Online higher education

How Australian universities could stop inequality and save the planet in one easy move

To address the global inequalities in access to higher education, I propose an Australian-led network for global online learning. A collaboration of Australian universities would offer online education to low- to middle-income populations, at large scale and low cost, with long-term benefits for future enrolments and global soft power.

As an example of global inequalities, access to higher education in Africa is one quarter of the global average. The importance of improving the education standards of the population to Africa and other regions with poor access does not need to be stated.

Australian universities are over-reliant on overseas student fees. This was demonstrated by the Covid pandemic which led to at least a temporary reduction in student numbers, with possible long-term loss of overseas students. The dependence on China as a source of international students is also a risk, given variations in geopolitical priorities. Given these concerns, the current policy whereby universities cross subsidise other activities such as research from overseas student fees is risky and likely to be unsustainable. Using student fee income from low-income countries to support universities and the broader economy in high-income countries such as Australia is unstainable and of questionable ethics. 

The Australian Strategy for International Education 2021-2030 is completely focused on the economic benefits to Australia from bringing international students to Australia, with no mention of the potential to reduce global inequalities in access to higher education.

Looking to the future, global populations will change. By 2100, Nigeria will have a larger population than China. Half of the current African countries will have doubled in size by 2050

Offering education that is clearly focused on building capacity in low- to middle-income populations rather than on earning income for ourselves own would likely raise the profile of Australian higher education and have future benefits in attracting students. This would also have the potential for more general soft power impacts. The Australian Government does offer scholarships for international students, as do many individual universities, but these are highly competitive and do not include online courses. They constitute only a small proportion of the large number of more than 450,000 overseas students who come to Australia each year.

My recent open access book, The Distributed University for Sustainable Higher Education, makes the case for a pivot from face-to-face to online education. There are many opportunities that this would create, including for education to be offered to a global audience at scale. 

An important consideration about bringing international students to study in a high-income country is the resulting high carbon footprint. This arises from travel and higher consumption patterns. My colleagues and I recently showed that a small cohort of only 128 international students who studied online rather than travelling to the UK for a master’s programme saved nearly a million kg of CO2, even without counting the contribution from their exposure to the physical university with its large carbon footprint.

I propose a programme which would increase global access to education – a network for global online learning. The driver, rather than to generate income from overseas students, would be to increase access to education among those in low- to middle-income countries where access is currently low. Student fees would thus have to be lower than at present. This can be justified by taking a long-term view of potential benefits to universities and the host country as discussed above, the realisation that the costs would be marginal as universities could utilise courses already in existence initially, and the suggestion that each partner need only provide part of the programme. A small increase in the amount of money the Australian Government and individual universities currently spend on scholarships could support such a programme. 

At present, universities compete with each other for international students, due to the competitive business model under which they operate. The creation of a network for global online learning focused on international students would depend on universities having the courage to collaborate rather than complete, to realise the power of collaboration. 

Although research is a more common area for collaboration, there are a number of examples of universities collaborating to offer education,  The Biostatistics Collaboration of Australia is an excellent example – students can enrol in, and graduate from, any of five Universities and access a common online curriculum. This approach differs from Open Universities Australia whose main task appears just to help students find appropriate online courses at Australian universities. Universitas 21, a global partnership which includes four Australian universities, offers a global online (non-degree) programme co-produced by a number of universities with an external partner.

What would the network for online global learning look like?

  • Australian universities would collaborate with each other as the key drivers of the network. 
  • Ideally other universities in the Global North and South and other ‘industry’ partners such as Non Governmental Organisations, and relevant governments and ministries would join the network.
  • Degrees would be offered by each University or created by a combination of courses from different network partners.
  • Students, as individuals or groups from industry partners, would enrol in award streams through a university of their choice even if the programme is made up from courses from a number of providers. 
  • Start with just one or two subject areas of relevance to those in the Global South, as proof of concept, and if successful build to scale. 
  • Develop an infrastructure to include IT support and a light touch quality assurance process.

A great deal more work is required to explore the potential for the idea of a network for online global learning. I call on interested parties to come together to think about this. Maybe Open Universities Australia or Universitas 21 would take on this challenge and lead the kind of collaborative network I have been describing?

