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If online learning is the answer - What was the question? A vocational education and training perspective

Ian Robertson
Don Sweeney

Box Hill Institute of TAFE
This paper describes the response of one vocational education and training institution to the use of online technologies. Using a learning theory perspective, management perspective and the author's own experiences the paper describes four models for the use of online technologies in the delivery of vocational programs. The authors suggest that the opportunities that online technology provides cannot be maximised or sustained until management systems and processes change to incorporate these innovations. They conclude that this is a major change management issue in the provision of vocational education.


Since the late 1980s, the vocational education and training sector has promoted changes in the ways in which training is delivered and supported. Various buzzwords include workplace training, enterprise-based training, flexible delivery, self-directed learning, and more recently, online learning. Concurrently, particularly in Victoria, there has been a progressive reduction in funding levels for program delivery. Our teaching and management staff has aged significantly and is now poised on the edge of a very different world from when they gained employment in the heady, rapid growth era when TAFE was first established. From a customer perspective we are challenged by the possibilities that arise when the generation that will make up the majority of our customer base do not know life without computers and the Internet. And, these young people approach the use of technology in ways that the older generation fails to understand.

At a national level ANTA's commitment to the use of technologies is demonstrated by Flexible Learning for the Information Economy. A Framework for National Collaboration in Vocational Education and Training 2000-2004. This document is designed to support the accelerated take-up of flexible learning modes and to position Australian Vocational Education and Training as a world leader in applying new technologies to vocational education products and services (EdNA VET Advisory Group, 2000, p.4). Similar strategy documents are also found at a state level.

The current paper takes the position that the application of online technologies in vocational education and training is a given and does not engage in a detailed discussion of whether online technologies should or should not be used. The focus of our attention is the ways in which online technologies can be used as a tool in the provision of vocational programs. That is the management of programs and as a tool to support teaching and learning.

The authors' experience suggests that the successful use of online technologies in the vocational sector is dependent on the support of managers, teachers, students and technical support staff. What we are concerned to address in this paper is the question of how online technologies can be implemented in ways that are to the benefit of students, teachers, and managers, and, as a consequence TAFE organisations. Rather than working from a focus that asks 'How can we deliver programs online?', this paper engages in a more fundamental discussion by asking 'How can online technologies be used as a tool in the provision of vocational education and training?'.

To achieve this we intend to engage in two discussions. One from a learning theory perspective, another from a management perspective. We will also draw on our own experiences to make some assertions that we believe form a useful basis for further discussion.

A learning theory perspective

Whilst policy developments laud the possibilities for increasing the potential for learning through the use of online technologies, the academic literature is more reserved about the impact of emerging technologies. For example, Clark (1997, p.199) finds that comparisons between traditional forms of delivery and multimedia delivery 'have not demonstrated that multimedia dramatically improves learning rather they usually indicate that multimedia is as effective as traditional forms of instruction'. Some authors also suggest reasons for the 'no significant difference' in learning that uses new technologies as compared with more traditional approaches. For example, Alexander (1998, p.62) suggests that 'educationalists continue to use each new technology to package learning experiences in exactly the same way it was previously designed, rarely seeking out the new message for each medium' and O'Banion (1997, p.65) suggest that few teaching departments or faculties desire to use technology in ways which change the concept of the classroom.

In examining the pedagogic rationale for the design template of an online economics course, Brown (1997, p.116) characterises the pedagogic rationale of early attempts at online learning as a continuation of transmission pedagogy with students as passive recipients. Brown (1997, p.117) then refers to the constructivist approach to learning and asks: 'How then can the World Wide Web be used to encourage learners to become more active in their learning and to interact and collaborate with others in the learning process?'. The author concludes that there are three central features for effective online delivery: hypertext which allows self-directed learning and encourages students to take an active approach to their learning, active and collaborative learning using computer mediated communications, and, learner-centredness (Brown, 1997, p.125).

More recently, Kennedy, Eizenberg and Kennedy (2000, pp.14-15) describe the development of a CD-ROM that aims to encourage an understanding of anatomical principles which could be used in future clinical contexts. Using an action learning development cycle the development team used multiple perspectives (and multiple pathways) to support learners in a manner more suited to the student's needs, to support higher levels of cognition and to support a more reflective approach to learning.

Alexander (1998, pp.64-65) proposes a number of critical decision criteria for the use of technologies in education. The four criteria that are used to distinguish good practice are drawn from the work of Bates (1995) and Taylor (1996), they are: the context of learning; the content of learning; learning experience design; and information technologies employed. A similar set of dimensions is described by Sims (2000, p.47) who identifies learners, content, pedagogy and context as dimensions to be considered in an assessment of learning theory to reinforce the potential of implementing appropriate interactive strategies.

