Wednesday, 20 March 2013


“While I have life and strength I shall never cease from the practice and teaching of philosophy, exhorting any one whom I meet and saying to him after my manner: You, my friend – a citizen of the great and mighty Athens – are you not ashamed of heaping up the greatest amount of money and honour, and reputation, and caring so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul, which you never regard at all?” – Socrates

I have been brought up by a family who valued education. Beginning with my grandparents, then my parents, my uncles and aunts, even our family friends, they all extolled the virtues of a good education. I grew up in a household where to be educated was the rule. It was never questioned that I should do anything else but progress through school, enter University and then possibly continue on by studying further. My love affair with education, which was aided and abetted by my family, was supported by my own love of learning and the end result was that I became a dyed in the wool academic, never far from education and the pursuit of learning.

In the society I grew up in, education was not only respected, but put on a pedestal as the solution to that society’s many ills. A university education assured one of a certain social status, a good job, and a tacit understanding that one’s efforts would not be in vain but that they would contribute to the social good and resolve the problems that beset the country. I am showing my age and my nationality to a certain extent, as views on education (particularly university education) have changed, especially now that I am in a country where the ability to make as much money in as short a period of time as possible is seen as the real measure of success – education be damned. To be called an academic in Australia carries with it a stigma, I sometimes think...

Being educated in Australia and finishing my degrees here, but also after working for many years in academia, have disabused me of some of my romantic notions about education as being the panacea for all the ills of the world. Nevertheless my experiences in tertiary education have convinced me that tertiary education can be a transformative, life-changing experience. The ways in which one’s mind can be opened and the breadth of one’s existence can be expanded are astounding.

Major Australian universities in the “Group of Eight” (our Australian version of the Ivy League) are committed to several important activities: Tertiary education in the undergraduate and graduate arenas, cutting edge creativity and thought leadership in the arts and sciences, professional education and world-class research. All of these activities are essential assets and the best of our universities are up there with the best universities in the rest of the world. But all is not well in Camelot. Universities also have problems, even if they are in the top tier, or perhaps because they are in the top tier.

Why is does it cost so much to attend a university and spend such a great deal of money in order to be educated? Why do universities always demand more and more money from the government (and increasingly from their students also)? Why do universities try and attract more and more international students, who pay higher tuition fees? Are universities financially responsible and do they operate on a good business model? Are universities as scrupulous and accountable as they ought to be? Do our august universities concentrate too much on research and postgraduate education to the detriment of the undergraduate courses? Are universities truly independent and are their staff able to operate in the spirit of true academic freedom, that is, freedom of speech and enquiry? It is such questions that have been debated for decades and have created tensions between academia and our broader society.

In the last year or two, it seems that tertiary education has been thrust willy-nilly into a rack and forced into a situation of great stress. This is perhaps the most disruptive time in the entire history of tertiary education. The internet and its widespread, highly scalable use globally as well as the growing popularity of online education as a viable alternative to on-campus education has been a catalyst for this. The appearance of the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) into the tertiary education landscape with the consequent opportunity for students to have access to free tertiary level online study was the slap in the face that awakened universities from their complacency and forced them to ask some soul searching questions.

A student nowadays has many options regarding study – whether they choose to go to a physical university or not. In this rapidly changing environment becoming well educated need not be equated necessarily with being admitted to a “Group of Eight” university and paying inordinate amounts of cash to study. Flexible and global education solutions at different levels geared towards any individual are now readily available at a fraction of the cost (or free). Ultimately this empowers the learner who can make an informed decision and take responsibility for their own learning.

The question that arises out of this concerns the credibility, validity and validation of the education programs on offer. What is their quality, what is the ability for the learning achieved to be authenticated in a secure way, and primarily perhaps, whether or not the overall online experience is engaging, interesting and motivating enough for the learner accessing learning through the internet – i.e. the “onlinearity” of the offering: Onlinearity being the appropriateness and judicious choice of technology, good learning design and pedagogy, suitability of course material and learning objects, reliable delivery platform and media, in order to run an engaging, effective, quality online course.

Today Open Universities Australia launched their “Open2Study” subjects in Canberra.  This platform introduces free online subjects at a foundation level and makes them available in a format that shows good “onlinearity”. Enrolments are open in ten different subjects and they look really good. Have a look at them and see what the future holds for online learning.

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