Product or Public Good?

I was delighted to be invited to speak about our Study of Online Learning our group authored for the HEFCE Task Force at this years ALT-C conference. I  focused on the issues that I felt arose from the long awaited report which is due to be published shortly.

Or view the talk in the ALT-C youTube channel

The vast majority of online distance offerings are postgraduate ‘professional’ courses. eg. Masters in Law, Medicine, Business, Engineering etc.

I made it clear in my presentation at ALT-C that I don’t see this as a problem in of itself. The institutions providing these courses have found that the online distance format works well for those in full-time employment and that these types of courses have a ready market. Setting up successful online distance programmes is challenging enough so it make sense to pick the low hanging fruit in terms of potential customers when developing new products.

Did that last sentence grate a bit? It does for me and not just because of the dubious grammar. As soon as we talk in terms of ‘customers’ and ‘product’ I get nervous. There seems to be something inherently at odds with the philosophy of higher education as I understand it when it is couched in economic terminology. This is then compounded by the apparent keenness of the government to involve private partners in the delivery of higher education programmes online with the possibility of giving some companies the right to award degrees directly.

ALT Proceedings
A fortifying cup of tea with some mini-chedders

I was at an amusing talk recently given by an American company who claimed that their “for-profit university was not preoccupied with money”. It’s very easy to sit in a university and poke fun at commercial educational providers, too easy in fact, especially as I’m quite happy to take my salary home each month. I haven’t done an MBA so I’m not an expert but I find it difficult to distinguish the financial approaches of public and private sector bodies sometimes. Universities are diverse businesses and have many money-making activities some of which are funded by the government and some which are straight commercial ventures. I believe that a simplistic argument around ‘for-profit’ and ‘not for-profit’ masks the real issue which in the case of online distance learning is to do with diversity.

Almost every institution in this field whether a university or a big corporate is providing an extremely narrow curriculum because certain courses have a better Return on Investment than others. The problem is not what we are providing online but what we are neglecting to provide. Where are the humanities and liberal arts? Where are the foundation and undergraduate degrees? There are a few examples of these (I cited The Sheffield College) but certainly not enough to reflect the character of our face-to-face universities.

The reason for this lack of diversity in both curriculum and academic levels is because non-STEM, non-Business, non-Postgrad courses have a less reliable income stream. It’s expensive to kick start an online programme. It’s a lot less expensive than building a lecture theatre or a library but because it’s a ‘new’ mode of delivery it’s assessed outside the economic machinery embedded in our institutions and has to be seen to pay-for-itself. Here is where the financial challenges bite. At ALT-C I made the statement that “Universities should enrich society not make society rich”. I admit that this becomes increasingly difficult when money is scarce but I feel that it’s important that we retain those aspects of our activity which work towards the public good. A public good which is not predicated on wealth and material growth but on wellbeing, one which equips individuals to be more than economic units.

Dave Walks
I got quite animated (Image: Creative Commons "Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 UK: England & Wales" : Mark Gregory of Photoshy.com)

This challenge is distinct from abstract notions of ‘quality’. I can’t honestly say what the standard of teaching and learning is like on the offerings our study discovered but I see no evidence that a lucrative course is destined to be a less ‘educational’ experience than one that loses money. In many cases I suspect that the quality of online learning is higher than equivalent face-to-face courses because students expect significant amounts of contact when at a distance. In face-to-face teaching scenarios the lecture (a controversial subject this year) provides a very efficient sense of contact and notional cohort cohesion. For online this cohesion has to be built by regular feedback, tutor-student contact and peer-to-peer learning. The risk of a lack of social presence in a predominantly text based medium coupled with the influence of the micro-contact culture of the web means that only the online courses with excellent learning design will survive. The mode of delivery inherently demands good pedagogy and active engagement or students simply drop out.

I think it’s helpful to consider this area in terms of identity because this forces a consideration of values beyond the economic. As it stands the ‘digital identity’ of online higher education provided by the UK largely looks like a highly academic professional development programme. I must reiterate that I’m not criticising this activity in of itself rather I am holding out hope that future funding models will allow programmes outside this area to move online and better represent the varied and excellent teaching and learning this country is rightly known for.

If you are keen to discuss the role of technology within/around higher education in a political context then you might want to consider registering your interest for the proposed ‘Tech, Power, Education’ seminar series.

Slides from the talk:

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40 thoughts on “Some real data on Web 2.0 use

  1. I’ve just had a quick look at your results – some things I’ve found interesting (such as the fact that post-docs were the most likely to be using Wikipedia!)

    I do have a few questions – in particular about services that you’ve not listed. For example, you’d got YouTube but not Google Video (I’ve personally found that the educational range at Google is better, or at least easier to find), you’ve also got MySpace but not Live Journal (or Elgg).
    Did you give people the option to add extra systems – either for the categories you had (Social networking) or for others (e.g. Gliffy for creating diagrams?)

    It’s useful to have this data though, as I’ve found that I have to get most of the data about what people are using from Pew Internet & that’s US based.

  2. They are very interesting data, Dave. It would be really interesting to show the aggregated data for every service not filtered by age, because I think that this data point to a profile of very intensive Internet user that ran across all ranges of ages. In some way, you take the orientation of respondent towards technology when you mention in the report that “the majority of respondents probably had some interest in leaning online to have initially discovered the page.”

    And a second question, would it be possible to elaborate data on how many people use one, two, three, etc of these services?

    Really good work. Thank you for sharing

  3. Useless questions = useless answers, or nothing we couldn’t have predicted about present and future usage patterns through the age groups. Many different spellings of “calendar” suggest the authors were in such a rush to get this to press, they couldn’t be bothered with spell-checking or proof-reading. B-, must try harder.

  4. Interesting- I note that my age group is left out of the anaylses (65+), and in my experience such pre-boomers are very high users of web2 and the intenet as a whole..and the younger ggrouops *40-65) less so.. at least the latetr seesm to show up!

  5. Thanks for this survey, it was very insightful. The growth of social networking over such a short period of time is really phenominal. I wonder when web 3.0 will start…

  6. I’ve been experimenting with various collaboration & document sharing tools and have discovered an excellent site. It is a very user friendly, web-based application that is well worth taking the time to explore. Take a few minutes and look at Projjex.com. The tutorials are excellent & you don’t need to be a Rocket Scientist to figure out how to use it. It even offers a free version so you can try it on for size.

  7. I would be really interested in seeing a copy of the final report but the link provided does not work. Please could you send me a copy as it may well support my dissertation.

  8. nteresting- I note that my age group is left out of the anaylses (65+), and in my experience such pre-boomers are very high users of web2 and the intenet as a whole..and the younger ggrouops *40-65) less so.. at least the latetr seesm to show up!

  9. Pingback: Eso de la Web 2.0

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