online learning

Uni’s back: Five ways to build useful online learning

The pandemic hastened the transition to online delivery. While several studies have looked into strategies for developing higher-order thinking in students, the widespread and prevalent use of online learning is limited to lower-order strategies.

We wanted to promote what worked for both educators and students while creating sustainable online communities. We undertook a scoping study at the University of South Australia to look at ways of building meaningful online learning communities while helping students to develop higher-order thinking skills. After a process of review and refinement, we considered the findings of 121 studies from 2000 to 2022 to narrow down what matters. The overarching framework for our scoping review is the community of inquiry.

Online environments are enhancing access to education globally but simultaneously risk depersonalising student learning at a time when connectedness is most needed.  The opportunity created by the pandemic should be seized for prioritizing sustainable content delivery that influences critical thinking, equips graduates for jobs and fosters collaboration. This process can be challenging even for experienced educators.  Providing clear guidance to educators is key to the development of online learning communities that connect teachers and students and deal with the challenges ahead. 

Our research is a one-stop-shop for high-quality online teaching practices, for novices and experienced educators alike, in any discipline, any country, looking for something more (than mere online implementation) to engage, challenge and connect with their students. Educators can see the full paper here, which will direct them to a range of resources that they can utilize in their online teaching practice.  

After distilling the key concepts from the studies, we recommend five evidence-based strategies for building sustainable and meaningful online learning communities in higher education.  

1. Students should be taught how to learn effectively in the online mode

It is vital that students are taught how to study properly in an online environment. It is important to consider that they are not aware of the unique learning presented in an online course, especially while they commence in a new institution, program, or course. Strong foundations in early parts of study are important. Work examples and modeling expectations can set students up with skills for creating new knowledge.  

2. Educators must embed learning tasks that foster self-regulation and higher-order skills in students 

Educators should enable intentional learning and embed problem solving tasks that require self-regulation and higher order thinking. Educators should further be aware of strategies unique to online mode that can foster self-regulation in students. For example, not all the educators should necessarily actively contribute to the text-based discussion. Instead, having provided the initial trigger for a topic, educators can design the activity to be student-led. Collaborative teamwork, such as problem-solving activities are known to foster self-regulation. Student characteristics further influence their own self-regulation capabilities.

3. Course design should include authentic tasks for students to apply new knowledge to real-life scenarios

Along with overall course design, individual tasks such as discussion with peers must be designed to be purposeful and intentional to generate the desired learning outcomes. For example, questioning students on how they would apply what they learned from a task to their own profession could initiate an authentic critical thinking process.  Our research proposes several such strategies that can be useful for educators.

4. Educators must be offered ample professional development activities to build their skills in online pedagogy 

The challenges for educators who have been predominantly involved in face-to-face teaching and unfamiliar with online pedagogies are that it requires them to shift to a facilitator role and develop the skills to design and implement appropriate tasks that enable students to achieve outcomes. One of the key implications for teaching practice clearly includes supporting educators in adapting to online pedagogical approaches. Educators must be offered ample opportunities for professional development in online teaching strategies alongside institutional support for adapting and using emerging technology. There are several frameworks not included in our review, which can also be beneficial to educators.

5. Institutions should encourage translation of educational research to practice 

Institutional support through funding educational research may help to address the gap in translating research to practice to a certain extent. This funding can provide critical impetus to the educators involved. Additional institutional support that focuses on developing and sustaining an innovative pedagogical mindset to enhance teaching and learning practices in online delivery is also essential. 

Following these five evidenced based strategies will provide students and educators with the skills to successfully negotiate the online classroom.  

Sandhya Maranna is a senior lecturer at the University of South Australia and senior specialist sonographer with SA Health. She is currently pursuing a doctoral degree investigating cognitive transfer in online learning. Her innovations in online curriculum have led to high-quality impact on student learning. She was the recipient of the 2021 AAUT National teaching citation for outstanding contribution to student learning and the 2021 OLC award for innovation in online learning and teaching excellence

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

Why it’s a nightmare to use Zoom to get moving

Schools around Australia were forced into online delivery of physical education (PE) in Term 2, 2020, due to measures taken to suppress and restrict the spread of Covid-19. We looked at what really happened in classrooms. The results show us exactly how marginalised PE became.

What we found in our research, ‘Just do some physical activity’: Exploring experiences of teaching primary school physical education online during Covid-19, is that few guidelines were provided to teachers by education departments, and that teachers found out ‘what works’ by ‘trial and error’. Our study found PE teachers missed the face-to-face interaction with students, and that often new teaching skills needed to be cultivated to meet the challenge of online lesson delivery, whether by synchronous or asynchronous delivery.

Students in Tasmania where this research occurred were required to study online from home for approximately 10 weeks, with schools only being ‘open’ to families of essential workers who continued in the workforce while the rest of the population were under work from home requirements.

In Australia, physical education (PE) is an essential education provision that is central to the development of the skills, knowledge, and attitudes necessary for lifelong health and wellbeing. It is a part of the essential learning area called Health and Physical Education (HPE), which all Australian students within compulsory ages of schooling are required to take. While regular physical activity is recommended for students to meet the achievement standards of the Australian HPE Curriculum (AC:HPE), it is important to remember that the rationale and objectives of the AC:HPE clearly indicate that PE should have an educative focus and an inquiry emphasis.

