The challenges of implementing online education in Australian universities
11 November 2022
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;
Adaptability & motivation.Students may struggle to remain motivated due to a lack of structure and interactivity. While passive listening and note-taking are prevalent in traditional lecture theatres, online platforms offer greater flexibility in time management and a breadth of features, such as integrated quizzes and interactive diagrams, to maintain engagement and improve learning outcomes. Input from various experts and case studies can also be integrated more frequently into the course to offer greater context to students. Options such as due dates for module completion can also be part of the course structure to ensure that students maintain momentum in their learning track.
Technical issues.Watching a professor struggle with technology is likely something students will experience, irrespective of whether they are in a physical or digital learning environment. However, some of the more distinct challenges that educators face online are centred around digital literacy, bandwidth availability and device compatibility. When designing online courses and delivery platforms, institutions must be mindful that some students may not have comparable digital literacy to their peers and may be from regions with restricted access to high-bandwidth internet. The online platform must be ubiquitously accessible from any internet browser.
Accessibility & equity.Learning content can sometimes be difficult to access, particularly when students may have special needs, come from culturally/linguistically diverse backgrounds, or have financially disadvantaged backgrounds and do not own a computer. In each of these instances, students could seek support on campus, but in a completely online environment, they may find themselves disadvantaged and isolated. Institutions that operate both physical and digital campuses would need to ensure that students enrolled in either form of learning have equitable access to the content, support and opportunities offered in the course. Measures can range from transcripts of videos and access to student services through the online platform to providing eligibility for scholarship programs to procure any necessary technology.
Social aspects.Social interaction is critical in improving student engagement, motivation and learning outcomes. When the social element of online learning is lacking, students can feel disconnected through a lack of attention from instructors and peers. It is also widely recognised that the social connections formed whilst attending university can last a lifetime and shape an individual’s professional career. While integrating social interaction in online learning could significantly improve engagement and learning outcomes, it is also essential to recognise that these bonds are often not as strong as those formed in person. This challenge is difficult to address, particularly when sizeable online cohorts are present. In such instances, it may be beneficial to implement cohort caps to ensure smaller groups and a few dedicated sessions with an instructor. Forums for online clubs within the institution could also be implemented to improve social engagement and provide a sense of belonging.
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.
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.
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.
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
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?
Does your organisational profile have the right balance of learning designers and academics experienced in online and hybrid modes of teaching?
Have you identified and consulted with all the stakeholders impacted by the proposed changes to how you deliver teaching content?
Do your staff have access to the right equipment, technology, and training, and how are they empowered to create innovative learning resources?
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.
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.