The rise of online learning and the changing role of the academic teacher

Year: 2019

Author: O'Connor, Kate

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

In recent decades, teaching within universities has become more managed and more subject to central oversight. Work promoting the importance of active learning and outcomes-based approaches to curriculum development has proliferated, and increasing numbers of professional staff have been employed to direct academic teaching practices towards these emphases. These developments point to shifts and contestation over the role of the academic teacher and changing power dynamics between academics and professional staff in defining teaching priorities (Biesta 2012; Clegg 2009; Aberbach and Christensen 2018; Carvalho and Videira 2019).

Within this context and informed by research in policy sociology (e.g. Baachi 2009, 2012; Ball 2003), this paper investigates how the ‘problem’ of university teaching is being positioned in the introduction of new online learning initiatives and the ways in which the academic teaching role is being framed in relation to that. It draws on interviews with institutional leaders and analysis of policy materials at two Australian universities, one former technical college and one elite research university, and explores the discursive emphases and assumptions underpinning the institutional decisions to engage with new online initiatives. The paper shows that at both universities, online initiatives were designed to drive change and reframe teaching practices towards a common emphasis on constructivist and active learning pedagogies on the one hand, and outcomes-based approaches to curriculum development on the other. At the former technical college there was an explicit strategy to centralise control, push past and around notions of academic autonomy and standardise teaching. Academics were required to develop subject materials in collaboration with professional ‘e-learning designers’ according to a defined model, and students were then supported in their engagement with those materials by externally employed tutors. At the research university, the institutional leaders did not try to unbundle content and delivery in the same way, yet the forms of online delivery they promoted still diminished and reframed academic responsibilities in respect to pedagogy.

The paper argues that these reforms were not simply about encouraging uptake of different pedagogies but also about reframing the academic role in relation to teaching. Building on the insights of policy sociology, it highlights the ways in which online learning platforms can be understood as ‘policy technologies’ (Ball 2003, p. 217) which change how teaching roles are understood as well as how education is seen and practiced.