Facilitated Distance Education Program
Attrition of distance students was a third of the attrition of the face-to-face cohort
CQUniversity has developed a number of learning and teaching programs in targeted schools/faculties where participation rates of students from low socio- economic status (LSES) backgrounds is high. These programs assist with the transition to university and provide scaffolded opportunities within the curriculum to improve online engagement, academic literacies, technological skills and access to tailored student support services. The aim of these projects is to improve participation and retention of undergraduate students from LSES backgrounds.
One example is the Facilitated Distance Education Program, supporting commencing students undertaking a fully distance program of study in the School of Education and the Arts.
The program is characterised by regular two-way communication between academics and students and active integration with support agencies. There is also a program of professional development for academic staff, ensuring a consistent approach to curriculum implementation, facilitation skills, support strategies and project objectives. This is achieved through regular synchronous online tutorials using the web conferencing tool, Blackboard Collaborate.
Attrition of distance students at CQUniversity is high. This is predominantly due to socio-economic and demographic factors that are well known as influences on regional university students. The aim of this program is to provide a model of distance education that is responsive to the needs of the diverse student cohort (situated in regional LSES communities) undertaking a fully online program in their first year of study.
The academic position of distance facilitator was fully HEPPP funded as a secondment in the School of Education and Arts. The Distance Facilitator’s duties included:
- checking student enrolment patterns, contacting all commencing students by telephone within the first two weeks of term if issues had been identified through a Student Readiness Questionnaire
- contacting commencing students by telephone within the first three weeks of term and establishing a support network
- a series of weekly emails providing staged, just-in-time information, advice and support for students
- a program of peer support through experienced senior student mentors
- development of technological and pedagogical skill in the online synchronous environment for all academics.
Other initiatives, including the design and facilitation of online courses, are ongoing.
Student retention in the target cohort was significantly higher than the university average for distance learners.
Formal data from students and academics identified the value of synchronous sessions in particular as being highly supportive of their learning in terms of:
- being supportive of diversity and flexibility needs
- developing a sense of belongingness, transition and engagement
- scaffolding of assessment – clarity and task expectations
- self-evaluation and monitoring by benchmarking their progress against that of others
- developing a sense of enjoyment, social and intellectual engagement in their courses.
Embedded assessment in small weekly tasks led to the early identification of students at risk, effective scaffolding of their learning and approach to assessment, higher grade averages on this assessment task, and excellent attendance of weekly synchronous tutorials.
The program has been successful in enhancing a model of teaching and learning that supports and engages with a diverse range of students who are new to tertiary learning and distance education. This model continues to be implemented in the school. Further research to enhance engagement of students in online learning through constructive alignment of embedded tasks with assessment is under examination.
This case study is one of a series of 39 presented in our case study publication, Access and Participation in Higher Education: Outreach – Access – Support.