Socializing the Internet

University education online: can it work?

by Tom Worthington

Later draft published as Online education requires more than technological innovation, 15 March 2001, On Line Opinion journal


The Internet was developed by researchers as a socially savvy tool for communicating academic work. It was then co-opted by business and government in a not entirely successful attempt to turn it into a tool of commerce. Even after the DOT.COM crash e-business experts are still promoting a model of the Internet that is little more than a television shopping channel. This view is not only intellectually impoverished, but has financially impoverished many of those who followed it. Returning to the Internet's roots in academic discourse might provide insights in how to use it for business and support social and educational goals. A good place to start is with online education, which depends on a careful mix of academe and commerce. Australian academics had a significant role in developing the Internet. Those skills and experience can be applied to showing how to use the Internet for social and commercial goals in education.

What is a University?

The real University is not a material object. It is not a group of buildings that can be defended by police. ... What would happen is that the real University, which no legislature can dictate to and which can never be identified by any location of bricks or boards or glass, would simply declare that this place was no longer ``holy ground.'' The real University would vanish from it, and all that would be left was the bricks and the books and the material manifestation. From Chapter 13 of "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance", by Robert M. Pirsig.

Pirsig was arguing why a University is more than a group of buildings. In the age of the Internet we can go beyond this as a philosophical idea and conceive a university as a set of social relationships not associated with buildings at all. Modern organisations need have no physical existence. My own consulting company carries out most of its activities via the Internet.

Virtual organisations have had a bad press, through the collapse of DOT.COM companies. Ethical, useful virtual organisations are possible if the relationships between people in the organisation, and to its clients, are carefully worked out.

University of Australia Online

The UAO will do two vital things for Australia: it will significantly expand the opportunity to study at university for thousands of Australians who would otherwise miss out; and it will make Australia a world leader in providing online education. From Address - National Press Club by Kim Beazley, 24 January 2001

While sitting in the audience during the Leader of the Opposition's press club address I downloaded a copy of the background paper from the ALP web site using a wireless modem and transmitted a brief report about it to the online community when he was finished. Rather than a general statement of principles and broad direction, which everyone (including the Prime Minister) was expecting, this was a specific detailed proposal for a "University of Australia On-line" (UAO).

Labour proposes to create 100,000 new on-line undergraduate places by 2010 to be serviced by existing Australian universities. Fees for these would be halved (presumably reflecting the lower cost of on-line teaching) and free university preparation courses would be provided. One claimed benefit is that academics will receive revenue for courses sold to other institutions. This will open some difficult issues of intellectual property ownership that universities have been avoiding. UAO would commission content from existing universities and have an Institute of On-line Teaching to help design better courses. This will be needed as the average academic will not have experience in on-line content creation.

Labour points out that such an UAO would provide access for low income, single parents and rural people. Nevertheless, this assumes, these people have Internet access at an affordable price and can use it. It also assumes that Australia has the infrastructure to support this on-line access. This does create some opportunities for using Australian university expertise in networking.

One benefit not addressed in Labour's proposal is that good on-line education will benefit people with some forms of disability. If existing web accessibility guidelines are implemented, then the content will be usable by the disabled and the network requirements would be reduced for those in regional areas on slow internet connections.

Labour should be commended for making a brave and detailed proposal. However, some questions remain: what will it all cost? Will resources be withdrawn from conventional courses? Will on-line students be second class? Will we open Australia to competition from cut rate overseas universities? Will it one big government mandated on-line university stifle innovation and entrepreneurial efforts from existing institutions?

Communicating with People is the Internet Killer Application

A key to the rapid growth of the Internet has been the free and open access to the basic documents, especially the specifications of the protocols. The beginnings of the ARPANET and the Internet in the university research community promoted the academic tradition of open publication of ideas and results. However, the normal cycle of traditional academic publication was too formal and too slow for the dynamic exchange of ideas essential to creating networks.
Email has been a significant factor in all areas of the Internet, and that is certainly true in the development of protocol specifications, technical standards, and Internet engineering. The very early RFCs often presented a set of ideas developed by the researchers at one location to the rest of the community. After email came into use, the authorship pattern changed - RFCs were presented by joint authors with common view independent of their locations.
From A Brief History of the Internet , Barry M. Leiner et al. 2000

Electronic mail is technically the simplest, but perhaps most socially complex Internet technology to master. There are various technologies called "groupware" designed to make it easier to communicate between several people. Groupware adds automated functions to take over some social roles in communicating, particularly in large groups. An automated mailing list maintains a directory of participants and, optionally, an archive of the conversation. Some action, such as sending large attachments to the group, may be prevented automatically. However, there is still a role for a moderator in most automated discussion groups, to keep the deliberation on topic and help those who get lost.

