Engagement and targeted support critical for online students’ success
New research by National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education Equity Fellow Dr Cathy Stone from The University of Newcastle has informed comprehensive new guidelines for improving student outcomes in post-secondary online learning, with a focus on undergraduate retention and course completion.
Qualitative interviews with 151 higher education practitioners from Australia and the United Kingdom consistently illustrated the need for a strategic, tailored approach to online programs, with an emphasis on student engagement and an individualised approach to monitoring, support and outreach.
Online learning has a critical place in widening access and participation in education for a diverse range of students, many of whom are from backgrounds which have been historically underrepresented at university. Students from low socioeconomic backgrounds (low SES), students with disability, regional and remote students, Indigenous students, and students who are first in their families to enter university, are represented particularly strongly in online undergraduate programs. However, both retention and completion rates for online, distance students are considerably lower than amongst those enrolled as on-campus students. The research outlined in this report was made possible by an Equity Fellowship, offered for 2016 through the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education with funding from the Australian Government Department of Education and Training (DET). Through qualitative interviews with 151 members of academic and professional staff across 16 higher education institutions – 15 in Australia plus the Open University (OU) United Kingdom (UK) – it sought the combined wisdom of practitioners in online learning to inform the development of National Guidelines to Improve Student Outcomes in Online Learning. From analysis of the interview data and other related published research, seven key findings emerged.
1. A strategic whole-of-institution approach is required; one that recognises online education as ‘core business’. This approach needs to include an institution-wide understanding of the nature and diversity of the online student cohort as well as the development and implementation of quality standards for online education, which undergo continuous quality improvement.
2. Early intervention with students to connect, prepare and engage is essential; particularly in terms of providing realistic expectations and encouraging and facilitating academic preparation.
3. ‘Teacher-presence’ plays a vital role in building a sense of belonging to the learning community and in improving student retention; however the time-consuming nature of developing and maintaining a strong sense of ‘teacher-presence’ is not always recognised in existing workload models.
4. Content, curriculum and delivery need to be designed specifically for online learning; they need to be engaging, interactive, supportive and designed to strengthen interaction amongst students.
5. Regular and structured contact between the institution and the student is important in providing connection and direction along the student journey. This includes proactively reaching out to students at particular points along their journey, and is best achieved through the development of an institutional framework of interventions.
6. Learning analytics play an important role in informing appropriate and effective student interventions, including through predictive modelling and personalising the learning experience.
7. Collaboration across the institution is required to integrate and embed support; delivering it to students at point of need. When academic and professional staff cross traditional boundaries to work more closely together, a more holistic student experience can be delivered, including embedding support within curriculum.
These seven findings have informed the development of a set of 10 National Guidelines for Improving Student Outcomes in Online Learning. These are designed to inform institutions about ways to improve student outcomes primarily in undergraduate online education, where there tends to be a considerable diversity of the student cohort; this includes students from backgrounds historically underrepresented at university, as well as those with little prior experience of academic study and/or online study. However, the Guidelines are likely to be at least in part transferable to other online post-secondary education settings particularly where there is a similar diversity of student cohort.