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Right and wrong in online higher education

12 Apr 2021 / 13:33 H.

AS we enter the second year of the Covid-19 pandemic, many universities, particularly owners of private institutions, have finally decided to change their teaching and learning model or, more accurately, business model.

Crushed by a year of falling student income and fixed costs, and forced into online teaching, millions of dollars and faculty hours are being spent to convert course material, assessments and notes into online formats as quickly as possible.

The economics of this model is simple. Once the core course content has been created and uploaded, it can be used for many years with minimal maintenance. It is almost always of a minimum standard and there is rarely any appetite to improve it.

The faculties are often exhausted from the whole exercise and are mostly not paid extra for creating or subsequently improving the material, so it will remain in its minimally converted format for many years to come.

Some universities aim to sell these programmes through overseas franchises as online distance learning certificates using only local-language teachers because the students often have poor English.

There is almost zero marginal cost to this model because online access costs literally nothing. The course fees come from two sources, registrations and examinations.

Registration fees will become minimal and the certificates will be priced at the cost of paying someone to grade the assignments. In Malaysia, this is as little as RM20 (US$5) per paper. Add in administration, overheads and profit margins, and the costs are inflated but market pressure is now actively forcing the final price down.

For example, standard Masters in Business Administration (MBAs) in Malaysia retails at around RM26,000. Competition has forced ticket prices to as little as RM12,000. Even international MBAs retail for approximately RM12,000, including the RM240 registration fees. In order to run programmes at these prices, universities cut their largest overhead, which is the cost of their full-time staff. Institutions register and examine students with little or no tuition.

Exams will be graded by people with basic academic credentials or even graded automatically using artificial intelligence and natural language processing. This is a low involvement, low interactivity model, with none of the traditional aspects of universities such as interpersonal teaching, research-driven thought-leadership, collegiate activities, social and sporting activities or any of the other life-enhancing but costly experiences that make university education worthwhile.

International students would not need to attend in person and their fee-premium would vanish. Only visa-seekers would pay the premium to attend on-campus.

Students in need of tuition will buy it in the open market through “uber-academic”,
“grab-tutor” or “sugar-prof” academic matchmaking sites for twenty-bucks an hour, pay-to-meet arrangements.

Organisations that adopt this model would cease to deserve the title “university” and will become certificate printers. For many, this will be the end of academia as we know it and unfortunately, we are already close to this.

For universities, this is a suicide mission. The market will drive the price of the certificates to their lowest cost through almost limitless competition from better-branded programmes, especially those from overseas.

Eventually, fees will barely cover administration costs and the massive amounts of money and resources sunk into online conversion will never be recovered.

In contrast, mounting research by educationalists, psychologists, economists and technologists is providing evidence-based guidance on best practice in online learning, which helps us understand the value-drivers, and therefore the justification for higher fees and a better business model.

Some key elements include the use of technology to automate routine chores and use learning management systems as repositories of material for 24-7 access. The aim is not to cut teaching costs but to free up instructors to perform their higher value-added roles.

Teaching and learning is a higher-order process that adds value through human interaction. Teaching can be enhanced by technology, but in both blended and hybrid learning, face-to-face interaction is vital. It invokes reflection, provokes critical discussion, draws out insights from the learner one-to-one, in groups or in peer-to-peer collaborations.

Current technology already allows this in most online platforms using discussion forums and learning teams but stimulation of critical thinking and unifying fragmented pieces of information is what traditionally defines good education.

Socratic prompting, where we invoke questions and dig deeper, delve into the intricacies of underlying theories, confront our own biases, explore different worldviews or paradigms which are hidden from conscious thinking, all help define good education.

Even in the secular sense of institutional development, technology-enhanced learning processes must leverage two fundamental dimensions. The first is enlivening interactivity and usability through the design of more effective presentations. The second is involvement and psychological bonding to create and sustain engagement.

We need to provoke, attract and retain learner engagement by how we frame the content, sustain interest, elucidate the fine points and make the process enjoyable and convenient. On-demand, on-site any time, even better.

Discussion and criticism are welcome. More welcome is the synthesis for different viewpoints and agreeing to disagree.

Research from Google and the Oxford Martin School all point to these critical higher-order thinking skills as being even more critical than technology-based skills. This is the role of education.

The knowledge economy is underpinned by this cognitive or mental value-added. It should be much more pronounced, even core, in the advent of online education.

Universities should not be using online facilities and technology to become commodity factories and vendors. Engagement is psychological bonding. The millennial generation and digital native students are tech savvy but they should also feel they belong to a community.

They have affiliation needs and want to feel they belong to an institution even though they may not physically see each other. They want to be part of a group, a social network. This is also the value-added in a successful higher education business model and universities that fail to recognise this in favour of cheap, no-tutor depository sites will not last.

Professor Mohan Raj Gurubatham is a psychologist at HELP University and Visiting Professor at Maharishi International University, in the United States. Professor Geoffrey Williams is an economist at Malaysia University of Science and Technology based in Kuala Lumpur. The views expressed here are their own. Comment: letters@thesundaily.com

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