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Studying in 2014: could online courses become the new norm?

Come in. Sit down. Eyes to the front and no talking in the back please. 

Just kidding, this is online learning! No one cares where you are and you can talk all you like. It’s your course and you can study it however you want to.

Chances are that by now you might know at least one person who has studied online (I’m finishing off a Certificate IV in Fitness this weekend). Or maybe you’re in the middle of a bit of online upskilling yourself. Over the past five years, the online learning sector has gone from being a possible disruptor of traditional learning to a serious challenger. It’s found itself on top of industry watchlists, and with more providers and more government-funded courses on offer every other month, it’s clear that it’s here to stay. So why is online education so hot right now? 

Growth over the past five years has been truly staggering: there has been a 50 per cent increase in students combining on- and off-campus study, and 40.6 per cent growth in those studying entirely externally – and those figures are just for the publicly funded institutions. Over the same period, on-campus student numbers grew by 18 per cent.

The growth in on-campus vs off-campus learning

And if you took a look at a mix of private and public providers in the VET sector, you might be shocked to see 6.3 times the number of online graduates as there were five years ago (via the National Centre for Vocational Education Research). All these shifts took place between 2008 and 2013, and they beg the question: are online courses set to become the new norm?

It’s getting serious

Online courses have been around for over a decade, but they’re now part of the everyday university and TAFE landscape in Australia – and I’m not talking the free online courses (MOOCs), they have had their fair share of the hype. I’m talking about fully accredited online courses from universities, TAFEs and private colleges, which seem to be accommodating somewhere towards a million local bums-off-seats. That’s a lot of people choosing to study after hours, from their bedrooms or even with one eye on the kids.

It’s one of our top growing industries

Global market analyst IBISWorld reported in February this year that online education, already worth $5.9 billion, was set to ‘grow at a rapid pace’. It was picked out among a handful of industries that are capitalising on Australia’s uptake of new technologies such as internet publishing, app development and online retailing.

Online education is growing at a rapid pace

In fact, IBISWorld forecasted an impressive annual growth rate of 8.5 per cent in the five years through to 2018-19, that’s more than mining, grain growing and cafes. With 1,304 businesses and 21,138 employees, IBISWorld even listed online learning as the sixth-highest industry for employment growth in Australia.

But the remarkable thing about IBISWorld’s prediction was that it was made before the government announced its intentions to extend its HECS and HELP-supported places to private providers – a move that will certainly increase the accessibility of private online courses for many students.

So why are online courses causing such a stir?

You know when the established players get themselves organised that something has really taken off. We’re at the stage now that Open Colleges and Swinburne Online are household names (Swinburne is on its way to having more online students than two or three public universities), and Open Universities Australia (OUA) represents over a dozen traditional sandstone-clad institutions from Monash to Macquarie, UniSA to RMIT. Over the past four years distance education specialist Central Queensland University has seen its online learners go from a third to half of its student population.

It’s the same for TAFE online. Bricks-and-mortar TAFEs are well and truly on board with offerings such as OTEN and the Northern Sydney Institute. This year OUA even introduced its own VET provider, Open Training Institute, and we’ll soon be welcoming a new player to online education entirely in the internationally established Torrens University, an institution already offering online courses overseas.

All of this excitement might have you feeling like you’re ready to give up the folding lecture chair forever and join the digital fray, but what about quality? Are online courses really delivering results?

I’ve been speaking with a range of experts to identify five top reasons why we’re starting to see students of all ages flock to their laptops instead of the lecture theatre, as well as some recent stats that might surprise you.

Five reasons why online learning could be the new norm

With exclusive insights from: 

Online education panel of experts
Technology has improved

When was the last time you researched a topic online and only read some text? We’re so used to rich media that we’re no longer content to learn simply by reading words on a screen or flicking through a PowerPoint slideshow. 

But Rod Camm, Managing Director of the National Centre for Vocational Education and Research, remembers when online learning was just that: ‘We’ve come a long way from the days when you emailed docs, printed and studied them. It’s now very interactive and the beauty of it is that it’s so flexible.’ He cites the Blue Dog Training Institute in Queensland as one surprising success; they are training apprentices wholly online with a highly interactive model that includes plans and drawings.

Our expectations as consumers have changed. We expect online learning to be as seamless and efficient as online banking or communications technologies, and educational institutions now understand this. Online offerings are becoming more innovative and less tied to the physical world way of doing things – whether that's with 3D models, interactive learning, or greater use of social media.

Central Queensland University’s Pro Vice-Chancellor (Learning and Teaching), Rob Reed, explains: ‘We work hard to give our students the same outcomes through equivalent learning experiences, irrespective of whether they are online or on campus. For example, group-based projects are carried out online ... We have moved from a ‘correspondence course’ model of distance education, where students were simply sent a printed study guide, to one that makes use of online technologies – for example, video recordings can replicate the traditional lecture-style presentation, and webconferencing systems enable the students to log on and communicate with staff and other students in small group work.’