Regular participation in school PE is an important foundation to ‘becoming’ physically educated and to the physical literacy that informs physical activity as an ongoing lifestyle choice. Research has also noted that participation in PE has numerous affective, social-emotional and cognitive benefits. Despite the holistic outcomes associated with PE, it is often not given the time and resources it requires to develop students into independent, self-regulated and self-motivated seekers of physical activity by the end of compulsory PE in Year 10. This is due to schools prioritising time to other learning areas deemed more ‘academic’ and therefore ‘important’ to the priorities of the school. It needs to be acknowledged, that often PE has not helped its own image as a worthwhile site of learning through provision of school curricula that provides little more than a series of physical activity experiences. This has been described as keeping students busy, happy, active, and good (well behaved).

The study

This study was undertaken by researchers from the University of Tasmania and Flinders University, Adelaide. The aim of this study was to investigate the effects on the educative intent of PE when primary school teachers were forced into an online delivery of the curriculum. It is important to know more about this phenomenon to inform future situations like that experienced by Covid-19 suppression measures as well as existing distance education by online delivery.

Data was obtained from eleven Tasmanian HPE specialist teachers who were forced to shift to online delivery of primary school PE during 2020. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with these teachers, who taught in co-educational primary schools across a variety of Tasmanian locations.

Key themes

Analysis of teachers’ experiences led to the emergence of three key themes:

1. PE did not happen, but, in most cases, was altered to physical activity/fitness or educatively marginalised to just being a movement break between other subjects with higher status and priority;

2. Online learning platforms are already used by schools, but not with consistency. Using them to teach PE can be a lot of additional work and teachers had varying levels of willingness to use these platforms;

3. Connection with students is an important part of teaching, teachers preferred to connect with their students face to face and had concerns about delivery of feedback and student engagement online.

PE did not happen

Declining rates of physical activity participation, increasingly sedentary behaviour of Australian children and reports on low attainment of fundamental movement skills (and the problem of this when they are possibly predictive in the choice to be physically active) were already an issue before Covid-19. A focus on educative purposes for the progressive development of movement competence and confidence is one of the five interrelated propositions that shaped the writing of the AC:HPE. Yet, the educative ‘E’ in PE largely did not occur, rather, PE had been marginalised and replaced with physical activity tasks and in some cases to participating in online fitness activities. Online fitness videos can be a great resource for young people wanting to increase their movement levels during isolation, to accumulate sufficient physical activity through the day for healthy growth and development. However, physical activity provision of itself is not PE and HPE teachers are not personal trainers. Despite indicating an awareness of the difference between PE and physical activity, teacher comments indicated that they were happy just if their students were outside and active every day during isolation.

While students being active outside should be encouraged, particularly in light of recent research noting physical activity decreases during Covid-19, this physical activity should be undertaken in addition to PE lessons, just as it is in a ‘normal’ school day where physical activity breaks and ‘active classrooms’ are encouraged.  The educative focus of PE plays an important role in children becoming ‘competent’ in being active and developing the skills and dispositions required for lifelong health and activity, and the self-efficacy required to continue to independently seek to be physically active. While substituting physical activity for PE long term is going to be highly detrimental to this aim, it is important to acknowledge that expectations on teachers during Covid-19 suppression measures were unprecedented in living memory. Teachers were given very little time or professional development to prepare online content and teach online, and many participants perceived online teaching to be a temporary move until suppression measures had eased and teaching returned to normal.

Online learning platforms

Most participants appeared to be confident users of technology, yet some were concerned about the amount of screen time students were experiencing while learning online. This concern might go some way to explaining why some teachers chose to prioritise movement accumulation by setting physical activity tasks that would require students to get off their laptops but doesn’t mitigate against the expectation of teachers of all subjects to continue to progress students towards attainment of the student achievement outcomes outlined in the curriculum.

Participants who did teach online noted an increased workload due to different platforms being used and the time required to provide feedback to students. As one participant noted; “I’m giving myself a lot of work because I’m uploading the video to the 15 classes I teach, so it goes out to over 300 children and I had over 100 children respond every day. So, I’ve been on my computer the whole time responding to the children and watching their videos”. Using videos is a sensible solution to the challenge of online PE delivery, but teachers do need to be aware of the time required to give feedback.


Perhaps a reason for the loss of educative intent was the loss of connection teachers felt with the students and becoming physical activity leaders was seen as providing an online connection. Participant comments indicated both a concern for students missing the social benefits of learning together and working within a team, and their personal feelings related to missing their students. The ‘learning with others’ and the intra and inter-personal social skills development possibilities that come from PE teachers who deliberately plan for personal and social skills learning in PE, connects with the education through movement dimension that frames the AC:HPE.

