Is online education good for learning? Nearly twenty five years ago, this was a relevant and pressing question for the education sector, universities in particular. Back then I was working at Monash University under the grand title of Associate Professor in Flexible Learning (flexible learning being the popular catchphrase at the time). I’d been working closely with my friend and colleague Len Webster at the time, and we’d been heavily involved in the development of online learning, going so far as designing and developing our own software (InterLearn) for the presentation of our post-graduate flexible learning course for academic staff.
Following the stunning success of the Monash student debating team (world champions, no less), we had the bright idea of organising a debate on the efficacy of online learning, involving both staff and student speakers. The title was a bit clumsy (‘Online Education: Good for Learning or Good for Nothing’), which is why I started this post with a shortened and neater form of the question to be debated. Anyway, we pressed on, and were able to recruit six unsuspecting debaters; two Monash staff, two staff from other universities, and two Monash students.
Unsure whether we’d attract a crowd, we set the time for early evening when lectures were by and large finished, and added the attraction of wine and cheese for starters (thanks for the support and funding, Graham Webb!). Another (hopeful) attraction was the presence of the Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor, who committed to proving a brief summary at the conclusion. A particular technological innovation was the ‘Clapometer’, a cunning device developed by Len to measure the volume of applause for each team (and thus determine the winner of the debate).
Now why I’m telling you all this is that I recently discovered a VHS copy of the debate in a box of junk in the garage. There’s a great little local firm (Qantem) that converts videos to digital format, and as usual they did an excellent job. Encouragingly, one of them commented how much she’d enjoyed watching sections of it as it was being converted.
Anyway, the entire proceedings are herewith presented, all one hour and ten minutes of it. In the list of debaters below, I’ve indicated at which time(s) they speak.
- Kim Little (6:00 and 54:15)
- Cathy Rossouw (13:30 and 58:30)
- Prof. Peter Ling (21:30)
- Prof. Lorraine Ling (30:10)
- Prof. Dick Gunstone (39:00)
- Dr Kumar Amarasekara (47:35)
- Summary: Prof. Alan Lindsay (1:04:00)
If you care to view the video, you’ll find plenty of wit and wisdom from the protagonists. The ‘Yes’ case deplores the traditional Ivory Tower image of universities and pushes the notion of increased access, while the ‘No’ case highlights the new and emerging dangers of the emerging technological revolution. I can’t fail to mention a particular highlight, though, as one of the debaters bursts into song at about 36:30 minutes – see for yourself!
Now of course, at the time of the debate, the academics were well-established in their careers, but what of the two students? What happened to these world champion debaters? A quick check has established that both have moved on to highly successful careers. Kim Little works in early childhood education, most recently being lured from Victoria to South Australia where she will lead the rollout of universal three-year-old kindergarten. Cathy Rossouw departed the shores of Australia some time ago to make her way in the wide world, now residing in New York and working as a partner at Chapman, a law firm focused on finance. It seems that if you want to make your way in the world, join the debating club!
All very good, but who won the debate? I won’t give it away. The Clapometer delivers the verdict.