Can the rise of online learning in universities reveal what awaits secondary schools?

It is not often that a fifteen year old article addressing future technological impacts is as prescient as David Noble’s 1998 article “Digital diploma mills: The automation of higher education.” It presents a clear example of why we need to approach and implement digital “solutions” with our eyes wide open to costs as well as benefits.

Prophetic words about online education from 1998

Whatever one thinks of Noble’s cynical views towards the encroachment of online education into traditional higher education institutions and its effect on pedagogical practices, it is clear, Sandra Ceraulo was correct to state way back in 2002 that “online learning is here to stay.” Both Noble and Ceraulo are commenting on the remarkably speedy uptake of online education by higher education institutions. It would seem that the natural next step is to see online education become inextricably entwined in secondary education delivery. The process is already under way, but what can be learned from the tertiary experience to guide how this proceeds?

I finished my graduate teaching diploma in the same year Noble published his cautionary and cynical response to the initial inroads of online education in the tertiary realm. At that time, there online education was barley creating a ripple in the relative sleepy city of Perth, Western Australia. In the years since, I have been a teacher who enthusiastically embraced new technologies when I could see potential for improved educational experiences and outcomes for students. I am an advocate for flipped learning, which would see students viewing instructional videos for their homework tasks, thereby freeing class time for active practice and application of skills. Third-party platforms like TED-ed have been developed to take advantage of the enormous resource base that is Youtube and, assisting teachers to package up videos to suit flipped learning contexts and curriculum objectives. While I still see enormous opportunities that come from harnessing video content, Noble’s article does make me pause to consider the nature of the progress being made.

Noble talks about the commoditisation of higher education, with universities being both producers and consumers of education resources. Technology, in the form of ubiquitous connectivity, enabled a new business model for tertiary institutions, whereby course materials were digitised and made available over the world wide web. Thus,   the stark financial windfalls gained from reaching more students less expensively, while still charging full fees, motivated universities to plunge headlong into online education delivery.

[A]t the very outset of this new age of higher education, the lines have already been drawn in the struggle which will ultimately determine its shape. On the one side university administrators and their myriad commercial partners, on the other those who constitute the core relation of education: students and teachers. (Noble, 1998)

For institutions often seen as bastions of tradition and conservatism, the speed of uptake is nothing short of stunning. So, Noble identified top-down forces that promoted online education delivery, while noting strong resistance came from academics (the producers) and students (the consumers).

I see the rise of online learning in a secondary context developing in a different direction; that is, from the bottom-up. The relatively easy, cheap and engaging forms of online learning tools and platforms are being willingly adopted by tech-savvy teachers. The student body in the current secondary context also differs significantly from the student population Noble wrote about. Tertiary students in 1998 will have been just dipping their toes in the internet and maintained a certain set of expectations about what quality lesson delivery entailed and may have felt short-changed if not going to a live performance lecture. Of course, the current crop of secondary students, often recognised as digital natives because they have grown up with the World Wide Web, have far less resistance to online teaching and learning methods. In fact, in my experience they prefer them.

Meanwhile, the top end of primary and secondary education bureaucracies appear much more reluctant to “open the floodgates” to online tools. Much of this reluctance has to do with fear. Fear of students being exposed to “predators” on school time. Fear of losing control of curriculum priorities. Fear of what unvetted material might find its way into the classroom. Fear of losing power and control. To illustrate these concerns, I can refer to the Western Australian Department of Education’s efforts to build, at significant cost, an online platform called Connect. By the time the development and trials were over, it was already made obsolete by freely available and superior third party options like and Despite the superiority of these platforms, and their minimal costs, the Department is still reluctant to endorse them for classroom use. That hasn’t stopped many teachers, like me, working with them with great results.

Furthermore. unlike higher education where cost reductions acted as a propelling force behind online education, cost concerns in public schools tends to slow it down. The reliance of video content for online education means that schools face increasing costs to access bandwidth, as well as the need to pay for rapidly increasing data storage demands, which needs to come from each school’s operating budget (even today, the education department that employed me for several years still limits their employee’s email account to only 100MB of storage. Plenty, if it was 1998).

Students crowd around a single computer
It’s hard to deny that online learning can be of enormous benefit to disadvantaged communities.

That said, I can imagine a future government with tight budgetary pressures seeing the cost savings possible by centralising lessons and disseminating them digitally (especially as bandwidth increases and data storage comes down in price). While this is unlikely in the near future due to probable resistance by parents, teachers, unions and the wider community, it is still imaginable.

If there is to be a parallel adoption of online learning in secondary schools as seen in higher education, it is likely to be witnessed in the private school sector. Here, some of the same dynamics described by Noble can be imagined, (developing new income streams, leveraging the intellectual property produced by teachers, forces of competition, raising a school’s profile and prestige) all the while presenting the strategy as “reaching out” and making “quality” education more accessible.

It is interesting to note that Noble saw the shift to online education as bringing to an end “our great democratic higher education”  system when, today, with the rise of MOOCs, the democratisation of education is exactly the mantra being used. Of course, MOOCs were not on Noble’s radar in 1998, but many of his concerns can be applied to them. Likewise, the principles of MOOCs will find a secondary school equivalent, eventually. Part of being digitally literate includes understanding the forces that shape the way technology intrudes upon pedagogy and to be mindful of the real costs (including non-financial costs) and benefits.

The articles by David Noble and Sandra Ceraulo were brought to my attention via a MOOC I’m enrolled in called E-Learning and Digital Cultures, being offered by the University of Edinburgh. The first week of this MOOC explored dystopian and utopian perspectives of technology’s impact on society and culture.

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One thought on “Can the rise of online learning in universities reveal what awaits secondary schools?

  1. Thank you for this interesting look at the implications of Noble’s experience and your educational sector. I wonder, though, if the major difference that will keep you in the classroom is the legal obligation on young people to attend school which requires a certain amount of containment and policing! Much as Education Authorities would love to deliver teaching virtually, many youngsters might feel that they already know all that they need to know and could therefore use their time more enjoyably. Or am I wrong I wonder….

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