Is online education good for learning?

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.

  1. Kim Little (6:00 and 54:15)
  2. Cathy Rossouw (13:30 and 58:30)
  3. Prof. Peter Ling (21:30)
  4. Prof. Lorraine Ling (30:10)
  5. Prof. Dick Gunstone (39:00)
  6. Dr Kumar Amarasekara (47:35)
  7. 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.


Trollope in Australia – half a pint of Yering estate wine for threepence!

As I’ve previously written, I’m a fan of the author Anthony Trollope (1815 – 1882). His books are engaging, wry, and conjure up visions of life in the latter half of the nineteenth century. If you haven’t read any of his voluminous output, you’ll at least have heard of some of the films and series based on his work: The Barchester Chronicles, Doctor Thorne, The Pallisers, The Way We Live Now, … Continue reading

Bach didn’t only love beer!

In a previous post, I extolled the virtues of J.S. Bach, and mentioned my surprise at discovering that he was, to put it lightly, a ‘bit of a lad’ (street-fighting, imprisonment, father to at least 20 known offspring, incorrigible, …). Added to the list of his outrageous pursuits was a love of beer. What I’ve more recently discovered is that Bach had another specific passion, and that was coffee, making him a regular at Leipzig’s Zimmermann Coffee House. Continue reading

Boating with the Robinsons

I lived in Hong Kong on and off for 15 years, and one of the greatest joys during our family’s time there was boating and all its associated pleasures. We arrived in January, 1985, and our first experiences were naturally the ferries, from the Star Ferry service between Tsim Sha Tsui to the Island, as well as the ferries to outlying islands such as Lamma and Cheung Chau. Continue reading

A few famous people who surf(ed)

I’m Tasmanian (despite not having lived there for nearly 40 years) and was recently reading Neil Kearney’s marvellous book, Longford: The Legend of a Little Town with a Big Motor, when I spied a surprising passing note on the legendary Grand Prix driver, Jim Clark. It seems that the sun-seeking Clark, while visiting to compete in 1967, “… went surfing on Tasmania’s east coast.” (p. 166). I followed up with Neil, who’d been told that “he went to the beaches with a couple of local drivers”. That finding prompted me to try a stock-take of famous people who’ve caught the bug. Continue reading

I love Anthony Trollope

A bit strong? What is there to love, I hear you ask, about an author from the 1800s who spent most of his life as a civil servant in the Post Office, who got up at 4:30 each morning to pen a couple of thousand words before he went to work, and who wrote a book called The Three Clerks, which, as the title suggests, was about three men working for the Weights and Measures Office? Continue reading

How many jobs have you had? (B)

In my early 30s, I didn’t have a passport and had never been overseas. It was 1984, we had a young family, and were keen to take off somewhere … anywhere. I viewed enviously a business studies teacher at Hobart Technical College who had obtained a position in the Seychelles – such an amazing move seemed well out of reach. But then … Continue reading