AUSTRALIA: Online learning not the most popular

Transnational higher education, where students study courses provided by a university in another country, has proved to be one of the fastest growing areas of education exports. The US-based Global Alliance for Transnational Education estimated in 2000 that demand for transnational education would exceed 500,000 by 2020 but the latest research has revealed the usual method of providing transnational education via online courses is not popular with students.

Dr Iwona Miliszewska, a senior lecturer at Victoria University in Melbourne, surveyed 469 students enrolled in eight transnational computing programmes offered by Australian universities in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam. She also held discussion groups with a further 184 students and, in each case, asked whether they would support courses similar to ones they were doing if the tutorials were delivered entirely online.

"The majority of students were not interested in taking fully-online courses," Miliszewska told University World News. "All of the students were enrolled in computing programme courses and while I believe my findings would apply generally to transnational students taking such courses, the situation could be the same for others undertaking different subjects."

Even students who supported fully-online courses said there needed to be appropriate levels of service, such as 24-hour back-up, and a broadband infrastructure that enabled effective delivery. Students who took part in the group discussions said they preferred traditional classroom teaching because it involved face-to-face communication which provided instant feedback, easier communication with other students and instructors, and was better suited to solving problems.

"I'm lazy and there would be no one to ask if I had a problem," said one honest student while another observed: "I believe face-to-face contact with lecturers and students is very important. Education is as much about the physical relationships made as it is about the knowledge gained."

Although online courses were attractive to universities because of the cost savings, Miliszewska said the onus was on the institutions to listen to student concerns. In a paper* describing her research, she said competition for students in the transnational field was intense and, with the growing number of courses available, students would have a wider choice and would increasingly demand high-quality programmes.

"Given the importance of face-to-face interaction, successful distance learning programs are increasingly moving towards a new model known as hybrid or blended learning," Miliszewska said in her paper. "The hybrid model adds a human touch to distance learning by using facilitators or mentors and promoting various types of interactions between students, instructors, and resource centers."

She noted that the various combinations of face-to-face instruction and distance learning were flexible in that they could involve different components to different degrees and need not be 50% face-to-face and 50% online.

Students, especially in Southeast Asia, respected teachers and wanted to be taught by them. Transnational providers that relied more heavily on online teaching and learning ran the risk of eroding student perceptions of quality, she said.

"Since online learning is representative of highly developed technologies and Western values in education that emphasise individual development, self-management, active learning, and mutual communications, it may not appeal to students from non-Western cultures."

Miliszewska said the Australian government had acknowledged the importance of face-to-face interaction in transnational teaching and incorporated a requirement in its definition of transnational education. Unlike the traditional definition, the government's includes two additional requirements: that the transnational programme be delivered and/or assessed by an accredited Australian provider; and that the delivery should include a face-to-face component.

"The implementation and utilisation of current and emerging technologies offers many potential advantages including ready access to a vast store of the latest information, and facilitation of communication between students, and students and instructors, she wrote.

"However, the advantages to be gained from introducing new technologies will depend on the ability and willingness of the students to use them. Therefore, an assessment of educational needs should be conducted, and potential consequences in the classroom considered, prior to the deployment of those technologies."

Miliszewska said despite earlier predictions that globally offered fully-online programmes would dominate the transnational education market, it seemed the hybrid model, with web-supported face-to-face delivery, was likely to emerge as the principal means of providing transnational tertiary education programmes.

* Miliszewska, I. (2008) Transnational education programs: Student reflections on a fully-online versus a hybrid model. In J. Fong, R. Kwan and F.L. Wand (Eds.): ICHL 2008, Lecture Notes in Computer Science 5169. Berlin Heidelberg: Springer Verlag.

A copy of the paper can be read here: Download the report