Online education in the marketplace

Dr Neil E. Béchervaise
Managing Director
Global Research Business Pty Ltd

The promises for Information Technology in the educational context continue to far outweigh any evidence for effective delivery. Online training programs proliferate and colourful online encyclopaedias masquerade as educational facilities. Unsophisticated attempts to represent teaching notes as learning materials provide a constant reminder of the ‘mastery learning’ materials of the seventies and several previously enthusiastic educational sites have now acknowledged that they provide a ‘coaching resource’.

Leading Australian players in the online education business include the ISIS corporation’s educational wing - XSIQ and Sydney-based World School. Each has positioned itself as a national provider and each is listed in international stock exchanges. Each, on the other hand, has reduced its claims as the realities of the market have highlighted its inadequacies. Each is focused on the senior years of secondary schooling as it grapples with the demands of interactivity and the need for intensive skilled human intervention to tailor its offerings to individual student needs. World School has dropped out of the field of ‘education providers’ and is now manoeuvring to identify some viable position as a coaching resource. XSIQ is regrouping to identify realistic delivery modes and internally consistent assessment procedures for an increasingly global marketplace.
The evolution of e-cademy represents an alternative vision for the e-ducation of a prospectively online nation. Their catch-cry - Our Network. Your Content - suggests a recognition of fundamental student needs for information broadcast interactively and manipulated to generate accessible learning opportunities. Despite their recognition of the problem of presenting learning opportunities online, e-cademy also appear to have accepted their role as trainers rather than educators. The education pie remains tantalisingly distanced from the demands of the e-business players and new players still seek entry - the microsoft backed Digital Harbour, fronted by a high profile former girls’ school Principal, is one of the latest though it remains unclear what they might add that has not already been explored.
So what is the problem? Why is the education market so difficult to crack?
Despite the lemming-like enthusiasm of some teachers for the application of computers in the classroom, there really is more to education than the presentation of factual materials - no matter how colourfully or graphically they are represented. Teacher resistance to technology is as much concerned with inappropriate usage as it is with technical incapacity. While simulations of reality become increasingly realistic, their uptake seems to be forever limited by consumer recognition that virtual representation is not actually reality. In fact, the inability of the so-called e-commerce market of high profile players such as, sausage and solution six to manipulate the internet to meet their particular needs and demands suggests that there remains more to satisfying consumer needs than technology can currently provide.
Though online educational materials have become increasingly sophisticated over the past decade, download times and server and pc RAM capacities and line speeds continue to limit effective delivery. Coupled with the high costs of development and prohibitive royalty costs, copyright and intellectual property laws have become significant impediments to effective educational presentation. In consequence, most on-line materials are heavily text-based and represent, at the consumer interface, poor-value substitutes for print materials in the hands of dynamic teachers.
So on-line education represents a range of significant obstacles to students learning ‘how to learn’. And these are compounded when we accept that different students have different learning styles and different teachers have, different effective teaching styles. The magic comes when teaching style matches learning style.
Attempts to anticipate student learning need confirm two essential features of the educational process - it is non-linear and it is highly individual. Student experience and student interest are highly variable and frequently personality dependent for any given topic - so every individual learning path is apparently serendipitous. In the absence of an observer, student interest cannot be monitored and potential learning pathways cannot be continuously adjusted in response to the monitoring. Attractive and even timely data provision remains an insufficient motivation for effective learning.
School classrooms averagely contain 30 diverse learners seeking individual information from a single data source on a continuous basis for six hours a day. The data is varied according to key learning areas yet needing to be integrated to create a meaningful learning experience for each individual. While delivery is not as flamboyant as the technology of the videogame suggests it should be by now, the interactivity of the classroom environment appears to meet the needs of an identifiable majority of students [they are tuned in to a relevant ‘radio station’]. The same cannot yet be said of online learning platforms at local, national or international levels.
Linearity of presentation, lack of interactivity and inappropriateness of content selection remain fundamental weaknesses in the development of online educational materials. Programming still largely neglects a primary focus on the learning needs of the individual student - or of any consideration that learning styles may vary with topic, task or content base.
In essence, while the technology has become more sophisticated, attention to the learning needs (rather than the content needs) of learners has barely changed in the decade or two since IT was promised as a panacea for educational ills. Major technology companies working with major educational institutions are coming increasingly towards recognition of the need for mediation between the learner and the learning. The cost of the teacher as mediator is becoming the price they will pay to gain access to the educational market.
School administrators face an even greater dilemma. Having been moved to accept massive capital outlays to implement the new technology and still unable to counter entrenched resistance to change from teachers at the classroom level, they are now faced with the prospect that the technology will never meet the range of student needs promised for it.
Far from facilitating the task of schools, the implementation of Information Technology has generated a new level of technical staffing to manage its own roll-out and on-going maintenance and a new level of teacher employment to maintain the more obvious accounting and publishing facilities emerging with website presence. It is impossible to see how a roll-back can be achieved in the current climate but it is equally difficult to see how effective educational returns can be made on our previous capital and intellectual expenditure unless we step back and rethink why we are doing this thing to ourselves.
Change is made through the hearts and minds of people. The minds are not really a problem in this case. Everyone can see that there should be advantages to the application of IT. But they can also see that they themselves are eliminated from the currently favoured equations for on-line provision - so their hearts are not in it. And without their hearts there will be no change.
A fundamental rethink of IT provision needs to start with what the student needs and how the teacher provides that - not with a demand that IT be applied whether it is appropriate to learning or not. This demands a review of what it is that teachers really do with their students to facilitate learning; what teaching styles best match the individual learning styles of the majority of students. And that will demand a rethink of the way on-line providers design the learning experiences they provide. And that, I believe, will result in a substantial shift away from content provision towards those generic learning abilities identified in the Hobart Declaration and substantiated in the National Declaration of Education delivered at this conference.
Paper presented to Australian Education Conference - Melbourne, 2001