E-learning has for the last decade promised to revolutionize education. However, since my academic career started in 2003 when I enrolled in a Bachelor of Business there has been a disconnect between universities advertising material that promised streaming videos, vibrant online discussions, podcasts and links to regularly updated dated reference material. Why, in the age of youtube and ipads are online course materials for both internal and external students so often just a glorified reading list?
An argument can be made that there is a principal agent problem in university sector. The principal being students who pay fees and the taxpayers whom subsides them expect the university sector to provide high quality education that services the need of students. Many students are external or are nominally internal however cannot attend lectures due the challenge of balancing work and study. Increasingly many students are older and studying towards postgraduate qualifications while working fulltime. Those students are disappointed after enrolling finding that there are no podcast, no online lectures and are simply provided some rough notes and a reading list.
The agents in the higher education system are the university administrators and lecturers, the disconnect between the interests of the principal and the interests of the agent is that there is no benefit for the agent to restructure teaching methods to meet the needs of a changing student body and to embrace technology. Many resist even the most modesty e-learning tool, the podcast. All universities in Australia have the e-learning infrastructure in place to allow all lectures to be podcast. To do this would be as simple as recording the lecturer with a digital recorder and uploading the mp3 to the course website. While being limited, students can listen to this material and read through the accompanying powerpoint presentations. Even this modest approach to e-learning is often not done. Lecturers fear delivering their lectures to empty lecture halls, while their students are busy reducing their opportunity cost and using the to work part-time jobs and participating in student life.
University administrators will no doubt cry poor and confess their desire to embrace e-learning. They will point to their university blog and youtube channels. However, this embrace of the internet is superficial and has not changed how courses are delivered. These administrators need to look outside the university sector and see the material posted on you tube by hobbyists that often exceeds any teaching material provided by their university. For example the popular website www.khanachedemy.org provides free courses in mathematics taking students from arithmetic to linerar alebra, the website also offers free courses in finance, the sciences and history. Another resource is intromediate microeconomics available on youtube. This course for the cost of whiteboard, a video camera and time provides easy to follow examples that explain the major concepts in intermediate microeconomics. The reason for this disconnect is that universities are not measured by the quality of their undergraduate education. Students are attracted to universities because of the prestige of the university which benefits the older more established universities. Academic staff in our universities are promoted on their success in publishing papers. While producing high quality research is an important role universities serve there is little connect between it and the delivery of high quality undergraduate and coursework postgraduate education.
If the university sector is to deliver the education students and stakeholders expect the principal agent problem needs to be addressed. Universities need to reward good teaching and recognise it as a significant performance indicator in staff reviews. This may mean providing alternative career paths for academics who are excellent teachers but mediocre researchers.