While participants predominantly detailed the challenges of adapting their PE program for online delivery, several participants shared anecdotes of positive experiences with student engagement that had emerged during the move to online delivery. These included successful virtual cross-country carnivals and increased physical activity for some families. Exercise was one of the few reasons that Tasmanians were permitted to leave their homes during isolation, so it is important to acknowledge that some families may have increased their physical activity levels due to boredom and ‘cabin fever’. Nevertheless, these teacher comments indicated that online delivery of PE did have some benefits for students and their families, which teachers may be able to build on in the future.


The results suggest that for these teachers, the influence of Covid-19 forcing school curricula delivery online was (further) marginalisation of expectations for PE. PE is already recognised in the literature as a valued but not necessarily priority focus of learning, especially in primary schools. It appeared that the significant degree of contradiction between the value of PE and the provision of PE as a vague notion of physical activity accumulation became accentuated during online delivery. The departure of the ‘education’ in physical education became acceptable as physical activity accumulation was pursued.

For those who want more:

A second paper focussed on the online teaching experiences of secondary HPE teachers during COVID-19 suppression measures is currently under review.

From left to right:

Vaughan Cruickshank is a Senior Lecturer in Health and Physical Education (HPE) at the University of Tasmania and is currently Program Director of the Bachelor of Education(HPE) and Bachelor of Education(Science/Maths) programs. His research interests are focussed on HPE, health literacy and how we can encourage people to be active and healthy for life.

Shane Pill is an associate professor in physical education and sport at Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia. He researches using qualitative methodology in curriculum, pedagogy, school leadership, and sport coaching. Shane is an award winning teacher educator, including the Australian Award for University Teaching (2016 and 2020) and Life Membership of the Australian Council for Health, Physical Education and Recreation.

Casey Mainsbridge is a Lecturer in Health and Physical education at the University of Tasmania, Australia. His research areas are in health, physical activity, sedentary behaviour, pedagogy, habits and behaviour change. Casey is the Director of Student Engagement in the School of Education at the University of Tasmania, and has also been a registered exercise professional for twenty three years.

Online learning will never be a substitute for face-to-face

In 2020 higher education student satisfaction with their ‘entire educational experience’ hit its lowest point since Australia’s national survey of current students began in 2011.

But the detailed survey results, which cover many aspects of student life, paint a mixed picture. Despite an unexpected shift to online learning due to COVID-19 restrictions, satisfaction with many aspects of teaching changed little between 2019 and 2020. The lost opportunity for personal contact with other students drove the biggest falls in satisfaction.

The Student Experience Survey (SES) is sent each year to commencing and later year students, who based on subjects taken to date are estimated to be in their final year. All higher education providers, public or private, university or non-university, are now within scope, with 184,000 undergraduates completing a survey in 2020. The SES includes postgraduates, but this post focuses on undergraduates. 

Students who enrolled for on-campus education led the decline in satisfaction. 

Most SES questions refer to specific aspects of student experience, but there is a general ‘overall how would you rate the quality of your entire educational experience this year?’ question. This fell from 78 per cent of respondents rating their educational experience as good or excellent in 2019 to 69 per cent in 2020. It had never previously been below 2019 levels. The SES report produced by the Social Research Centre notes that, as we would expect, students who enrolled for on-campus education led the decline in satisfaction. 

Despite lower overall satisfaction, no specific question probing responses to the work of academic staff declined by more than 5 percentage points – that was the drop in those agreeing that their course was delivered in a way that was ‘well-structured and focused’, to 62 per cent (suggesting that this was already an issue for a third of students). 

Ratings of teacher concern for student learning and feedback on work showed no year-to-year change at all, and other questions on intellectual stimulation, clear explanations of coursework and assessment, and teacher helpfulness and approachability registered only small dips in satisfaction. The quality of online learning materials was rated as good or excellent by 81 per cent of students, four percentage points lower than in 2019 – but a good result as it includes judgment on materials were not going to be online until COVID struck. 

In the eyes of their students teaching staff managed the move from campus-based teaching better than expected given earlier reports of dissatisfaction.  But online study diminished other aspects of the higher education experience. This was especially so for commencing students. The proportion of them reporting working often or very often with other students as part of their study dropped 16 percentage points, to 48 per cent. Frequent interaction with other students outside study was down 15 percentage points to 27 per cent. A sense of belonging to the university declined 12 percentage points to 42 per cent. Self-perceived development of skills to work effectively with others fell 11 percentage points to 52 per cent. 

The published SES reports don’t provide demographic detail for individual question results, but undergraduates aged under 25 years reported larger overall declines in satisfaction than older students. Young people had the most to lose from online education. For many of them university offers a significant social experience as well as a formal education. No matter how good the online educational technology, there is no perfect digital substitute for face-to-face contact. Later year students were less satisfied in the same areas as commencing students, but with lower year-on-year declines. Possibly maintaining friends and connections established before 2020 online was easier than forming new relationships. 

A return to on-campus teaching is the obvious way to lift face-to-face contact between students. That is partially happening, but going back to where we were in early March 2020 will not be easy. Universities won’t remove online versions of courses while the threat of lockdown remains, or while there are still students, especially international students, who cannot get to an Australian campus. And as with workers who are reluctant to return to the office despite most restrictions on doing so being lifted, students may have formed new habits while being forced to study at home. They might miss their friends, but they don’t miss the commute. 

