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Online learning in Australian higher education: Opportunities, challenges and transformations



Higher education is being rapidly transformed by the growth in online learning, with an increasing number of universities worldwide offering degree programs in online, distance modes of study. Australian education has a long history of 'distance education', primarily offered by regional universities. With the digital communication advances of the 21st century, traditional 'correspondence' study has transformed into online learning, with many more universities, both metropolitan and regional, offering undergraduate degree programs that can be completed entirely online. While this can provide a significant opportunity for further widening of participation in higher education, Australian and international research indicates that much needs to be done to improve the higher attrition rates currently associated with online learning. This paper draws on the findings of three separate yet related Australian research projects, to compare student and staff perspectives on ways to improve outcomes in online learning.
Student Success
ISSN: 2205-0795
Volume 10, Issue 2, pp. 1-11
August 2019
Student Success, 10(2) August 2019 | 1
FeatureConsolidated Project Report
Online learning in Australian higher education:
Opportunities, challenges and transformations
Cathy Stone
University of Newcastle, Newcastle, Australia
National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education, Australia
Higher education is being rapidly transformed by the growth in online learning, with an increasing
number of universities worldwide offering degree programs in online, distance modes of study. Australian
education has a long history of 'distance education', primarily offered by regional universities. With the
digital communication advances of the 21st century, traditional 'correspondence' study has transformed
into online learning, with many more universities, both metropolitan and regional, offering
undergraduate degree programs that can be completed entirely online. While this can provide a
significant opportunity for further widening of participation in higher education, Australian and
international research indicates that much needs to be done to improve the higher attrition rates
currently associated with online learning. This paper draws on the findings of three separate yet related
Australian research projects, to compare student and staff perspectives on ways to improve outcomes in
online learning.
*This report was presented at the STARS Conference in Melbourne, Australia in July 2019 and was selected for publication in
this special issue. The author has kindly given their permission to have this report published and it has undergone a further
review by the editors to confirm it aligns with the Journal’s submission guidelines and standards.
Please cite this article as:
Stone, C. (2019). Online learning in Australian higher education: Opportunities, challenges and transformations. Student
Success, 10(2). 1-11. doi: 10.5204/ssj.v10i2.1299
Student Success: A journal exploring the experiences of students in tertiary education
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Licence. As an open access journal,
articles are free to use with proper attribution. ISSN: 2205-0795
Online learning in Australian higher education: Opportunities, challenges and transformations
2 | Student Success, 10(2) August 2019
As in many other countries, the mode by which
distance education is delivered to students
studying off-campus in Australia, has changed
quite dramatically over the past couple of
decades. What used to be delivered to students
by post, through recorded lectures and hard copy
notes and readings, is now delivered almost
exclusively in an online format via the Internet.
Distance or external students now study ‘online’
rather than ‘by correspondence’. The impact of
being able to deliver education via the Internet
has resulted in changes that are far greater than
simply the mode of delivery. The relative ease
with which learning content can be put online,
coupled with the perception of the reduced cost
of online delivery, when compared with face-to-
face teaching and with printing and posting
materials to students, has resulted in an increase
in online offerings across the higher education
sector. More institutions than ever before are
offering online courses at undergraduate as well
as higher degree levels, and an increasing number
of students are taking up the opportunity to study
in what is seen and marketed as a more flexible
and manageable way to gain qualifications.
Indeed, statistics from the Australian
Government Department of Education and
Training (DET; 2018) show that the number of
students in Australia studying in a
distance/online mode is now rising faster than
those studying on-campus. Not only is this
transforming the way in which institutions plan,
develop and deliver education, it is also
expanding the possibility of higher education to
an increasingly wider student cohort.
Online students are less likely than on-campus
students to be school-leavers, and more likely to
be older, mature-age learners, engaged in regular
ongoing employment, either full or part-time,
with substantial family responsibilities and to be
juggling multiple responsibilities in their lives
(Moore & Greenland, 2017; Signor & Moore,
2014; Stone & O’Shea, 2019). There is evidence
that online learning, particularly at
undergraduate level, is contributing significantly
to the Australian Government’s student equity
agenda, with this cohort containing higher
proportions of students who are first in their
families to study at university level as well as
those from the government-identified higher
education equity categories (DET, 2017a), of low
socio-economic background, regional and remote
students, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
students, and students with a disability (Cardak
et al., 2017; Kent, 2015; Pollard, 2018; Stone,
O’Shea, May, Delahunty, & Partington, 2016;).
However, it is debatable how much of a real
opportunity to achieve a qualification this
provides, when Australian Government data
demonstrates the considerably lower rate of
completion of qualifications by online students
when compared with those studying face-to-face
(DET, 2017b, 2017c). One government study
showed that only 46.6% of external/online
students completed their qualifications over an
eight-year period, compared with 76.6% for
internal, face-to-face students (DET, 2017b),
while another found that online students were 2.5
times more likely than face-to-face students to
withdraw from their studies without a
qualification (DET, 2017c). Clearly, online study
brings with it both opportunities and challenges
for students as well as higher education
institutions. This paper draws on the published
findings of two pieces of Australian research into
the online student experience (O’Shea, Stone &
Delahunty, 2015; Stone et al., 2016) and
compares these with the findings of an Australia-
wide research project conducted in 2016-2017
into the perspectives and experiences of
academic and professional staff involved in online
education. The Final Report of this research
project was published in 2017 by the National
Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education
(NCSEHE; Stone, 2017).
Hearing from the students
Previous Australian research has given voice to
this diverse higher education cohort, allowing us
to hear directly from the students about their
motivations for and experiences of online study;
Student Success, 10(2) August 2019 | 3
also, their perspectives on what are the key
factors that help them to persist with their
studies. Two such studies (O’Shea et al., 2015;
Stone et al., 2016) surveyed and interviewed a
combined total of 144 online students from a
range of universities across Australia. In both
studies, consistent with the overall population of
online undergraduate students, the majority
were mature-age students, with the largest group
aged between 25 and 50. Key findings common to
both studies are summarised below.
Why study now, and why online?
Reasons for studying were overwhelmingly
related to improving incomes, advancing careers
and generally improving their lives in
instrumental ways. A typical quote is that of
Gemma, aged 42:
I’ve gone as high as I can go at work without a
qualification, so it’s for career advancement and
opportunity I think, because I’d like to change
jobs, but it’s a bit difficult unless you’ve got that
piece of paper (Stone et al., 2016, p. 153).
