The Australian Centre for Student Equity and Success acknowledges Indigenous peoples as the Traditional Owners of the lands on which our campuses are situated. With a history spanning 60,000 years as the original educators, Indigenous peoples hold a unique place in Australia. We recognise the importance of their knowledge and culture, and reflect the principles of participation, equity, and cultural respect in our work. We pay our respects to Elders past, present, and future, and consider it an honour to learn from our Indigenous colleagues, partners, and friends.

You are reading: Opportunity Through Online Learning

Improving student access, participation and success in online higher education

Written Dr Cathy Stone, 2016 NCSEHE Equity Fellow & University of Newcastle Australia Conjoint Senior Lecturer in Social Work

There is increasing evidence internationally that online learning is helping to widen access to higher education (Ilgaz & Gulbahar, 2015; Knightley, 2007; Stone, O’Shea, May, Delahunty & Partington, 2016) particularly where there are widening participation pathways into university studies (Shah, Goode, West & Clark, 2014; Stone, Hewitt & Morelli, 2013). The flexibility offered by online learning enables students from backgrounds which have been historically underrepresented at university, to combine study with paid work, family and financial responsibilities (Park & Choi, 2009).

However, completion of studies has been shown to be considerably lower in online than face-to-face programs. An Australian Government Department of Education and Training report (2015) shows that only 46.6 per cent of fully online domestic students completed bachelor degrees between 2005 and 2013; compared with 76.6 per cent of domestic on-campus students. More than one in five online students (20.4 per cent) did not complete their first year, compared with 6.9 per cent first year attrition amongst on-campus students.

Much of the literature indicates that the two-fold challenges of understanding e-learning technology, along with a sense of isolation are key issues for online students (Ilgaz and Gülbahar, 2015; Yoo and Huang, 2013). Such findings indicate the importance of exploring ways in which the retention and success of online students can be improved, so that a greater number of students can successfully achieve their learning goals in the online environment. The research that I have been undertaking through the Equity Fellows Program will lead to the development of a set of national guidelines, informed by research evidence, for improving the access, academic success and retention of students in online education.

Using a qualitative approach, semi-structured interviews were conducted with 150 members of staff across 16 higher education institutions – 15 in Australia (regional and metropolitan, from every state including the Northern Territory) and The Open University UK.


Following institutional approval, invitations to participate were sent out internally by each institution to relevant staff. Each of the staff members who agreed to be interviewed were all involved in development, coordination and/or delivery of: online units/courses/programs (primarily undergraduate); and/or support, success and retention strategies for online students.

Participants were asked to share their knowledge and experience of the online student cohort at their institution, the interventions and strategies used to engage and retain these students, whether these had been evaluated, and any other thoughts on ways to improve retention and academic outcomes for online students. All interviews have been transcribed and are being analysed using NVivo 11. An extensive literature search has been conducted, of national and international research into improving outcomes in online learning, including research into students’ personal experiences of online learning. This body of research will help to inform the final conclusions. During August, I undertook a 12 day placement at the Australian Department of Education and Training in Canberra. Based with the Equity Policy and Programs team I had the opportunity to interact on a day-to-day basis with staff responsible for Equity Policy and Programs and those responsible for Student Information and Learning and for Funding, Policy and Legislation. This occurred informally, through conversation and discussion, and formally through meetings and presentations.

Whilst analysis is continuing, some preliminary findings from the research project have been emerging strongly. The bullet points below summarise factors emerging as being of crucial significance in successfully engaging and retaining online students.

  • Institution-wide recognition and understanding of the diversity and needs of the online student body;
  • Strategic whole-of-institution approach to ensure consistency and quality of online delivery and teaching standards, including teacher training and adequate resourcing;
  • Early interventions to ensure realistic student expectations, facilitate appropriate preparation and improve early engagement;
  • Vital role of “online teacher presence” in building sense of belonging to a learning community;
  • Learning design, curriculum and pedagogy that are engaging, supportive and specific to online delivery;
  • Collaboration between teaching and support, embedding support within curriculum, including help with technology;
  • Harnessing the capacity of learning analytics to inform appropriate interventions, personalised and targeted along the student journey.

Over the next few months, analysis of data and exploration of related research will continue in order to develop a set of national guidelines, informed by research evidence, for improving the access, academic success and retention of students in online education. These guidelines and the final report will be completed by end-March 2017 and widely disseminated to all Australian institutions, as well as by further publications and presentations.

Dr Stone’s full Fellowship report will be published to the NCSEHE website in early 2017.