What we might have seen as the benefits of face-to-face interaction in the past –practical examples, case studies, real-world practitioners giving Q and A sessions – is all translatable to an online experience. The social needs of today’s students are also being considered more carefully, says demographer Mark McCrindle:

‘The technological trends are meeting a lot of the psychological needs. It’s about social networking and the online environment has got some real immediacy, it allows for the creation of content as well as the consumption of content. All of those things we want – portability, mobility, creation, immediacy – technology has adapted to and continues to meet our needs. We’re seeing the same in the online educational space as well.’

OUA is a market-leader in innovation and has recently addressed the increased demand for mobile compatible training solutions (a development that’s hardly surprising when you consider that Australia ranks only behind Singapore for smartphone penetration rates). This development also points to the fact that the online learning space has become more in tune with its consumers, and quicker to adapt.

The right method for today's student

Just like the early years of online banking, we’ve now hit the stage where users have had time to assess the quality and trust the results, but, even more than that, people of all ages are simply realising that it suits their lifestyle. This acceptance of online study can be seen in a recent survey of graduate satisfaction where ‘external’, ‘multi-modal’ and ‘internal’ modes of learning all ranked within two per cent of each other overall. This was in the recently released Graduate Course Experience Survey from Graduate Careers, and it might surprise you to note that the mode of learning with the highest satisfaction on average was actually ‘multi-modal.’ It seems we like our study to suit our needs.

How has acceptance of online learning grown so quickly, you might ask? Mark McCrindle has an idea:

‘We’re really dealing with Gen Z now; the first generation of true digital natives. The generation who had one-for-one programs in their schools, social medias, education through gamification or apps. As they’ve come through uni we certainly have a generation as technologically advanced as the delivery platform. It used to be that students would have to get their heads across the platform, but now universities and colleges need to truly match what is online.’

Online learning has an immediacy that a lecture doesn’t and in an age of instant answers, any lag can feel stifling. McCrindle:

Paul Wappett, CEO of OUA, made a similar observation in this year’s annual report:

‘Student expectations have never been higher about the quality of the learning experience that they’ll receive, the level of engagement that they will see from both their teachers and their fellow students, and the way in which institutions will use technology to deliver those experiences.’

So it seems we’re in an era of dynamic learning – of e-learning 2.0, where the user is dictating the delivery. Reed sees positive potential for pedagogy, too: ‘It can even improve on the original, which was bound by the constraints of the timetable (1-hour lectures) – online video clips are often shorter, since we know that humans learn best in short “bursts” rather than trying to concentrate for an hour at a time. Also, the short video can be replayed (we know that repetition is a key aspect of learning fundamental information).’

When you couple this with dropping student engagement rates on campus, it looks as if the traditional institutions need to take notice. The University Experience Survey revealed that just half of all students had a sense of belonging with their university last year and less than half interacted with their fellow students outside of study time. It’s hard to compete with discussions that can happen across time and space. Swinburne Online’s Meghan Lodwick makes this interactivity clear:

There will always be a place for face-to-face learning, but it does seem as if the stigma around online courses has receded somewhat, and the benefits are now more widely recognised. So, how does it actually shape up?

It delivers results

I took a look at the Graduate Course Experience Survey for universities and the story over the past three years has been positive with online learning making ground at a swift pace across most areas. Here are the results, so you can see for yourself:

Satisfaction measure

Leading mode of study

Comparison between modes of study 2010-2013

Overall satisfaction All modes between 83 and 84 per cent
Appropriate assessment External more than 16 per cent higher than internal
Appropriate workload Both external and multi-modal at over 9 per cent higher than internal
Clear goals and standards External 4 per cent behind others
Generic skills scale External trailing internal and multi-modal by 5 per cent
Good teaching scale External trailing internal and multi-modal by 5 per cent
Graduate qualities scale External and multi-modal 1 per cent higher than internal
Intellectual motivation External 2 per cent higher than multi-modal and 3.5 per cent higher than internal
Learning community External 14 per cent below multi-modal and 18 per cent below internal
Learning resources Even across the board
Student support External trailing internal by 9 per cent and multi-modal by 7 per cent


These results put external and multi-modal learning right up there with on-campus modes in everything from intellectual motivation to appropriate assessment and learning resources, with external leaps and bounds above on-campus for appropriate assessment and appropriate workloads. The only area where off-campus learning hasn’t made up ground is in the areas of learning community and student support – two areas that leaders like OUA have been experimenting with recently.

Actually, one of the most exciting things about how far online courses have come is just that: the experimentation that the online environment allows.

