Online Learning in Australia: Now and in the Future

In the first of a series of blogs where we hear from key participants in the Australian Higher Education Industry, we welcome Professor Gregor Kennedy, the University of Melbourne’s Pro Vice-Chancellor, Education Innovation.  Gregor is an international leader in educational technology research and development, particularly in the context of higher education.  We were interested in his thoughts on the current state of online learning in Australia.

In your time working in the area of technology based education, what do you see as some of the major advances?

There is no doubt that the rapid rise of open courseware over the past few years has been one of the most significant developments in the area of technology as it relates to education.  What started as an experiment has become mainstream and has effectively made online learning a central issue for universities around the globe.

The other fascinating area which I see developing further is learning analytics.  This involves the use of data that resides within learning and administrative systems to understand students’ learning experiences and outcomes.  Many institutions are starting to invest in this and it is an area with very exciting potential for higher education.

Finally the broad issue of students’ desire for learning flexibility and how flexible educational experiences are provided to students in more elegant, seamless ways continues to evolve. This may be through wholly online delivery or as part of an on-campus experience. The ways in which these two modes of delivery are converging is really exciting.

In regard to MOOCs, it seemed to have started with great fanfare, some of which appears to have died down – is this a fair assessment?

I am not sure that this is entirely fair.  While some of the heat and hype may have evaporated from MOOCs or open courses, there is no doubt they are here to stay.  As to how they will evolve into the future no one really knows, although MOOC providers will certainly need to find a robust business model.  The MOOC phenomenon is also focussing the entire HE community on the question of what constitutes high quality teaching and learning, whether it be delivered in a face-to-face or an online environment.

How does Australia compare to other countries in the area of online learning?

It would be reasonable to say that we punch above our weight in Australia.  Probably this is a result of a history of battling the tyranny of distance; we were always early adopters of technology such as the School of the Air.  Higher education is a key export industry and with this comes high expectations and a willingness to innovate.  Where we do not perform as well is in relation to investment in research and development in education technology; we lag behind in this area.

What have been the reactions of students to online learning at Melbourne?

Overwhelmingly positive.  Melbourne University is obviously a very strong campus based university and students generally want to experience this but they also demand a strong technology-enhanced experience.  The response to our open online courses has been outstanding.  We have 14 MOOCs running and the feedback we are getting is that over 90% of participants are rating that experience as good or very good. 

Where do you think the challenges lie for online learning in the future?

In terms of how I see things progressing I would say the real excitement comes from the tension created between the fact that on one hand we live in a society where the individual student is rightly valued, has a high degree of technology expertise and demands instant access and gratification (‘I can get what I want when I want’). On the other hand Universities are asking students to sign up for an education which is not a mere commodity, like purchasing music or movie ticket.  It is much more like a gym membership which requires some real input. 

Put another way, no app is going to get you away from the fact that getting a higher education requires thinking and hard work.  It is the tension between these two that I think is intriguing and challenging and will be even more so into the future. 

About Professor Kennedy: 

Gregor Kennedy is Pro Vice-Chancellor (Educational Innovation) at the University of Melbourne and a Professor in the Centre for the Study of Higher Education.

As Pro Vice-Chancellor (Educational Innovation) Gregor leads the University’s strategy in technology enhanced learning and teaching, and is the Head of Learning Environments, the department responsible for virtual and physical learning spaces at the University of Melbourne. Gregor has been involved in a number of major curriculum development and renewal projects, and has led many design and development teams to create technology-enhanced or enabled courses, subjects and resources. He has used a variety of instructional models and frameworks in this work, as well as a range of digital media and communications technologies. He has designed educational programs and resources to support a range of educational contexts including face-to-face, fully online, self directed, group-based, mobile and blended learning environments. His critical, evidence-based investigations of ‘Net Generation’ students have provided significant insight into how staff and students use technology and emerging technology-based tools in higher education.


Rohan Carr
October 2014

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