Saturday, February 19, 2011

Offline education

Yesterday's Irish Independent reports of Hibernia College's rising profits. The private, online training company has been providing courses in education and other professional development areas for some time now, expanding to cover teacher training in England as well as Ireland.

I recall the controversy when they first started offering teacher-training courses. I had just arrived in Ireland and there were protests by students in traditional teacher training establishments, disgruntlement amongst the faculty of same, about not just the notion of a private provider (a standpoint with which I would have some sympathy, as would many others, indeed even the US congress has taken note of the risks of such 'outsourcing' of education when dealing with large profit-seeking companies, such as the Apollo group, that can access state and federal funding) but the very idea that such subjects can be covered online.

In one case, I was asked to give a keynote talk at a conference held in Galway as part of Ireland's European Presidency (2004) and in the questions section afterwards a student from an Education department raised the issue of Hibernia, again not focusing on the private but rather the online dimension. What was frustrating for me was that I felt an empathy for the questioner, but couldn't possibly agree with the contention that this subject, unlike many others, could not be dealt with using online tools. In my immediately previous post prior to coming to Ireland, I had been in a Scottish university which had embarked on a significant project to provide online courses for school-teachers as a partnership with the main teaching union in Scotland (the EIS) and I had been successfully running a module on this programme using online lessons, video, reading lists, reflective journals, 'live' online tutorials and the like.

Evaluations recorded, unsurprisingly, that participants appreciated the flexibility as a practical alternative to traditional classes, but also that they felt that the courses were at an appropriate intellectual depth for postgraduate work (as validated by accreditation and support of the Teaching Council, the university quality frameworks, etc), that they had developed a close relationship with their tutor (despite never meeting face-to-face) and that their journal allowed them scope to reflect on implementing new ideas in their teaching practice.

For me, then, the whole angle of attack centering on supposed limitations of technology and distance education was misjudged and the fact that the traditional education providers (in this country) were not in the forefront of using technologies and supporting the unmet demand from those who couldn't possibly attend full-time classes but yet who had the skills and the passion for teaching, seemed a terrible shame.

Adding to the irony, this was also the time in which Irish higher education institutions were committing to Learning Management Systems (Blackboard, WebCT at that time) and many other disciplines were engaging in expanding distance and blended learning course provision. The numbers and range of such courses has expanded dramatically over the years and there are still plenty of opportunities for continuing professional development programmes. Fortunately, also, most institutional managers now realise that high-quality online education requires resources, not least of which are skilled and committed tutors, and cannot be delivered on the cheap. In my own institution, complete blended or fully-online programmes in Nursing, IT, Irish Studies, Medicine, Business, Biomedical science and a whole host of others are now available and popular amongst students and employers.

As for education and teacher training? Well, Hibernia is now continuing to expand, growing its profits. I know nothing about the courses themselves, the quality of the student experience or the details of the technology used, but they've had 10 years of the market for such provision left to themselves.

No comments: