Student news

Date published: 16 November 2011

Not so many years ago, when people enrolled to study tertiary courses off-campus, it was called distance education. Distance education students studied by themselves in distant bedrooms and home offices. The campus was for the couple of days' residential school and exams, but otherwise there was little interaction with lecturers or fellow students.

It was a largely solitary affair. Not anymore.

According to students and lecturers, today's off-campus courses are not so much a matter of distance education rather it's an online education, and the last five years have seen the web-based learning experience transformed from being little more than a static slab of information into a world of collaboration, interactivity and continuous feedback.

"When we look at our student profile, distance isn't the issue our students could often be quite close to a university campus. It's just that their life requirements their job, their family raising or their preference, is not to go on campus. It's not a matter of distance, it's a matter of time and preference," says Stuart Hamilton, chief executive of Open Universities Australia (OUA), Australia's leading provider of off-campus education.

This increasing time pressure in day- to-day life and a growing preference for the new type of learning has seen the number of distance education students around the country soar. Enrolments through OUA are been increasing 30 per cent annually, with 45,000 individual students taking 131,000 units of study in 2010. Some universities, such as the OUA-affiliated University of New England (UNE) now have as much as 80 per cent of the student population studying off campus.

At the same time, the preference of many of those students for a more interactive learning environment has led to what Hamilton describes as a "revolution" in the way courses are delivered over the internet.

"There's now the capacity to have quite an active learning experience," says Hamilton.

It's a change prompted both by the universities' ability to back their curriculum with increasingly sophisticated online tools as well as the demands from a newly internet-savvy student body.

Hamilton adds: "Universities are beginning to produce the more sophisticated material online, but students are more and more demanding, and they're used to it in the rest of their lives whether it's game- playing or whatever. They expect that sort of experience when they're learning online."

Nearly all of OUA's courses are already being delivered online and that will increase to 100 per cent for 2012.

Among the new web-based tools being used are online discussion forums, virtual reality simulations, blogs, webinars (a seminar delivered via the internet) and group projects using a wiki (interlinked webpages that different users can separately edit).

They enable the students not only more opportunity to interact with their instructors as well as with each other, but in many cases enable increased flexibility in when and how this occurs. An online education course in archaeology offered by Sydney's Macquarie University, together with Melbourne's Monash University, now entails a vividly detailed virtual archaeological site for students to explore online and Hamilton says even education can be taught using virtual classrooms.

In an effort to help make the online learning experience even more adaptable to modern living requirements and more consistent across the field, OUA is now working with the universities to set up a Centre for Online Learning Excellence.

Ultimately, Hamilton says that all this change is already benefiting the broader population. He adds: "It's not just the individual learning needs, but the fact that with the economy going through major restructuring jobs closing downs, other jobs opening up the idea of being skilled for life by the first degree or first apprenticeship is really going out the window.

"This option of people being able to change directions, widen their skills, and change their career path while they're still keeping their existing job is really what our choice offers people."

Date: Saturday 25 June 2011
Publication: Daily Telegraph
Title: Net transforms a solitary affair