Mark McCrindle: ‘We’re in the world of big data now and when you get all of that data – which you can only collect online when you look at what people are downloading, the questions they ask, the viewer behaviour and you analyse the feedback given – it does allow for a non-stop improvement of the delivery.' Mark continues: 

If you look at the financial services sector – collecting data on credit card usage and customising payments – they come up with more convenient forms, pay points and respond to the data they are getting. Frequent Flyers is the best example of that, where they meet shifts in shopping behaviours in almost a real-time way.'

But how does that translate to a better learning environment? Let’s look at OUA’s recent efforts across their free online courses and accredited courses as a case study.

You might have heard that MOOCs only retain 7 per cent of their students. This may be the case, but what needs to be understood is that free online education is often considered a branding exercise that allows institutions to build their online learning reputation within their target markets. It also allows them to experiment and improve their accredited courses with the large amounts of data they gather. OUA has done this successfully with their free online courses platform, Open2Study, which grew to more than 158,000 enrolments across 180 countries in its first year.

Open2Study actually boasts a world-leading 25 per cent completion rate for its free courses, and it reported a student satisfaction score of over 96 per cent in 2013. Their retention rates are even higher for their accredited courses and they have invested in a range of student services and measures to continue this improvement. For example, OUA’s free PREP units make their graduates 1.5 times more likely to complete their next paid undergraduate unit, they have piloted library meetups and proven their Smarthinking tutorial service doubles the pass rate for their students and makes them twice as likely to achieve distinctions and high distinctions. They have also designed an online classroom that allows students to utilise their resources while they simultaneously engage with their fellow students and tutors on the same screen.

And you know what is most exciting about these observations? The fact that they are able to be observed at all. Behind all of this is their purpose-built data analytics engine, housed within a custom designed Learning Management System to individualise and personalise each student's experience based on their interaction with the materials and their progress. OUA is even offering this as a service to a range of existing educational institutions, meaning that your traditional university might have their online expertise up to scratch before we know it. Meeting the individual needs of students has come a very long way.

In many ways, the proof is in the pedagogical pudding, and no more so than for a generation that is used to reviewing its experiences and spreading the word. McCrindle agrees: ‘I think it’s a generation that is pragmatic and looking for outcomes – they are not as wowed by the technology, it’s not a novelty factor, it’s a reality factor. It’s about “just give me the outcome”.’ He relates this to the MOOC experience: ‘The Wikipedia generation have all the information anyway, they don’t need to grab information just because it’s there. They need their course to be relevant in their part of Australia with their particular career. The MOOC opportunity is great, but I’d be asking: how contextualised is it for me? What’s the currency for me?’

So courses still need to be tailored – in fact, we could very well declare that they need to be more tailored than ever.

Online study reaches new demographics

A lot of us expect our information at the swipe of our index finger and the 0.40 seconds it takes for Google to tell you the capital of Armenia, and whether it’s these things, or the increase in our working hours, we simply don’t feel we have time to mess about. Online courses have always been popular among postgraduate students who are earning while they learn, but they can also do away with the costly practicalities of face-to-face learning, as Rod Camm suggests:

‘If face-to-face was about practical skills then these can be provided through simulation online (for example, rather than dissecting real animals, students can use an online program to investigate the internal anatomy of an animal.’

He sends me a link to one of McGraw Hill’s virtual labs, which makes this abundantly clear, and also makes me think about the number of frogs saved in the process. Their online courses are not limited to theory-based subjects, either. Central Queensland University runs intensive residential schools that operate for between one and five days, allowing students with other commitments, such as work, or restrictions to do with distance, the opportunity to get their practical component completed as efficiently as possible.

An interesting observation from Meghan Lodwick at Swinburne, is that online courses are speeding up study time for current students:

‘Already, an increasing number of students who are studying on-campus, either at Swinburne University or other institutions, are electing to take one or more subjects with Swinburne Online to complete their degree more quickly.’

McCrindle says that the median duration for each of our jobs is sitting at 3 years and 4 months, and that we could have up to 17 different employers in our lifetimes, his advice is simply to keep up:

‘In times of massive trends and fast-moving careers, what’s required more than ever is that people remain employable by keeping their skills honed and their training cutting edge – they should be plugging skills gaps as they go. Online is the most efficient and realistic for those holding down a job.’

But just as it allows some students to speed up, online learning can also help those students who need to slow down. Some students take longer to complete their courses because they have competing priorities, or perhaps take longer to understand concepts due to language barriers. The flexibility means that it moulds closely to new demographics for whom tertiary study seemed previously unachievable. McCrindle recognises this potential equity and access for an entirely new demographic:

‘If we look at Baby Boomers, about one in five completed tertiary education. It’s our prediction that it will be closer to one in two with a degree and flexible delivery platforms have driven the growth there ... Apart from young people straight out of school, it has really helped adult learners looking to retrain – going back to campus is not an option. It’s really levelled the playing field and provided great opportunities for regional and more remote people, or those financially locked into a role who age-wise wouldn’t think of themselves as a student.’

