Closing the learning environment

Jahan Mand asks whether the new Open Learning Environment units are worth it.

From 2018 onwards, the University of Sydney has mandated that all new students and students who have transferred between degrees will be required to complete 12 Open Learning Environment (OLE) units “to broaden and uniquely tailor their skills”. Curiously, this requirement appears to restrict options for students to “tailor their skills” by effectively replacing 12 credit points of general electives with a limited list of subjects (from Table O) primarily consisting of two credit point OLE modules, most of which include significant “online-only” components.

This tension between the desired and likely actual outcomes of these curriculum changes raises the question: will the introduction of mandatory OLE units be of net benefit to students?

Introduced to “build novel skill combinations and boost [your] personal and professional development” it is unclear whether the curriculum changes would be able to fulfil their purpose when compared against traditional face-to-face courses. This doubt arises from the fact that OLE units largely forgo the unique educational advantage that universities have in facilitating an interactive tutorial system for learning.

In contrast with online modules, face-to-face learning allows for engaging and diverse forms of content delivery: academics or high-achieving students can facilitate group discussions, assist with assignments and course related questions, or host quizzes and tutorial questions. While OLE units may encourage some interaction through online forums, it’s unlikely that they will support and engage students the way tutorials do. This view has academic support: David Bromwich, Professor of English at Yale, argues in the New York Review of Books that in awell-working tutorial discussion “you learn a good deal that can’t be quantified, packaged, or transmitted by an efficient impersonal medium, no matter how up-to-date, no matter how well engineered”.

Moreover, the level of engagement and quality of education OLE units provide can easily be replicated by students teaching themselves topics through reading books or watching lectures on YouTube without the need for university facilitation. The OLE unit OLET1135 Disability Awareness and Inclusivity is a clear example of this: it is assessed through a single 1.5-2.5 min video assignment worth 100% of the final mark, a project which, in theory, a student could complete without any guidance from the University. Further, as the majority of the OLE units occupy only two credit points, it may be the case that the modules’ short duration would not provide for a thorough understanding of a topic. This could be countered by the argument that students will take six shorter courses instead of two full electives and are thus exposed to a greater variety of subjects.

Nevertheless, OLE units would likely provide some benefits to the students who take them. For example, the units may be taken as zero credit point, no-fee units allowing students to gain exposure to new areas of study whilst still taking the courses they would have ordinarily chosen. Furthermore, the University accredits these units, vouching for their quality to future employers.

The University seems to assert that OLE units would add an interdisciplinary flavour to a students’ educations; they are included in the Interdisciplinary Studies Handbook. Yet, as noted, students lose the opportunity to take 12 credits of electives from areas outside their own major. By preventing students from taking electives, the University may restrict more avenues for future careers, personal development, as well as interest in academic disciplines, cultures and skills than it may open, thereby contradicting the interdisciplinary approach that the new curriculum changes promote. By restricting student choice, the university has ignored the subtleties and nuances of the thousands of individual students’ unique aspirations and interests which lie outside their own majors. This may have meaningful consequences on the career trajectories of students arising from the various reasons as to why students take electives outside their own areas of study. An economics student might study a few units of advanced maths so that they meet the requirements for a top graduate program; a computer science student could study linguistics so that they have the knowledge to build a more sophisticated AI program; an engineering student could study commercial law to have the confidence to create a start-up.

Designating OLEs as mandatory imposes an unnecessary hindrance on students’ education. Thus, it stands that though OLE units may open new opportunities for students, they may also close many more.