Date published: 22 November 2011
With the growing number of university courses being offered online, going back to study means never having to leave home.
The days of missing out on a university education because you underperformed in your senior years at school are over. No longer do you have to sit in a job you abhor, wondering "what if". There has been a quiet revolution in higher education and, thanks to the internet and Open Universities Australia
(OUA), the ball is in your court. Students now have more choices than ever, with degrees from leading tertiary institutions such as Griffith, RMIT, Monash and Macquarie universities just a mouse-click away.
OUA chief executive officer Stuart Hamilton says the power in higher education has definitely shifted towards the student.
"Whether you have not had a good experience before at university because you couldn't juggle your time commitments, whether you bombed out in your final years of school and couldn't get the score you needed, whether you've found yourself in a dead-end job, we have the options for just about every student," Hamilton says.
And the advantage is that you can study at your own pace, depending on how quickly you want to gain your qualifications and your financial situation.
'We're open entry; you can study at any time, as much or as little as you like. We have the tagline 'open your mind' and we really want to say to people, 'Don't assume you can't do it; there are openings for you with us".
And it seems more and more Australians are heading to their studies, kitchen tables or living rooms to get their degrees. Since 2003, enrolments have grown by more than 400 per cent to 131,007 in 2010. In the year to 2010, undergraduate enrolment numbers grew by 35.8 per cent while postgraduate numbers grew by 32.7 percent.
Hamilton says the growth and widespread acceptance of online teaching is rewarding, and not just in a business sense: "It's showing people are taking that option, people are getting those skills, and that's good for them and good for the country."
The National Broadband Network will help the revolution along as technology grows, says Hamilton. A fervent supporter of the NBN, he says failure to embrace the network would result in a "digital divide" of haves and have-nots. The growing interactive approach to learning requires a lot of bandwidth and the current lack broadband access means that a large part of the community can't take advantage of it, he says. This means course developers have to limit the curriculum to the capabilities of the slowest modem in the class.
And the content is about to get a lot more sophisticated, says OUA's executive director of operations, Michelle Beveridge.
Soon students will be able to do vastly more courses at OUA thanks to "virtual labs" with either humans performing experiments in front of audiences spread over the nation, or with students instructing their avatars to mix their concoctions.
"We are getting to the point where online is replacing the campus in terms of student engagement by using Wikis and blogs and getting them to create their own content and interacting with the lecturers," Beveridge says. "We find that students really appreciate the feedback they get in an online environment. Even with Live Chat they get instant feedback on their assignments with their lecturers, which is pretty important for the student."
One program at OUA partners Monash and Macquarie universities uses animation to immerse students in an ancient version of western China. "This, of course, is something a book can't do for you," Beveridge says. Another area of the course counts students' contributions to a blog as part of their assessment.
In the future, she says, the 3D visualisation experiences will become more and more important. "We will start to see virtual labs so students can do quite complex experiments. We will see more of this type of thing in the biological and geological sciences. People think you have to be on campus to do those kinds of things. Soon we will be able to do that online either by having one person in a lab hundreds of miles away and using video conferencing or by having an avatar perform the experiment."
She envisages the greater use of Skype to connect students with each other and their lecturers and the availability online of a lot of early subjects in medicine courses "so students will get that face-to-face connection with their lecturers"
Working people raising families often don't need the distractions associated with campus life, says Beveridge.
"They don't want the social experience that young kids get straight out of finishing school - they want to get on with it and gain their qualifications."
Online education is the ideal solution, says Hamilton. "More and more it is able to meet their learning needs in an online community where they can interact with other students or study by themselves. For example, they can learn about a specific aspect of Roman history, or they can learn how to get started in logistics, or they can enrol in a full degree."
Another factor in the growth of online learning is the changing structure of the economy. "The idea of having a lifetime job in one place has just gone. People recognise the need for learning through their lives either through deepening their skills or going into new areas. But people aren't able to give up their jobs while they learn so learning while they are working is a no-brainer."
Hamilton says people now accept that the internet is a part of life and learning is no different. "Students have the flexibility to mix and match their degrees from OUA's 20 universities and colleges. Using an online platform, they can have it delivered into their kitchen or study and have just as valid a learning experience as someone who is on campus."
Date: Saturday 25 June 2011
Publication: Weekend Australian
Title: Open Your Mind