Students were very clear about their reasons for
choosing to study online, rather than face-to-face
study, stressing the importance of flexibility in
terms of being able to choose where and when to
study, due to the need to fit their studies around
their other pressing responsibilities. For Glenda,
aged 36, “It’s just perfect because I can study at
my own pace and my job gives me the freedom to
study when I want”, while Evan, aged 29, finds he
can “structure the study to suit my sort of
lifestyle instead of having to make any dramatic
changes to study on campus” (Stone et al., 2016,
p. 155). The word “opportunity” crops up
frequently in the stories of online students:
“there’s never been the opportunity”; “a great
opportunity”; “opportunity plays a big part” (Stone
et al., 2016, p.156).
What helps?
While making it clear that the availability of
online education provided this opportunity for
them to start university, the students also talked
about what they wanted and needed from their
institutions once they had started, to help them to
continue successfully. The two studies revealed a
number of key issues for students, as follows:
1) Inclusion: students wanted to feel included as
equals; to be valued as much as on-campus
students. Many felt that:
online learners were “a lower priority than on-
campus students” “second fiddle” and “not
really having a voice” (O’Shea et al., 2015, p. 51).
2) Preparation: they wanted to be prepared for
online study, particularly in understanding the
technology used to deliver their learning:
Even some who regularly used computers in
other settings found learning the technology a
struggle, which impacted upon their motivation,
confidence and perseverance in this domain
(O’Shea et al., 2015, p. 51-52).
3) Communication and connection: a lack of
communication from tutors and the absence of
feedback was particularly frustrating for many.
There was mention of “self-service units”; the
“disappearing lecturer”; “little or no feedback, no
discussion and ‘don’t bother me’ tutors” (O’Shea
et al., 2015, p. 49). Inca, aged 55, reported that:
Sometimes you’d have unusual things happen
where they just seem to disappear after, like by
week 11, week 12 they just don’t come back
(O’Shea et al., 2015, p. 49).
Many spoke about feeling isolated and craving
more of a connection with fellow students and
tutors, with comments such as that by 38-year-
old Tania, “if there’s no connection there with
students, you kind of feel a bit isolated” (O’Shea et
al., 2015, p. 48). The tutor could have a
considerable impact on reducing isolation, as
reflected by 25-year-old Neill’s observation that
“if the tutor’s very active and engaging with
students, generally the students are more willing
to engage with each other” (O’Shea et al., 2015, p.
Online learning in Australian higher education: Opportunities, challenges and transformations
4 | Student Success, 10(2) August 2019
4) Proactive institutional support: isolation could
be alleviated through “being offered and
receiving institutional help and support” (Stone
et al., 2016, p. 160), as the experience of Cory, a
female student aged 30, illustrates:
I got an email … telling me that they were here to
help … uni is hard so give us a call if you ever
want a chat … and then a couple of days later I
thought I’m going to call these guys. It was really
helpful. I had a chat to a woman over the phone
who was really great (Stone et al., 2016, p. 160).
5) Engaging learning design: students were often
disappointed by the poorly designed courses and
materials they were faced with, finding them
difficult to navigate and disengaging. In the words
of Ana, aged 50:
what works in person is not the same as online
… I thought it would be more tailor-made for it
than what it is (O’Shea et al., 2015, p. 52).
Hearing from those who educate and
support online students
The above findings have since been
complemented and extended by a third research
project, funded by the Australian Government
DET, conducted via an Equity Fellowship from the
NCSEHE at Curtin University, Australia and
supported by the Centre of Excellence for Equity
in Higher Education (CEEHE) at the University of
Newcastle, Australia. This research sought the
wisdom and insights of academic and
professional practitioners on ways to improve the
experiences of and outcomes for online students.
What follows is an overview of this research, with
discussion of the consistencies between its key
findings and the student perspectives previously
This research was conducted during 2016 and
2017 with staff participants from 15 different
Australian universities, plus the Open University
(OU) in the United Kingdom (UK). The OU was
included because of its history of specialising in
offering distance education, now primarily
online, across the whole of the UK and
internationally. Due to the nature of the ethics
clearance, which assured anonymity for
participants, it was not possible within this
research to explicitly compare and contrast
practices at the OU with practices at other
Australian universities, as related by participants.
However, where there was published material to
draw on, examples of effective practices at
participating universities, including the OU, are
mentioned within this paper, with the Final
Report containing further information (Stone,
Qualitative interviews of around 45 to 60
minutes, mostly face-to-face and occasionally by
telephone, were conducted with 151 members of
academic, professional, administrative and
managerial staff, involved in online education
across the 16 institutions. Participants came from
a very broad range of areas and disciplines. The
proportion of academic to professional staff was
fairly evenly divided: 70 participants were
academics, representing all or almost all
disciplines, schools and faculties at each of the
institutions; 75 were professional staff members
from many different areas such as library, student
services (including student engagement,
retention, success and support), academic skills,
equity, learning design, educational technology,
planning, policy, data; and six were in senior
executive roles.
A semi-structured questionnaire with open-
ended questions sought information about each
participant’s role, the extent and type of
involvement they had in online education, their
familiarity with and understanding of the online
student cohort, the types of practices and
interventions they were using and whether any of
these had or were being evaluated. For example,
they were asked about “any interventions or
strategies that you use, or any that you are aware
of others using, which are having a positive effect
on student engagement, retention and/or student
academic success” and, in their experience, “what
other types of interventions and practices are
important in helping online students stay and
Student Success, 10(2) August 2019 | 5
The Final Report from the research (Stone, 2017)
outlines seven key findings. In comparing these
findings with those of the two studies previously
discussed, strong consistencies can be seen
between the view of staff and the view of students
about what is most helpful for students in the
online environment. It seems that experienced
staff have come to understand well what students
need, even if institutions are not always meeting
these needs. These seven findings and their close
relationship with student perspectives are
discussed below. Quotes are drawn directly from
the research data unless otherwise attributed.
