Teaching institutions are increasingly taking their courses online, making them more accessible to many. But with the increase in students clicking in, not signing in, does it spell the end of the whiteboard? By Natasha Phillimore.
As the doomsayers predict the end of universities—and the government goes on the offensive with a low-budget illustrated penguin ad campaign—practical colleges are thriving, and none more so than those operating in the hospitality industry. This is, in part, thanks to students’, and employers’, increasing understanding that any gilt-bordered certificate has to come with a side order of practical, industry-specific knowledge. But it’s also the result of vocational institutions’ early technology adoption. “We launched in 1999, and our first online course was in 2004,” says Margret Leslie, founder and director of food safety and RSA (responsible service of alcohol) training at CFT International. “Initially the take-up was slow; online courses were a little unknown. We operated at an 80:20 class to online ratio—it’s now 20:80.” Similar to many industries, the education sector is bending to the market’s will—namely, a demand for online or flexible learning. “There has been a large movement at TAFE Western [in Orange, NSW] from a classroom-based delivery to a work-based, flexible delivery and this will continue to evolve as technology evolves,” says Charlie Cross, manager of educational programs at TAFE Western, pointing out that higher level qualifications are more suited to having content and assessment conducted online. Moving out of the classroom and onto the internet opens up a whole raft of benefits for students and employers alike. “In rural and remote areas, students are finding it really difficult to access a class,” says Leslie. “And we’re not talking complicated courses; it’s not about finding out how to work in a bar, so there’s no practical application, no role play.” Convenience is the online education advocates’ catch cry. Convenient for the student, convenient for an employer who doesn’t want to have precious staff out an entire day for simple food safety training—“Most people in the industry don’t have the time to take a day off,” says Leslie—and convenient for franchise owners who need consistency across all staff members in many locations. “The student can complete the work when and where they want, the employer increases their productivity by having the apprentice in the workplace more often and we benefit by delivering intense skills-based learning which motivates the learner,” says Cross. William Blue student Farhana Gaya doesn’t need to be told twice. “Students can plan their own time,” says the 26-year-old native Swede enthusiastically. “I’m really self-motivated and determined, so it’s easier for me to study online. I also like to choose my own pace—I can do, say, three weeks’ worth of course in one day. It gives me more freedom to control when and what time I study, too.” That said, not all courses lend themselves to click-and-learn. “How can you teach cookery skills effectively, with an online course? The answer is you cannot. Vocational education and training by its very nature is heavily focused on delivering knowledge and skills required in the workplace,” points out Cross. “The more you distance the learner from a real or simulated workplace and reduce the interaction with other learners, teachers and real examples, the more you increase the likelihood that the student may only learn the absolute minimum required to complete their job. This is one of the major fears of the overuse of online delivery as it decreases the contingency management or employability skills sought by employers.” There are other drawbacks too, of course. Some people thrive in a physical learning environment, riffing off fellow students and the lecturer to help the lesson sink in. “Those who are very social, who learn better in groups, may also not find them as beneficial,” says Leslie. “But most people aren’t exclusive in one learning style; they generally have a bit of many.” Cross agrees that balance is key to get the most out of any study. “There is a constant debate with the teaching staff and analysis of what components can be completed online (flexibly) and what components have to be observed by an assessor in order for the student to be deemed competent,” he says. It’s a battle that’s increasingly erring on the side of online. Learning via the internet is no longer like scrolling through a text book: interactive presentations, 24-hour access to lecturers—these are all the hallmarks of a new age in study. “We use embedded videos, games and activities,” says Leslie. “We also offer online support to students 7am to 10pm every day. That’s a lot more access than just coming in for one day and that’s it. We can keep people up to date too, with changes in policy or compliance.” Perhaps it’s best to give the last word to Gaya who, as an international student, isn’t able to do as many courses online as her Australian counterparts. She says, succinctly, “If there were more subjects available online, that would be awesome.”