Online education courses

Online learning platforms can suffer from bad design, poor delivery or worse.
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02.Quality of online education

[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. 


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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”.

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