The challenges of implementing online education in Australian universities 

Published on
11 November 2022
Thisun Piyasena
Thisun Piyasena
Senior Consultant

Online education in Australia was on the rise long before the COVID-19 pandemic forced tertiary institutes worldwide to adapt and accelerate its adoption. Improvements in technology have facilitated a greater scope of content that could be drawn upon and presented to students free of geographic restrictions. With the potential to reach almost every corner of the world, Australian universities can provide a richer learning experience to an enthusiastic and diverse audience eager to learn. 

However, despite the advantages of adopting robust online learning platforms, Australian tertiary institutions can face several challenges when attempting to replicate physical learning environments. Some of the more prevalent challenges include; 

Students are unhappy with online learning activities in Australia.

A national Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency report recently identified that 33% to 50% of students were unhappy with online learning, citing some of the challenges mentioned above. Australian universities recognise that charging full fees for students, particularly international students, would overexpose the sector to a highly competitive online market where students shop for the most inexpensive degrees – already available from other international universities (ref). For international students, while Australia ranks highly in post-graduation work rights and student welfare, the nation’s tertiary education sector ranked poorly in terms of quality education, value for money, and the prospect of landing meaningful employment (ref). These metrics put Australia at risk of falling behind competing nations such as the US and Canada. 

Australian tertiary institutions must also compete with Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), which provide open access to unlimited participants whilst providing interactive learning materials and social interactions. To further explore the impact of online learning in higher education and the prevalence of MOOCs, Escient spoke with Associate Professor Jack Wang from The University of Queensland. As an expert on learning analytics in online resource development, A/Prof Wang indicated,

“Australian universities must take the long-term view during the development and delivery of competitive MOOCs in the global marketplace”. 

What tertiary institutions need to do to compete effectively in the online learning market. 
  1. Institutions must establish new technology infrastructures and streamlined digital frameworks, which quickly offsets any potential income from issuing online professional certificates as a MOOC provider. 
  2. Increased brand awareness and visibility in international markets may be the only subjective measure of success in the short term. Still, there is potential to attract new students by recognising prior learning pathways. Flexible entry into accelerated degrees for thousands of students who have completed a certain number of MOOCs from all over the world – this represents a real value proposition for institutions and the incentive to develop their suite of online offerings. 
  3. All these possibilities are contingent upon each institution’s technological and pedagogical knowledge base to create immersive online learning environments.  

 “Students can accomplish foundational learning outcomes if a course’s objectives, activities, and assessment tasks are constructively aligned, even if the entire learning experience is online. An evolving suite of digital capabilities is required to create interactive online multimedia such as custom graphics, animations, podcasts, and video resources that can bridge the geographical divide between students and their online instructors”. 

A/Prof Jack Wang

While the production quality of online resources alone does not dictate the value of a learning experience, perception is reality. Students can enrol in MOOCs offered by any institution in the world. However, poor audio quality, unedited video footage, or repurposed digital assets can quickly make your institution stand out in the marketplace for all the wrong reasons. 

Defining the tertiary learning experience through strategic roadmaps 
  1. Do your career progression and development policies align with sustainable professional learning strategies for digital capabilities, and how does this strategic alignment influence institutional priorities in recruitment, selection, and appointment?
  2. Does your organisational profile have the right balance of learning designers and academics experienced in online and hybrid modes of teaching?  
  3. Have you identified and consulted with all the stakeholders impacted by the proposed changes to how you deliver teaching content?  
  4. Do your staff have access to the right equipment, technology, and training, and how are they empowered to create innovative learning resources?  
  5. What do your students want? What is the right balance between in-class, hybrid and online learning that can provide them with the most value? 

These are the big questions that Australian tertiary institutions need to address over the coming years as the sector continues to evolve. The challenges faced here are compounded by the act that there is no single “fix” capable of solving the issues of every tertiary institution, but a requirement for a nuanced approach that takes into consideration a multitude of factors, including what is best for the students, teachers, faculty, and aspirations of the institution itself. Escient has worked extensively with universities across the country in areas such as managing transformative projects and building strategic roadmaps and can confidently help tertiary institutions realise their vision for the future of learning delivery. 

If you found this article interesting, you may enjoy Dr Piyasena’s article on Digital transformation in tertiary institutions.

About the authors

Dr Thisun Piyasena is a Senior Consultant at Escient, with a history of working within the life sciences, higher education, and pharmaceutical sectors. He prefers to leverage his analytical background to make objective and data-driven decisions, discover new opportunities, and help organisations realise their strategic intent.

Jack Wang is an Associate Professor in microbiology with a demonstrated history of working in the higher education industry. He is skilled in Molecular biology techniques, Higher Education Research, and Multimedia creation (video production, and editing) relating to multimodal learning for large classes. He is also recognised professionally through institutional and national teaching excellence awards.

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