The tyranny of distance

Feeling more at home ... Rebecca Brown says off-campus courses are less daunting for working students.
Feeling more at home ... Rebecca Brown says off-campus courses are less daunting for working students.

Universities are seeking to capitalise on growing demand for web-based classes by launching online versions of their traditional courses.

The Macquarie Graduate School of Management (MGSM) is allowing students to study units within the master of business administration (MBA) without leaving home.

The school says the move is in response to the changing nature of its student population.

''What we're seeing is the market for people in their late 20s and early 30s changing,'' the interim dean of MGSM, Guy Ford, says.

''They are mobile, they don't go to the same office and sit there from 9am to 5pm every day, they are really tech-savvy, and they're finding it increasingly difficult to come to the same location for four hours each week.''

The university is striving to preserve the core components of the degree while allowing new students more flexible study options. ''It's the same learning goals, the same faculty, the same assessment and the same exam,'' Ford says.

''It's just a different channel for those who want to use it. For a school like ours, it's important we move with the careers of our students rather than students having to stop their careers to complete their studies.''

Rebecca Brown, who works on emerging technology for a global IT company, will be one of the first to study the new MBA online in 2013.

''It's not as daunting to do an MBA now as it was,'' Brown says. ''It is great the university thinks about what you do in your career and makes it flexible enough to study evening, day and, now, online.''

Brown had her first taste of off-campus education about five years ago when she studied a distance degree at Charles Sturt University (CSU).

CSU was one of the first to introduce distance education study. About 80 per cent of its courses are offered online and through distance education.

Traditionally, the latter involved the university mailing out material to more than 20,000 students who could not make it to campus.

The university's director of educational design and media, Katherine Klapdor, says online learning builds on the tradition of distance education but adds greater interactivity.

''Using the online environment means you can have much more interaction, much more engagement with your students, and much more support in a timely way,'' she says.

The director of strategic learning at Charles Sturt University, Philip Uys, says online courses can require more commitment than their traditional on-campus equivalents. ''It's a misconception that it's going to be a breeze.

''When you come to campus and you walk into a lesson you are there, you are present - at least physically.

''But online it's often a matter of choice and it competes with other priorities in your life. It's a more difficult discipline.''

Web-based education is no longer just for university students. In 2007, Apple launched iTunes U, a service that provides free lectures by top colleges and universities across the world. Within three years, downloads had reached 300 million with 800 universities actively taking part.

Not all of the reactions to online learning, however, have been positive.

A front-page story that questioned whether iTunes U would replace the modern lecture theatre in the British Guardian newspaper sparked national and international media coverage.

Bill Ashraf, then at Britain's Bradford University, argued in the newspaper that traditional lectures may not be enough to engage the modern student.

Now the senior manager at the University of NSW's Learning and Teaching Unit, Ashraf says education is finally coming to grips with the idea that its students live in an online world. ''Universities are now looking to provide really high-quality digital content but to a mass audience,'' he says.

He says universities will have to make important decisions as they seek to balance their resources between traditional and online learning. ''It's not an easy process universities find themselves in at the moment,'' he says. ''It's a new paradigm for them.''

Ashraf says students may miss out on the more intangible benefits of an on-campus education as learning migrates online. ''I've got two daughters - one's at university in Manchester and one is in Liverpool,'' he says.

''While studying at university is important to them, it's actually also about just being away from home.''

This story The tyranny of distance first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.