1. Strategic whole-of-institution
Similar to students’ perceptions of being ‘a lower
priority’, or ‘second fiddle’ to on-campus
students, many staff talked about their frustration
that online students were being “treated as kind
of like the poor cousin” (Unit Coordinator) or
“getting a lesser experience” (Lecturer) and that
online education was regarded by the institution
as “secondary education”. For casual teaching
staff in particular, there was a sense that they
were regarded as “a second-class academic”
(Casual Lecturer), being paid insufficient hours
and receiving no access to paid staff development
and training. Many emphasised the need for the
university as a whole to recognise and treat
online education as core business, rather than an
add-on. This included establishing quality
standards for online education, subject to
ongoing continuous improvement, as well as
understanding the nature and diversity of the
online student cohort, in terms of both its
strengths and its needs. On the one hand online
students tend to be older and in paid
employment, therefore more experienced and
mature in many important ways: “they’re really
conscientious students” (Senior Academic); but,
on the other hand, they can be in need of extra
support due to various challenges in their busy
lives; “it’s the extra ball that gets thrown up in the
air and the first one they’ll drop if things get
tough” (Course Coordinator). There was also
awareness of the higher proportions of students
from equity categories, such as those with
disability: “students that are incapacitated in
some way” (Lecturer); and those from remote
areas who have “difficulty often with internet
access” (Student Advisor).
2. Intervene early, to connect and
Similar to students’ views about the importance
of being adequately prepared for their online
studies, staff were clear that connecting with
students early, offering orientation and
preparation, was vital to their future success. Staff
talked of the need to help students develop “a
realistic understanding of what it’s going to be
like” (Project Coordinator) and the perils of
adopting a “one-size-fits-all sales approach”
(Student Counsellor). One senior manager in
student services talked of the need for “a greater
emphasis at the front end”; while a Senior
Lecturer talked of providing new online students
with “a highly scaffolded entry into the online
environment”. Connecting early with students in
more personal ways such as phone calls was seen
to help develop “a sense of belonging because
they’d spoken to someone that they felt knew
them” (Library Manager). There were examples
of outreach orientation programs for online
students in one regional university having “a
team that travels to select locations around
Australia we literally jump in our cars and go
and visit students” (Student Engagement
Director), as well as strategies such as “the
welcome campaign, from O-week through to
Week Three, dialling out, having a conversation”
(Student Support Manager). Preparing students
academically was raised as a key issue, with some
universities offering free preparatory units and
modules online to try to “get them to a place
where they’re comfortable being in an academic
environment” (Course Coordinator).
3. The vital role of ‘teacher-presence’
Consistent with students’ desire for
communication and connection, the importance
of lecturer or tutor communication came across
Online learning in Australian higher education: Opportunities, challenges and transformations
6 | Student Success, 10(2) August 2019
very strongly from staff, with “someone at the
other end of the system listening to them
communication and feedback you can’t
communicate enough with online students”
(Senior Lecturer). Staff participants were
confident that regular and constructive teacher-
student communication improves student
retention. “When there’s no responses to emails
and no responses to discussion forums … the
attrition rate’s higher and the students are really
unhappy” (Unit Coordinator). There was also a
recognition of the different demands on tutors
and lecturers when teaching online. “The
engagement demands are completely different,
the reliance of students on the instructor is much
more intensive basically you’re it” (Course
Coordinator). Experienced online teachers were
very clear about the need for prompt and regular
responses with many being “online every day”
and putting “a little about myself often into the
emails” (Lecturer); also using different media to
communicate, including discussion forums,
emails and at times telephone. “Phone is really
important … if you need to resolve things in some
way … phone is helpful for breaking the IT barrier
down a little bit” (Lecturer).
The importance of communication and feedback
from online teachers has been highlighted in
other research studies (Delahunty, Verenikina, &
Jones, 2014; Kuiper, 2015; Lambrinidis, 2014)
with Ragusa and Crampton (2018), for example,
finding that “the quality and timeliness of lecturer
feedback was the most valued form of learning
connection identified by students irrespective of
course” (p.15). One of the difficulties for
experienced, dedicated online teachers was a lack
of recognition from within their institutions of the
time it takes to engage and support online
students effectively:
It’s very time-consuming and tutors aren’t paid
for it, for that amount of time. We’re not supposed
to spend a lot of time on it. You’re always chasing
your tail because there’s just not enough time
4. Design for online
There was a strong understanding amongst the
staff participants that, “practices such as
recording face-to-face lectures and uploading
them for online students, rather than providing
specifically designed online content, provides a
disengaging experience”. In the words of one
lecturer, online learning is “a different animal to
the face-to-face course … it needs to be designed
completely differently for that mode of delivery”.
This supports findings from other research
(Devlin, 2013; Mayes, Ku, Akarasriworn, Luebeck,
& Korkmaz, 2011; Parsell, 2014) about the
importance of designing specifically for online.
This finding is consistent with students’ views on
the need, not only for learning design to engage,
but also for a stronger connection with others.
Many staff commented on the importance of
designing online content in ways that will more
easily connect students with each other and with
the teacher, encouraging greater interaction,
collaboration and communication. Comments
such as: “you can replicate peer support in an
online environment” (Teaching and Learning
Senior Manager); “discussion is the centrepiece of
the classroom experience” (Course Coordinator);
“allowing opportunities for students to engage
with the content online … teacher-presence
responding to questions and comments”
(Curriculum Manager); show the possibilities
that are available when courses are appropriately
designed for online. Again, this is consistent with
other evidence (Canty, Goldberg, Ziebell, &
Ceperkovic, 2015; Parsell, 2014) indicating that
content can be designed in ways that provide
“opportunities for students to interact in multiple
ways with their peers in an online environment”
(Shackelford & Maxwell, 2012, p. 7).
Issues of accessibility and inclusivity were raised:
“If the unit is designed with universal access in
mind a huge bulk of your challenges are
addressed” (Disability Advisor); also the
importance of having “Indigenous content in our
courses”, with examples of Aboriginal and Torres
Strait Islander students asking for “spaces in the
Student Success, 10(2) August 2019 | 7
curriculum where we can be heard and where we
can hear other voices” (Team Leader). Other
researchers have also been calling for greater
inclusivity in learning design to “promote the
success, retention and completion of Indigenous
people in higher education courses” (Reedy,
2011, p. 2). The strengths that these mature-age,
experienced students bring with them to the
virtual classroom can be highlighted and
enhanced through, for example, learning design
that “links university to the workplace more
effectively” (Downing, 2015, p. vi).
