The online delivery paradigm both adds value to the traditional learning approach, and creates new educational opportunities. Consumers of online education are generally “non-traditional” students and as a result this medium allows in the university to expand their client base without impacting their existing market resulting in a projected increase in market share.
The added benefits of increased community cohesion and interaction can not be overlooked. Aligning the needs of the community in this manner can help provide many of the “soft goals” projected by Universities while simultaneously providing the core aims to enhance and promote education.
In order to ensure that when a university plans to expand offerings and open new markets through the use of Internet based delivery mechanisms is successful, it is essential that the university formulates a strategic plan to implement this new delivery medium. Many of the issues associated with this are detailed in this paper.
Mintzberg (1994) believes that strategic planning should be more correctly called strategic programming as it is an analysis, articulation, and elaboration of that which already exists. Mintzberg (p 52) points out that “in seeking to measure productivity we are basically concerned with the question of how well (how efficiently) available inputs are converted into outputs”.
Lane (2004) tells us that strategic plans generally consist of:
1. Vision (where we want to be)
2. Mission (our purpose or reason for existence)
3. Values (the principles that guide our behaviour, give us a sense of direction, which also helps us decide what is important and provide us with an ethical and moral foundation).
To address these stages, we need to investigate both the concerns and hurdles to implementation (Kotter, 1992), as well as reviewing what the university seeks to gain. In order to be successful this new project must align to the vision, mission and values of the University as it currently exists. Additionally, the project needs to add value both to existing students and faculty as well as in opening new opportunities for educational delivery (Tsang, 1998).
Issues that may impact the project
There are a number of concerns that need to be addressed before any online course can be successfully introduced (Romm & Taylor, 2000). The needs of the University from both the perspective of the faculty and also of the students need to be taken into consideration. Each of these issues will be addressed individually.
For all the criticisms, it will be clearly demonstrated that few if any universities can maintain the traditional only approach in the longer-term (Beldore et al, 2002). At the least universities need to complement the existing offerings allowing students to broaden their experience through both online and traditional offerings. This process provides the framework for structured online learning system that fulfils both the needs of the students and faculty (Hay/McBer, 2000).
The growing trend towards distance and lifelong learning (Taylor et al, 2003; Longworth, 1999; Salmon, 2000) provides ample justification in itself. The clear advantages to both society and the economy cannot be overlooked either. It must never be forgotten that a public university as the primary goal of providing education and as such it is clear that it must create a homogeneous structure to disseminate information as fairly as possible (Dark, 2004a; Beirne, 2002; Berge, 1993). ICT can provide a structure to achieve this goal (Beyer, 1998).
Student concerns and needs
Simon, Brooks & Wilkes (2003) demonstrate that one of the fist points to consider is the perception of online courses by students. In a business sense the students are the key clients for the University. As such, the deceptions all of potential students and their opinions either for or against online courses need to be examined (Jacques, 1991).
In their study, Simon, Brooks & Wilkes (2003) demonstrated that many students who enrol in online degrees are "non-traditional" and do not fir the model of a standard university student. The online student is generally older, employed in a full-time occupation and has already completed at least one degree (Schooley, 2001). It was also shown that students to complete online degrees are generally more motivated. Students who travel with work generally also find online courses attractive (Alexander, 1995).
Concerns held by faculty and institutions
There is a common concerned that "faculty will become me shepherds heading their passive sheep through pre-prepared fields of outdated and insubstantial information" and that further web-based academics do not focused enough on the interaction between faculty and students which is needed to "generate debate, conversation, and participation" (Accetta, 2001).
It is also suggested that students will not get the same campus experience as those who enrol in traditional programs (Cox, 2001). In order to be successful any university offering online courses needs to ensure that its students are prepared to engage in self-directed learning. Additionally it is more important that quality assurance measures designed around rigor and quality ensure that the student completes the required work to the required standard (Jackson, 1992).
Logistical concerns such as providing the same level of support to online distance students as traditional students need to be taken into account. Access to libraries, bookstores, advisory and counselling services are areas that are generally lacking in most online offerings. In addition it is even more crucial that students understand the expectations of the course as it is more likely that they may complete the entire semester without any formal contact.
