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Opportunity through online learning: improving student access, participation and success in online higher education

Written by Dr Cathy Stone, 2016 NCSEHE Equity Fellow, The University of Newcastle Australia

Online learning has a critical place in widening access and participation and facilitating success in higher education for a diverse range of students, many of whom are from backgrounds which have been historically under-represented at university. Increasing numbers of Australian students are taking up the opportunity to study online, particularly through open-entry pathways. However, within the open-entry, online space, attrition rates are very high, particularly amongst those from backgrounds where university study has not been the norm in their families and communities, such as first-in-family students, students from low socio-economic backgrounds, students from rural and remote regions of Australia and Indigenous students.

Over the course of my Equity Fellowship, I will be interviewing academic and professional staff involved in the development, coordination and/or delivery of:

  • undergraduate online programs; and/or
  • support, success and retention strategies for online undergraduate students.

I am approaching the following institutions:

  • Australian Universities offering online undergraduate programs to domestic students;
  • Open Universities Australia (OUA); and
  • The Open University UK.

I will be interviewing these staff members about their roles and the ways in which they and others contribute to the retention and success of online undergraduate students, exploring particular examples of successful strategies and how these have been measured and assessed as successful.

The information gleaned from these interviews and from national and international research into student success in online learning, will be used to develop the following:

  1. A comprehensive and detailed report on the findings of the project.
  2. A set of recommended national guidelines, informed by research evidence, for improving the access, academic success and retention of students in online education.
  3. Other dissemination activities including a national forum to deliver findings, scholarly journal articles and conference papers.

My hope is that the evidence-based guidelines I develop for improving the retention and success of online undergraduate students will be adopted within Australian institutions, significantly improving outcomes for the many students from non-traditional and often disadvantaged backgrounds who enter online education with the hope and intention of gaining a degree.

Already this year, I have visited the UK to meet with staff at the University of London and The Open University UK. A number of my interviews with university staff have occurred via Skype and the feedback I have received indicates that the interview schedule I have set for myself is appropriate and is already leading to full and detailed discussions of factors affecting online education participation and success.

I also recently attended and presented at the Universities Association for Lifelong Learning (UALL) Conference at the Centre for Continuing Education, University of Oxford. There were approximately 100 attendees from universities all around the UK including Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, in addition to a number of international delegates including those from India, Scandinavia, the United States and me from Australia. My presentation attracted roughly 30 delegates as a parallel session and was well received with questions and positive feedback.

The difference between Australia’s approach to accommodating the needs of diverse student cohorts, in terms of age, need for part-time study, flexibility etc, and that of the UK (particularly in England) is quite striking. It is the ‘norm’ in English universities for students to be full-time school leavers studying (and mostly living) on campus, with mature-age, part-time students being atypical and treated as a different category of student, in different ways.

I will be presenting again soon, at The Open University UK’s Widening Participation Conference in Milton Keynes on Wednesday 27 and Thursday 28 April, which I’m looking forward to attending.

In addition, I have been introduced to staff at JISC and Bath Spa University, whom I hope to meet with later this month, and made contact by email with seven Australian universities and Open Universities Australia, so that I can continue making progress on my Fellows project as soon as I am back in the country next month.

I look forward to sharing more information on my findings in due course.

Posted 26 April 2016 Posted in General, Indigenous, Low SES, Regional, rural and remote