Who said learning wasn’t ‘E’asy

E-learning is a lot more than having the technology that lets you do cool stuff – with real-time access to the latest information and leading educators, learning is no longer inhibited by the tyranny of distance, or dollars.

What an age we live in! Did you know internet traffic will increase four times by 2016? This will break the Zettabyte barrier for the first time according to the Cisco's Visual Networking Index. To put that in context, it’s 10 times more than all internet traffic generated in 2008 (121 Exabytes). This is equivalent to one trillion Gigabytes, or 38 million DVDs per hour. 

Interestingly the largest proportion of growth in this period will come from online video and a significant part of that is due to e-learning. Why is this you ask? Well with real-time access to the latest information and leading academics and educators, learning is no longer inhibited by the tyranny of distance, or dollars. We finally have a capability to keep up with what I like to call our “collective cognitive engine” – the Australian think-tank.

Harvard and MIT are two of the latest to get on the e-learning bandwagon, launching their edX joint venture that will offer free courses. Educational institutes that were once only dreamt about are suddenly within our reach.

Locally, Deakin University has announced a new strategy in which Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) will be embedded into the curriculum as part of a teaching revolution. Traditional lectures will soon be a thing of the past, traded for content cherry-picked online from the world's best universities. The thinking is it will free up academics to focus on assessment tasks and more personalised teaching, including face-to-face, video and online. This is disruptive technology at its best.

The latest whitepapers on e-learning highlight that the reason for this uptake is very closely linked to a concept called “freedom to fail”, fundamentally important in the learning process, because it gives us the space to take calculated risks and experiment. A lot has been written recently in the tech pages of the national newspapers about the cultural willingness to try something with an equally balanced expectation of failure and success from entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley.

This is quite distinct from here in Australia where traditionally failure is frowned upon, not protected as a by-product of pushing the boundaries. Subsequently it’s why some believe we haven’t seen the development of a home-grown success story like Facebook or YouTube already. This may be about to change.

Locally, Australia's consumer internet video traffic grew 55 per cent in 2011. In 2015 it’s expected internet video traffic will be 81 per cent of all Australian consumer internet traffic - up from 50 per cent in 2010. Reconcile this with the knowledge that come 2016 there will be 142 million networked devices in Australia, 40 per cent of them wirelessly connected and you can see where I’m headed. We are on the cusp of remarkable change.

Conservative estimates predict the annual turnover of the Australian online education industry is $3 billion, made up of around 1000 businesses. The online education sector in Australia has grown rapidly over the past few years. This is no more clearly seen than with the uptake of ‘formal’ e-learning in the VET sector which has risen significantly over the past five years – from four per cent in 2004 to nearer 50 per cent today.

A recent survey of VET students showed 60 per cent claimed that their e-learning experience has increased their skills and confidence in using technology, while 42 per cent said it helped them to get a better job.

Case in point - students at Holmesglen TAFE last month became the beneficiaries of the first connections between TAFE students and industry practitioners over the NBN with a successful video conferencing pilot program. Working with AARNet, a 100Mbps NBN connection was set up to support high quality video conferencing with professional graphic designers, so these students can step inside their chosen fields to get real time feedback and a glimpse into what their professional lives will look like when they complete their studies.

Holmesglen TAFE’s Learning Innovation and Development Project Officer Cristy Tessier says the likelihood of these students being able to move quickly and seamlessly into the workforce as a result of this innovation has greatly improved.

Chris Hancock is the chief executive officer of Australian Academic and Research Network (AARNet), which offers internet services to Australian education and research communities and their research partners.

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