A University is More than Rote Learning

The Australian National University (ANU) is an established University and so is taking a cautious approach to online learning. This semester will see the first coordinated use of online instruction with the WebCT package. This is a web-based system, which is commonly used in universities for creating and delivering computer-based training material. While this is the type of system envisaged for the ALP's University of Australia Online, but there is a very great risk in assuming what it delivers is everything a university does.

Training packages, such as WebCT, run from a central web server and accessed using a web browser. This creates a very convenient system for those who have an Internet connection (even a slow one will do) and know how to work it. The designer and students need no special software, just a web browser. External course material, such as lecture notes, can either be imported to the system so it is held on the central server or linked to and kept separate. This makes the adaption of existing material easy.

Nevertheless, there are some problems with such a system. The course author and the students require a continuous Internet connection to use the system. A student in a remote area on a dial-up telephone line will tie up the line while studying and may be paying by the minute for the call and for Internet access. The single central server is a potential point of failure, with a downed computer inconveniencing thousands of students.

Unless the course designer is careful to provide usable captions for images and in laying out material, there may be difficulties for disabled students. However, this may still be far in advance to the access to teaching materials that a disabled student can get in the average face-to-face course.

It is in the provision for chat rooms, where the essence of the real university becomes apparent. These create a large legal and moral supervision liability for the university, but are what will distinguish a university from a commercial training provider. A University is a place of discourse, which involves talking and listening to students. While this is feasible using online technology, it requires new skills from staff, new skills to be taught to students and significant resources.

The structured approach to teaching with a web-based system will help people who are new to teaching, but might feel restrictive to experienced educators. A side effect of providing extensive on-line material is that fewer students will turn up to lectures. Those used to orating at students may find hard to adjust to change. Ideally universities will use this as an opportunity to reallocate resources from lectures to other teaching techniques (such as more tutors and on-line help), but might be tempted just to cut costs. There is also the temptation to buy prepared courseware and not encourage local development.

Online development provides the opportunity to involve outside professionals in course development. However, the infrastructure to do this will be needed. Impediments can be as trivial as the delay in allocating staff user-ids to external course designers who are honorary staff members, but not registered on the computerised payroll. Universities will need to clarify intellectual property right to courseware developed. Now universities assume they own the courses which staff prepare. This is reasonable when the same staff deliver the courses in person. However, if a course is delivered to thousands of students around the world and sold to other institutions, the author can expect a share of the revenue.

The Common Room

An online system that designs out informal communication may eliminate the most important and creative aspect of social organisations. At a university one important form of interaction is in the common room. Resources are expended on such areas because they provide a way for people to talk to each other. Having informal online discussion is possible but this takes resources and deliberate work to design. We need the online equivalent of comfortable chairs, where people can sit and chat. Valuable information is communicated informally in such an environment.

An example of an effective online discussion is the Link mailing list, which has been operating since 1993 and has had a role in the development of national policy:

... Link developed over the years into the key mailing list for IT and Internet-related issues. While Internet content regulation was never the sole focus of the list, it fostered a great deal of debate and information exchange on the subject of government Internet regulation (Higgins, 1999), especially during the legislative debate of 1999 and in the pre- and post implementation stages of the legislation. From Australia's Online Censorship Regime, Peter Chen, ANU, 2001

Just as students learn social communication skills at a physical university, they will need to learn online social skills at a virtual university. Australia's business and government workers are largely lacking in these skills and one major benefit of the online university may be to fill a skill gap that is impeding e-commerce.

Real Campuses for the Virtual University

Blending online and face-to-face ways of working is possible efficiently. Students of the University of Australia Online will still need to meet in person on a campus for some courses. The ALP envisages existing physical university campuses being used. However, existing campuses have been designed for off-line education. They are not necessarily found where the students need them, particular not regional areas. These campuses will not have the facilities online students need and will have faculties they do not need.

There are already some regional micro campuses, suitable for online students, such as the University of WA Albany Centre. This is a modest refurbished building fitted out with a dozen or so computers and video conference facilities to the main campus in Perth. It has a couple of full time staff and part time tutors. At a modest cost this could be replicated across regional Australian and in outlying suburbs of the cities, so that a university campus would be within reach of most of Australia.

Besides providing local access to university education, such campuses could be expanded to be a resource for small scale, local high technology development. This would address a problem with the Federal Government's recent innovation statement, which mostly addressed big business in big cities.

Tom Worthington is a Visiting Fellow in the Department of Computer Science, Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology at the Australian National University, an author and independent IT consultant.

This document is Version 2.1 11 March 2001

A draft was presented to the forum on Connecting Society, 7th March 2001, Canberra

Copyright © Tom Worthington 2001.