures”.

Essentially, large courses are going to be moved nearly entirely online, apart from tutorial time. This will allow for more “space”; as classrooms are moved online, physical classrooms become available, allowing for increased enrolments with less consequences.

A key driver around many of the UNSW administration’s recent policy, including this one, is the need for more space. The 2025 plan has as a specific objective “growing numbers studying with UNSW, on campus, online and at overseas locations”.

Given that UNSW already has a problem with limited lecture and tutorial spaces, and limited options to expand in the surrounding neighbourhood, this will require the university to ration its space as the student intake increases.

An aspect of this is the implementation of trimesters, which is supposed to reduce classroom use to 90% per week from the current usage. The second approach will be trying to push content out of classes all together, which I worry will occur with the implementation of this plan. By pushing as much content (if not all content) online, the administration can justify smaller lecturing spaces, if any lecturing spaces at all.

By moving content out of the lecture, the plan ignores what made OpenLearning successful as a platform to begin with. The success was due to it enhancing lectures, not replacing them.

I worry that, with far less class time, students will have much less connection to their peers and teachers. They will have less of an opportunity to directly involve themselves in the learning. I also worry, too, that poor engagement with the platform will be considered the fault of the conveners, as opposed to the appropriateness of the platform to each course.

We’re not paying $4,000 a semester to unlock a guided YouTube series – we’re paying for engagement with key academics to learn important content.

This will not be possible if courses will be as online as the university suggests.

Conclusion

I would like to see the university’s $100 million investment in online learning platforms really enhance the way content is taught in the classroom, as it has done already. I believe it has that potential.

But online content is not a catch all for engaging content – the delivery of material needs to be thoughtful and appropriate to the course and desired outcomes.

UNSW treads a fine line between enhancing its content using online components and replacing it.

And given UNSW’s potential motives, I don’t have a huge amount of faith.