We have all the elements needed to make online courses succeed, but
institutional inertia at well-established universities stymies progress,
argues Laurence Brockliss, professor of early modern French history at the University of Oxford.
|Photo: James Minchall|
Despite what sceptics about university expansion might say, more need not necessarily mean worse. But if expansion amounts to just more and more of the same, then it can do.
The UK is a prime example. At the turn of the 1980s, there were some 500,000 students in full-time higher education. Although this was a sixfold increase since the eve of the Second World War, it still accounted for only 13 per cent of 18-year-olds, and was relatively low by Western standards. But by 1995-96, the number of full-time students had risen to more than a million, and in 2011‑12 it peaked at more than 1.7 million, accounting for 49 per cent of 18-year-olds.
But, as is usually the case, public financial support did not expand commensurately. Amounting to about 0.8 per cent of gross domestic product in the 1960s, it rose to 1.2 per cent in the mid-1990s but then fell back and stands at about 0.9 per cent today.
The financial shortfall has been met largely by transferring costs from the public to the private purse, and not just in teaching: much research is supported by private charities and foundations, and institutions compete for donors to support new buildings and underwrite academic posts. The rest of the deficit has been made up by eroding staff-to-student ratios and, outside Oxbridge, all but abolishing small-group teaching.
Meanwhile, the emphasis on research has encouraged academics to take as much research leave as possible. Nor is it clear that the teaching excellence framework will do much to redress the balance given that only the very weakest institutions will lose out financially and that international league tables will still be primarily research-driven.
Yet new technology offers the possibility of developing an entirely different type of mass higher education, well beyond the experiments with flipped classrooms. At a fraction of the present cost, undergraduates, if not postgraduates, could study far away from their host institutions, accessing books, articles, lectures, demonstrations and debates at any hour. They could be brought together frequently via Skype with their peers and teachers in one-to-one conversations and group tutorials, topped up from time to time with short visits to the parent institution. They could balance study with paid work and finish their courses as quickly or as slowly as they wished.
If this all sounds familiar, that is because it is. The Open University has been offering flexible distance learning since 1969, and there are plenty of examples internationally of institutions that focus primarily or exclusively on distance learning. However, they are rarely lauded for their high academic standards; in the US, for instance, the University of Phoenix was criticised in a 2012 Senate committee report into for-profit higher education for its high dropout rates and for appearing to have prioritised “financial success over student success”.
Source: Times Higher Education (THE)