By Hannah Wootton
UNSW’s recent announcement that it plans to shift over 600 courses to an online platform has, understandably, caused much furore. The potential benefits of online teaching are so immense though, that universities have much more to lose than gain by not risking trying such models.
Firstly, the proposed blended online and offline learning model reflects the fact that we live in an increasingly online world. Communication methods, workplaces and travel have all been drastically improved by the technological revolution. Aspects of education have also benefited; recorded lectures have improved accessibility to content, and online platforms such as Moodle increase accessibility of information.
If UNSW fails to incorporate further technological advancements, it risks allowing education practices to fall behind. The proposed online model may not end up working, but to be shut off to the possibility of even trying puts UNSW on the back foot in a society driven by innovation and technology. To remain a competitive university, it cannot risk becoming antiquated in this way.
Secondly, online lectures open up tertiary education to a more diverse range of students. A concerning reality in Australia is that the majority of institutions are located in major cities, limiting access to those who can afford to live in such places. Online classes help mitigate this issue as the barriers posed by geography and socioeconomic status are minimised.
It also opens up education to those who work or volunteer long hours (an expectation of most graduates in an increasingly tight job market). While rigid offline class timetables make balancing such time commitments difficult, online classes would allow students to gain such real-world experience without compromising their studies.
Think of how much more interesting discussions on class content (which would still occur in the online model, just on-screen instead of in person) would be if people from a range of countries, economic backgrounds and work backgrounds were contributing.
Additionally, instead of only confident students being able to ask questions, an online classroom space allows anyone to talk, as questions are on-screen and asynchronous. Responses from teachers may also be better, as they are able to think through the best way to explain something, rather than being put on the spot.
Thirdly, an online teaching model has the potential to drastically improve research output and quality at UNSW. Teaching places a huge time imposition on academics, yet is a vitally important part of their job. We have all had those lecturers who make pointed comments about time spent preparing classes, or who don’t have time for student consultations.
Much of the content of core courses does not change year-to-year. By not having to re-teach it each semester, academics can spend more time on student consultations, undertaking new research, and working out the most effective ways to teach the parts of the course that have changed. This stands to benefit students, teachers and academia itself.
Finally, there are undeniably some valid arguments against online teaching. While these deserve consideration, they are not realistic enough for UNSW to not even attempt to make pedagogical progress.
Concerns about the social impact on students’ university lives, for example, presume that everyone has a socially beneficial experience at university. In reality, this is not so. Most students who juggle work, internships and volunteering with their study do not have time for leisurely lunches in the Quad, or time-intensive involvement in university clubs.
Arguing that online teaching should not go ahead because it will detrimentally affect student-teacher interaction is similarly based on an unrealistic view of university education. In lectures and tutorials that seem ever growing in enrolments, meaningful, personal interaction with lecturers is an increasingly untenable prospect.
By allowing its teaching methods to be dominated by fears such as these, UNSW risks being left behind in terms of technology, diversity and research output as other universities embrace progress. The proposed online teaching platforms may not prove successful, but the benefits make it well worth the risk of at least trying.