Online higher education: how Charles Sturt University engages its students

By Barney Dalgarno

Reducing student attrition rates in higher education has come into sharper focus with the growth of online courses. Students using online or distance modes of study are considerably less likely to complete their courses than students who study on campus.

Therefore it is critical that we learn how to engage students online. Charles Sturt University’s (CSU) has a long and successful history of teaching via online and distance education. This blog post is about how we do it and what we think are the essential ingredients.

Online compared to on-campus completion rates

Recent research from the National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER) shows only about 10 per cent of VET FEE HELP students who study externally, and are not employed, are likely to complete their studies. This compares to a 43 per cent probability of course completion for students attending internally (or via a mix of modes), who are employed and who are undertaking a course at diploma level. In the Higher Education sector, figures collected by the Commonwealth Department of Education and Training show that for students who commenced in 2013 82% of on campus students were still enrolled in 2014, while only 65% of external students were still enrolled after the same period had elapsed.

The Charles Sturt University approach to online and distance earning

Proactive support

Student engagement can certainly be more difficult to achieve online than in person. A proactive approach is needed to ensure the needs of students studying away from the University’s physical campuses are met. For an on campus student the decision to withdraw instead of completing a course is often a last resort and can be influenced by location, real life friendships and easy access to support. To make it less easy for an online student to just walk away from a university course, genuine engagement should be driven through proactive support strategies and unique teaching methods that bring students together to form relationships.

Critical aspects of engagement online

Michael Moore in a seminal editorial in the American Journal of Distance Education in 1989 posited that there were three types of interaction important to a distance learner: learner-instructor, learner-content and learner-learner interaction. Although the methods and modalities used to facilitate these kinds of interaction are different in contemporary online learning, each continues to be an important part of the student learning experience. Additionally, for higher education providers focussed on preparing students for the professional workplace, learner-community interaction is important and for providers keen to support the student through their whole study experience, learner-institution interaction is also very important.

Putting together these five kinds of interaction and broadening the notion of interaction to engagement, leads to the following critical aspects of student engagement in online learning:

  • Learner-teacher engagement, which encompasses delivery of factual, conceptual and procedural information, facilitation of student learning activities, and feedback on student learning processes and learning products;
  • Learner-learner engagement, including participation in discussions about subject content, cooperative learning and peer-tutoring and collaboration in the context of authentic problem-based activities;
  • Learner-content engagement, which involves exploration of conceptual material through engagement with multimodal and interactive learning resources;
  • Learner-community-workplace engagement, which is particularly important in professional courses, where students need to be enculturated into a community of practice during their degree; and
  • Learner-institution engagement which encompasses access to administrative, academic and library support services, as well as engagement in extracurricular

Specific elements of teaching

CSU’s experience in distance and online education means the University has a real eye to the needs of the remote student and has developed an online learning model with exemplar strategies to promote the five categories of student engagement described above. These are fulfilled through seven specific elements, namely:

  • Interaction between students, which involves learning through designed cooperative and collaborative learning activities in the context of inquiry-based or problem-based learning designs including the co-creation of authentic learning products;
  • Small group support, encompassing learning support through online study groups created at the course and subject cohort level, supported synchronously and asynchronously by skilled facilitators;
  • Interactive resources, providing experiential engagement with content and ideas through interactive multimedia and immersive simulations within the context of learning designs incorporating authentic collaboration, critical inquiry or explicit teaching;
  • Teacher presence, utilising strategies which bolster the relationship between online teachers and students, emphasise the role of teachers as designers and curators of learning content and strengthen the students’ sense in which their learning is being facilitated by a caring and skilled content and online learning specialist;
  • Personalised support, through flexible degree pathways and inclusive pedagogies underpinned by adaptive learning, learning analytics and responsive customer relationship management systems;
  • Interaction with workplaces, encompassing situational learning which harnesses the affordances of online and mobile learning technologies to bridge the gap between diverse sites of learning and sites of professional practice; and
  • eAssessment, providing authentic online assessment aligned to professional and practice-based learning outcomes, incorporating a range of assessment strategies, contemporary computer-based exam options and remote exam invigilation.