This brief review suggests that there is an active discussion of issues relating to learning theory in the application of online technologies in higher education. However, the comments of Ellis and Phelps (2000, p.8) would suggest that this discussion has not matured, they consider that there are few examples of online courses that 'take full advantage of the pedagogical opportunities provided by the new technology', that 'literature relating to instructional design for online development is new and emergent and draws heavily on case study analysis' and that as yet 'very little theory and generalisable research has emerged in the field'. Ellis and Phelps (2000, p.29) also consider that given the emerging nature of online learning 'there is unlikely to be a strong body of theory and research to inform online teaching and learning development for some time'.

In the vocational education and training literature, discussions about the potential of online technologies to support various approaches to learning can be found. For example, Clark (1997, p.199) classifies approaches to multimedia as 'constructivist' or 'instructivist', O'Banion (1997, pp.82-89) discusses objectivism, constructivism, multiple intelligences and learning styles, and Schreiber and Berge (1998, pp.20-22) introduce information transmission based on behaviourist principles, transformation based on constructivist principles and social constructivism which promotes a community of learners. However, it is reasonable to suggest that the vocational education and training literature is not rich in discussions about the potential of online technologies to mediate various approaches to learning.

A management perspective

In referring to higher education, Alexander (1998, p.63) suggests that as decision-makers face 'pressure to increase quality and access to education, at the same time as they decrease costs, the promise of an ever-increasing array of technologies to automate learning must look very appealing, not only to improve productivity, but also to provide extended access to education that is clearly in demand'. However, the University of Illinios (1999, p.2) warns that 'because high quality online teaching is time and labor intensive, it is not likely to be the income source envisioned by administrators. Teaching the same number of students online at the same level of quality as in the classroom requires more time and money'.

Whilst published five years ago, Rees (1995) provides a response to comments made by Dan Ellis from the Queensland University of Technology (QUT). Ellis describes QUT's approach to computer-based education (CBE) as a return on investment approach which aims to 'provide conveniently, cheaply, and reliably, for very large numbers of students whenever possible, learning experiences that cost little to produce, that catalyse the reaction between student and existing learning resources, that induce active involvement by the student, and that enable lecturers to track the progress of individuals in very large classes' (Rees, 1995, p.29). Ellis argues that whilst multimedia 'stuff' is more interesting, exciting, and absorbing, it is no more effective that text-based CBE in bringing about better, longer lasting learning outcomes. And, that the nature of multimedia makes it easier than with text to develop materials that are low on Bloom's taxonomy with the educational strategy taking a back seat (Rees, 1995, p.29).

Rees (1995) takes issue with a number of these points. He claims that Ellis does CBE a disservice by presenting development options in 'either/or' terms, and, that just as there are good and bad examples of any other form of educational presentation, this is also the case for multimedia developments (Rees, 1995, p.29). He makes the point that 'mid-range options may incorporate elements of drill and practice, text-based exposition, simulation, hypertext branching options, and may use 'multimedia' techniques to some extent' (Rees, 1995, p.29). He argues that the style of program should be appropriate to the circumstances, thus leaving the options very wide and open to negotiation (Rees, 1995, p.30).

The authors' perspective

What is online learning anyway? What do managers, teachers and students expect of online technologies? What are the best ways to use online technologies to support teaching and learning? Where are the models? Why is there so little critical discussion?

These are questions that the authors have struggled with in exploring the rationale for using online technologies to support teaching, learning, assessment and associated administrative tasks in the provision of vocational education and training at their own institution. We have read a range of literature, engaged in numbers of conversations and listened to numbers of presentations but still feel that we are only at the beginning of the journey to gain any substantial understanding of these issues.

What we present here are a series of reflections based on our experience in the development of print-based and online resources at a large public provider of vocational education and training, and, on our observations of the broader vocational education and training system. The authors have observed that the development of resources based on technology, be it print or digital, is only one part of the problem from a provider's perspective. And, that the development of systems and resources that have had the potential to change teaching and learning practice have been less than might be desired by policy makers. Change might be defined as sporadic and variable.

Based on experience, it is asserted that:

Based on these observations, the authors conclude that the development of online technology based systems must: There appears to be no clear evidence that there are a significant number of examples where the vocational education and training system has done more than simply bolt on bits of technology to support existing curriculum and delivery systems. Most educational organisations still function as they have always done - constrained by considerations for funding, timetables and the teaching practices that are founded on an industrial model of education. O'Banion (1997, p.9) observes that education is time-bound, efficiency-bound and role-bound, and, 'the inherited architecture of education places limits on a system struggling to redefine and transform itself into a more learning-centred operation'.