5. Contact and connect along the
student journey
This finding ties in closely with students’
comments about inclusion, communication,
connection with others and proactive
institutional support. Staff commented on the
need for regular and targeted institutional
communication, to enhance students’ sense of
belonging and engagement, as well as targeting
appropriate support as needed. Some institutions
had established systems of interventions by
which they could “reach out to students when we
think they may be sort of falling by the wayside,
having some difficulties” (Student Services
Manager). Many had implemented other types of
communication, such as “a welcome call which is
done by students, so it’s a student-to-student
communication” (Student Engagement Manager);
there were other examples of various contact
strategies from teaching areas, student support
and library services. The need for a proactive
approach was recognised. “Don’t wait for them to
approach you … just say ‘How’s it going? Is there
a problem?’” (Lecturer).
The possibility of multiple communication points
between the institution and student highlights
the need for a united approach. One institution
had “a communication strategy that’s at four
touch points along the first semester … also to link
off to other support systems” (Senior Manager).
Expectations on staff need to be realistic, as
expressed by one senior manager who explained
that “it’s very difficult for academic staff to deal
with the sheer volume”. Others were in the
process of developing institutional frameworks
for student interventions, such as that operating
at OU (Slade & Prinsloo, 2015), in which
communication between institution and student
is planned and implemented strategically rather
than in an ad-hoc way. Participants involved in
this framework talked about “building in person-
to-person support, right at the beginning” and
enabling them to “selectively message students or
make other interventions, like telephone”.
Anecdotal evidence from participants for the
positive impact on student outcomes from such
interventions - “I’ve been able to get my non-
completer rate down to four per cent … and my
fail rate down to one per cent” (Course
Coordinator) is supported by evidence-based
research within both Australia and the UK
(Nelson & Creagh, 2012; Slade & Prinsloo, 2015;
Stone & O’Shea, 2013; Woodthorpe, 2015).
6. The role of learning analytics
Making strategic use of data on student activity
and behaviour within the learning management
system (LMS) can inform ways and times to reach
out to students with targeted support (Johnson et
al., 2016; Sclater, Peasgood, & Mullan, 2016). As
a recent report from the Australian Government
DET (2018) has found, “there is widespread
acceptance that learning analytics, if
implemented effectively, is a valuable tool for
addressing student retention” (p.24). Some
institutions had developed intervention
strategies informed by learning analytics,
however most were still very rudimentary, often
relying on individual staff members to extract
data manually from the LMS and contact students
on a piecemeal basis. “At the moment we have a
very manual process and what we are hoping for
is something much more automated” (Senior
Academic). Similar to other research findings
(West et al., 2016), many staff members were
interested in knowing more about how to use
student data to inform effective interventions and
outcomes but were not sure how to go about it or
from whom to seek assistance. As an Evaluation
Online learning in Australian higher education: Opportunities, challenges and transformations
8 | Student Success, 10(2) August 2019
Officer at one institution reported, “there’s so
much data there, we’re not collecting it in an
accessible form for lecturers to take appropriate
However, there appeared to be a growing interest
across institutions in using student data, not only
to target students whose behaviour indicates a
need for immediate support, but also to make
predictions about who may need support in the
future, through the development of predictive
models. “We hope that predictive indicators get
us into, ‘actually, we think this student isn’t going
to submit their next assignment’, based on their
behavioural patterns” (Head of Analytics). Such
strategies can help to address the need expressed
by students for greater inclusiveness and
proactive support.
7. Collaboration to deliver support at
point of need
None of the above can be effectively delivered
without a high level of collaboration across the
various divisions, departments, faculties and
schools within institutions. The interviews with
staff revealed the importance of “joined-up
academic and non-academic support for students
in a holistic way” (Senior Executive). Such an
approach can make it possible, for example, to
embed timely support within the curriculum: “if
their referencing is not great … okay, we’ll get one
of my team in we’ll create some sort of online
resource to embed” (Library Manager).
Collaboration across teaching and professional
areas enables academic literacies to be
“integrated within the classroom task making
what’s implicit explicit” (Learning Support
Manager). As within the Open University UK,
where curriculum-based support teams have
been established (Slade & Prinsloo, 2015), with
support staff working within “dedicated
curriculum areas so they have much closer links
with teaching staff” (Lecturer), some Australian
institutions within this study were, to varying
degrees, aiming to build a more collaborative
approach to supporting students. Examples
included having “at least one student advisor in
every School” (Student Advisor Coordinator); and
“we’ve just distributed learning support across
the Faculty” (Senior Executive member). Those
who had experienced such collaborative
approaches were very positive about their
impact, with comments such as: “colleagues
within departments and faculties are quite happy
that the support is more accessible, they feel like
it’s closer (Senior Executive member)”; and “the
team approach was far better” (Program
However, for online students, there was generally
quite poor access to the types of personal support
services that are readily available to on-campus
students, such as personal counselling, mental
health services and career services, which were
still largely operating in normal business hours.
“There’s not a lot of support out of hours for
online students … most things are nine to five
still” (Enabling Programs Manager). As one
learning designer commented, “it’s been focused
on the face-to-face students and there hasn’t
really been anything put in place for the online
students”, while an Equity Officer remarked, “we
need to be making sure that we have a kind of
online version of what we have on campus”.
Discussion and conclusions
In comparing findings from research into
students’ experiences of online learning with the
perspectives of staff involved in online education,
many commonalities and similarities have
emerged. It is a reassuring discovery that
university staff, working directly or indirectly
with online students, share many of the same
perspectives as their students about what is most
important for online student success. Specifically,
there are very similar views on what needs to be
done to engage online students, to help build their
sense of belonging within their studies, and to
help them succeed academically. These findings
demonstrate that, with online learning continuing
to grow rapidly, institutions need to move beyond
the conventional methods of external education
that have been relied upon in the past. Instead of
essentially trying to replicate the face-to-face
Student Success, 10(2) August 2019 | 9
learning experience at a distance, universities and
the staff within them need to embrace the digital
communication advances of the 21st century, to
deliver online education differently, in more
creative ways.
Today’s students, across all age-groups, are
familiar with the engaging digital platforms of
social media and the commercial world. They are
quick to recognise poor digital design and equally
quick to become disengaged by a poor online
experience. Online students tend to be, on the one
hand, more experienced than the face-to-face
cohort, by virtue of being older, employed and
competently managing other responsibilities; yet,
on the other hand, they tend to be academically
less experienced and hence less confident about
university than their face-to-face, younger
counterparts. With many of them coming back to
study after lengthy gaps, a good proportion from
under-represented equity groups and perhaps
also from backgrounds where neither family nor
friends have been to university, the challenges
can be immense. They want to feel that they
belong and that they are valued. They express a
desire for strong connections with teachers, with
other students and the institutions in which they
are studying.