Engage early

CSU’s approach to improving student retention is to drive engagement from early in the teaching schedule. For some courses residential schools, where students come on campus for a few days to use facilities and meet other students and teachers in person, are scheduled for the start of a teaching session. This creates a real connection between students and between staff and student which can then be continued through online and mobile channels throughout the course. In other courses this early engagement can be through orientation sessions in metropolitan centres, or online workshops designed to provide early engagement between students, their peers, teachers and the institution.

Online meetings

Instead of, or in addition to, this approach it is also possible to provide the opportunity for students to communicate with one another and with their teachers through synchronised online meetings. These offer opportunities for real time interaction and encourage use of online forums. Then for the students who aren’t able to attend these online meetings at exactly the same time as their fellow students, sessions are recorded, including the questions and interaction, so they can review in their own time and submit follow up questions to the classes.

Personalised support

Personalised support for students is also particularly important when it comes to fostering engagement and reducing attrition rates. At CSU student support services have been designed from the outset to accommodate online and remote students who are the norm, not the exception.

Part of this is supporting students studying remotely who are new to university study or who are returning to it after a long break, which means providing academic literacy and numeracy support. This could be helpful resources from the university library with how to look up journal articles and procedures for good referencing or even offering to read a student’s draft essay and provide feedback.

In-person outreach to remote students is also part of the CSU student support service. The University has an outreach group who travel to regional centres and metropolitan areas to meet face-to-face with students and provide them with the support they need as well as building engagement between the institution and the student.

Tracking learning behaviour

One of the things that CSU has learnt over many years of working with remote students is that while demographic factors about a student’s background – including geographic remoteness, socioeconomic status, indigeneity – do correlate to non-completion, the most important factor in predicting completion is actually student learning behaviour. This is what has led CSU to closely analyse patterns of student behaviour and identify those who may be at risk.

The types of behaviour that CSU teaching and support staff look for include not downloading course materials, no engagement with teaching staff and non-attendance at online meetings. The student support team then directly reaches out to these students and offers them available support, both academic and personal, as needed.

Meeting students’ expectations

 It is also interesting to note that student expectations of remote education are changing, particularly when it comes to learning resources. Rich media online resources for course materials and opportunities for regular interaction with peers and teachers using online and social technologies is the minimum expectation now. It is also now possible for students to better judge their institutions, with greater visibility of external indicators of success and quality, such as completion rates which means universities have to be on the ball.

Flexibility is another factor that rates very highly in student expectations. For online students maximum flexibility often means no requirement to attend on campus residential schools, flexibility with assignment due dates and how they are submitted, and no day time classes during working hours. Universities must cater for busy students whose schedules are rigid and allow them to learn anywhere anytime. But finding the balance between this flexibility and securing sufficient engagement to encourage students to complete their courses is a fine art. It’s essential to not only offer flexibility, but also offer many opportunities for real-time interaction with fellow students and teachers especially for first year undergraduate students and people who aren’t juggling their study with full time work.

Online education can help bridge the gaps

So, what do we know? We know what students want – quality content, delivered how and when they want it. We know what students need – support, interaction and engagement. It is up to universities that offer online education to now deliver in every sense of the word and ensure that their remote students really are an integral part of their institution, not just a nice to have.

Engagement online gets better as technology gets better and if universities can bridge the gaps of distance and time and provide everyone the opportunity to continue learning the possibilities are endless.


Professor Barney Dalgarno is Co-Director of the uImagine Digital Learning Innovation Laboratory at Charles Sturt University (CSU) and has done extensive research into teaching approaches and student learning experiences in online environments. . He is also a lead editor of the Australasian Journal of Educational Technology.


One thought on “Online higher education: how Charles Sturt University engages its students

  1. Great article Professor Barney!
    We are also in online education and have challenges (as most do) with completion rates of online students.

    What do you foresee, technology-wise, as real contributors to assisting students with completing their studies?

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