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Free content is not free education

Posted February 01, 2012 in category General by Shirley Leitch

In my first post for 2012, I want to challenge a common misconception about online learning. I find it interesting that free content is often misrepresented as 'free education'.

There are a large number of providers - most notably the Open University in the UK - providing free content online. This is not the same as a free education. If it was, it would mean the existence of libraries equates to providing free education in a paper-based world.

Neither the Open University nor MIT offer active teaching or assessment through their free portals. The Khan Academy does provide some teaching, but there are no assessments or feedback. It is the teaching and assessing that costs money and this is what students pay for.

Undertaking self-study without the support of an interactive teaching environment does not deliver excellent student outcomes. Free content does not provide a high quality learning experience. You might read a book and learn something from it. But this cannot be compared to the value and quality of education gained through an interactive, student-focused, learning environment. 

Let's take a simple example of training a puppy. Let's call our pup Max. We read a book on dog training and get started. However, we quickly discover that training a puppy is harder than we expected. Our book doesn't have all the answers we need. We don't feel confident or skilled at dog training.

So, we decide to take Max to puppy school. There we work with an experienced animal trainer, we talk to other dog owners and we are assessed to ensure ongoing progress. It is a genuine learning environment for both owner and pup. As a result, we leave puppy school with new skills and confidence and Max's training is well underway.

The importance of a high quality learning environment is what underpins the Swinburne Online approach. Our focus is on providing a supportive, interactive online learning experience, with ongoing feedback and assessment. We have a student-focused, personalised approach to teaching. We know positive student outcomes and experience are directly related to teaching quality. We have skilled e-learning advisors to support and facilitate successful online learning. 

Because we are not just providing content, we expect our online students to have the same excellent student experience and graduate satisfaction as our on-campus students. And that is the Swinburne Online difference.

Professor Shirley Leitch
Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic)

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|Comments [6]


I liked Shirley's distinction between free content and free education -- too often, the critical role that teachers play is misunderstood or ignored, and it seems to me that it's an even greater danger in an age of distance learning.

Posted by Ken Chern on February 01, 2012 at 05:03 PM EST #

One of the two most successful institutions in the west for five hundred years is the university but the challenges are coming because of the web and one of the key challenges is the word 'free'.
Its true that assessment and support matter but its not true that excellence is collective. Excellence is always individual first and then maybe the collective can be inspired, otherwise its only the new mediocre.
The important thing about MIT and free is the long running rivalry with Caltech and its part of their race to open up and embrace the new world of the internet. There's no denying the significance of MIT's action.
Its right to ask 'what's a library' and its also right to ask 'what's a campus' in this new world.
One thing's for sure, we have no future unless we maximise our support of students.

Posted by Arnold Rowntree on February 03, 2012 at 01:32 PM EST #

Hi Ken and Arnold, thanks for your feedback.

I agree, the question of what student support means needs to be reconsidered in the digital age. Our roles as educators are changing fast - we need to become expert mentors and facilitators. How can we best support our students in developing critical skills for navigating the online space, including how to effectively critique the value and quality of content?


Posted by Shirley Leitch on February 06, 2012 at 01:06 PM EST #

Hi Shirley

Great post, direct, informative, accurate. Love it!

I would also agree that student support in online learning is indeed a key component to the success of the online learner. I do not think that the teachers 'role' has been dissolved but rather morphed into something that the university lecturer once was... A mentor..."oh captain my captain".

It has been somewhat overlooked in enabling the online learner to succeed and progress through their degree online. Indeed it is the only experience that matters, how well they feel supported, what is there to help them cope, what the future of online student communities might be in order to support this growth. These are undeniably exciting times!
Thanks for your thoughts

Kindest Regards

Phemie Wright.

Posted by Phemie Wright on February 21, 2012 at 05:04 PM EST #

I agree with what Shirley said. It is indeed much more beneficial and stimulating to have a teacher and the ability to apply skills to understand them. While i do believe that things such as the Khan can be somewhat useful as supplements, it lacks being able to not only allow students to ask questions about the content,in addition to providing personal experience. Personal Experience can be the best education as it allows you to draw upon real case studies that are relevant. Admittedly these could be posted online, yet the quality is still limited.

Posted by Nick Maroney on February 21, 2012 at 05:04 PM EST #

At the end of the day everything comes from somewhere. I guess learning becomes something of substance when we receive something. When the information produces a material something. Most people worry about having a piece of paper stipulating their level of competence. But a piece of paper establishing your level of competence means little if you are uncertain or don't believe in your own level of competence. At the end of the day your your own hardest critic. Having a document establishing your level of competence is only valid if it produces a desire outcome. In general an outcome needs to be produced. When you undertake studies. Subconsciously you assess what level of opportunity and risk different learning programs offer. 

Can non institutionalised learning offer opportunities. Yeah. 

And risks also. Not having a large institution verify your competences has its disadvantages. You don't have as much support in some instances.  

When is or is not verification going to be an obstacle to opportunity. In a way institutions have wrapped entrepreneurs up in red tape without even realising it. Institutions are for the haves of society. But for the have nots. The doors are closed. 

Posted by Ann Mitchell on May 01, 2012 at 11:53 AM EST #

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