Online education courses

Online learning platforms can suffer from bad design, poor delivery or worse.
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The online education and training industry is growing, and without doing some research you could end up with no accreditation, the wrong accreditation, or just be stuck with a poorly designed, ineffective course.

The online education and training industry in Australia grew 22% per year between 2006 and 2011, and currently generates an estimated $4bn in annual turnover. As of last year it employed about 16,500 people across 956 businesses. 

That’s a lot of teaching and training, and a lot of money. And those figures don’t include universities or training centres that offer less than 80% of their courses online.

Market expansion at this pace can leave consumers vulnerable to poor service and fraud, with regulation forced to play catch-up. And, in some cases at least, the online learning industry is no exception. Consumers who contacted CHOICE about online courses said lack of certainty around testing and certification, funny business with fees and patchy technical support were the major issues they’d encountered.

For more information about the internet, see networking and internet.

Price check

“Make sure you find out about exams and how you get your certification and if you have to pay for exams,” Walter Buratto tells us. He bailed out of an online information technology course because it “just gave you access to all certifications but no advice about where to start if you were new to IT. Email support wouldn’t answer your questions directly and every time it was a different person”. Andrea Eves agrees. “Sometimes I wonder why we have to pay so much when the available support is limited.”

Anyone can set up an online learning or training program, so how do you know if you’ll end up with a real accreditation or relinquish your money to an opportunist who may be running the business from their kitchen table or who isn’t qualified? See our tips for choosing an online education course.

In the first five months of 2012, NSW Fair Trading received an average of 10 complaints a month in relation to online courses, with lack of technical support among the top complaints. Consumers also had to chase after refunds because the business closed down, or they were promised study material that never arrived. They also complained about misrepresented course content or accreditation value, as well as about costs being added after the course had started.

NSW Fair Trading is less than sanguine about some segments of the industry. “Each year we receive complaints from students about training and educational courses regarding fees and refunds, misleading information and course quality,” a spokesperson told us. “Consumers are advised to be wary when selecting vocational education and training courses.” Consumer Affairs Victoria says online training and education businesses should be on notice that the new AustralianConsumer Law regime has tightened the reins and makes it a crime to “make statements that are misleading or deceptive or would be likely to mislead or deceive” or “rely on small print and disclaimers”.

Is it legit?

One easy way to avoid being duped is to make sure the course is listed on a recently launched national register of training organisations and accredited courses. A listing ensures the course can deliver nationally recognised qualifications, but is no guarantee that it will be well run or the digital platform well designed. And if you’re forced to seek assistance, the kind of customer service frustration commonly associated with telcos may be in store. 

If you find yourself spending more time figuring out how to make the online platform work than learning the material, and if support is hard to come by – or the quality of the course doesn’t live up to its advertising – the Australian Skills Quality Authority (ASQA) will take your complaint, as long as the course is run by a registered training organisation (RTO). This federal agency acts as a watchdog to ensure RTOs deliver vocational education and training that meets nationally approved standards.

Another federal initiative, the Australian Qualifications Framework, provides a national policy for ensuring qualifications are up to scratch. ASQA prepared an up-to-date complaint report for CHOICE, which showed that assessment methods and processes form the highest complaint category, followed by marketing tactics. 

Not far behind these are training delivery and the quality of the trainers. ASQA corporate communications manager Diana Martinez says the online environment has built-in shortcomings when it comes to “assessing competencies” and that the authority has concerns about “how training providers ensure the validity and authenticity of assessment, and how the online training materials meet the requirements of the national industry competency standards”. Martinez says ASQA is in the process of updating a checklist on its website to help consumers avoid dodgy operators.



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