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You are reading: Opportunity through online learning: improving student transition, participation and success in online higher education

Written by Dr Cathy Stone for ANZSSA

Online learning has a critical place in widening access and participation in higher education for a diverse range of students, many of whom are from backgrounds which have been historically underrepresented at university. Thanks to the Equity Fellows Programme, established this year by the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE), I have been funded to undertake research that 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. This research project aims to improve not only the transition of students into online higher education, but also their ongoing participation, success and retention.

Rationale for the project
There is increasing evidence that online learning is helping to widen access to higher education (Ilgaz & Gulbahar, 2015; Knightley, 2007; Moore & Signor, 2014; O’Shea, Stone & Delahunty, 2015;) particularly where there are open-entry or widening participation pathways into university studies (Shah, Goode, West & Clark, 2014; Stone, 2012; Stone, Hewitt & Morelli, 2013). The flexibility offered by online learning enables students to combine study with paid work, family and other responsibilities, as well as being more affordable (Park & Choi, 2009). This is borne out by enrolment data from Open Universities Australia (OUA)1, which enrols more domestic students annually into online higher education units at its partner universities, than any single Australian university. The table below contrasts enrolments at OUA (OUA, 2015) with the Australian higher education sector as a whole (Australian Government Department of Education and Training, 2015; OECD, 2012) for specific student cohorts, which are recognised to be underrepresented in access, participation and/or success.


Despite these higher enrolments, continued participation and success in online education is lower. There is strong evidence that students who are first-in-family to enter university are at higher risk of attrition and poorer academic outcomes (Australia Bureau of Statistics [ABS], 2013; Coates & Ransom, 2011; National Centre for Education Statistics [NCES], 2012;) also that this cohort faces particular challenges in the online environment (Stone, O’Shea, May, Delahunty & Partington, 2015). Across all enrolments, studies indicate that retention is around 20% lower in online programs than face-to-face programs (Greenland & Moore, 2014; Moody, 2004). A recent report from the Australian Government Department of Education and Training (2014) looking into completion rates of domestic undergraduate students in Australia, shows that of those students who enrolled in 2005, only 44.4% of fully external students (online) had completed their degree programs by 2012, compared with an overall completion rate in the same time period of 72.3%. The completion rate for multi-modal study was 69.5%, indicating that perhaps the lack of any face-to-face contact with the institution is particularly challenging.

Indeed, 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. Yoo and Huang’s US study (2013) found that the technology associated with online learning could be overwhelming for ‘novice adult learners’ (2013:160). This finding is supported by Ilgaz and Gülbahar’s Turkish study (2015) which concluded that the convenience factor of studying online is diminished by negative factors such as technical problems, lack of interaction with tutors and other students, problems with instructional materials and students’ own difficulties with time management.

Continue reading: ANZSSA May 2016 Newsletter (577 Kb)

1 Open Universities Australia (OUA) is an education company that specialises in facilitating open-entry online higher education in partnership with 13 Australian universities.