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‘The tyranny of proximity is over’

Wednesday September 20, 2006

Rob Burgess

A moment?s lull at The Exford, a pub in central Melbourne, gives barman Ruslan Kulski a chance to reflect on where he ought to be instead of pouring drinks. ?I have an assignment due in tomorrow,? says Kulski, who is completing a degree in media studies. ?I guess I?ll be mailing it in.?

Like Kulski, who works up to 36 hours a week, Australian students endure workloads that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. In those days entry into university guaranteed a meagre, but adequate, state-funded living allowance.

As paid work-hours have increased, students have in turn put pressure on universities to help them study in their own time, often without setting foot on campus for weeks. A decade ago their needs would have been met by discrete ?external studies? or ?distance learning? departments, which would send them cassette tapes, readers and library books. Today, however, distance education has largely been replaced by the catch-cry of ?flexible learning?.

?In one of my courses students turn up for a full day at the start of semester and another full day at the end,? says Professor Shirley Alexander, director of the Institute of Interactive Media and Learning at University of Technology, Sydney. ?The tyranny of proximity is over. We have a number of courses, across the university, that are classified as ordinary award courses which students study in distance-education mode.?

Despite the obvious popularity of flexible learning in city centres, true distance learning is still valued in regional areas, says Professor Ian Macdonald of the University of New England, a distance education specialist. ?We?re famous for the ?box of rocks? we send to our geology students,? says Macdonald, director of UNE?s Teaching and Learning Centre. ?Whatever your discipline, true distance learning means access to a whole range of materials: digital, print, equipment, and as much face-to-face contact as possible.?

The digital side of distance education faces some hurdles down under. For one thing Australia?s broadband network is lagging woefully behind its regional neighbours ? analysts put it five years or more behind the US, Japan and Korea.

This slow progress may frustrate foreign institutions that are setting up in Australia after legislation made it easier for them to become fully accredited universities. Carnegie Mellon University, for instance, has launched three graduate programmes from its new Adelaide campus, and hopes one day to run intercampus video-conference classes with its base in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

?Real-time classes won?t be easy to organise with Pittsburgh ? there?s a 13-hour time difference,? says Brenda Peyser, the associate dean and executive director in Adelaide. ?But we still aim to have some live classes involving students from Adelaide talking in real time to Pittsburgh, our campus in Doha (Qatar), or joint programmes we have running in Japan, Athens or Singapore.?

It?s not only foreign providers that want their students to network with other students globally. The vice-chancellor of the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT), Margaret Gardner, oversees two campuses in Vietnam, and RMIT-branded degrees are delivered by partner institutions in China, Malyasia and Singapore ? all in English.

Domestic competition ? from existing universities and the newcomers ? will put pressure on Australia?s public universities to offer better distance education, but this fully accords with the federal government?s recent policy shift aimed at convincing them to ?play to their strengths?. In the brutal logic of the market, either you?re good at distance education, or you?re not.

The Federal Minister for Education, Science and Training, Julie Bishop, said: ?Universities will be encouraged to differentiate in terms of mission, course content, academic and managerial structure, and in terms of education delivery. For example, Australia has no University of Phoenix, which, in the United States, caters to working professionals by offering programmes that are convenient and accessible. Phoenix lectures can be coordinated to suit individual schedules; programmes start at convenient times throughout the year; and campuses are accessible with more than 180 across the US, Canada, Mexico and Puerto Rico.?

Every Australian institution is already some way down the path to ending the ?tyranny of proximity?, but prospective students may struggle to understand the subtle differences in approaches to long-distance delivery.

In Perth, Murdoch University has already converted 90% of its units of study to an ?accessibility model rather than a delivery model?, says Dr Rick Cummings. The same suite of materials and delivery options are available to all students in each subject. Those living remotely will choose online lectures; those on campus may attend in person and review lectures online later. Either way, the students choose the mode of delivery.

At Sydney?s Macquarie University, about 700 of its 2,900 units are available in distance learning mode, and most of these are also available on-campus. Macquarie also contributes 43 units of study to Open Universities Australia (www.oua.edu.au), a seven-institution joint initiative that offers full degrees, ultimately conferred by one of the partner institutions.

It?s easy to forget that in Australia ?distance education? involves very great distances. ?Some of our students live 250km from any other settlement at all, never mind from an internet connection,? says Dr Jeannie Herbert, director of the Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education, with main campuses in Alice Springs and the smaller Northern Territory town of Batchelor. The institute?s distance education mainly involves students travelling to the campuses to study in blocks of one or two weeks.

Batchelor also has a wide network of study centres that offer students free internet access. None the less, Herbert, who oversees 300 staff, still tends to think of distance education in more traditional terms. ?Staff create their own materials ? a lot of printed material ? which they sometimes send ahead to students before driving out to see them,? she says. ?Some are using CD-rom or internet delivery, but it?s not always appropriate. I can?t even get TV reception most nights, let alone broadband.?

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