Richard Heller is Emeritus Professor at the Universities of Newcastle, Australia and Manchester, UK. He has been involved in educational programmes to build pubic health capacity in low- to middle-income population throughout his career. In Newcastle this was through the International Clinical Epidemiology Network. As Professor of Public Health in Manchester he set up the University’s first online master’s degree. On retirement he founded and coordinated the fully online volunteer led Peoples-uni educational charity, offering master’s and continuing professional development awards. His recent open access book is The Distributed University for Sustainable Higher Education.

Five Ways to Rethink Online and Blended Learning Post-COVID

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Australian universities rapidly shifted to online models of learning and teaching. Some argue that this shift was long overdue. But even before the pandemic, online learning was rapidly growing in popularity in Australian tertiary education institutions. Recent data collected by the Australian Department of Education and Training show that the number of students enrolling in online and blended offerings in the higher education sector is rising faster than the number of students studying on campus. But should online and blended learning stay post-COVID? The answer is clear: YES! 

Online and blended education allows universities to expand course offerings to an increasingly wider number of students. Online education offers increasing opportunities to students from historically marginalised groups who may have previously been excluded from higher education, including students from regional and rural parts of Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, and students from lower socio-economic backgrounds, students with disability, and students who are the first in their family to study at university.

Online education is more accessible to students who work part- of full-time while studying, or for students who have substantial family or carer responsibilities. Research including the student voice has identified several reasons why they are choosing to study online. Students have said they prefer online and blended learning because it offers increased flexibility (such as the ability to choose when and where to study), the ability to fit study around lifestyle commitments (such as family and work), and reduces barriers associated with fixed timetables, transportation, and the physical on-campus environment. 

Australian students who were not able to access higher education before due to geographic location, disability, work, or family commitments report that online education now offers them their first opportunity to participate

For these reasons, online and blended learning should feature prominently in Australian higher education institutions, and university educators and researchers should be encouraged and supported to explore new ways to deliver high quality teaching in primarily asynchronous online environments. 

But online learning presents new challenges. Media reports during the COVID-19 pandemic have suggested that online learning might not be meeting the needs of all students:

  1. Uni students with disabilities say remote learning must improve
  2. ‘COVID is being used as an excuse’: Sydney’s uni students are losing patience with online learning
  3. Faculties need policies for quality assurance of online learning
  4. College students ask: What’s up with my ‘ghost professor?’

These reports are corroborated by research findings. Several studies have included the student voice to identify challenges associated with participation in online education. Here are five challenges that students might experience when participating in online or blended learning, and potential and practical solutions. The proposed solutions may help university educators to rethink the design and delivery of online learning post-COVID, to ensure that it meets the needs of diverse learners: 