There is no evidence that a design-oriented process has been explored by management and teachers that would see the responsible use of online technologies driving the flexibility and excellence of our teaching and learning processes in much the same way as these technologies has been used in other industries to fundamentally change how they deliver their services.

If we had the challenge of designing the management, delivery and support of learning from a vocational education and training institute from scratch, there is little doubt that online technologies would figure strongly in creating a student-centred learning environment where teachers' skills were focussed on facilitating learning and non-academic administrative processes are relegated to technology-based systems. However, one might ask: would this institute be characterised by a physical structure, and employment practices that are substantially different from the institutions of today? Or, would the customer base demand the sorts of facilities and staffing arrangements that have developed from a traditional base?

Whatever is the answer to this question, we would agree with O'Banion (1997, p.68) and assert that the opportunities that online technologies provide as an innovation that has the capacity to support teaching and learning cannot be maximised or sustained until educational and human organisation issues are addressed. Management systems and processes must be changed to incorporate this innovation, and, this requires change management.

Box Hill Institute of TAFE's response to online technologies

At Box Hill Institute of TAFE, we have been engaging in discussions about what might constitute models for the use of online technologies that might be useful in delivering a range of vocational programs whilst accommodating the needs and capacities of teachers, students and management. To date, we have defined four models. And, to be fair, it is unlikely that these are particularly innovative in their nature.

By way of general discussion it should be pointed out that these levels of use for online technologies are not necessarily sequential in their desirability, and, they do not represent a comprehensive list or definitive description of the ways in which online technologies can be utilised in vocational education. Decisions about the most appropriate model will be based on a large range of factors such as those described by Alexander (1998). However, as we move through the models there are two fundamental changes in the potential for program delivery options and student control over their own learning. Firstly, there is an increased capacity to deliver programs by 'non traditional' means including flexible learning, self-paced learning and distance learning. Secondly, there is an increased capacity for individual learners to take control over the time, place and pace of study.

Level 1: Traditional teacher controlled learning system

This level is essentially a traditional 'chalk and talk' learning system. Learners attend a class at a time and place that is specifically timetabled. Teachers control what is taught, how and in what order, teachers control assessment. There is minimum development of 'common resources' and although computers may be found in the classroom, their use is tightly controlled by the teacher.

Level 2: Print enhanced learning system

This level uses 'common resources' that are in print form and students complete assessment that is developed and owned by the teaching centre rather than the individual teacher. This assessment might be print based or may be found online. Where learners complete projects or assignments these are lodged online. In addition, learners have access to e-mail and chat sights for individual or group discussions respectively, these are monitored and possible moderated by the teacher.

This level shows significant similarity with 'web enhanced' programs described by Ellis and Phelps (2000, p.28).

Level 3: Technology enhanced learning support system

In addition to providing opportunities through e-mail, chat sites and lodgement of assessment online, this model takes the form of an online library, it stores unlinked individual files. This model provides a framework for lodging and storing resources which are developed and maintained centrally, however, the entry and control of files is managed at the level of the teaching centre. This model stores resources that can be lodged by individual teachers as a range of file types that are commonly found on desktop computers (for example Word, Excel, PowerPoint etc). As a minimum, files are classified as either learning resources or assessment resources. In addition, teachers may enter new classifications of files such as enhancement activities.

As individual files (resources) are not linked, the system does not have an internal navigation system. To overcome this problem and to provide learners with direction on what order to use stored files and what activities to complete, the system requires the inclusion of a study guide. This document would be printed by the learner and used in the same way as study guides have been traditionally used in the vocational sector.

This level shows similarity with 'web mounted' programs described by Ellis and Phelps (2000, p.28).

Level 4: Integrated online learning system

This level is a 'virtual learning environment'. It uses software platforms such as WebCT ( or Blackboard ( that are specifically designed for the development of an integrated online learning system. These platforms incorporate messaging, chat, storage and linking of learning and assessment resources. In addition, these system have the capacity to track the progress of individual learners.

Finding a way forward - change management?

Technological change is not new to education, previous 'revolutions' include the introduction of the ballpoint pen, overhead projectors, broadcast television and videotape. We assert that whilst the most recent revolution is outstanding in terms of the speed and capacity, its introduction is as much about change management as changes that have occurred in previous times. Drawing on the work of other authors, we will briefly discuss the importance of organisational redesign, placing the learner at the centre of the discussion, and redefining the roles of teachers' and learners'.