 A university survey conducted earlier this year suggests that COVID accelerated moves to permanently reduce, or even eliminate, teaching via lectures. While there are long-standing pedagogical critiques of lectures, this could take away another reason for students to visit their campus regularly.  

So many big things are happening in higher education at the moment – COVID-driven changes to domestic student behaviour, the loss of international students on campus or entirely, the reduced per student funding of Job-ready Graduates – that it is hard to predict what campus life will look like in two or three years time. 

But the latest Student Experience Survey results show that while hasty transitions to online tuition had surprisingly small negative effects on student ratings of teaching, for some students the lack of face-to-face interaction makes their overall student experience much less satisfying. 

Andrew Norton is Professor in the Practice of Higher Education Policy at the Centre for Social Research and Methods at the Australian National University.  He blogs at .au Follow him on Twitter @andrewjnorton 

The shock of dealing with Covid-19 has made teachers even stronger and better at their craft

Cast your mind back to the end of the first school term for 2020: Australian states and territories were rapidly moving into lockdown because of COVID-19. Political leaders were signaling – often using mixed signals – the likelihood and need to close schools and transition to distance learning. Here in New South Wales schools switched to distance learning for about six weeks, forcing teachers to adapt their programs very rapidly to support students and their parents with learning from home.

Currently around Australia we now have the whole range from fully face-to -face schooling, to partially remote learning, to fully (with some essential worker exceptions) remote learning. Random schools are thrown into immediate lockdown whenever a teacher or student tests positive to the viral infection. Teachers pivot their programs very rapidly between the different ways of delivery depending on the advice from health officials to their education authorities.

My doctoral research explores the way policy is enacted in teacher practice, and I seem to have landed in the middle of a system where policy has flown into flux.

My fieldwork actually started in the midst of one crisis – the Black Summer bushfires – and ended during another – COVID-19. I was fortunately able to modify the shape of my research to allow for interviews with teachers to find out how they experienced the rapidly changing work environment during the virus response.

I’m sure some of the findings are familiar to many teachers and researchers out there, and they aren’t specific to schools. For many people, the switch to working from home was sudden and required quick thinking and adaptation.

The teachers who participated in my research reported a number of interesting, and not all negative, experiences.

Workload increased dramatically

Teachers already faced significant workload demands going into the crisis, an issue plainly described in a partnership study between the NSW Teachers Federation and the University of Sydney. The teachers I interviewed explained how the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated this big time.

Teachers spend a huge amount of time planning and programming a school term, and much of that planning is premised on the physical environment in which they work. Educators take for granted the material contexts of their work – it helps them to improvise when necessary, to draw on a repertoire of skills and capabilities built up through experience.

In the Sydney school where I did my research the staff made a very rapid shift to online learning. This led to late nights preparing lessons, in some cases over-planning work for students in order to compensate for the lack of face-to-face interaction.

Some students felt more comfortable online

A number of teachers reported some students coming out of their shells in the online space. Otherwise shy students felt more empowered to contribute to lessons. Students with strong digital literacy skills were able to support teachers and fellow students in creating dynamic and interesting contributions to online learning.

While there has rightly been some attention paid to students who missed out because of inequitable access, there are also lessons that can be learned about engaging students who are less confident about speaking up in front of a classroom of peers. The digital world is here to stay: being confident learners in digital communities is an important life skill, virus or not.

Professional communities were more important than ever

The staff at the school scheduled an impromptu staff development day focused entirely on delivering learning remotely. Colleagues ran sessions on platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams. Faculty members headed to different classrooms to practice running Zoom lessons with each other. The New South Wales Department of Education also facilitated a ‘virtual staff room’ on Teams, and many teachers reported the value in sharing ideas with their colleagues both within the school and further afield.

When I spoke with the Deputy Principal of this school, he suggested that their quick response to COVID-19 was possible because of the school’s proactive approach to professional learning. The school saw the Professional Development Planning (PDP) process not as a ‘tick-the-box’ exercise, but rather a way to learn about the strengths and opportunities facing the school. He explained:

“What professional learning is about is foreseeing what obstacles might lie ahead, so that you can be properly prepared for when they do happen and you couldn’t get a better case in point than COVID.”

A year-round professional learning calendar helps staff at this school see the connection between their own Professional Development Planning and the whole school plan. Qualitative analysis of Professional Development Planning goals and professional learning needs helps inform the school planning process. And the teachers I interviewed were consistently engaged in improving their classroom practice.

Teachers felt their practice had improved because of the crisis

Each teacher I spoke with said that they had learned something during the crisis and that their practice going forward would improve as a result, sentiment echoed in a survey conducted by researchers Rachel Wilson and William Mude. This included their ability to incorporate Information and Communication Technology (ICT) into their lessons, the different ways they can engage with their students, and their professional knowledge in the domain of online teaching and learning. As one teacher explained:

“I think there will be good development in our skills that will make us better teachers going forward. It’s been a baptism of fire, but I think we’ll all be better practitioners and have a wider repertoire of skills.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has turned a lot of things on their heads: it is a black swan event, something gigantic and unexpected that shifts the way we understand the world. Nassim Taleb, who wrote the book, The Black Swan, followed that with another book, Antifragile. He explains that the opposite of fragility is not resilience, but antifragility: where something responds to a shock by getting stronger.