Students have reported that they have difficulty navigating the online learning environment, or they don’t know what they are supposed to be doing each week.Create a ‘Welcome to the Unit’ video, and make it the first activity that students see and complete when they log in to the learning management system (LMS; e.g., Moodle or Blackboard). In the video, you can welcome the students to the unit, and provide a video tour of the online site. On your video tour, show the students where they can find the assessment information, the unit calendar and due dates, weekly learning materials, and any other important content. 
Second, keep the navigation of your LMS simple and intuitive. Use clear section headers to organise weekly content or topics. 
Third, provide students with a printable checklist with a list of activities they should be working on each week, and key due dates.
Students have reported that they need help learning to use course technologies and cannot find information about where to access institutional support, such as tech support or enrolment supportIn a clearly marked section on your LMS, provide links to:Disability support servicesTechnology support servicesStudent advisor servicesAny academic supports available to studentsThe online library 
In your first synchronous class with the students, review the different supports and services that the university provides, and show students where to access the links. 
You might also consider including this information in a Frequently Asked Questions document for students, which you can post as an announcement during the first week of the semester. 
Students have reported that the course content lacks purpose or is not pitched at the right levelCreate clear and measurable course-level and topic-level learning objectives. Your course-level learning objectives should appear at the very top of the LMS, and should tell the students what they will be able to say and do at the end of the semester. The assessment tasks should be designed to allow students to demonstrate the course-learning objectives. 
The topic-level learning objectives should be more specific and aligned to the weekly content. For example, when providing weekly topic-level readings or activities for the students to complete, state the learning objective name or number that the activity is aligned to in brackets next to the activity. Really strengthen the alignment between activities and learning objectives!
Provide multiple ways for students to learn and engage with the content. For example, when teaching a specific concept (or topic), you might provide a textbook chapter, a brief video lecture, a link to a blog post or website, and an interactive activity. This provides students with different ways to engage with material, that vary in complexity and form. 
Students have reported that online education does not provide them with opportunities to build personal relationships with lecturersFirst, set up an online ‘Introduce Yourself’ forum and ask students to introduce themselves and answer a fun question (for example, if you could travel anywhere in the world right now, where would you go and why?). Personally respond and welcome each student when they post an introduction.
Supplement the asynchronous (or self-paced) online study activities with some synchronous real-time activities, such as discussion groups, tutorials, or drop in sessions. 
Use discussion forums, wikis, google forms, or other tools to create collaboratively learning activities for students. To maximise student engagement, provide very clear instructions about the task and the expected contribution of each student. Make the activity relevant by linking it to one component of the assessment task. Be present in the forum or in the collaborative learning space by providing encouragement, praise, and scaffolding (all sorts of feedback!) in response to student contributions. 
Students have reported that course technologies and content are inaccessibleProvide an accessibility statement for any course technologies you use. An accessibility statement provides users with information about how the technology or software meets basic guidelines for accessibility. If the technology does not have an accessibility statement, look for different technology. 
Include alternative text for any images that you post on your LMS.
Ensure videos include a captioning option or a transcript. 
Do not use coloured text to convey meaning. 
Always upload word documents and PDFs that are accessible and searchable. Never upload scanned documents, which are not accessible or searchable. 

It is important to note that university educators have also expressed concern about online education. University staff have reported feeling like they lack institutional support to design high quality online learning experiences. Staff have reported that they do not have enough time or resources to design engaging online content, and others reported that the sector lacks quality standards for online education. Staff have raised concerns about the degree to which online education is designed with accessibility and inclusion in mind, with some feeling that the accessibility of online learning environments was an afterthought, rather than a priority. 

As we move into a post-COVID era and look to the future, university administrators must also ensure that educators have the time, resources, and support to design high quality online and blended learning experiences for students. Online education is not simply a cheaper and easier option for universities. Online education can make higher education more accessible, equitable, and inclusive, but it must be done well. 

To learn more about designing accessible and inclusive online learning experiences, please check out our new free e-learning course for tertiary educators and learning designers.

Dr Erin Leif is a Board Certified Behaviour Analyst (BCBA) and Senior Lecturer in School of Educational Psychology & Counselling, the Faculty of Education,
Monash University.
Her research interests include Educating for Diversity and Inclusion and Enhancing Health and Wellbeing

Students say uni online learning is mostly ‘busy work’. Here’s what will really engage them

To combat high failure and student drop-out rates, universities have developed strategies to monitor online student engagement through measurable activities. We explored if and how these monitoring activities accurately measure online engagement.

Perhaps our most surprising finding was that the teacher-education students in our study did not see their set online tasks as being valuable to their learning. The students complained about being given ‘busy work’ – tasks given to them that appeared to be aimed at just keeping them busy or monitoring simple engagement through a metrics-based tool.

The students reported a number of other activities that did prompt their engagement in learning, but many of these would not be picked up by the usual ways of measuring engagement.

We believe our study and its findings would be particularly useful to teachers at the moment, in any sector, who are creating online learning activities for their students.

Our study

Our research study involved interviewing nine online third-year students (8 female, 1 male) from a four-year teacher-education degree at a regional university in Australia. Each student had been reported as being ‘highly engaged’ by their course coordinator. With their consent, they participated in fortnightly interviews throughout a 13-week semester. The aim was to find out more about what engagement meant for them, how they enacted engagement in the online space, both visibly and invisibly, and the factors that influenced their degree of engagement at different points in time. Interviews were held in the week prior to the start of semester, fortnightly during the semester and within two to three weeks of the semester’s end – eight interviews with each student in all. 