The findings outlined in this paper taken from
the perspectives and experiences of both online
students and the staff who work with them can
point the way towards transforming online
learning from what is, in many cases, simply a
digital delivery of face-to-face content with high
attrition rates, to one that encourages greater
retention and success through embracing the
potential of both technology and people. External
students, whose primary, or in many cases, only
mode of learning is online, are largely ‘unseen’. To
improve these students’ opportunities for
ongoing participation and success, institutions
need to ensure they are kept ‘visible’ through a
range of measures across the whole institution.
They need to be considered every bit as
important as those who literally can be ‘seen’.
While individual staff members undoubtedly
make a positive difference to the success of many,
through the measures they implement within
their own areas of work, a whole-of-institution
approach is required to make a difference on a
larger scale - to raise online education from the
status of an ‘add-on’, to one that is truly ‘core-
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Student Success, 10(2) August 2019 | 11
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Feature articleauthor
Cathy Stone is an independent consultant and
researcher in the field of higher education student
equity, retention and success. She is a Conjoint
Associate Professor in Social Work at the University
of Newcastle, Australia and an Adjunct Fellow with
the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher
Education at Curtin University. Cathy has spent
much of her career developing and managing
student support and success strategies for both on-
campus and online students. Her research and
publications focus particularly on the experiences
of mature-age, first-in-family and online students.
... Teaching strategies associated with instructor presence include video lectures, personal assignment feedback, visual syllabus, and synchronous/asynchronous peer interactions (Martin, Wang, & Sadaf, 2018;Swaggerty & Brommel, 2017;Stone, 2019). ...
... Consistent with previous research, this study found that students felt that group work and video discussions made them feel more connected to their peers, while individualized written assignment feedback and video lectures made them feel more connected to their instructor (Martin, Wang, & Sadaf, 2018;Swaggerty & Brommel, 2017;Stone, 2019). Novel findings include results of comparisons between three different teaching methods, as well as between Latinx and low-income students' connectedness with their peers and instructor. ...
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When students feel connected to the instructor, they are more likely to remain motivated, engaged, and persist toward completing an online course. Rarely have studies compared connectedness in three modalities: online only, blended, and face-to-face. This study compared perceptions of connectedness among students (N = 27) from an Hispanic Serving Institution with their instructor and peers in a research methods course. The sample of students took the same course in three different sections- each taught in a different modality by the same white instructor. Connectedness and students’ grades were lower for students who took the course fully online. However, student ratings of teachings were highest for those who took the online-only section. Latinx students reported less connectedness in the online-only section than others. The results inform decisions about teaching modalities during the pandemic and in the future; synchronous learning is critical to obtain equitable connectedness among Latinx students.
... For instance, in comparison to their metropolitan counterparts, people living in rural areas continue to experience a delay in technological availabilities, potentially prohibiting them from the chance to engage with tertiary education (Park, 2017;Robinson, 2012). As a consequence of such delays, people living in Australian rural areas also have a lack of opportunities to develop their digital literacies, are subsequently often unfamiliar with educational technologies, and cannot easily engage with online courses when they become available (Lankshear & Knobel, 2011;Stone, 2019b). Solutions to a lack of digital literacy were first offered by Purnell and Cuskelly (1996), who reviewed the experiences of people engaged with online courses while resident in the rural areas of Queensland. ...
... For administrators of such programs, a particular focus with regard to online courses is higher attrition rates compared to courses that are delivered on campus. In addition, regional universities that provide the majority of online courses for persons living in rural areas, report more withdrawal than metropolitan campuses (Muir et al., 2019;Stone, 2019b). Key factors in withdrawal or retention are the age and enrolment status of students. ...
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In this study, I present an account of the meanings of tertiary education and community experiences for twenty persons, each of whom lives in one of fourteen distinct Australian rural areas. To do so, I conduct an Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis of each contributor’s narrative account of their experiences recorded in interview transcripts. The findings from the analysis present an account of each person’s understandings of their experiences with tertiary education as well as their communities as part of their particular rural context. To contextualise the Australian rural areas featured in the study, I use a broad description that is supplemented by each contributor’s perspectives about the details of their particular rural context. As such, persons recruited to the study lived in Australian rural areas that are described collectively in the study as places located in Australian Local Government Areas that have between 200 and 30 000 inhabitants. Such places also have a population density of fewer than two people per square kilometre (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2011; Cameron-Jackson, 1995). While such rural areas may share some similar characteristics, each may be differentiated by its distinctive qualities (Gorman-Murray et al., 2008; Holt, 2009; Marsden, 2006). Despite each Australian rural area having distinctive features, tertiary education is delivered to such places and their people as a whole (cf.Halsey, 2018; Napthine, 2019). Further, previous research outlines that for persons who live in Australian rural areas their experiences of tertiary education and communities are intertwined. For example, a study conducted by Redpath (2004) details connections between graduate women’s experiences of their tertiary education and their communities. The present study builds on previous research by detailing linked as well as distinct experiences of tertiary education and communities for a small number of students and graduates as tertiary-educated persons who live in Australian rural areas. Previous reports about outcomes for people who live in Australian rural areas often document poor educational attainment, with many adults only reaching a basic level of education (Johnson et al., 2009). Such attainment occurs in the face of research by both Dymock (2007) and Lear (2011, 2013) who argue that many people living in Australian rural areas are both appreciative and enthusiastic about the prospect of continuing their formal education. Early research by Sher and Sher (1994) explains that poor educational attainment persists in rural areas because there are missing opportunities for their peoples to continue their education. Since Sher and Sher's (1994) seminal research, infrastructure developments in many Australian rural areas have advanced, supporting access to tertiary education through the online delivery of courses (Maltzan, 2006). Other initiatives intended to bolster rural educational outcomes include government funding to assist relocation to campus, and the recent establishment of regional university centres (Halsey, 2018; Napthine, 2019). The recent establishment of such centres means that their influence on educational outcomes will be understood in the future. Preceding initiatives, however, such as funding relocation and developing local infrastructure; have achieved only modest success, with people originating from rural areas who engage with tertiary education recording lower participation and completion rates than their metropolitan counterparts (Australian Department of Education and Training, 2017a; Stone & O'Shea, 2019). Persistent discrepancies in educational outcomes make the present study both urgent and important for people living in Australian rural areas. Each person that I recruited to the study formally consented to participate in a recorded semi-structured interview and approved their transcripts for analysis to inform the research. During their interviews, each contributor described the aspects of either a vocational education and training or university course that were valuable to them as well as the ways that they attained their credentials. Contributors spoke of the support and resources at their disposal throughout their course and their attempts to navigate constraints in order to achieve course completion. Each contributor also shared their experiences of communities as either a student or tertiary-educated person, including their interactions with people who lived nearby as well as their other roles in far-reaching communities. The account I present in the findings offers an understanding of the meanings of each contributor’s experiences with tertiary education and their communities in their particular rural context. Such presentation centres on a discussion of verbatim extracts from each contributor’s transcript that are particularly compelling instances to illustrate experiences of tertiary education and communities that were significant for each of them. The meanings of each contributor’s experiences I discuss in twenty-seven subthemes that are collated into five experiential themes that include, improving self through engaging with tertiary education, social support for commencing and continuing a course, shedding constraints to achieve course completion, alternate spaces for community engagement, and performing educated roles as a local resident. The findings contribute to knowledge about tertiary education and communities through the voices of persons living in Australian rural areas. My peer-reviewed dissemination of a selection of preliminary research findings has begun to influence both tertiary education and community research and practices (cf. Marchant, 2013b). The present study also opportunely generates lines of inquiry, that if pursued may improve practice and outcomes in regional university centres (Australian Department of Education and Training, 2019; Birmingham, 2017). In addition to providing a platform for future research, the study also provides a resource for scholars and policymakers and may inform people as learners, community members, education practitioners, and administrators.
