There was a time when studying online was considered an answer to the tyranny of distance – for students who were too remote to study on campus. But learning online is now widely accepted as the answer to a wider range of challenges.

The number of students studying online with Australian universities has been increasing steadily, rising from about 68,000 in 2008 to more than 116,000 in 2015.

A significant number of Australian universities now have more students who study online than on campus, with up to 85 per cent of students enrolled online at some institutions.

But research has shown that some prospective students who are considering online study continue to have concerns about feeling isolated and the lack of interaction with staff and students.

DR BEN KEHRWALDDr Ben Kehrwald, who’s developing online courses for UniSA, says many of the assumptions about online education are outdated.

“There’s a persistent myth that online is an isolating experience, that it’s just you and your computer, but it’s actually a very interactive experience. Students in UniSA’s newest online courses can expect to have a high degree of interaction with their teachers and with other students,” he says.

“The fact is, the person you’re communicating with has emotions and a sense of humour just like you – and we can build that into online learning. People learn from experience and they get that experience through interactions with others – whether on campus or online.”

DR NEGIN MIRRIAHIDr Negin Mirriahi, who has developed online courses for the University of British Columbia and the University of NSW and has now brought her expertise to UniSA, says that although online learning allows people in rural and remote areas to access education more easily, it’s quite different to the distance education of the past. 

“Distance education was very much paper-based. All the course materials were posted out, you’d do the assignments individually and mail them in – it was a very individual experience,” Dr Mirriahi says. 

UniSA was a leader in the field, establishing a Distance Education Centre (pictured) more than 25 years ago - providing flexible study options for students, no matter where they lived. The centre grew to serve more than 4000 students. 

“If the course is designed to have an appropriate level of interaction, the experience can be equivalent to on-campus. The online courses coming out now are of the highest quality, not just in terms of content but also the learning experience. 

“Discussion forums, wikis and blogs can help maintain that sense of community and encourage debate around a topic, often with input from an instructor to facilitate and guide the discussion. It’s no different than facilitating in a lecture or tutorial, it’s just that the medium has changed.”

Dr Kehrwald, who studied his Masters in Education online, says the key is to provide opportunities for students to engage meaningfully with teaching staff and fellow students in an online environment.

“For me, learning online was a much more powerful experience than learning on campus. I was really engaged in learning, with other students and with teaching staff. I was involved in lots of side debates with other students and teaching staff and the experience became really engrossing,” Dr Kehrwald says. 

“When you’re engaged and learning at your own pace, you become addicted to it and you want to learn more. By comparison, my on-campus experience as an undergraduate in the United States was average.”

He says the benefits include flexibility of time and pace of learning, not having to travel to campus, and digital course materials being accessible from anywhere. 

“And you don’t have to be online at the same time as a lecture or tutorial which means you can engage with the course materials or debate a particular point at a time where you have the headspace to think about it,” he says. “I really enjoy studying on my own terms, when I have the time to give a clearheaded, thoughtful response at my own pace, rather than a kneejerk response because the lecture happens to be on.”

Use of technology

Flexible technology is also transforming how universities teach and students learn.

“You used to just tell, now you can show students, which is great for visual learners like me,” Dr Kehrwald says. “With tablets and iPhones, you can take your studies wherever you go, and the communications possibilities are endless through social media and platforms such as Skype and WhatsApp.”

Dr Mirriahi, who was part of a team of two academics that developed an award-winning Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), Learning to Teach Online, adopted by US President Obama’s 2015 ConnectEd program of continuing education accreditation, says new technologies need to be integrated at the program level to be successful.

“Introducing new technology into a student’s experience in one or two courses is not enough to motivate students to use or adopt it,” she says. “New technology needs to be introduced at a program level (across courses) so that students gradually start to use it and appreciate how it enhances their learning. It takes time and effort for students to start seeing the benefits of using it.”

She says that although video content such as TED talks and YouTube content are increasingly popular in online courses, they are not necessarily engaging.  

“Watching a video can still be quite a passive experience but it can be a more active experience by using an annotation tool, such as the Online Video Annotations for Learning (OVAL) tool, that allows students to comment and write time-stamped notes on the video as they might in a textbook. The comments can be private or shared with a tutor, course coordinator or other students,” she says. 

The challenges of teaching online include “shepherding students along” so they continue to stay engaged with the course. Technology can also help with this, with the ability to track how much students are engaging with a course and to flag when students need support. 

UniSA is building a tool in partnership with a number of Australian and overseas universities that will help automate this process, providing personalised feedback to students when they need it.

The tool, OnTask, gathers data about each student’s learning activities throughout the semester and allows instructors to design personalised feedback with suggestions to help students progress. 

PROFESSOR SHANE DAWSONThe Director of UniSA’s Teaching Innovation Unit, Professor Shane Dawson says that in large online classes it is not possible for the course coordinator to provide every student with personalised and ongoing feedback.

“By automating and tailoring feedback on how students engage when watching videos, completing assessments, reviewing electronic textbooks, or participating in discussion forums, lecturers can use the OnTask feedback system to provide students with automated yet personalised feedback so that teaching staff can use their time to provide detailed and intensive support in more complex situations,” Prof Dawson says.

“For instance, the system can be set up to distinguish if a student has misunderstood a vital part of the course that will impact on their ability to understand subsequent lessons. The system can flag this for the student and the lecturer and ensure that the student gets the help they need.”

He says the system, currently being trialled at UniSA alongside three other Australian universities, will lead to better results and more satisfied students, improving retention and completion rates. It also prompts and reminds students about pending or overdue tasks and assessments.

“OnTask is effectively a student’s personal coach that supports all students in their learning,” Prof Dawson says.

Dr Kehrwald says online learning suits a lot of people but some self-discipline is required.

“Flexibility equals freedom which means you have to create your own structure and organisation to keep on top of projects and study.”