When I asked about the potential societal impact of the current changes, McCrindle went even further, considering the effect of the growing population on our current models:

‘We have almost twice the population now than we had when the university was opened up in the 1970s. Today’s market is very different with an extra 10-11 million more people. There are some educational bottlenecks here that can only be solved with e-learning.' McCrindle's outlook is pragmatic:

So in this context, online learning is not just a great idea, or an efficiency model, it’s what our current era dictates in order to meet the needs of a generation.

With such high hopes in mind, I asked Rob Reed if he thought online learning had the capacity to close the gap for those of low socio-economic backgrounds. His response was emphatic:

‘It certainly does! The majority of our students, and especially our online (distance education) students are adult learners ... Online provides them with the flexibility that they need to study at a time and in a way that fits in with their busy lives – for example, we have students who watch videos late at night, when their children have gone to bed.’

It’s the same for Meghan Lodwick at Swinburne: ‘Online study is reaching a new group of Australians. Our students from regional areas are able to continue to live and work in their region and apply the knowledge learned through online education directly back into their community and workplace ... Many Swinburne Online students are seeking a second chance at tertiary education, evident in the 62 per cent of our students who are over the age of 25, and the average age is 31. Some students have elected to complete their degree with Swinburne Online after commencing at a different institution and having their studies interrupted by moving away, or by work or family commitments.’

So far, so good: online courses seem to be delivering on their promise to reach the far corners of the country, and to connect previously unlikely students to greater opportunities. But are they ever likely to take over from on-campus education?

Online study is a logical progression

I asked Rob Reed if he thought online education would ever get to be the size of on campus education, and he had a straightforward answer:

‘Well – online education just exceeds on-campus education at CQUniversity in terms of student numbers, so we’re already there!’

That’s not the case across the majority of institutions, but the ducks are certainly lining up for online courses. We’ve got significant growth in the initial stages, government support for private providers, demographic signals, new markets, budgetary factors and improved technology leading to greater satisfaction. But is it actually likely to become the norm?

Well, in some ways, online education is the norm already, and in others, it’s still got a way to go. Rod Camm, Managing Director of NCVER tracks the use of online learning in VET classrooms and says that the general view is that RTOs under-report the actual level of e-learning and that those who use e-learning at least in some way might be as high as 90 per cent. He's realistic:

So multi-modal e-learning is already here, but as far as room for improvement goes, that’s more to do with the uptake of wholly online courses. And if you’re not convinced that they will get there, then you might be interested to know that Universities Admissions Centre has noted a significant increase of almost 60 per cent in the selection of online courses as first preferences. These numbers are still in their first few thousands, but the change has taken place over just the last four years.

We’re a way off the ‘death of the university as we know it’, and it’s more likely to be a case that that type of university will still have its place, but we can expect online courses to be accepted as an equal and appealing alternative into the future. There are some difficulties yet to be overcome, as Rob Reed points out.

‘Compared to the “old days” of the correspondence model of a decade ago, online students now have far better opportunities to connect with staff and other students at the University. The main limitation then becomes the student’s broadband connection (for example, those with poor connectivity will often use audio-only files, rather than video, or they will go to a public library or University campus to download files, rather than using online streaming.’

As broadband improves, this will only increase the engagement of students in remote areas – the estimated 2.5 million people living in our outer-regional areas and beyond.

We’re in an open-book world where we consume over 10 hours of media each day. We try things, we collaborate, and we’re more visually literate than ever before, so the future for an online solution looks bright to me. Over the coming five years we will see more alliances between institutions to allow them to share marketing and operational costs, and with IBISWorld forecasting $546 million in marketing spend over the next five years, we can expect to be hearing a whole lot more about it.

But before that happens, I’ll let some of the experts have the last word:

Lodwick: ‘We anticipate that over time the demographic profile of Swinburne Online students is likely to change. Increasingly, a significant proportion of school leavers will have an expectation that higher education can and should be delivered online, utilising the potential of online technologies.’

McCrindle: ‘People used to have a career for life and they were happy with that. We now have more homes; markers of adulthood have been pushed back. There have been a lot of changes to life stages as we change and churn with geographical and vocational mobility.

The traditional model had a challenge with high labour costs and the amount tied up in physical infrastructure. If they can get great efficiencies there with more online delivery of content it will a) ensure they survive; b) ensure longevity and provide resources in an equity and access direction.’

That future doesn’t sound too bad to me. And I’m sure there are a whole lot of laboratory-bound frogs out there who wouldn’t mind so much, either.

Want to jump on board this new learning trend and give an online course a go? We have hundreds to choose from on Career FAQs.

Thanks to Nicholas Karamanos and the team at IBISWorld for their helpful analysis and assistance.

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