We described a ‘highly engaged’ student as someone who consistently and reliably participated in discussion boards or other learning activities, collaborated with other online students, and engaged with the lectures/readings. Reflecting the typical online student profile in general, all were mature-age students, in paid employment family/caring responsibilities.

Simplistic measures perceived by students as not useful to learning

From analysis of the interview data, we found that most students were critical of practices that were clearly designed to measure engagement in simplistic ways. These included

  • being required to make a specific number of posts a week
  • give feedback to a certain number of other students
  • do ungraded online activities such as quizzes that did not add to learning.

While these conscientious participants diligently met these requirements, seven of the nine reported that such mandated posts and activities did not encourage true engagement and deep learning. They were described as being ‘a means to an end’, and ‘busy work’ designed simply to ‘try to make you fill the expected ten hours of study per week.’ The mandating of posts to prompt engagement was described as ‘ridiculous’ and as taking ‘a huge amount of time’, which they believed could have been spent differently to promote deeper learning.

Students experienced profound disappointment and an even greater sense of having wasted their time when their diligently crafted, mandatory posts, received no commentary or replies from either teacher or other students. In addition, such mandatory posting tended to make the online learning platform clogged and overwhelmed with discussion threads that lacked coherence and structure.

Activities reported as being valuable to learning

There were a number of other ways these students reported as engaging them in their studies, which unfortunately, would not be captured by standard systems of measuring online engagement. These included

  • engaging in learning with their peers on platforms other than that offered by the university, such as Facebook, Messenger or other social media platforms where they could meet other students and study
  • following suggestions by lecturers or other students to do additional, relevant activities such as listen to TED talks, watch a YouTube video, or check out a curriculum resource
  • learning activities that prompted their creativity and ultimately contributed to their final assessment task
  • lecturers who used a diversity of approaches to learning in the online space  
  • well-designed, engaging assessment tasks

This study has unearthed some of the complexities that emerge when online engagement is measured in mechanistic ways. It also unveils alternative measures of engagement that might be more meaningful for promoting student learning. As such, this research contributes to a broader conversation about measuring engagement in the online space and can frame the direction for future research, practices, and policy on these matters.

Perhaps there is another way of understanding student engagement, that is not tied up with metrics and monitoring. Engagement for online university students happens in many ways, both visible and more hidden. What if we changed our way of thinking about what engagement is? What if we listened to what students have to say about their own engagement?

We invite educators to move away from having fixed ideas about where and how and when online students should be engaging, and offer a critique of the superficial, descriptive, tick-the-box exercises that are usually designed to monitor engagement by computer rather than through human interaction. We hope educators will take this opportunity, where so many of us are moving to online teaching, to explore other ways of understanding student engagement in the online space.

For those who want more Beyond busy work: rethinking the measurement of online student engagement

Cathy Stone, DSW (Research), is a Conjoint Associate Professor in Social Work at the University of Newcastle. Cathy  is an Adjunct Fellow with the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education, where she undertook research into improving outcomes in online learning as an inaugural 2016 Equity Fellow. Cathy is currently an Independent Consultant and Researcher on the support, engagement and success of diverse student cohorts in higher education. She can be contacted for any questions or further discussion at Cathy is on Twitter @copacathy

Naomi Milthorpe is Senior Lecturer in English in the School of Humanities at the University of Tasmania. Her research interests centre on modernist, interwar and mid-century British literary culture. Naomi is the author of Evelyn Waugh’s Satire: Texts and Contexts (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2016) and the editor of The Poetics and Politics of Gardening in Hard Times (Lexington, 2019). Naomi is on Twitter  @drmilthorpe

Dr. Janet Dyment is the Director of the School of Education at Acadia University in Nova Scotia, Canada.  Prior to her move to Acadia, she spent 20 years at the University of Tasmania in the Faculty of Education.  Janet’s research interests include online teacher education, student engagement, environmental education and education for sustainability.  With the recent COVID pandemic, Janet is leading her new teacher education team to reimagine on-campus offerings as remote delivery options and encouraging her staff to ensure student engagement remains high in these new modes of deliveries.