Online education courses

Online learning platforms can suffer from bad design, poor delivery or worse.
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01 .Introduction


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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[Teachers and online administrators] should encourage students to participate via video sessions, forums, email or whatever other facilities are made available. The level of participation has been shown to be a good indicator of success.
- Tim Roberts, Central Queensland University

Even if the online course delivers as promised, there’s a question of whether the quality of learning is as good as what you’d receive in a classroom environment. 

One recent US study of tertiary schools indicated dropout rates for online courses are about 20% higher than for classroom courses. That could add up to big numbers at operations such as the University of Phoenix Online Campus, which has 380,322 enrolments (the highest number of enrolments of all US universities, at last count). 

Tim Roberts, a senior lecturer at Central Queensland University’s School of Information and Communication Technology, makes the same point in a 2007 paper, arguing online courses “notoriously suffer from higher than average attrition rates, often because of [students’] feelings of isolation”. 

His solution is to recreate classroom dynamics in the online world by maximising student and teacher interaction. Roberts told us that research “would seem to indicate that, statistically, there is little or no real difference in learning outcomes” between online and classroom courses, but stressed group participation makes a big difference when you’re learning online. 

Roberts says teachers and online administrators “should encourage students to participate via video sessions, forums, email or whatever other facilities are made available. The level of participation has been shown to be a good indicator of success”. 

But that may not be enough when it comes to vocational education and training, according to Martinez. She says the “competency-based” nature of the material means “there are skill requirements that may not be effectively developed in learners using online delivery of training”. 

Regardless of the standard of training and education, the quality of the online training platform – and whether you and your computer can figure it out – can make or break any course of study. 

Design and delivery

Professor Ron Oliver, Pro-Vice- Chancellor for Teaching and Learning at WA’s Edith Cowan University, wrote a paper in 2001 laying out some of the pitfalls of online learning in its early days, including problems in “the achievement and maintenance of quality in online learning delivery”. 

Professor Oliver told us recently that design and delivery performance is still more inconsistent across the industry than it should be, mainly because there aren’t enough course designers skilled in translating the teaching experience to a digital platform. 

A “knownproblems” page compiled for users of the University of Tasmania’s online curriculum, to take one example, lists a formidable array of roadblocks. 

There are far more course providers than capable designers, Oliver says. Only the best platforms successfully integrate the subject expertise of the teacher with the design and delivery skills of an IT professional, and only the best providers have such resources on hand. 

In the absence of more qualified personnel, teachers tend to take on both roles. “Effective online learning takes a different set of skills than teaching face to face,” Professor Oliver says. 

“The difference between a good online course and a bad one is whether it merely replicates the training manual or textbook or adds the all-important element of learning design. A lot of subject experts take on design and delivery while they’re still figuring out how to put an online course together. The result can be an unengaging and one-dimensional course. Universities and course providers in general stake their reputations on the quality of their content and how it’s delivered, so there’s a built-in incentive to do it well. But there’s also a talent shortage. In the end, students have to rely on the integrity of the course provider. ” 

For Oliver, good learning design means giving students ample opportunity to interact with the teacher and other students and use functions that “engage the learner with designed activities that foster communication and collaboration”.

03.Tips for choosing an online course


  • Is the online training business registered and, if so, by which authority? 
  • Does the course lead to a qualification within the Australian Qualifications Framework
  • What are the computer and software requirements, and what level of computer literacy will be required? l Is there support available for technical issues? 
  • Don’t make up-front payments until you’re sure the course is officially recognised and meets your needs. 
  • Read the training contract carefully before you sign it and check the cancellation and refund conditions. 
  • Get a copy of the student handbook and make sure you understand the grievance and appeals policy.

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