Online students need personal touch
Universities should tailor online courses to needs and strengths of older and first-in-family students, study finds.
Enrolment in online courses is particularly high among Australians who are older or the first in their family to embark on higher study. To enable their success, universities must do more than just repackage lectures, says new research.
Online learning offers flexibility and opportunities to students who might otherwise have limited access to university due to distance or other commitments; but it can also leave students feeling isolated, disengaged, and neglected by their university.
This is especially difficult for first-in-family students, as their families are unfamiliar with the struggles they are facing and do not always know how to help.
In a recent study, Associate Professor Sarah O’Shea from the University of Wollongong (UOW) and Dr Cathy Stone, Conjoint Associate Professor at the University of Newcastle, underlined these problems and searched for solutions.
They drew on the findings of two previous studies: one of which interviewed 151 members of staff across three universities, the other 274 first-in-family students – 74 of them online and mature-aged.
The study found that to increase success and decrease dropout rates universities need to ensure online students feel that they belong, tailor content for online learning, and build on the unique strengths that older and first-in-family students bring.
Professor O’Shea, from UOW’s School of Education, said while it is important to meet this cohort’s needs, it is just as important to recognise their strengths.
“Older students often deeply value their place in university, as it may be the realisation of a long-term ambition or goal,” she said.
“This can give them a stronger sense of purpose, and even higher levels of persistence.”
Mature-age, first-in-family students can also bring “a great deal of practical experience and wisdom” to the classroom, Professor O’Shea said.
“When we design learning content that is relevant to their lives as working, responsible adults with extensive life experience, these students are more likely to feel included, and to value their experience and what it can offer to the learning process.”
Belonging is best fostered when support staff make personal contact with students: by email, by phone, by organising events, and even by driving out to visit students, Dr Stone said.
Visiting students in their hometowns can help in rallying their communities to back them; events provide online and older students the chance to meet each other, giving them a chance to share knowledge, enhance learning, and talk about their experience.
Guidance from teaching staff is likewise important; students interviewed appreciated when “staff engaged with them at a personal level, rather than as a faceless or unknown statistic.”
One student “explained that if she had not received the genuine and helpful verbal support from her lecturer after her partner became unwell,” she “would have dropped out”, Dr Stone said.
Staff cannot be expected to do all this alone, she said; they need institutional support, both to ensure consistency, and to ensure their efforts are part of a realistic workload.
Meanwhile, it is alienating for students when staff simply record and upload face-to-face lectures. Course materials work best when they are designed “completely differently” for online delivery; further, online platforms need to be simple and easy to use, avoiding technological obstacles to learning, Dr Stone said.
‘Older, online and first: Recommendations for retention and success’ by Cathy Stone and Sarah O’Shea is published in the Australasian Journal of Educational Technology.
The study was conducted with funding support from The National Centre for Student Equity and Higher Education and the Australian Government Department of Education and Training.