Accessing New Zealand education from abroad: how easy is it?

October 2016


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The New Zealand Productivity Commission says we need to continue to develop new models of tertiary education. Here, we look at examples of distance education that are crossing borders and challenging traditional tertiary education models.


Nicola barryFrom the isolated Australian mining town of Whyalla, New Zealander Nicola Barry felt the urge to further her education and rethink her career choices. The obvious choice was to enrol with an Australian tertiary provider, but it wasn’t straightforward. As she wasn’t an Australian citizen, study costs were higher and she had access to very little financial support.

So Barry looked to her home country for answers and discovered that enrolling with a
New Zealand provider was easier than anticipated, despite the distance. She enrolled with the Open Polytechnic on a Bachelor of Arts programme majoring in social sciences, with a career in local government in mind.

Barry was able to qualify for a student loan through StudyLink. Online learning made study flexible. Collaboration with teachers and other students was easy with the use of online forums. She never looked back.

In May 2016, she attended Open Polytechnic’s graduation ceremony in Christchurch where, due to her academic success, she was selected to be the graduate speaker.

“It was an amazing way to celebrate my achievement of completing a degree. It is something that I will always remember and be extremely proud of,” says Barry.


Crossing borders

Barry’s story highlights the growing internationalisation of tertiary education.

In its 2016 issues paper as part of its inquiry into new models of tertiary education, the New Zealand Productivity Commission highlighted the Open Polytechnic for recently committing to a fully digital business model that allowed greater mobility of education. The Open Polytechnic also launched a new online learning platform called iQualify to deliver online courses and teaching across multiple devices. This approach means that course delivery is highly scalable, providing the opportunity to widen access to higher education without compromising quality or increasing tuition costs.

In the past New Zealand’s tertiary education system has been described as ill-equipped to respond to or capitalise on increasing trends in global mobility.

In 1998 the Ministry of Education stated that “without a culture of internationalisation and without integrated approaches to internationalisation, New Zealand tertiary education institutions generally lack an institutional base for internationalisation”.

However, in its report, the Commission identified that New Zealand tertiary education is becoming increasingly mobile and internationalised. Various factors have contributed to this. Free trade agreements have enabled the creation of multinational educational institutions. Technological advances have also made teaching across borders easier, as Barry’s story accentuates. Consequently new models are emerging that allow ease of delivery across borders.

“Staff, students, teaching materials, qualifications and research can all move across borders and these factors have become more mobile over time,” states the Commission’s report. “Their mobility creates pressure for standardisation; so, for example, a bachelor’s degree conferred in one country means something equivalent in other countries. Standardisation further enables and encourages factor mobility. Factor mobility has increased the competitive pressure on tertiary providers. They now compete in an international market for both staff and students.”


What about MOOCs?

It is difficult to discuss borderless distance learning without mentioning MOOCs.

The first MOOC (massive open online course) was in 2008; academics at the University of Manitoba offered a class that was free to join and open to anyone, and combined the use of blogs, wikis, online discussion forums, on-demand audio and video, RSS, Moodle, Second Life, Facebook and other technologies.

Since then MOOCs have grown in popularity, with a number of private and not-for-profit MOOC providers becoming established, frequently in conjunction with established universities.

By the end of 2013, however, enthusiasm for MOOCs was waning. While they were heralded as a way of enabling citizens of poorer countries to access education, a number of studies suggested that most participants in MOOCs were already well educated and employed. Critics also pointed to completion rates of between two and 10 per cent.

The edX platform started by Harvard and MIT is one of the best examples of how the MOOC is transforming education. The platform includes 90 institutions and caters for more than seven million learners from around the world, with 23 million course enrolments.

Where does New Zealand sit in all of this?

Victoria University of Wellington recently announced that it has joined the edX partnership and will deliver eight free MOOCs over the next three years, as well as a number of SPOCs (small private online courses), a micro-master’s course and new forms of blended learning.

Victoria University Provost Professor Wendy Larner says the contract brings many exciting opportunities to the university.

“It will be a chance for us to collaborate with other edX universities, which are some of the best in the world, to deliver courses. It will increase our reputation internationally in teaching and learning and will also help us to expand our digital capability across the board – Victoria’s focus will be on playing a lead role in imagining and enabling the possibilities in a digital age.”

Larner says the agreement means Victoria will be able to dramatically increase the scale and reach of
its audience.

“A number of courses we offer are globally distinctive and relevant to an international audience; by transferring some of our existing courses to edX, we will be able to capture people across the world who may not have previously had access to these topics.”

The Ministry of Education and the Tertiary Education Commission believe MOOCs have the potential for New Zealand institutions to extend their brand and reach a large international audience, including through offering MOOCs as a ‘taster’ to attract paying students, or offering courses that would otherwise be too niche to be viable. They also felt MOOCs offered an opportunity for institutions to experiment with innovative pedagogical approaches, to reduce costs, and to better support continuing education and professional education.

Victoria’s edX partnership is a good example of the way MOOCs are becoming a part of New Zealand tertiary education. Auckland University’s MOOC approach delivered through UK-based consortium FutureLearn is another.


The challenges with distance education

Technology has enabled distance education to become an increasingly viable option. However, online delivery of education is not without its challenges. The Commission’s report noted that while it has the potential to improve productivity and improve access for students, there is also good evidence that establishing positive peer and student-teacher relationships are important elements of success for some population groups who experience worse tertiary education outcomes than other groups.

Massey University’s Dr Maggie Hartnett says social support is crucial to the success of online distance education.

“Clear guidelines, ongoing guidance and timely feedback, for example, allow learners to make accurate, ongoing judgements about their capability, necessary for ongoing motivation. This is particularly important in online courses where teachers may not be immediately available to answer questions. Social support, in the form of supportive learning relationships with the teacher, as well as other learners, can offer emotional benefits in addition to study-related assistance, which are known to foster motivation.”

Hartnett says learner motivation is a key indicator of learner success.

“Poor motivation is a decisive factor in contributing to high dropout and non-completion rates from online courses.”

She says that many thing affect motivation, including how well the learning aligns with personal interests and goals. The curriculum, learning activities and the role of the teacher can also affect motivation. Collectively, these combine in complex and dynamic ways to influence the motivation, says Hartnett.

Ultimately, online distance education, whatever form it takes, does not appear to be threatening traditional tertiary education models in the way people once predicted; rather, providers are becoming increasingly innovative as they integrate emerging models into their existing programmes to expand their reach and presence on a global stage.

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