10 July 2013

The millennium education paradigm

By Cherry Kyi-Kyi Thatun

Since the beginning of the postmodern era, the education sector has been one of the last to experience the intrusion of technology. Today, significant growth in embedding technology in the delivery of higher education courses is now fast becoming a reality. As a result, quality education has become more accessible to more students than ever before in terms of time, space and cost. With hard evidence of tens of thousands enrolled on Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) which are being offered by the world’s elite universities, many would agree with Thomas Friedman’s remark that when outstanding becomes so easily available, average is over (New York Times, 6 March 2013).

This phenomenon has put the global education arena under mounting pressure to reduce its costs while retaining its quality. In order to stay abreast with the market demand, many education institutions have started looking in the direction of incorporating online platforms with the goal of promoting effectiveness and efficiency in its programmes. A most recent case in point is struggling Thunderbird School of Global Management, of Arizona in the US. Enrolment with the college hit rock bottom with 142 this year from over 1,000 enrolments in 2001 (The Economist, 29 June 2013). Like many American education institutions, Thunderbird has joined hands with Laureate Education Inc. which has the University of Liverpool as one of its 70 partner institutions around the world. Laureate claims to have 800,000 students enrolled.

Such is the trend that today, MOOCs courses offered by Coursera and the Khan Academy to name some major providers of e-Education, claim to have as many as four to six million enrolled students or registered users.

Yes, e-Education has arrived at our door step! But what are the implications for those who strongly believe that the traditional face-to-face approach has its merits that cannot be ignored? Would e-Education mean that the brick-and-mortar education institutions would be completely routed by this phenomenon?

We have yet to look at the full picture of this phenomenon. While the power of the millennium technology is truly to be marvelled at, some sceptics caution that the true essence of higher education rests in the intricate interaction between the teacher and the student. This could be the reason that fully online courses achieve, in general, a significantly low completion rate despite their overwhelming enrolment rate. Arguments range from the premature stage of the development of these online courses which need further fine-tuning to the shortfall of inspiration and engagement on the part of the students in the absence of human interaction.

Meanwhile, blended learning models have been gaining increasing attention in the news media and academic literature. The blended model, also known as the hybrid model, claims to combine the best practices of the traditional face-to-face model with the best features of online education to promote “active” learning. Supporters of this model boast that such an approach optimizes both the face-to-face and online learning environments in ways that are normally impossible in other models. Evidence also indicates that this approach increases student performance while lowering the attrition rates in comparison with an equivalent fully online course. Further, student performance is comparable to or in some cases, even better than the traditional face-to-face approach.

The flipped classroom is one example of the blended approaches where lecture videos and learning materials are posted online so that the students could come to class prepared. In this model, as opposed to the traditional model, students will listen to lectures and review the learning resources online before coming to class. In this way, classroom time can be freed up for the teacher and students to explore the subject matter more deeply.

The arrival of e-Education does not mean that traditional face-to-face teaching and the brick-and-mortar classrooms will become obsolete – far from it. Technology is unlikely ever to wholly replace human interaction. However, the way we look at teaching and learning in schools and on campuses will need to be changed so that we can use the new educational technologies to advantage to meet the needs and demands of the millennial student.

Cherry Kyi-Kyi Thatun is Associate Dean of the Faculty of Language and Communication at Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. She is contactable at kthatun@swinburne.edu.my