The teachers I worked with pre and post COVID-19 (as far as we can say that we are ‘post’ this virus) are a perfect example of antifragility. So far, 2020 has delivered some of the biggest shocks imaginable. And out of it the teachers in my study have become even better at their craft thanks to the strength of their professional communities and their school’s meaningful approach to professional learning.

Pat Norman is a doctoral candidate at the University of Sydney, looking at the way politics and political events shape the rationalities of policy and practice. He is particularly interested in the way neoliberalism and globalisation impact professional work. His current research in schools looks at the way teachers experience and enact policy, and how an understanding of good practice is produced in real-world contexts. He tweets as @pat_norman.

How teaching online during COVID-19 lockdown made me think deeply about how physical presence matters

There’s a general feeling among teachers of pride and relief that we got through the recent few months when were teaching online. And at the moment, all of us are feeling for our school teacher colleagues in Melbourne who face returning to the challenges of teaching remotely again in just a week with their city again in lockdown.

Teaching this year has been hard work. I spent most of my hours online and ‘with others’. The surprising thing was just how much I missed feeling how my students were thinking. This was more than just how the relationships changed online. This was how my senses were stimulated in different ways and how this altered my capacity to feel the group was together and who was thinking. In a world looking for ways to beat the robots, this may be one skill we should pay attention to.

The experience of online teaching, especially in a course that required students to take risks in thinking and feeling, has spurred my curiosity on what we gain and lose when our proximity changes. Mostly I want to know if others teachers share this experience and what is it that we can learn.

Sensing our students

The question came up in a webinar during the lockdown, ‘What do you find the most challenging about online learning?’. The host, a fabulous experienced online educator, gave us ‘thinking time’ and then asked us to simultaneously post our thoughts in the chat.

I tell it like it is, so I wrote, ‘I missed hearing them breathe’. I was a little embarrassed about the intimacy of such a statement so I was surprised when so many comments said pretty much the same thing. Teachers wrote, ‘sensing their engagement’, ‘noticing when things don’t make sense’, ‘knowing they get it’, ‘really seeing the one student amongst the 20 onscreen’, the ‘feeling that things are buzzing’.

There’s something curious about how we ‘feel each other’ in person versus how we see and hear each other online.  A troubled but brilliant Austrian-British philosopher, Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein, helped us understand this when he said, ‘The human body is the best picture of the human soul’.

Schooling and the ‘soul’

In my experience, learning that makes us think, lifts off when we see and respond to the ‘soul’. Whilst soul is not a word we see in education thinking, there are numerous philosophical notions in education that are also understood in this way, take for example education thought leaders such as Gert Biesta, Pasi Sahlberg and Sir Ken Robinson. Anyone familiar with their work knows they are often talking about being human.

As I see it, Biesta knocks it out of the park when he calls out the purpose of schooling in three ways; qualification, socialisation and subjectification.

Qualification is something to have as you navigate through your schooling into adult life. Think of qualifications like the passports into employment and further study.

Socialisation happens throughout the schooling years. This is not just in how we behave, think hygiene habits and common courtesy, it also gives us shared stories to bind and protect our institutions and identify. For example, curriculum decisions, such as whether we taught World War II or US civil rights movement, makes a difference how we resolve racism as a collective.

Subjectification is perhaps a less contentious and more accurate way to name what I am calling the ‘soul’. It is how we can be in the world but not of it. It is the development of self that allows us to participate in the work and toil of life but at the same time, be removed enough to regulate our desires and our need to belong. This is what I am really interested in and how it works in schooling.

When education works

When education works, we leave school as people who can disagree agreeably. We have successfully transitioned from the properly narcissistic world of an infant to that of the grown up, able to rationalise desire and impulses out of concern for a common good. Schools do this when they engage young people’s critical and creative thinking. It is not about making them like us but helping to value themselves, as both distinct and as part of something bigger.

German-American philosopher and political theorist, Hannah Arendt, another great post war thinker, wrote:

“Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it, and by the same token save it from that ruin which except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and the young, would be inevitable. And education, too, is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, nor to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world.”

Critical and creative thinking

I believe when Arendt says, ‘their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us’ she is talking about that moment in the classroom when we see the student’s soul. The ‘unforeseeable’ happens when students are thinking creatively and critically. It is tangled into what is broadly referred to in the Australian curriculum as ‘general capabilities’.

Most importantly, it requires teachers to be highly adaptive in their teaching. In my experience it is the best part of being a teacher because it is always a transmission of the whole person, not just the mind. It is a very satisfying and inclusive experience, not just available for ‘talented’ students, because there is no right answer, but for every child. Within many classrooms the tyranny of success, or when every answer is ‘right’ dulls learning like a symphony orchestra playing with the sound turned down.

How mass online learning has made us think about our teaching practices

If teachers’ capacity to notice the ‘feeling’ changes in students as they learn is altered, how does this change their capacity to adapt and respond in a way that takes critical and creative thinking forward? Our time where online learning was the only way to learn for many students has made us think about this. It has especially made us think about how we might adapt our teaching practice to new challenges.

