The online education and training industry is growing rapidly in Australia, but unless you take the time to do some research on which training providers are worth their cyber salt, you could end up with no accreditation, the wrong accreditation, or stuck in a poorly designed and ineffective course with a considerably lighter wallet.
Problems in the industry
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 businesses offering the courses closed down, or they were promised study materials that never arrived. Misrepresented course content or accreditation value, and costs being added after the course had already started, were just a few additional complaints.
NSW Fair Trading is less than confident 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.
When literally anyone can set up an online learning or training program, how do you know if you'll end up with a real accreditation or relinquish your money to an unqualified opportunist running their business from the kitchen table?
"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 Australian Consumer Law [link to Choice article on ACL] regime has tightened the reins to make it a crime to "make statements that are misleading or deceptive or would be likely to mislead or deceive" or to "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 the 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 designed or well run.
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, 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.
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 inbuilt 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". ASQA also has a checklist on its website to help consumers avoid dodgy operators.
Does online education really work?
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 education indicated dropout rates for online courses are about 20% higher than for classroom courses. 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". Some might put it down to students' feelings of isolation, while others may say it's down to students having access to more information than ever and finding that the course they enrolled in isn't exactly for them, and either swapping or dropping out completely.
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 that 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". A high level of participation, he says, 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 of online courses
Professor Ron Oliver, Pro-Vice- Chancellor for Teaching and Learning at WA's Edith Cowan University, told us that design and delivery performance are more inconsistent across the industry than should be the case, mainly because there aren't enough course designers skilled in translating the teaching experience to a digital platform.
A "known problems" 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, Professor 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.
"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. "
Tips for choosing an online course
When you're checking out an online course that you're thinking about participating in, keep these tips top of mind:
- 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? Is there support available for technical issues?
- Don't make up-front payments until you've read the training contract carefully, and have checked the cancellation and refund policies.
- Get a copy of the student handbook, and make sure you understand the grievance and appeals policy.