One of the key criticisms of online courses and a possible disadvantage is the lack of provision of forums for physical contact and live debate. It is believed by many that the lack of an avenue for debate amongst staff and students at the University through live concourse cannot be adequately compensated through the use of web-based and other forms of messaging. Symonds (2001) quotes Harvard University professor, W Earl Sasser's view that an online degree "would distract from the residential experience. Similarly, Kumar et al. (2002, p140) cite "strong evidence that students perceive interaction, student to student and student to instructor, to suffer as a result of virtual education ".
A further consideration is the ethical dilemma associated with the need to access computers at home. The cost of Internet access and an adequate computer, although comparatively lower in cost than even a couple years ago, are still excessive too many. This dilemma however is outside the scope of this paper other than to be noted as a concern.
Developments in Online Education
Peltz (2000) has suggested that e-learning is already a multibillion dollar industry. Weil (2001) suggests that either 54% of US higher education institutions offer courses either the Internet. International Data Corporation was cited by Weil (2000) with a predicted 87% of institutions offering online courses by 2004. In fact, many new universities have been created that only offer courses online and do not engage in any traditional lectures (Peltz, 2000).
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has an open courseware program where they post lecture notes reading assignments and even real audio/RealVideo feeds from their lectures. Although the open courseware program does not lead to the issuing of a degree or certificate, it provides an educational framework that is available freely over the Internet.
The University of Phoenix online is one of the largest private providers of online education with bachelor's, masters and doctoral degree programs. They claim that students gain the following benefits:
· attend class at times and places that fit their schedule
· complete 100% of the education via the Internet
· earn their degree in two or three years
· classes are offered one at a time, for five to six weeks, so they can focus on one subject
· programs are continually updated to provide skills and experience in high demand
· all faculty members hold a master's or doctoral degree
· All coursework is designed to apply to the work environment.
Additionally, several universities, such as Duke University, offer a combination of online and work in residency based programs. Slusky & Partow-Navid (2003) detail the introduction of a remote UNIX lab at California State University. This system was used to train UNIX system administrators, Oracle database administrators and programmers/developers. They developed a remote DBA and a wireless DBA application. These were configured to provide students with hands-on experience and chew to lead situations without having to be at the University.
The UNIX lab project enabled California State University to enhance “the learning and teaching experience in UNIX, Linux and Oracle in a predictable atmosphere of confidence, control and satisfaction”. This project enabled the university to add new courses to the curriculum for both internal and external students.
Burgess & Darbyshire (2003) demonstrate how the use of IT in businesses reflects the needs of the modern university. The list of benefits, including:
· Improved support of business operations,
· Enhanced support of managerial decision-making, and the
· Growth of a strategic advantage (such as also is detailed by Porter ).
Thus, some strategies that need to be considered include becoming a low cost provider of quality educational services, producing a unique or differentiated good, or providing to a niche market.
Links to Employers and Business
“Training personnel to acquire knowledge, skills, and attitudes are an essential role for instructional systems design, and so is training that translates knowledge, skills and attitudes into effective performance.” (Davies, 1994, p 111). Ghoshal & Bartlett (1995, p89) deliver the same importance to training systems as Davies.
Jackson (1995) criticises the competency movement for specifying performance goals in clear, precise, detailed and measurable terms. Training for IT workers should not just be seen as a means of improving performance. Training can be both reward and ambition to the Information Technology employee where training and associated development are a reward for a job well done.
As such, the University could look to integrating programs with the needs and focus of selected businesses in mind. The Australian government reports, “Backing Australia's ability” (2001), “Knowledge and Innovation” (1999), and “Investing for Growth” (1997), or provide a framework to enable universities to work with industry to create courses that provide graduates with the qualities needed in industry.
These courses would improve the employment prospects of graduates making the courses more attractive (Vroom, 1964). It is further noted that by working with industry it would be possible to provide online courses for the existing employees of a number of both government and commercial organisations (Senge, 1994). This practice is already common in the US with several online universities aligning themselves with organisations such as Price Waterhouse Coopers, the US military, and IBM (McGill, 2002).
Application and Design
Taylor et al (2003) argue that “the philosophical framework used in the development of an online course…” “is largely based on sociological theory”. They further argue the need for a student-centred approach to learning.
