[LINK] Explaining an online course online

Tom Worthington Tom.Worthington at tomw.net.au
Sat Apr 25 12:23:37 AEST 2009

The  Australian National University is now promoting my "Green ICT 
Strategies" course (COMP7310) 
<http://cs.anu.edu.au/students/comp7310/. While the ANU has a 
sophisticated system for delivering flexible web based e-learning 
courses blended with face-to-face education, the marketing and 
administrative systems are still catching up with the Internet age. 
At times it has seemed that writing the course has been the easy bit 
and the hard part is navigating the convoluted, paper orientated 
administrative systems.

The university has provided:

1. Official course description in the online handbook: 
2. Course flyer: <http://cs.anu.edu.au/students/comp7310/flyer.html>
3. General information page: <http://cs.anu.edu.au/students/comp7310/>
4. Enrollment information page: 
5. Online independent registration form: 

It is not clear to me what the role of all these different web pages 
are and how, or if they relate to each other. But at least 
independent students (just doing this one course) can register online 
via the web. This is appropriate for a course which can be done 
online from anywhere (with an Internet connection).

The course flyer was originally in PDF, in two versions: high 
resolution for print and low resolution for the web. I asked for a 
HTML version, but then had to convince the marketing staff that this 
was within the policies of the university. The problem seemed to be 
that the marketing approach was based on the idea that someone from 
the university went to an event and handed out paper brochures. The 
idea that potential students would be attracted to the university web 
site and get the information on their own did not seem to fit with 
this model, even though the ANU web site has existed for some years. 
After some discussion the HTML brochure was created but it is very 
much an orphan, not connected to anywhere else on the web site, apart 
from one link on the bottom. The reasoning behind this seems to be 
that a paper brochure can't have web link and therefore a HTML one 
can't either.

Then I suggested the web pages should be smart phone friendly, which 
caused some head scratching by the staff. All web pages must conform 
to the ANU corporate standard and this did not allow for mobile 
devices. So I pointed out that a mobile web site would be what the 
trendy young iPhone demographic would want and proposed the 
university policy and corporate web standards be changed to 
accommodate this. This caused much excitement in the marketing area 
and they particularly like the W3C Mobile OK test, which gave the 
non-web design literate staff an easy way to measure web design. 
However, the initial response was to create a separate mobile extra 
web page. We then had four versions of the brochure: high PDF, low 
PDF, web and mobile web. This was not what I had in mind, although it 
would make sense if the demographics of the people using mobile web 
sites differed from those using regular ones. The extra one for 
phones has now been merged with the regular web page.

There appear to be five different ways that someone can enroll in the 
one course: ungraded, graded,   Masters of Computing,  Information 
Technology, or Graduate Studies. The first two are so subtle in 
difference that I still have difficulty understanding it and I doubt 
that many of the potential students would. There are three different 
ways to enroll: two different web forms for the ungraded and Masters 
and PDF to print forms for the graded. It seems a little odd that you 
don't just enroll in the one course the one way.

The "ungraded certificate" is the simplest process: just fill in your 
name and contact details and provided a credit card number: 

Students wanting to do the course as part of a Master of Information 
Technology Studies can apply using an online form: 

Those adding it to studies at another university, have to navigate a 
list of different PDF forms, print out the appropriate form, fill it 
out on paper and mail it back. One frustration of this process is 
that first you have to navigate your way through a complex table to 
select the appropriate form to use 
<http://www.anu.edu.au/sas/admission/#localNAWD>. You then discover 
that the PDF form you downloaded is a general purpose one (which you 
would have got by selecting any of several of the cells in the 
previous table) and you have to navigate your way through the same 
choices in the form after having printed it out.

The university system (not just ANU) has a whole lot of categories 
which do not seem very relevant for a blended, flexible, web based 
course. There is a distinction between on and off campus courses, a 
difference for Australian and overseas enrollments and between those 
people doing a postgraduate course at the ANU, at another university 
or not doing it as part of any course. No doubt all this is relevant 
to the institutional administration; it may effect how much money the 
university gets or a particular part of the university gets, but does 
not seem relevant to the student or the actual course.

It would seem to make more sense to have the enrollment process from 
the point of view of the student and for their convenience: the 
student would say "I want to do this" and the university system would 
work out how to do that, what it costs and who gets paid what.

It doesn't matter where in the world the students are, at which 
institution they are enrolled (or none), the actual course will be 
the same. If they happen to be near the campus and feel the need, 
they can come to an optional seminar, or not. If they are not near 
the campus, or do not feel the need for a particular part of the 
course, they need not attend in person. This is what of think of as a 
"flexible" course, not one where the student has to decide months in 
advance if they will be in a particular place every week at a 
specific day at a specific time.

It might be simplest if universities (and other educators) thought of 
their courses as being distance education "plus". That is the 
administrative processes for the course can be provided online and as 
much of the course as makes sense. Then deal with the complexities of 
the bits which need to be synchronised in time, but not place (by web 
conference for examples), then the parts which need to be at a place 
but not a particular time (such as having to visit some sort of 
specially equipped lab) and the parts of the course which must be in 
the same place at the same time. Current university processes assume 
that "same place, same time" is usual and the other modes are the 
exception, but this could be reversed, making it much easier for the 
student. This could also simplify the university administration and 
lower costs.

Obviously this approach would have implications for the way 
universities are run and charge for their services. If you don't know 
how many students are going to turn up on any particular day, then 
how will you know how many staff to allocate or how big a room to 
book? In practice it is likely that a predictable pattern would 
emerge (I know fewer students will turn up on Mondays and Fridays). 
Some institutions might run face-to-face classes like budget airline 
flights: with bookings and incentives for standbys. Some teachers 
fear that if classes are not compulsory, then no students will ever 
turn up, but I doubt it and in any case it is not a worry as long as 
the learning happens.

Tom Worthington FACS HLM tom.worthington at tomw.net.au Ph: 0419 496150
Director, Tomw Communications Pty Ltd            ABN: 17 088 714 309
PO Box 13, Belconnen ACT 2617                      http://www.tomw.net.au/
Adjunct Senior Lecturer, Australian National University  

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