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You are reading: My children… think it’s cool that Mum is a uni student: Women with caring responsibilities studying online

Cathy Stone and Sarah O’Shea

Published in Australian Journal of Educational Technology Special Issue 2019

Much has been written about the growing influence and reach of online learning in higher education, including the opportunities that this can offer for improving student equity and widening participation. One area of student equity in which online learning has an influence is that of gender equity, particularly for mature-age students. This article explicitly explores how the dual identities of student and family carer are managed by women studying online. It highlights the largely invisible yet emotional and time-consuming additional load that many women are carrying and discusses the importance of this being recognised and accommodated at an institutional level. Online study has the potential to facilitate a more manageable and achievable study path for students with caring responsibilities, most of whom are women. Institutional understanding and awareness are required for this potential to be truly realised, thereby reducing educational inequity.

Implications for practice or policy:

  • Recognising that older students, particularly women, are often combining study with complex family caring responsibilities, will lead to a more equitable learning environment that better facilitates persistence and success for online students.
  • Building flexibility into online course design, keeping content and assessment tasks relevant and focused, enables students to pace their studies within their significant time constraints.
  • Regular and meaningful communication between tutors and students sustains engagement, building a culture of caring, encouragement and support.


The proportion of university students in fully online higher education (HE) has been growing steadily in Australia, from 17% of commencing domestic students in 2010 to approximately 25% in 2018. This is having an impact on student access and participation in HE, with students from historically under-represented groups more strongly represented within the online cohort than in on-campus study (Abbott-Chapman, 2011; Department of Education and Training [DET], 2017b, 2018; Devlin & McKay, 2016; Dodo-Balu, 2018; Stone, 2017). In particular, online study is opening the door to more mature-age students who, through prior socio-economic disadvantage and/or competing responsibilities, may not previously have had the opportunity to attend university. As will be discussed in more detail below, women form the majority of mature-age students in HE and are increasingly choosing distance and part-time study to fit in with the time-consuming nature of their other commitments, including paid work and family (Hewson, 2018; Redmond, Abawi, Brown, Henderson, & Heffernan, 2018; Stone & O’Shea, 2019; Stone, O’Shea, May, Delahunty, & Partington, 2016).

While there is evidence of lower retention and qualification completion rates in distance education compared with on-campus study (DET, 2017a, 2018; Greenland & Moore, 2014; Stone, 2017), research indicates that online student attrition is connected as much with the nature of the cohort as it is with studying in distance mode. Compared with the more traditional on-campus student cohort, amongst the online student cohort there is a significantly higher proportion of those who are older (25 years plus) and studying part-time, with women more strongly represented than men within this cohort. This is the case not only within Australia (DET, 2017b) but also at universities with substantial numbers of fully online students within New Zealand (New Zealand Ministry of Education, 2017), the United Kingdom (The Open University, n.d.) and North America (Athabasca University, 2019). Although the unique challenges of studying online, such as technology and physical isolation from others, have been shown to be contributing factors, there is evidence that, for the many older, part-time students, it is their home, family and paid work responsibilities that play a significant role in distance student attrition (Moore & Greenland, 2017; Müller, 2008; Park & Choi, 2009; Stone & O’Shea, 2019; Tyler-Smith, 2006; Yoo & Huang, 2013). The higher numbers of women within the online cohort, combined with the gendered expectations of women as primary carers of others within the family (Stone & O’Shea, 2013), mean that women are particularly vulnerable in this context.

Despite many years of gender equity measures at government and industry levels (Australian Government Workplace Gender Equality Agency, 2018; Australian Human Rights Commission [AHRC], 2018; University of Melbourne and Centre for Workplace Leadership, 2015), Australian women continue to carry responsibility for caring for others, both within the family context and in the Australian workforce. According to the AHRC (2018), women account for 68% of primary carers, 70% of primary unpaid carers of children and 58% of carers of the elderly and people with disability or long-term health conditions. Women are also doing more of the caring work in the paid workforce, with 2016 census data revealing that industries employing the highest proportion of women are healthcare, social assistance and education, while for men these are construction, mining and machine operating (Australian Bureau of Statistics [ABS], 2018). When women return to study, they are likely to be doing so within the constraints of their competing responsibilities for households, partners, children and possibly other family members.

The attention paid to gender equity in HE in Australia has diminished somewhat over the past 20 years or so, perhaps largely because women are no longer under-represented at university level generally. Areas where women remain under-represented still exist, such as in engineering, while overall, female enrolments in Australian universities now slightly outweigh male enrolments. However, previous studies have shown that, amongst students aged 25 and over in Australia, women remain disadvantaged in their studies by their traditional role of carer (Chesters & Watson, 2014; Mallman & Lee, 2014; Pocock, Skinner, & Ichii, 2009;Stone & O’Shea, 2012, 2013). Interestingly, women with caring responsibilities are now increasinglychoosing the flexibility that online study promises, specifically to manage study around other family commitments. While this flexibility potentially benefits both women and men, women are statistically more likely to be the beneficiaries, as they continue to carry the major responsibility for domestic work and caring for others, whether this be caring for children and/or other relatives such as partners and parents.

This article examines the practical and emotional underpinnings of the online student experience from the perspective of women with family caring responsibilities. It addresses gaps in understanding about how women as online learners strive to ensure that their roles of parent, partner, family carer and paid worker co-exist successfully alongside the role of student. From these finding and discussions, recommendations are offered for HE institutions and those who work within them, on ways to better appreciate, acknowledge and support women to succeed in their academic goals.

Read the full article in Australian Journal of Educational Technology.

This article is republished from Australian Journal of Educational Technology under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.