Ten ways to improve online learning for students

By Cathy Stone

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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8 thoughts on “Ten ways to improve online learning for students

  1. Ania Lian says:

    Thank you, Cathy. In the world of increased “QA”, one thing you do not mention is the place of intellectual innovation in our teaching. It would be comfortable to assume that we never teach divergent thinking b/c what we teach already should be in the literature but, in my experience, this is not how it works. Innovation begins in undergraduate courses and only later feeds into research. Innovation is sourced in the literature that comes to education from fields other than education: like new blood, it cannot come from the same source. So how do we maintain coherence in the course despite differences between lecturers and their units? Without these differences there is no movement in the field and stagnation sets in. Higher education cannot be reduced to instrumental conditioning. So integrating innovation will need to be necessary to escape mindlessness and to inject some form of agency, inspiration and creativity. But innovation breaks coherence of the course and may well impact on student experience. Any thoughts?
    best wishes
    Ania Lian

  2. Cathy Stone says:

    What you raise is important and I would think applies to teaching in general not only online teaching. Perhaps online design can assist innovation?

  3. Ania Lian says:

    Dear Cathy
    “Perhaps online design can assist innovation?” — I think it does as you need to be more explicit and this requires deeper reflection and often may result in a change. I agree
    thank you and best wishes

  4. Cathy Stone says:

    Thanks Ania for your comments. Many of the online teachers I spoke with said similar things about the need to be more creative, communicative and innovative in their teaching. All very time consuming of course, and it was pointed out to me a number of times that online teaching takes more time, not less, than face to face teaching. All the more important that this is recognised at an institutional level.

  5. Ania, you asked how we maintain course coherence while avoiding stagnation. To quote Douglas Adams in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “We demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty.” 😉

    More seriously, a course can be designed so it specifies which bits are fixed and which are flexible. A course design may be fixed in that it says there are a certain number of student projects and what the broad topics are, but the details of the project are could be changed by the instructor. The instructor could also swap out components of the course and swap in alternatives.

    But this assumes a course has been “designed”, with objectives and structure. I have seen courses where it is hard to change anything as it is not clear what the course is attempting to achieve and there is no clear structure, just a jumble of lectures, tutorials, assignments and examinations.

    As an example of a simple structure, my ICT Sustainability course is intended to align with two skills from the Skills Framework for the Information Age (SFIA). The instructor can’t change those objectives: if they did the degree program it is part of may no longer be professionally accredited, or recognized by immigration and professional standards legislation. But the details of how the objectives are assessed and learned could be changed, for example with group work, or classroom activities.

  6. Cathy Stone’s “ten ways to improve online learning for students” are also useful for on-campus students. The difference between on and off campus courses is diminishing, with recorded lectures and blended learning. Also greater access to campus courses results in a need to better support students from a wide range of backgrounds

    An eleventh way to improve student learning, I suggest, is the most important of all: having staff formally trained in teaching, including how to teach on-line. As well as improving my course design and delivery, I found “dogfooding” (being an on-line student of on-line education), gave me a better understanding of what it was like to be a student.

  7. Cathy Stone says:

    Hi Tom, it’s great that you mention the applicability of these more widely, particularly with the growth in blended learning and teaching. Thanks also for drawing attention to the need for formal training in how to teach online. I agree this is crucial, and applies not only in relation to teaching, but also for professional staff, who equally would benefit from training and mentoring in ways to successfully connect and maintain engagement with online students, so that appropriate support can be effectively provided. In the detailed version of the guidelines, training and ongoing staff development is explicitly stressed. e.g guideline 4 (value and support teacher-presence) advocates for online teachers being ‘trained, supported and resourced”; while guideline 6 (engage and support through content and delivery) again talks about the need for ‘ongoing and regularly updated training’. Ideally training should be part of an institution’s quality standards for online education (as per guideline 2).

  8. Stephen Shaw says:

    Hi Cathy – I agree with Tom’s comments and your response. Working in a VC secondary school classroom, I can affirm your comments ring true re: the necessity for formal teacher training and good student centred course deign. Mastering the technology is only the first baby steps in successful online teaching. The comparison for me is similar to the introduction of mobile devices in the classroom and the initial presumption that they substituted for hard copy materials. Similarly, online teaching is not a simple parallel to teaching in the formal classroom. The emphasis on personal connection is much more highlighted and the necessity of a well-designed course is basic, allowing experimentation with pedagogy… and it is experimentation as pedagogy has to be a reflected response to individual student learning needs.

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