... In recent years we might argue that 'external mode' has become a proxy for online study in this instance, and when combined with those studying in a mixed mode, there were almost half a million students engaged in some form of tertiary online learning in Australia in 2019 (Department of Education, Skills and Employment, 2020). Online courses provide a number of benefits to students including increased flexibility for those working and balancing family life, access for those living outside metropolitan areas, and those who cannot commute to a campus (Stone, 2017(Stone, , 2019Stone & O'Shea, 2019). Recent research in Australia shows that online courses have a higher proportion of mature-aged students, those from a low socio-economic background, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, students with a disability, those from regional or remote locations, and those first in their family to study at university (Stone, 2017(Stone, , 2019. ...
... Online courses provide a number of benefits to students including increased flexibility for those working and balancing family life, access for those living outside metropolitan areas, and those who cannot commute to a campus (Stone, 2017(Stone, , 2019Stone & O'Shea, 2019). Recent research in Australia shows that online courses have a higher proportion of mature-aged students, those from a low socio-economic background, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, students with a disability, those from regional or remote locations, and those first in their family to study at university (Stone, 2017(Stone, , 2019. Online courses have therefore been essential to increasing access to high-quality tertiary education in Australia. ...
The future of education is tied to the future of online learning. Yet, despite constantly increasing demand for online education, online settings still lag in terms of student satisfaction or feelings of connectedness. Face-to-face learning in universities tends to be conducted with a focus on the agency of the instructor with the goal of getting through content. In online settings the efficacy of this instructor agency may diminish given how virtual online spaces are constructed. Attempts to focus on the instructor online may be fraught with low engagement or passivity from students. In this chapter, we envision a more fluid, flipped approach to teaching and learning designed for online environments, with a stronger emphasis on student participation and agency and the co-creation of knowledge. Flipped learning as a pedagogical approach has grown in university settings in recent years, and may be apt for engagement in online, synchronous learning environments. We discuss what a flipped online learning environment might look like, sharing a practice example, and use social constructivism and a dialogic approach to education to theorise the use of a flipped approach in university learning.
... Universities are increasingly attracting candidates from varied cultural and linguistic backgrounds, age ranges and socioeconomic backgrounds, inclusive of students with disability (Burgstahler, 2015;McCall et al., 2020). In response to the needs of non-traditional students or diverse learners, universities globally have increased their online course offerings, transforming the face of higher education (Stone, 2019). Despite the continued evolution of post-secondary education from traditional paper-based teaching methodologies to the use of flexible digital technologies, high online learning student attrition rates persist (Coussement et al., 2020). ...
... The students highly valued the ability to self-pace. As previously discussed, the demographics of 21 st Century online higher education students has shifted significantly (Stone, 2019). At this university, a large proportion of the student cohort balances work, family, and study, including part-time enrolment. ...
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Inclusive education in Australia has resulted in a concerted push for the differentiation of pedagogical teaching approaches by educators across Kindergarten to Year 12 (K-12) learning environments. Such approaches have been shown to meet a diverse range of learner needs found in today's classrooms. While progress is evident at the primary and secondary levels of education, implementing effective inclusive practices in higher education appears stagnant. Utilising the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) in a fully online pre-service teacher training unit, multiple means of representation of the learning content and multiple means of engagement were explicitly incorporated into the online unit design. This approach aimed to proactively support the engagement of all students in an online teaching and learning environment. This study provides preliminary evidence that the application of UDL principles resulted in higher levels of student engagement and lower rates of student attrition. Keywords: Higher education; instructional design; pre-service teachers; professional development; universal design for learning.
... The challenges for HE students who study online, remotely from their university, are well documented and include feelings of isolation, lack of dedicated study times and spaces, problems communicating with teachers and other students, poor course design, and technology issues (Devlin & McKay, 2016;McKay et al., 2021;Moore & Greenland, 2017;Ragusa & Crampton, 2018;Stone, 2019). Across regional Australia, home internet connection is a particular concern with many regional areas experiencing poor and unreliable internet provision (Attree, 2021;Stone & Davis, 2020). ...
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For regional students, going to university frequently involves moving away from important home, family and community connections to forge new connections in unfamiliar environments. This is a daunting prospect discouraging many from considering university as an option. But what if university could come to them, allowing them to stay where they feel most connected, whilst also becoming connected with other students and developing a sense of inclusion within university culture? Recent research with high school students in regional South Australia indicates that the combination of online delivery (increasingly mainstreamed due to COVID-19) and the growing presence of Regional University Centres (RUCs) may provide the opportunity for this to happen. This paper discusses these findings within the context of the challenges for regional students in moving away from their connections. It argues that, instead, important learning connections may be offered within their local communities through the collaboration between universities and RUCs.
