e-Learning: Putting student choice to the test

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A recent Boston Consulting Group report suggests that, to remain relevant, universities need to tap in to the "evolving educational behaviors and preferences" of the Millennial generation. What appears to be driving this is "the shift in the definition of an expert from only those who have professional or academic credentials to also include peers or close friends [coupled with] this generation’s overall tech savviness”. 

But does student choice lead to an improvement in graduates’ skills?

It’s time we put student choice to the test.

Anecdotes abound

Endless anecdotes about student expectations dominate the higher education sector. These are then used to determine the strategic direction of universities.

The expectations materialise in TV advertisements where professors individually call their students to provide feedback or where students are told they can determine their own learning priorities simply by using tablets, apps and other gadgets. 

Some common anecdotes include:
But most of these ideas originated with the rise of communications technologies and the desire to increase student choice in an increasingly consumer-driven economy.

What is the impact of technology on quality?

Many suggest that modern communications technologies mean that the shortcomings of the traditional university education can be overcome by providing technologically savvy students with greater choices about where and how they obtain a qualification.

On the flip side, technology and being technologically savvy play their part in reducing the quality of university education through the increase in academic crimes such as plagiarism. Some YouTube-style “edutainers” even suggest that plagiarism is an outdated way of thinking about individual skills’ development as opposed to how we actually operate in the economy.

Yet most educators would agree that if you cheat by copying the work of others, you are simply “cheating yourself out of your education”. Further, the formal, face-to-face exam is a sure-fire way to prove that the person sitting the exam is the person who will be receiving the qualification. Hardly high technology yet very effective.

Providing greater student choice and flexibility through technology is one thing, ensuring the student has the skills expected of a certain level of education is quite another.

Some evidence that student choice doesn’t work

A recent report on the training and assessment for gaining a “White Card” – the safety qualification required for construction workers to enter building sites – found some disturbing trends driven by student choice:
  • Online training meant that it was difficult to ensure that the person undertaking the assessment was actually the person issued with the White Card
  • Most online courses were too short to allow for adequate training and assessment
  • Most courses assessed knowledge and not skills
  • Many traditional ‘face-to-face’ training providers where leaving the market as they could not compete with those delivering online
In this case, student choice led to less expensive options dominating the market place. Regrettably, this has also resulted in a lowering in the level of skills attainment by these same students. Where safety is concerned, there is general agreement that expert opinion has more substance than student choice.

Student choice

Labor’s “Education Revolution” led to one of the biggest changes in higher education in years: the provision of university education based on student choice. From a consumers’ perspective, this is a sure thing.

Not surprisingly, student choice drives efficiencies in universities. Consequently, courses or fields that are no longer cost-effective have been routinely removed from universities. Efficiencies mean more students can become “customers” of universities.

Yet if the growth in numbers of university students increases, students can expect to see “increasing class sizes, more sessional staff, small enrolment classes closing, ageing facilities”. This will make it more difficult for universities to meet students’ expectations.

What is most disturbing is that student choice appears likely to lead to a lowering in the standard of skills development in university graduates.

And to top it off, if lecturers are reduced to the same status as their students, it is hard to see how any of this can be good for the nation. Indeed, if students are increasingly in charge of their own learning, how could we know if they have developed the skills expected of graduates?

How could we know?

Research suggests that low levels of adult numeracy and literacy “hurt Australians and our economy”. Despite its unpopularity with many commentators, NAPLAN has gone a long way to focusing the foundational years of education on these important skills. At the very least, it continues to highlight the shortcomings of the education system.

Indeed, a recent NAPLAN report has led to suggestions that teachers (who also happen to be university graduates) do not have adequate skills to raise numeracy and literary standards. Much like NAPLAN, addressing the shortcomings of the consumer-driven model by assessing graduates’ skills through a national approach makes a lot of sense. It would provide the evidence to either confirm or invalidate the anecdotes.

A university-level NAPLAN or similar designed to test the general skills expected of university graduates would provide greater assurance to the real consumers of university courses – the communities and industries those graduates serve. 

Only then could we be sure that students did not choose to take the easy course.