Online learning in the iron triangle

We’re hearing from every direction that online learning is going to be the solution to the coming bricks and mortar shortage. This week, Swinburne DVC(A) Shirley Leitch writes that:

If we are to meet the target of 40 per cent of 25 to 34 year olds holding a bachelor degree by 2025, we need to move beyond bricks and mortar to learner-centred solutions.

I’m not so sure that these two things are simple opposites.  My daughter is at the stage of believing that the opposite of “sign” is “bird”, but that doesn’t make it so.

Online learning does offer a more effective and flexible way of engaging students. It acknowledges and accommodates the double lives they lead, juggling paid work and study, often with parenting or community roles thrown in. It’s also opening up higher education to a host of other unexpected and transformative experiences; it gives us a chance to create a vision of education that thinks forward into the kind of future we want to shape, and that isn’t forever fussing about the internet as a place of risk and compromise, where stupid people do bad things, and have no standards for anything.

Now that we know a bit more about the online world, we know it’s bristling with standards and rules: that’s how the whole thing keeps going.

But the belief that online learning will also solve the looming crisis in bricks and mortar is a much trickier one.  This proposition starts with a lament: classroom teaching imposes an “iron triangle” on the ways in which universities can meet their growth targets while lowering costs. The senior Canadian expert quoted in this article puts it this way:

“You want to stretch the triangle to give greater access, higher quality and lower costs. But you can’t,” he argued.

I just want to pull up a moment and ask: who exactly wants to do this? And why do we think that online learning converts the iron triangle into some kind of infinitely accommodating elasticated waistband?

As an experienced e-teacher, I worry that these are the same people who believe that academic workload disappears online, and that the generation and use of online resources don’t represent real time spent by real people in real space—real bricks and mortar, in other words.  It might not always be the classroom, but if it’s now my kitchen and the train station and McDonalds with free wi-fi, it’s still someone’s overheads, someone’s capital works, someone’s electricity bills. And it’s still my real time.

So in case we start to think that online learning enables us to escape from the iron constraints of the here and now, we should pinch ourselves and remember that we’re not actually in the cloud.

It’s a metaphor.

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