Latchem (1998) observes that

Attempts to introduce flexible and open learning into new contexts or from small-scale trials to systemic applications, frequently fail or flounder because organisations try to achieve 'innovation without change'. No matter how committed, able and industrious the teaching staff, they are unable to sustain major changes on their own. They lack the broad perspective, and need the engagement of the managers who control the resources. (Latchem, 1998, p.68)
This point is reinforced by Ellis and Phelps (2000, p.27) who identify a vast difference between individually driven initiatives and the system changes required to move towards more comprehensive changes. Also, Schreiber and Berge (1998, p.13) make a useful contribution to this discussion in describing four stages of organisational technology capability (for distance education). From Separate/Sporadic events which are characterised as individual and unrelated events to Institutionalisation of distance/distributed learning. They assert that the establishment of organisational policy to support distributed learning is a critical step in achieving institutionalisation (Schreiber & Berge, 1998, p.13).

Educational change management literature that deals with establishing a distributed learning culture is consistent in identifying the need for holistic business structures and processes that accommodate this approach. Whiteley (1999, p.42) investigated organisations in Australia, the USA and Canada to identified four primary elements that need to be managed in the change environment: the organisational structure; the workplace processes; the people of the organisations; and, the product and platform upon which it is delivered. Ellis and Phelps (2000, pp.36-37) identify the need to address pedagogical, technical, administrative and team building issues, the need to reconsider existing work practices and to replace the individual nature of teaching with team-based approaches.

A second theme consistently discussed in relation to change management in education is the need to place the learners' at the centre of the conversation. Latchem (1998, p.71) cites Paul (1998) who asserts that 'instead of starting with the learning needs of the students and then trying to find the best combination of learning strategies to meet them, so many innovative programs start with technological toys'.

A related issue, is the need to reconsider the relationships between teachers and learners. For example, Ellis and Phelps (2000, p.26) find that academics must do more than develop new technical skills to successfully make a transition to online teachers or learning facilitators. They state that 'online development and delivery requires new pedagogical approaches challenging previous practices with regard to assessment, group interaction and student/teacher dialogue'.


This paper explores a selection of literature that informs learning theory discussions and management discussions about the implementation of online technologies in vocational education and training. Significantly, but not surprisingly, this literature fails to provide 'magic answers' to questions about how to realise the potential of online technologies in the provision of vocational education. Therefore, this paper raises more questions that it answers. The authors suggest that the opportunities that online technologies provide as an innovation with the capacity to support teaching and learning cannot be maximised or sustained until management systems and processes change to incorporate this innovation. Change management is described as a central issue that needs to be addressed if the potential of online technologies is to be realised.


Alexander, S. (1998, 20-22 April). Opportunities and challenges for education in the technology age. Paper presented at the International conference: Learning together - collaboration in Open Learning, Perth.

Brown, A. (1997). Designing for learning: What are the essential features of an effective online course? Australian Journal of Educational Technology, 13(2), 115-126.

Clark, T. (1997). The power of multimedia. In R. Blunden (Ed.), Teaching and learning in vocational education and training (pp. 197-214). Katoomba: Social Science Press.

EdNA VET Advisory Group. (2000). Flexible learning for the information economy. A framework for national collaboration in vocational education and training 2000-2004. Brisbane: Australian National Training Authority.

Ellis, A., & Phelps, R. (2000). Staff development for online delivery: A collaborative team based action learning model. Australian Journal of Educational Technology, 16(1), 26-44.

Kennedy, D., Eizenberg, N. and Kennedy, G. (2000). An evaluation of the use of multiple perspectives in the design of computer facilitated learning. Australian Journal of Educational Technology, 16(1), 13-25.

Latchem, C. (1998, 20-22 April). Introducing the new paradigms of learner-centred and resource-based learning. Paper presented at the International conference: Learning together - collaboration in Open Learning, Perth.

O'Banion, T. (1997). A learning college for the 21st century. Phoenix: American Council on Education and The Oryx Press.

Rees, K. (1995). Design issues in computer-based education. Australian Journal of Educational Technology, 11(1), 28-35.

Schreiber, D., & Berge, Z. (1998). Distance training. How innovative organizations are using technology to maximize learning and meet business objectives. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Sims, R. (2000). An interactive conundrum: Constructs of interactivity and learning theory. Australian Journal of Educational Technology, 16(1), 45-57.

University of Illinois. (1999). Teaching at an Internet distance: The pedagogy of online teaching and learning. University of Illinois.

Whiteley, P. (1999). Challenge of change. Brisbane: Australian National Training Authority.

Contact details: Ian Robertson, Box Hill Institute of TAFE, Victoria

Please cite as: Robertson, I. and Sweeney, D. (2001). If online learning is the answer - What was the question? A vocational education and training perspective. In L. Richardson and J. Lidstone (Eds), Flexible Learning for a Flexible Society, 604-611. Proceedings of ASET-HERDSA 2000 Conference, Toowoomba, Qld, 2-5 July 2000. ASET and HERDSA.

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