The online learning revolution...
The traditional university model needs a shake-up to give business what it wants. Photo: Louie Douvis
A long list of academics has commented on the coming revolution in university education. True to form, little has been heard from university “customers”: students and the companies that recruit them.
This debate is too important to be had only in academic circles. Australian industry needs a stronger voice about growth in so-called Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), where universities provide high-quality, user-friendly lecture and course notes free – and even exams and accreditation.
MOOCs offer tremendous potential for Australian business, and equally a great threat if they lead to more students studying online courses offered by overseas universities. Like print media and bricks-and-mortar retailing, we will not know what has been lost until it’s gone.
If Australia wants more world-class enterprises, and better innovation and productivity, it needs world-class local business schools that produce outstanding academic research and top graduates. Like the United States, it needs strong links between business and university business schools.
Yet there seems to be a sea of mediocrity in university business education in Australia, outside of a handful of well-ranked local schools and pockets of excellence in poorly ranked ones.
What’s your view?
- Is Australian business being let down by the general standard of university business education?
- Do we have enough world-class business schools and business academics?
- How would the online learning revolution help business education in Australia?
- What are its dangers?
- Would you prefer online education to the face-to-face variety, if it costs much less?
Let’s face it: too many local business schools rate poorly in global academic research rankings; their best business academics often have to work overseas for higher rewards and recognition; and anecdotally too many universities treat their business schools as cash cows to fund other disciplines.
How many business schools have strong, deep links with Australian industry? How many business schools liaise with industry when designing courses or undertaking research projects? How many business academics work in almost complete isolation from the business sector?
A shake-up is needed
The traditional university model needs a shake-up to give business what it wants: globally competitive graduates who enter the workforce sooner and have a capacity for lifelong learning.
MOOCs are only part of the answer. They will never fully replicate the value of face-to-face learning, student interaction in classrooms, or the life experience of a few years at university. But sadly, the traditional delivery of university education is fast becoming a luxury for students and business.
The MOOCs debate should not be about the quality of classroom versus online learning, but rather how customers view the learning outcomes, relative to the price of that learning. A student might be willing to sacrifice face-to-face learning if it means a much cheaper, faster and flexible degree that still meets university accreditation criteria.
And it’s pointless critiquing MOOCs on today’s online learning technologies. Who knows how effective MOOCs will be in five or 10 years when internet speeds are much faster and online learning technologies more advanced? It’s possible that online learning will be far superior to classroom learning and that most young people will view classroom teaching as they do printed newspapers today.
I remember some media companies arguing a decade ago that readers would always prefer the printed version to the online one, and retailers arguing that e-commerce would never replace personal service. It will be the same in a decade, or sooner, when students prefer online learning, and universities recognise they can use technology to achieve cost-effective, higher-quality learning outcomes.
Get students in the workplace faster
Who would make the more effective graduate: one who spends three years at university studying a specialist business degree, racks up $50,000 (or more) in student loans, loses several years of potential income, and hopes their degree helps them land a decent graduate job? Or the business student who joins a company from school, studies part-time at university through a MOOC, pays much lower fees, and combines on-the-job and university training?
As an employer, I would pick the student with several years of work experience every time. They learn much more on the job than they ever will in a classroom.
Over time, MOOCs will help business in other ways. They will get students into the workforce sooner and provide more scope to combine full-time work and part-time study, thanks to the flexibility of online learning. Companies will need to rethink how they recruit and train graduates.
Small businesses, in particular, will have greater scope to encourage staff to undertake cheaper university business courses while working full-time.
The other advantage will be genuine lifelong learning opportunities. Too many students give up on education once they have their degree, or only revisit it years into their career. High-quality, low-cost and flexible online business education has great potential to keep students engaged in learning. Done well, it should help university have stronger links with current and past students over many years.
Lifelong business learning will be vital in an increasingly volatile global economy, where more graduate jobs are shipped overseas or replaced by technology.
Much-needed industry consolidation
Another benefit of MOOCs is the potential to increase competition and consolidation in business schools, of which Australia has too many. Surely it makes sense to have a small group of high-ranked local business schools rather than dozens of mid-ranking ones going nowhere.
Perhaps it will take the full force of the internet to consolidate underperforming business schools, group more of the best business academics together, and force out the underperformers who have made a career out of complaining about university bureaucracy as they hide in the system.
Hopefully their salaries will be reallocated to high-performing business academics – and that there will be much better pay and recognition for the best and brightest business researchers. In theory, MOOCs should give our best business academics more local and global profile, outside of research.
This group of top business schools will use MOOCs to deliver some courses online and others in a classroom setting, and free their academics up to do more research on Australian business. The smart ones will use the development of MOOCs to re-engage business in university business education.
Nobody can be sure how these opportunities and threats of MOOCs will affect Australian industry. The only certainty is that we need more business voices in this important debate.