Distance Education: Would you like deep learning with that?

Australian universities are experiencing unprecedented growth in distance education. More than 200,000 students were studying in external mode, representing more than 14% of higher education enrollments.

Given the large numbers of students choosing to study via distance, or online, what are – or should – universities be doing differently to ensure that these students have the same chance of success as their on-campus peers?

For students studying on campus, the physical surrounds and interactions have a significant impact on their experience of university. However, the state of the art learning commons, engaging face-to-face lectures, great coffee and sporting clubs are unlikely to have a similar influence on the experience of those learning at a distance. With the massification of higher education and the ability of students to study anywhere in the world from their desktop, what is it that will differentiate the student experience for those studying online at one university from another?

The challenge for us as university educators and administrators is how to provide the same advantages afforded by an on-campus experience to online students without defeating the very purpose of studying by distance education.

An understanding of the unique needs and expectations of online learners is critical if we are to provide an environment that meets student needs and is conducive to their success.  However, caution is needed to ensure that these drivers are combined with our knowledge as educators and what we understand to be the conditions for student success and retention.

Combining student expectations with quality education

For instance, a recent study from the US pointed to the differing expectations of non-traditional, older students and compared their desired relationships with their university to those they have with their banks and supermarkets. Similar to the qualities they expect of their Internet Service Provider, these students are reportedly seeking convenience, service, quality and low prices in their university experience. In themselves, these are not unreasonable expectations, but they must be combined with what we know about student learning to ensure a quality education, or else risk the drive-through McDonalds version of degrees with a ‘would you like deep learning with that?’ approach.

None of this is without its challenges, least of all realigning a workforce that has in many instances been designed around a model of face-to-face, 9-5 service delivery.

For students to thrive in distance education we need to seriously consider:

  • How to understand the needs and behaviours of students studying in this way
  • Whether our workforce and policies are adequate to support students in this mode of study
  • Whether our students are suitably prepared for learning online
  • What student services are relevant to students studying by distance education?
  • If our online environment is able to support the same complexity and sophistication of interactions we have with students on campus