I’ve been neglecting my blog for the past few weeks, partly because I’ve been busy and mostly as I’ve been in half-holiday mode in Australia. Overall, Australia is a lot like Canada except the weather is better and the wine slightly cheaper- though EVERYTHING else is more expensive. I won’t revile my fellow Canadians with tales of exploring Tasmania or sitting on the beech (though it happened, and tempting as it is to remember as I head back to -31 C. in Edmonton). Rather I wanted to post a few observations about distance education in Australia.

I was fortunate enough to be asked to present the opening keynote at the HUB/ODLAA conference in Sydney HUB is a two-year-old multi-institutional, multi institutional research project, funded by the Australian government to advance research and innovation in distance education. The conference attracted about 250 Distance Education (DE) types including foreigners from 21 countries. The conference format featured the usual mix of keynotes, panels and multiple parallel sessions. I expanded an earlier presentation on the 3 generations of DE pedagogy, with more current examples of technology use to enhance all three generations and more development on the types of knowledge development most applicable to each generation (slides at http://www.slideshare.net/terrya/hub-de-summit-sydney.). The talk seemed fairly well received and I was first flattered and then a bit embarrassed by how many of the other speakers referred to my talk in their presentation. I guess a side benefit of going first.

I must regretfully report that in half awake state, I put the kettle on the stove in our apartment/hotel and turned it on, forgetting that it was one of those electrical element types, with its own heating source and found that smoke alarms, burning plastic and windows that don’t open do not make a winning combination!! . It took until the last windup of the conference for Belinda Tynan, the conference chair, to bring this foible to the attention of the whole conference. Sigh…. Otherwise it was great conference and featured two rides on the famous Sydney ferries to absolutely stunning conference dinners. I will long remember the moon rising over a replica 3 masted tall ship as it ghosted under the Sydney Habour Bridge. As usual at such conferences, the company was excellent, enhanced by the opportunity to bring my wife Susan along to share one of my favorite cities.

There are many impressive components of higher education and distance learning in Australia. Two that I want to relate to you are the institutional focus on student learning and the integration of campus and distance learning that defines all of the large DE institutions in Australia. A few years ago the federal government began demanding (and rewarding with extra funding) high quality teaching and learning in Australia universities. I heard that the famous University of Sydney (read Australia’s Harvard) received zero funding for teaching quality, being unable or unwilling to demonstrate with data the quality of their teaching and learning experience. Other lesser ‘teaching  institutions’ of course loved the incentive and a competitive culture of excellence in teaching and learning (in addition to the usual relentless measurement of research productivity) has arisen. The usual metrics for assessing learning required are data on student satisfaction, course completion rates, retention to graduation and learning outcomes.

We did a special visit to the University of New England (UNE) in Armidale, about 500 km north of Sydney and saw first hand this focus on student learning. UNE has about 2,000 F2F student on a beautiful, traditional and rural campus, and about 20,000 students at a distance. Like other older DE institutions they are struggling with bringing content, teachers and students beyond correspondence lessons with email in to more rich, interactive elearning models. UNE has a paced environment with semester intakes. They have a new student retention system that gathers data on student experiences (daily queries from happy face ratings gathered daily from their Learning Management system – currently WebCT moving to Moodle). The system also gathers tag clouds from student blogs and presents students, instructors, supervisors and vice presidents with a daily snap shoot of anxiety and interest levels and topics across both on and off campus students. They also follow up on early withdrawals, hoping to find some way to induce students to continue their studies. Finally chairs, deans and VP’s receive semester reposts on all courses with very high and very low ratings as determined by students end of course evaluations and drop out rates. Those with high ratings are celebrated with citations; those with low ratings are required to file a plan with proposed changes to the vice president’s office. These seem to be very impressive means to insure that learning meets quality expectations of both students and academic supervisors.

Most Canadian universities now offer online courses but the audience is typically normal full time students who are time shifting or otherwise enrolling for the benefits of flexibility provided by online learning. However, in Australia they have no single mode “Open University” and thus many of the traditional institutions have large, off campus programming that attracts students who do their whole degree programs at a distance. Of particular note is the Open Universities Australia initiative that is a consortium of 18 campus-based institutions that now registers over 40,000 students annually. This flexible delivery opens room up on campus, which is readily filled by foreign students. So many foreign students enroll (at very high international tuition prices) that a number of institutions are capping foreign enrolments at 25% of domestic numbers. Enrolments above that amount tend to allow international cliques to form and students miss out on the integration and language skills associated with developing relationship with native Aussies. I came away from this visit with two major insights: First we really need to get serious about the assessing the quality of teaching and the learning experience in Canada, if we are to remain internationally competitive. Secondly, that Canada has not exploited the value and opportunity available ion our postsecondary system, to meet large, global need for a quality higher education experience. And finally, it strikes me that partnering with a Face to face institution in Canada with my Distance education university  would allow foreign students to take parts of their course via distance and then come for an immersion experience in Canada – saving considerable funds for the millions of less than wealthy potential students.