Teacher adaptive practice, how teachers follow the student, not the script,  is thought to improve student learning and early evidence suggests it is a key disposition in engaging students in critical and creative thinking. It means changing how we ‘thought we were going to teach’ when the unforeseen, a student’s curiosity and new ideas, emerges.

It is exactly our response to this magic moment that I believe teaches a child if their soul matters and how what matters to them needs to find its place in what matters to others. So what can we learn from that moment, when the way we were together, teacher and students, changed with online learning?

If you think of a hinge and how it swings open and closes a door, the COVID 19 crisis and the rapid large scale experience with online teaching has swung open a whole conversation about proximity, teacher adaptability and teaching the whole child. We can use these experiences like counter intuitive game theory (where two losing games results into a winning game); COVID and social distancing could generate a win for teaching.

Learning something new and important from the experience

The online learning experience is a particular sort of sensory experience and I am interested in knowing more about what teachers can tell us through these experiences. The realisation when I saw the comments in the chat function on that webinar reassured me I was not alone in this thinking. Maybe there was another teacher at the webinar who, sitting like me in a tracksuit at the kitchen table, saw my comment and thought, ‘I know exactly what she means’.

This is not about making a choice or deciding what is best between online and face to face teaching. It is about learning something new and important, such as the teaching for the soul, when things fall apart.

Even now that we have ‘returned’ to the classroom, the experience of having to move so quickly to remote learning will have changed teachers’ understanding what it means to be together. If we learn from this extraordinary experience we may find new, more generous, ways to entreat young people to vita activa or live life as ‘activists’. This experience is an opportunity to learn and more explicitly identify the teaching and learning interplay that helps students build and value their critical and creative capacity and, ultimately, as Arendt says face the ever more urgent ‘task of renewing a common world’.

Penny Vlies is a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney studying the intersection of curriculum policy, general capabilities and teaching. Her work with schools involves designing learning that is built by and for teachers to embed critical and creative thinking into classroom practice. She is an Academic Tutor with the University working with students in the Service Learning in Indigenous Communities course. Penny is an award winning secondary school teacher who sees education ‘to be, not to have’. She can be contacted for any questions or further discussion at Penny is on Twitter @pvlies.

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.

Online schooling and distance ed? Don’t be afraid, we’ve been doing and improving it for 100 years

Amid all the concerns about closing schools and setting up online learning In Australia it is important to note that Australia is actually a world leader in school distance education. Indeed, distance learning is not only achievable for Australian students, but very normal for many students around our large island continent. In rural and remote regions of Australia, students have been learning ‘by distance’ since the inception of ‘school of the air’ in Alice Springs over 100 years ago.

We want to tell you about distance learning in Australia and how our nation’s experiences and development of distance learning can help as we move into closing our schools. We know parents are worried that their children will be disadvantaged, particularly those in the final years of schooling. Many parents worry that they won’t be able to support their children’s learning at home.  Teachers are worried about how to develop and deliver lessons online  

What is distance learning?

Distance learning in Australia usually involves students working remotely with their teacher who leads their class using a combination of ‘synchronous’ and ‘asynchronous’ learning. Synchronous learning is where children are learning in real time, often with other students who join in from their remote locations, and asynchronous learning is where learning is online but without real time interaction. While distance education originally involved communication via post and two-way radio, technological advancement now sees this occurring through more advanced forms of technological communication using laptops or computers, video conferencing and so on.  This technology allows students to interact face-to-face with their teachers and with other students both in their remote school and elsewhere.

At present distance education schools are typically delivered to students who cannot attend the local school. This is usually because students are deemed to live too far away from a school to reasonably attend, have chronic illnesses, are travelling, or to make available subjects a school can’t offer due to lower numbers wanting to take them, for instance languages. School authorities expect these students to work in almost the same manner as children in a face-to-face school do, with set hours for schooling and a designated learning space.  In the early years of schooling, teachers provide lessons that are scripted almost word for word for supervisors to implement with their students, and these are usually given to the supervisors weeks in advance.

The many ways distance learning is used in schools across Australia

Today most states and territories in Australia offer distance education programs. For example in NSW, the Access program offers a shared curriculum for senior secondary students across five clusters of isolated schools across the state. Small cohorts of students interact with each other and their teacher through videoconferencing and collaborative technologies. It has been operating since about 1990.

Within the Access program the Riverina and Northern Borders Access programs began in 1990 and in more remote areas the ‘Wilvandee’ Access program – linking Wilcannia, Ivanhoe and Menindee (initially) began in 1994.  Schools within a vicinity share a teacher in specialist subjects, with the specialist teacher physically situated at one of the network schools. In this way schools are able to provide a breadth of curriculum access in the senior secondary years that would otherwise not be possible due to student and staff numbers.

Schools co-timetable to ensure students have half their lessons as live video conference lessons. The other half comprises of structured learning activities using a learning management system, such as Moodle or the newer Microsoft schools products. Students in Access programs attend their local community school for these lessons, even though they may in practice have no ‘traditional’ lessons at their school.