... If universities are to retain students in a pandemic era, we must raise our digital learning standards to meet student expectationsof being engaging, interactive, fit-for-purpose, constructively aligned, accessible and visually appealing (Rapanta et al., 2021). While this is a challenge, we see it as an opportunity to reflect on how online learning experiences could be as engaging and interactive as inperson experiences (Stone, 2019). ...
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The rapid shift to online and blended modes during the COVID-19 pandemic era resulted in the adoption of digital tools and the development of online resources at an unprecedented scale. However, limitations in time, resources, and learning design or online education experience meant that resources developed were not always fit for purpose or constructively aligned. After designing online modules with teaching staff and students over the past several years, we identified a gap in the knowledge of pedagogical and design principles as they apply to e-learning. This workshop will bridge this gap by providing a step-by-step guide for developing effective e-learning courses. We will explore key considerations and practical strategies and share best practice examples from our own projects. Participants will practice these skills in hands-on activities while storyboarding and designing their own e-learning resource. The workshop is aimed at tertiary educators and developers new to e-learning and those with some experience who wish to upskill in this area.
... Bae et al. (2015) stated that the universal acceptance and inevitability of incorporating a form of education that relies heavily on online delivery methods into curricula and that current and novel forms of delivery must be continuously evaluated and adapted to suit the needs of a particular community of learners. Stone (2019) suggested that creative ways of content delivery must be used for online classes to engage students in their learning in ways that are not possible with face-to-face learning. On the contrary, Bennani et al. (2012) argued that traditional methods of student assessment must be scrapped in favour of alternative methods that provide a more comprehensive overview of a student's performance in a course. ...
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This study determines the critical success factors for students and academic staff when applying and evaluating online delivery methods in colleges and universities in Kuwait. The recently implemented eLearning systems and methods in the country, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, are evaluated and the perception of the eLearning system is gauged. Targeted surveys are distributed to a representative sample of undergraduate engineering students and academic staff. The following critical success factors are considered: benefits of the eLearning system, educational system quality, information quality, instructor quality, learner quality, service quality and technical system quality. Results show that there is a correlation between the perceptions of students and academic staff, particularly regarding instructor quality, information quality and benefits of the eLearning system. Both groups of respondents agreed on the high importance of instructor quality and the low importance of benefits.
... Beberapa pendidik khususnya usia tua sering mengalami kesulitan dalam beradaptasi dengan arus perkembangan teknologi informasi. Maka dari itu, para peneliti dalam laporan penelitiannya menyarankan bagi setiap dosen untuk melakukan persiapan yang matang seperti pelatihan teknis pembelajaran daring agar proses pembelajaran dapat berjalan dengan efektif (Stone, 2019;Tala Michelle Karkar-Esperat, 2018). Kehadiran teknologi dalam proses pembelajaran sejatinya menghadirkan kegiatan pembelajaran yang efektif dan efisien (Haniah, 2014;Ilmiani, Ahmadi, Rahman, & Rahmah, 2020) Fenomena ini juga terjadi di salah satu Perguruan Tinggi yang terletak di Provinsi Kalimantan Tengah. ...
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The current covid-19 pandemic phenomenon has a major impact on the learning process at various universities in Indonesia. The adoption of the online lecture system caused by the pandemic has become a problem for some lecturers who are still unfamiliar with technological development. This situation is also experienced by a lecturer who teaches the Speaking Skill Course at a Higher Education in Central Kalimantan Province as a consequence of lacking motivation for the students to attend Speaking Course. To overcome this demotivation, the Arabic Students’ Association at the tertiary education institution organizes Speaking learning using the ”Peer Teaching Method. Therefore, this study aims to explore the speaking skill learning process. This study uses a qualitative approach with a case study type and uses two data collection techniques, namely observation and interviews. This study produced two findings. First, there were several steps used by the organizational coordinator in implementing Speaking Skill learning using the peer teaching method, namely (1) selecting prospective tutors based on their scientific capacity and experience in the field of Arabic language learning, (2) Active learning process speaking skill organized by tutors using various interactive games such as nurakkizu, word chain, and ice breaking. Second, there are several motivational factors for students in participating in speaking skill learning using the peer teaching method, namely (1) The convenience of interaction between tutors and students is caused by the age distance that is not too far, (2) Peer tutor creativity in organizing innovative Speaking Skill learning, and (3) flexibility in communication time between tutors and students.
This study aimed to describe students’ interests in the application of Google Classroom (GC) in learning English. The subjects of this study were ten students of the Religious Department who learn English subject. The instruments of data collection were questionnaires and interviews. The data were analyzed by using the theory of Miles and Huberman. The results showed that students’ interest in learning by using online through Google classroom has four aspects include: (1) The students felt happy in learning English using Google Classroom was 60 %; (2) The students had a strong interest in using Google classroom in learning English was 50%; (3) The students gave strong attention in the process of using Google classroom was 40%; and (4) The students actively involved in using google classroom was 50%.
The current research studied the gaps in student support services at regional level in Pakistan. It was a mixed-methods case study research where explanatory sequential paradigm was used. The study was delimited to regional network of Allama Iqbal Open University Islamabad, in Sindh province. The sample of study comprised of 280 B.Ed. students and a focused group consisting of 14 students. The quantitative data was collected through self-developed five point Likert type questionnaire and qualitative data through semi-structured interview schedule. The descriptive and inferential statistics were used, findings were categorized according to themes, conclusions drawn and recommendations made. The finding of the study includes: poor academic and general facilities at study centers and regional centers. Lack of DE thought at regional centers, poor information system, useless communication through media, traditional and non-professional approach of ROs. The study recommends establishment of model study centers at tehsil level, use of ROs as model study centers and academic hubs, provision of physical facilities at study centers, arrangement of orientation programs, decentralization of books on regional level, attending DLs Add Contributorqueries through media, strong and meaningful two-way communication and appointment of DE qualified staff.
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The university student population in Australia contains increasing numbers of older students returning to learning after a significant gap in their educational journey. Many are choosing to enrol online to combine their studies with other time-consuming responsibilities. This article examines the nature of this online student experience with a focus on those aged 25 and over who are the first in their families to embark on university studies. Drawing on interviews conducted with both staff and students operating in this virtual space, as well as other related research and literature, this article offers recommendations to higher education institutions and educators on ways to improve retention and ongoing participation of this cohort.
