“Online education is poised to become a major disruptor,” says Professor Ian Young, the ex-Vice Chancellor of Australian National University (ANU).

Professor Young has led transformation projects at two major Australian universities, and was recently in Singapore for GovInsider’s Smart Learning Summit, supported by professional services company Cognizant.

Higher education is regarded as a AU$25 billion (~US$19 billion) industry in Australia. As with other billion-dollar industries, it seems only natural for education to get disrupted — but so far, universities have been slow to adapt. Online education is a sleeping giant, however, with huge potential to shake this industry to its core.


Online Education 101

swinburne online

There are three factors that are hindering students from getting a quality education, he believes: ballooning fees, access and not being conducive to lifelong learning. As the education industry grows, Professor Young notes, costs will only continue to increase. The brick-and-mortar university could be too far away, or the students in question are working adults.

There is great potential for a digital revolution: “Surely, the digital delivery of education can address all of these issues?” Professor Young asks. Imagine this: fees for a small private online course can be even 25% of what a traditional four-year degree might cost, he says.

Today, almost every university in the first world is active in online education, but successful models are a rarity. Prior to his ANU job, Professor Young was directly involved in the setting up of Swinburne Online, the online arm of the Swinburne University of Technology, in a joint venture with online employment marketplace Seek.com.

Lecturers hail from across Australia and all over the world, and each virtual class is made up of 25 students. This way, students may chat and discuss amongst themselves or with their tutor without ever having set foot on campus.

The model is more accountable than traditional learning: “When I’m the vice chancellor of a university and I’ve got a class here every Tuesday, the students and lecturer turn up – I’m sure it’s all going okay, but I have no ability to really know if it is,” says Professor Young. “Because we’re online, we can do a whole lot of things around quality assurance. All of these online tutors are given a supervisor that monitors what’s happening in those classes in real time.”

He adds, “Can you actually offer really high-quality full courses and degrees built in a way which might be able to disrupt traditional four-year qualification at a brick-and-mortar university?”

And the key to successful online education is a viable business model, he notes, one that is worthwhile for the student. “How do you really deliver high quality that doesn’t mean taking a video of me, standing in front of class for 50 minutes and putting it online?” Professor Young asks.

In partnerships, trust is key

Higher education is a huge sector, with big dollars involved – which attracts the attention of big corporations and governments that are funding it. Swinburne Online is an example of a successful public-private partnership, but there have been cases where universities have partnered with companies and paid high fees for poor results. The secret to success is simple, according to Professor Young.

Pick a partner who has your trust, he says. “Part of the success of the Swinburne Online experience is that in that particular case, the product partner happened to be one that I have actually worked with and knew quite well, and I have enormous respect for the integrity of the company,” he explains.

Academics can sometimes be unworldly, but they should accept that partners need to make a profit.
“It’s a for-profit organisation, but it doesn’t mean they’re a disreputable organisation,” he remarks.

The actual digital mechanism by which students interact with the educators is important too: the right online platform can actually facilitate all the things you need to learn in an efficient and effective manner, he notes. Importantly, having a big industry player in your corner can be an asset, as they are continually asking every step of the way if the product works, he adds.

Since stepping down as Vice-Chancellor, Professor Young is now leading change in this area, believing that universities need to either go digital, or risk being pushed out. As with all industries, disruption is inevitable; if you think that your industry isn’t being disrupted, then maybe you’re not picking up on the signals.