Also in NSW, in 2015 the Aurora College was established as a virtual selective high school to ensure rural and isolated students in NSW could access selective schooling (where enrolment is based on academic merit) regardless of location.  Here students from all across the state, who have passed the selective schools test, learn in a virtual environment organized in a similar manner to the Access program. The continued success of Aurora College shows that online learning in Australia can extend academically gifted students as well as provide the usual curriculum.

While we have used examples from NSW, similar programs exist around Australia in other states and territories. For instance in large parts of Western Australia education is provided through distance education and school of the air.

It is also important to note that while online learning is an important part of distance education, it is not the only way students undertake lessons. Students also undertake lessons ‘offline’ using learning materials provided by the teachers to guide them.

What can schools and teachers learn from our distance education experience?

We have reviewed research literature about the use of technology to connect students to schooling and found there are five main types of relationships involved. Distance education teachers are working with these relationships, and we think they would be crucial to developing successful online or distance education programs.

  • Learner to teacher relationship

This involves how the learner and teacher are connected.  What is the teacher-student relationship? What are the interpersonal experiences when the student is involved in face to face learning? Is the child engaged and motivated, connected?

  • Learner to learner (peer) relationships 

How are peers connected? How is peer learning encouraged and supported? Is it moderated?

  • Learner’s relationship to the content

How do we link students to the content? Can they work with it outside face to face teaching? What type of content should be used?  How does the content support knowledge building? What is the role of the learner?  

  • Learner to system relationship

Using the right tools to engage the student with the content. How do learners interact with the technology? Is the navigation and pace of learning working? Structured v unstructured.  

  • Vicarious interaction or social presence

What is the social presence of the child? Are they ‘being present’, feeling they belong, able to feel the support and presence of other children in the group from their remote access?  Are they experiencing that ‘being at school’ sense?

While all of this might sound daunting to some, many isolated parents, with Distance Education provision, support  their children to learn literacy and numeracy from kindergarten.  Some parents describe this type of learning as more effective and connected to their students’ needs and interests, because of the flexibility it allows.

Distance learning is also not the panacea. There are many families, particularly in remote and other poorer communities, who don’t have access to the necessary technology or internet service. Others don’t have the experience or prior learning to support their children in online learning.  This is one reason why programs like the NSW Access program that run through schools are valuable and shouldn’t be replaced by distance learning as the only option.

The future of schooling

Overall, these schools remind us that distance learning is possible, as long as we see that ‘school’ doesn’t have to mean numbers of children attending one setting together. In fact there are many advantages of this learning mode. For example, in the Access networks teachers know their students and contexts, which makes for richer learning when thinking back to basic education theory.  Students in distance education or Schools of the Air have access to a rich learning environment in their day to day lives and backyards.

Importantly, having to do school online isn’t so much a revolution or cause for concern, it’s the everyday normal for thousands of children.  The reaction to the closing schools brings into sharp focus the assumption that schooling is face-to-face when it is not for so many students in Australia. More so, it reminds us that rather than rural education constantly being framed as ‘disadvantaged’ it should in fact now be showcased as ‘world leading’.

This provides an opportunity to highlight a key equity issue beneath assumptions. Online learning can be as good as ‘real school’. It is for those communities, students and teachers for whom it is already their everyday reality.

Philip Roberts is an Associate Professor (Curriculum Inquiry / Rural Education) at the University of Canberra and Research Leader of the Rural Education and Communities Research Group and ARC DECRA fellow at the University of Canberra, where he convenes units across the fields of Educational Sociology and Curriculum Inquiry. His major ongoing research focuses on place, the sustainability of rural communities, and the interests of the least powerful in our society. Philip’s work is situated within rural sociology, the sociology of knowledge, educational sociology and social justice and is informed by the spatial turn in social theory and sustainability.  He leads the  University of Canberra’s Rural Education & Communities Research Group. 

Natalie Downes is a research assistant  in the Rural Education & Communities Research Group in the Faculty of Education, University of Canberra. Her research interests include rural distance education, rural-regional sustainability and the ethical working impact of working with rural people and communities. Natalie also works with the University of Canberra Widening Participation unit assisting with program evaluation and reporting and has previously worked as a Research Officer at the university. She has been an executive member of the Society of the Provision of Education in Rural Australia and editor of the Board of the International Journal of Rural Education. She has worked on projects with the Rural Education Research Student’ Network which focuses on supporting students, early career researchers and community members interested in rural education.

We would like to acknowledge the knowledge and experiences shared with us by teachers and parents for whom this mode of learning is the day to day norm

For teachers wanting a little light moment in all of this. Here is Michael Bruening An associate professor of history and political science at Missouri University of Science and Technology, singing his   ‘I will survive coronavirus version‘.

Ten ways to improve online learning for students

Online learning has become a well-recognised part of the broader landscape of higher education. It is also proving to have a critical place in widening access and equity within this landscape. Increasing numbers of students from backgrounds historically under-represented at university are taking the opportunity to study online, particularly through open-entry and alternative pathways, with many of these learners being the first in their family or community to undertake university studies.