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p>This paper presents findings from a study of Australian and New Zealand academics (n = 276) that teach tertiary education students. The study aimed to explore participants’ early experiences of learning analytics in a higher education milieu in which data analytics is gaining increasing prominence. Broadly speaking participants were asked about: (1) Their teaching context, (2) Their current student retention activities, (3) Their involvement in, and aspirations for, learning analytics use, (4) Their relationship with their institution around learning analytics. The sampled teaching staff broadly indicated a high level of interest but limited level of substantive involvement in learning analytics projects and capacity building activities. Overall, the intention is to present a critical set of voices that assist in identifying and understanding key issues and draw connections to the broader work being done in the field.</p
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p>Distance learning technologies offer a multitude of ways to build interaction into online courses to support learning. Based on social constructivism theory, this study explored which types of interaction are most predictive of students’ sense of community in online graduate courses at a regional comprehensive university. Surveys were used to measure sense of community and the frequency and importance of nine learner–learner interactions. Interactions that were most predictive of sense of community were introductions, collaborative group projects, sharing personal experiences, entire class discussions, and exchanging resources. The interaction that offered the highest payoff to instructors was exchanging resources. The article discusses implications for online course design.</p
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With growth in online education, students gain tertiary qualifications through a mode more suited to their demographics such as work and life balance, learning styles and geographical accessibility. Inevitably this has led to a growth in diversity within student cohorts.The case study described in this paper illustrates strategies based on informed learning design for educating diverse student cohorts in an online program offered by Swinburne University of Technology. The case, an open-access, undergraduate information systems program, attracts mature age students studying while balancing employment and family commitments. The program’s open-access facet is the ‘no entry requirements’ such as prerequisite studies. Hence, many students enter the program via non-traditional pathways bringing significant differences in experience and consequent skill bases. The program’s innovative pedagogy encourages students to engage via active learning with tailored assessments, interactive communication via discussion boards and facilitated real-time sessions and formative feedback which include audio components.
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This article outlines a collaborative study between higher education institutions in Australia, which qualitatively explored the online learning experience for undergraduate and postgraduate students. The project adopted a narrative inquiry approach and encouraged students to story their experiences of this virtual environment, providing a snapshot of how learning is experienced by those undertaking online studies. The study explores what impacted upon students’ engagement in this environment and how different facets of their learning experience made a qualitative difference to how individuals enacted engagement. Drawing upon Sharon Pittaway’s engagement framework, the article seeks to foreground student voice as the learners define their engagement in learning, the strategies they employed to assist this process and how engagement was enacted at an individual level. The students’ reflections presented in this article can be used to inform teaching and learning strategies designed to improve engagement in the online environment within the higher education sector.
Online learning increasingly embodies distance education as a flexible delivery mode in higher education in Australia and beyond. Attractive to adult learners, among others, its market advantages are well-documented, as are its challenges which vary by degree and technological delivery style. Nevertheless, for geographical reasons, notably rurality/remoteness, and caring responsibilities, for many students, it remains the only option for career change/progression as online degrees are increasingly marketed and pursued for employment reasons. Despite increasing popularity, online study is characterised by high attrition rates. “Sense of connection” is one way to identify if students feel isolated or connected to others sharing/delivering their higher education experience – classmates and lecturers – while self-identifying as a university student generally or part of one’s course specifically may help further knowledge of the complex relationship self- and social-identity play in the process of achieving academic success. Quantitative and qualitative data generated from telephone interviews with 122 undergraduates enrolled in arts, paramedics, policing and science courses at a rural-regional Australian university are presented to reveal if and how identity and perceived sense-of-connection affected student experiences.
Conference Paper
Though concern about student attrition and failure is not a new phenomenon, higher education institutions (HEIs) have struggled to significantly reduce the revolving door syndrome. Open distance learning higher education is particularly susceptible to high student attrition. Despite a great deal of research into the student journey and factors impacting on likely success, we are not necessarily closer to understanding and being able to mitigate against student attrition. Learning analytics as emerging discipline and practice promises to help penetrate the fog… This case study describes work undertaken at the Open University in the UK to investigate how a learning analytics approach allows the University to provide timely and appropriate student support in a cost-effective manner. It includes a summary of the establishment of curriculum-based student support teams and a framework which defines more standardised student support informed by both student data and an enhanced knowledge of the curriculum. The primary aim of student support teams is to proactively support students through their study journey and to optimise their chances of reaching their declared study goals. Higher education institutions (HEIs) are making increasing use of learning analytics to support delivery of timely and relevant student support. The Open University in the UK, like other HEIs, knows a great deal about its students before they start to study and is able to track student behaviours once study has begun. Until recently, the university has not taken full advantage of the additional insight offered by such information. This paper describes the framework of support interventions established for all student support teams and describes the learning analytics approach used to support that framework.
Two hundred and twenty-six qualitative interviews with students studying at Australia’s largest online tertiary education organisation, Open Universities Australia (OUA), found that failure to complete assessments due to unexpected and unavoidable employment commitments was the standout reason for dropping out of its open access courses. The assessment policies of 10 Australian universities that teach the OUA tertiary programmes were then reviewed to evaluate the extent to which employment-related circumstances were considered to be grounds for granting concessions and extensions. Half of these institutions’ policies did not mention employment as an extenuating circumstance, others made only passing reference, and one specifically stated that work was not a valid reason for an assignment extension. In this regard, online students may not be receiving the flexible and accessible learning that online education is purported to provide. This situation highlights a broader issue, in that many online educators are using policies and protocols that are designed for traditional on-campus students without adequate adaptation for the online learner. Considerable scope therefore exists for improving online learner satisfaction and retention by more effectively accommodating online student characteristics and needs.
Online learning has an important place in widening access and participation in higher education for diverse student cohorts. One cohort taking up online study in increasing numbers is that of matureage, first-in-family students. First-in-family is defined as those who are the first in their immediate family, including parents, siblings, partners and children, to undertake university studies. This paper looks at the experience of 87 first-in-family students, for whom the opportunity to study open-entry, online undergraduate units through Open Universities Australia made it possible for them to embark on a university education. Using a qualitative methodology, in-depth interviews and surveys were conducted with these students as part of a wider study into first-in-family students (O’Shea, May & Stone, 2015). Findings include the important role that opportunity plays in providing the impetus for study, as well as the importance of support and encouragement from family, friends, colleagues and institutions in being able to continue the journey.