SYDNEY, 27 FEBRUARY 2011 - The push towards web-based learning at universities has halved student attendance rates in some courses and dramatically increased working hours for lecturers, a survey of academics by this website has found.
Thousands of students will crowd into campuses across the country tomorrow for the first day of the university semester, but lecturers predict that within a few weeks many will stop attending.
Instead these students will stay at home and skim online notes or flick through podcasts and video recordings of classes. A third of students consider this a substitute for attendance, according to a nationwide survey of 2422 first-year students by the centre for the study of higher education at the University of Melbourne.
The survey, published last year, found that the number of students spending more than 20 hours on campus each week has declined from 32 per cent in 1994 to 19 per cent in 2009.
This website canvassed the views of 12 academics from NSW universities, who suggested that in many courses up to half of students regularly skipped class - sometimes because of part-time work commitments, but often because the prevalence of online learning material gave them an excuse to make less effort.
The observations corroborate a 2008 national survey by the Australia Learning and Teaching Council, which found that only 56 per cent of 721 students who used web-based learning attended lectures often.
One senior lecturer in medicine at a Sydney university, who did not want to be named, said that in the past six months ''it was getting to the point where on Fridays you'd look out and see just a handful of students in the lecture theatre. We had to threaten them to make them come. Online learning is very important but it's only an adjunct to lectures.''
Preparing online material now consumed more of lecturers' time than they spent in class, the National Tertiary Education Union said.
Jane Mears, an associate professor of social science at the University of Western Sydney, said it took a full day to modify a lecture for use online and two hours to adapt a PowerPoint presentation.
''The beauty of a lecture is that you can actually influence people, drag them in … Clearly you can't do that online.''
More vexing for some academics was the steady stream of emails from students who expected replies at all hours of the day.
Tim Stephens, a senior lecturer in public international law at the University of Sydney, said his colleagues would sometimes receive hundreds of emails and several mobile phone calls a week.
''We virtually have to be available to students around the clock,'' Dr Stephens said.
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