In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Australian universities rapidly shifted to online models of learning and teaching. Some argue that this shift was long overdue. But even before the pandemic, online learning was rapidly growing in popularity in Australian tertiary education institutions. Recent data collected by the Australian Department of Education and Training show that the number of students enrolling in online and blended offerings in the higher education sector is rising faster than the number of students studying on campus. But should online and blended learning stay post-COVID? The answer is clear: YES!
Online and blended education allows universities to expand course offerings to an increasingly wider number of students. Online education offers increasing opportunities to students from historically marginalised groups who may have previously been excluded from higher education, including students from regional and rural parts of Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, and students from lower socio-economic backgrounds, students with disability, and students who are the first in their family to study at university.
Online education is more accessible to students who work part- of full-time while studying, or for students who have substantial family or carer responsibilities. Research including the student voice has identified several reasons why they are choosing to study online. Students have said they prefer online and blended learning because it offers increased flexibility (such as the ability to choose when and where to study), the ability to fit study around lifestyle commitments (such as family and work), and reduces barriers associated with fixed timetables, transportation, and the physical on-campus environment.
Australian students who were not able to access higher education before due to geographic location, disability, work, or family commitments report that online education now offers them their first opportunity to participate.
For these reasons, online and blended learning should feature prominently in Australian higher education institutions, and university educators and researchers should be encouraged and supported to explore new ways to deliver high quality teaching in primarily asynchronous online environments.
But online learning presents new challenges. Media reports during the COVID-19 pandemic have suggested that online learning might not be meeting the needs of all students:
- Uni students with disabilities say remote learning must improve
- ‘COVID is being used as an excuse’: Sydney’s uni students are losing patience with online learning
- Faculties need policies for quality assurance of online learning
- College students ask: What’s up with my ‘ghost professor?’
These reports are corroborated by research findings. Several studies have included the student voice to identify challenges associated with participation in online education. Here are five challenges that students might experience when participating in online or blended learning, and potential and practical solutions. The proposed solutions may help university educators to rethink the design and delivery of online learning post-COVID, to ensure that it meets the needs of diverse learners:
|Students have reported that they have difficulty navigating the online learning environment, or they don’t know what they are supposed to be doing each week.||Create a ‘Welcome to the Unit’ video, and make it the first activity that students see and complete when they log in to the learning management system (LMS; e.g., Moodle or Blackboard). In the video, you can welcome the students to the unit, and provide a video tour of the online site. On your video tour, show the students where they can find the assessment information, the unit calendar and due dates, weekly learning materials, and any other important content. |
Second, keep the navigation of your LMS simple and intuitive. Use clear section headers to organise weekly content or topics.
Third, provide students with a printable checklist with a list of activities they should be working on each week, and key due dates.
|Students have reported that they need help learning to use course technologies and cannot find information about where to access institutional support, such as tech support or enrolment support||In a clearly marked section on your LMS, provide links to:Disability support servicesTechnology support servicesStudent advisor servicesAny academic supports available to studentsThe online library |
In your first synchronous class with the students, review the different supports and services that the university provides, and show students where to access the links.
You might also consider including this information in a Frequently Asked Questions document for students, which you can post as an announcement during the first week of the semester.
|Students have reported that the course content lacks purpose or is not pitched at the right level||Create clear and measurable course-level and topic-level learning objectives. Your course-level learning objectives should appear at the very top of the LMS, and should tell the students what they will be able to say and do at the end of the semester. The assessment tasks should be designed to allow students to demonstrate the course-learning objectives. |
The topic-level learning objectives should be more specific and aligned to the weekly content. For example, when providing weekly topic-level readings or activities for the students to complete, state the learning objective name or number that the activity is aligned to in brackets next to the activity. Really strengthen the alignment between activities and learning objectives!
Provide multiple ways for students to learn and engage with the content. For example, when teaching a specific concept (or topic), you might provide a textbook chapter, a brief video lecture, a link to a blog post or website, and an interactive activity. This provides students with different ways to engage with material, that vary in complexity and form.
|Students have reported that online education does not provide them with opportunities to build personal relationships with lecturers||First, set up an online ‘Introduce Yourself’ forum and ask students to introduce themselves and answer a fun question (for example, if you could travel anywhere in the world right now, where would you go and why?). Personally respond and welcome each student when they post an introduction.|
Supplement the asynchronous (or self-paced) online study activities with some synchronous real-time activities, such as discussion groups, tutorials, or drop in sessions.
Use discussion forums, wikis, google forms, or other tools to create collaboratively learning activities for students. To maximise student engagement, provide very clear instructions about the task and the expected contribution of each student. Make the activity relevant by linking it to one component of the assessment task. Be present in the forum or in the collaborative learning space by providing encouragement, praise, and scaffolding (all sorts of feedback!) in response to student contributions.
|Students have reported that course technologies and content are inaccessible||Provide an accessibility statement for any course technologies you use. An accessibility statement provides users with information about how the technology or software meets basic guidelines for accessibility. If the technology does not have an accessibility statement, look for different technology. |
Include alternative text for any images that you post on your LMS.
Ensure videos include a captioning option or a transcript.
Do not use coloured text to convey meaning.
Always upload word documents and PDFs that are accessible and searchable. Never upload scanned documents, which are not accessible or searchable.
It is important to note that university educators have also expressed concern about online education. University staff have reported feeling like they lack institutional support to design high quality online learning experiences. Staff have reported that they do not have enough time or resources to design engaging online content, and others reported that the sector lacks quality standards for online education. Staff have raised concerns about the degree to which online education is designed with accessibility and inclusion in mind, with some feeling that the accessibility of online learning environments was an afterthought, rather than a priority.
As we move into a post-COVID era and look to the future, university administrators must also ensure that educators have the time, resources, and support to design high quality online and blended learning experiences for students. Online education is not simply a cheaper and easier option for universities. Online education can make higher education more accessible, equitable, and inclusive, but it must be done well.
To learn more about designing accessible and inclusive online learning experiences, please check out our new free e-learning course for tertiary educators and learning designers.
Dr Erin Leif is a Board Certified Behaviour Analyst (BCBA) and Senior Lecturer in School of Educational Psychology & Counselling, the Faculty of Education,
Monash University. Her research interests include Educating for Diversity and Inclusion and Enhancing Health and Wellbeing