The importance of placing the student at the centre of the learning process is articulated by Taylor et al (2003) in engaging the student in “one to one”, “one to many” and “many to many” forums. They state that “the future learning environment will be increasingly ubiquitous and require the full capacity of information technology operating asynchronously and at a distance to engage the needs of ‘lifelong’ and ‘life wide’ learners while minimising the extra demands of teachers and facilitators”.
Habermas (1984) provides a foundation for critically analysing educational practices through communicative action. This discourse would allow both faculty and students to disclose their orientations relevant to the subject matter in a format that is less asymmetrical with regards the relations of power.
The critical aspect is the development of learning communities aimed towards both self-directed and for-group learning. Romm & Taylor (2000) showed that the “many to many” mode of distance education generally reflect the traditional “face to face” learning paradigm, which lends itself to a power relationship (Habermas, 1984).
The learning model proposed by Taylor et al (2003) for the delivery of online courses there is that as devised by Romm & Taylor (2000). This model includes instructional materials for the course which consists of a video or RealAudio feed that contains explanations on how to use because functions; a course outline which provides the information about the course; textbooks; and an interactive class forum.
In this model, students are expected to subscribe to the forum. The lecture encourages the students to introduce themselves online in order to conceptualize their backgrounds and provide a framework of discussion and interpretation within the cohort. Individual virtual groups are then established.
The model involves three modes of faculty/student interaction. There is the traditional model of “one to many” teaching. Next students have the capability to engage in “one to one” interaction with the lecturer through a variety of communication methods. The bulk of interaction in this model is through the “many to many” mode. In this students interact through the groups in development of presentations to the cohort and the critical analysis of other group presentations.
Wellman et al. (1996) contends that limiting social presence, such as through the use of online education is a factor in “removing inhibition, increasing creativeness, and strengthening weak social ties in narrowly focused groups such as learning groups”. This view is supported by Rice (1993) who suggests that social presence “fundamentally affects how participants sense emotion, intimacy, and immediacy”.
In this way the use of online forums can aid in the development of understanding across cultural groupings (Taylor et al, 2003). The ease of accommodating distant students from different ethnic backgrounds not only adds to the creative process but also accommodates development of community. Both distance and traditional students gain advantages.
This approach to online education allows the individual and communities to “live an ongoing learning experience”. This thus allows the university to not only expand their funding base through increased revenue, but to also meet the goals set by the Australian government in a manner that is both socially and educationally accountable.
In designing the course, it is first necessary to state the business level objectives (Stiller, 2003). The business level objectives determine all other levels for both requirements and solutions.
Appropriate technologies are then selected to meet business needs:
· Strategic business planning
· Business process reengineering
· Identification of major business functions
· Identification of business processes
· Identification of business opportunities
In this format, the educational institution is treated as a business. The accountability of universities to deliver courses and programs relevant to today's society (Stiller, 2003) has resulted in the need to align programs in a manner that will ensure adequate funding.
Only when the business level objectives have been decided can we move to design the application, data and network technologies. The university needs to decide on what markets will add to its profile. To do this it needs to define its core strengths and focus. It is for instance of little use for a school known predominantly for its law programme to seek to develop an online IT and engineering programme as it’s first offering.
In this, the university need to develop a strategic plan that allows them to build on its existing strengths and maintain its core values. This will allow for the optimum marketing of its traditional and online offerings while synergistically minimising the costs to either.
It is clear that there are a number of obstacles to formulating an online educational platform. The benefits outweigh the costs, both financially and through the achievement of educational accountability through enhanced learning.
The online delivery paradigm both adds value to the traditional learning approach, and creates new educational opportunities. Being that many of the consumers of online education are “non-traditional” students, this medium allows in the university to expand their client base without impacting their existing market. This would result in an overall performance improvement for the University (Rummler, 1995).
Finally, the added benefits of increased community cohesion and interaction can not be overlooked (Adler, 1959). Aligning the needs of the community in this manner can help provide many of the “soft goals” projected by Universities while simultaneously providing the core aims to enhance and promote education.
Before a definitive solution may be derived, the strategic plan and strengths of the University need to be determined (Bolman, 2003). Without this phase, the project is at best a blind stab in the dark.
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