The University of Sydney is moving to mix conventional teaching with online learning and has hired 12 people in the past year to support its e-learning infrastructure.
Professor Peter Goodyear, co-director of Sydney University's Research Centre in Computer-supported Learning and Cognition (CoCo), said "the big trend is to mix online with conventional teaching -- 'blended learning' is the buzz phrase."
Goodyear said that the blended learning approach had been partly driven by student demand. "Students expect to get a certain amount of course information online -- they expect to get reading lists, timetables, course outlines... and have email contact with tutors and lecturers," he said.
"At Sydney [University] in the last year we've appointed 12 people to support our e-learning infrastructure because we want students to have a good experience of online learning mixed in with a good experience of face-to-face learning.
"So we're taking it seriously -- 12 people is quite a sizeable team compared to other unis," Goodyear said.
Although the University only offered "a handful" of whole degree programs online, Goodyear said "If you go down to the course unit level there's quite a lot that you can do wholly online.
"If you look at the number of courses [that have] a serious online element plus some face-to-face classroom activity, that's rapidly becoming the majority."
Cost cutting is a persistent issue in Australian universities. Goodyear said, "I think there are ways in which you can use e-learning to cut costs and there are ways of doing that that students will still be happy with, that they might even prefer, but that's not widespread.
"It involves some really careful thought about how you design good learning experiences and that's rare expertise at the moment."
But cost saving was not always the motivation for, or the end-result of, implementing e-learning, Goodyear said -- and that applied to both universities and to the corporate sector. He said the time saved by using e-learning was one of its biggest assets.
"Today it's a reality that many students have to work 10-15 hours a week. Therefore the time-flexibility of e-learning is a real bonus for them." Likewise, Goodyear said, Sydney University staff were expected to devote time to research, so having a flexible teaching schedule could help staff manage their time more effectively.
The CoCo Research Centre was formally launched in May this year. According to its website, CoCo studies "innovative uses of advanced learning technologies, in order to gain a better understanding of learning, teaching, technology and their inter-relationships".
The research centre also hosts ElNet, which, according to Dorian Peters, educational multimedia developer, is "the first organisation in Australia, as far as we know, where e-learning professionals - both corporate and academic -- can get together."