Now I don’t often write to the newspaper (you know, the whole ‘Angry of Mayfair’ thing), but I couldn’t help myself when I read the opinion piece ‘Death by e-learning’ in the Higher Education section of ‘The Australian’ newspaper. Writtten by one Gerry O. Nolan, ‘an e-learning technical consultant at a university in Sydney’, the article made a number of what I consider to be unsupported claims related to e-learning, universities, distance education and academics.
So yes, somewhat in high dudgeon, I penned the following epistle and whizzed it off to the editor. Will it be published? Who knows, but I am informed that pessimists have a more accurate view of the world than optimists!
Life by e-learning: a response to Gerry O. Nolan
The title of your opinion piece (Death by e-learning) caught my eye, given my ongoing interest and involvement in e-learning and distance education. To be honest, the more I read it, the more irritated I got, prompting this fevered response. Basically, your experience has not been my experience.
Underpinning your comments about e-learning is an apparent assumption that e-learning is all about ‘packaging texts, video lectures and tutorials’. While this model may exist, it is far from what is either desirable or desired, and is one of the reasons that the e-universities push of a few years ago failed so miserably and damnably.
A simple illustration: Which provides a better e-learning experience, the online lectures from an eminent physics professor at MIT (http://ocw.mit.edu/OcwWeb/Physics/8-01Physics-IFall1999/CourseHome/index.htm), or the online learning resources developed by the Physics department (http://www.physclips.unsw.edu.au/) at the University of New South Wales (I assume this is not the ‘university in Sydney’ to which you consult)? The latter provides a wonderful example of where e-learning is and should be heading. I rest my mercifully brief case.
However, furthering my irritation, you also wrote that ‘Most courses have feedback from students, but I’ve never seen it used. Has an academic been counselled for giving consistently lousy lectures?’ The answer is a very firm ‘YES’. To illustrate from my old employer (I left Monash last year, by the way), feedback from students is acted upon promptly and decisively at Monash University, which now has a sophisticated system of monitoring and follow-up support for staff and students. You can even read the student feedback on all units taught on the Monash website.
Student feedback is also expected to be included in all applications for academic promotion, further emphasizing the importance of teaching in the institution. And yes, investigation has clearly shown that academics are promoted on the basis of good teaching, not just their research output. If you take the time to investigate, you may just find that this also true at your unidentified university.
Whew! That should be enough, but you finish your diatribe with a call to make ‘lectures lively and memorable; to make an effort to interact with students, to leave their office door open when they are in, to become accessible.’ Sure, and most lecturers strive to achieve this (check the teaching awards, both locally and nationally). But to cap it off, your final comment is that ‘No e-learning system can match that.’ Absolute rubbish! Distance education is booming worldwide (Google ‘mega-universities’ – most are open universities) at least partially because e-learning has enabled it to become more ‘lively and memorable’, interactive and accessible.
I’d better stop, as I’m getting too old for all this ranting. I suspect you’ve been hanging around too many grumbling lecturers, and have taken their coffee-time whinging at face value.
Dr David Murphy is a blissfully semi-retired academic, who was previously Professor and Director of the Centre for the Advancement of Learning and Teaching at Monash University. He is immediate Past President of the Open and Distance Learning Association of Australia, and is co-editor of The International Handbook of Distance Education (2008, Emerald, London).
[Postscript: It wasn’t published. HES published seven letters, all focussed on an article written by its editor (including one by the editor himself). Now I’m not claiming that my letter necessarily merited publishing, but surely there were other letters in response to alternative articles and opinion pieces that justified sharing? Methinks it smacks of self-promotion! I should write to the paper about it …]