However, retention in online undergraduate studies is considerably lower than in face-to-face programs. An Australian Government Department of Education and Training report in 2017 said only 46.4% of fully external, domestic online undergraduate students completed their studies from 2005 to 2014 compared with a completion rate for internal, on-campus students, of 76.6%. Similarly, the recent Australian Higher Education Standards Panel (HESP) Discussion Paper shows that external, online students are 2.5 times more likely than on-campus students to leave university without a qualification.

So I believe it is crucial to look closely at what is happening and to do something about it. My research is focused on examining what is needed to engage and support diverse cohorts of students to stay and succeed in online education.

My role as Equity Fellow

During 2015 the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE) at Curtin University called for applications for three inaugural Equity Fellows to be appointed in 2016, with a further three to be appointed for 2017. Applicants needed to propose a research project aimed at improving student equity in higher education. I was very fortunate in being selected as one of these three Equity Fellows for 2016. For my research project, which was completed at the end of March 2017, I investigated teaching and pedagogy practices, institutional supports and retention strategies within online undergraduate learning; the overall objective being to develop a set of national guidelines to provide sector leadership on evidence-based ways to improve the access, success and retention of students in online undergraduate education.

Seven key findings

I interviewed 151 participants involved in online learning – academic, professional and management staff at 15 Australian universities and at the Open University UK. I sought the combined wisdom of practitioners in online learning; asking them about the interventions/strategies for online students (in teaching and/or support) that they (or others in their university) were using, which they thought might be having a positive impact on access, retention and/or academic success.

I asked them whether any of their interventions/strategies were being measured or evaluated, and if so, in what ways, and did they know of any results? I also asked them what else they thought was important for institutions to do to help their online students stay and succeed?

From these 151 interviews, 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 encourage 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.

Voices of online students and the importance of connecting

I compared these findings with the findings of two previous research projects that I was involved with in 2015 and 2016, where online students were interviewed about their experiences of online study. I found remarkable congruence between the perceptions of those students, and the perceptions of the staff interviewed for this research project, about what is most important in creating an engaging and supportive learning environment for online students.

For example, students in these previous studies talked about their need “for inductions and orientations on how to use stuff”; and how difficult it can be to understand what’s required when told “you all need to redo your referencing for the next assessment, which was another essay; they gave us no tutorial or anything”.

The students also knew that “what works in person is not the same as online”. They stressed the need for a “relationship with people” and having staff who “connect with us students”. This need for connection was expressed in many ways, such as: “it’s nice to hear another human being’s voice”; or, when contact and connection was not forthcoming, they spoke about “the lack of interaction” and being “in isolation, teaching myself”, leading to a belief that “universities don’t really care about or engage with online students very much”.

National Guidelines for improving student outcomes in online learning

 The seven findings from my research have informed the development of a set of 10 National Guidelines for Improving Student Outcomes in Online Learning, 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, these 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.

  1. Know who the students are – at an institutional level, understand the cohort, its diversity and needs
  2. Develop, implement and regularly review institution-wide quality standards for delivery of online education – ensuring that online education is ‘core business’ and not an ‘add-on’
  3. Intervene early to address student expectations, build skills and engagement
  4. Explicitly value and support the vital role of ‘teacher-presence’ – through training, mentoring, resources, workload and payment
  5. Design for online – adopting an ‘online first’ approach to curriculum, content and delivery design
  6. Engage and support through content and delivery – building an interactive and inclusive learning environment
  7. Build collaboration and teamwork across faculties, services and divisions, to offer holistic, integrated and embedded student support
  8. Contact and communicate throughout the student journey – developing a comprehensive intervention strategy, with academic and professional staff working together
  9. Use learning analytics to target and personalise student interventions – building a learning analytics strategy that underpins student engagement and support
  10. Demonstrate the importance of online education through appropriate institutional resourcing – treating online education as core business, budgeting for it appropriately, and understanding that it is not a money-saving option

Each of the above guidelines is discussed in more depth in the full report, with suggestions on how each guideline can be translated into action. For example, some of the possible actions for Explicitly value and support the vital role of ‘teacher-presence’ (Guideline 4) include institutions’ ensuring that the role of teacher-presence is recognised and valued within institutional quality standards for online education. Within these standards, online teachers would receive appropriate training, support and resourcing, through the allocation of sufficient teaching time, workload allocation and appropriate technology. Through such measures, online teachers would be in a stronger position to provide an interactive, connected learning experience for online students.

For more detail please go to the full report Opportunity Through Online Learning


Cathy Stone, DSW (Research), is a Conjoint Associate Professor in the School of Humanities and Social Science at the University of Newcastle. Cathy was an inaugural Equity Fellow during 2016 with the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education, where she is currently a 2017 Visiting Research Fellow. Much of her research and publications focus on the experiences of mature-age, first-in-family and online students. Cathy is currently an Independent Consultant and Researcher on the support, engagement and success of diverse student cohorts in higher education, and is an Accredited Mental Health Social Worker with the Australian Association of Social Workers.Cathy can be contacted for any questions or further discussion at


Cathy is one of the hundreds of educational researchers presenting their research at the 2017 AARE Conference in Canberra all this week.

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