Cathy Stone

New evidence: Stark inequity of online access for rural and remote students

It’s long been known that those in regional and remote areas of Australia do not have access to the same quality of internet as their metropolitan counterparts. Now we have more evidence about how regional and remote students are disadvantaged by this low-quality access. We should mention here that Australia’s average internet download speed is 43.4 mbps, ranking Australia 62nd in the world for connectivity. So generally, Australia lags way behind in internet download speeds compared to other parts of the world.

During the COVID-19 lockdown we asked university students in eight regional NSW towns – Cooma, Goulburn, Broken Hill, Narrabri, Moree, Grafton, Griffith and Leeton – to run an internet speed test and share the results with us. The regional internet speeds reported by our students were a long way behind the rest of the the country.

The students in our study were all registered with a Country Universities Centre within the eight towns. These centres are part of the network of Regional University Centres. The students were mostly enrolled in a fully online, distance mode within a range of universities, while some  had recently returned from on-campus study to their home towns, to study remotely during the COVID-19 restrictions. Due to these same restrictions, none had been able to physically visit one of these centres during the COVID-19 lockdowns for some weeks prior to our survey. We asked them what their home internet download speeds were, whether this was sufficient for them to do their university work and how it was affecting their study.

A total of 55 students responded over one week. Almost two-thirds disagreed or strongly disagreed that their internet was sufficient for their studies. Among those who strongly disagreed, the median download speed was 4.5 mbps, with some experiencing speeds of less than 1 mbps. Multiple problems were reported in accessing or downloading materials, including being unable to watch lectures and having assessment tasks interrupted. Understandably, many expressed anger, stress and frustration, with some being unable to access the internet from home at all.

 “It takes an eternity to download lectures and streaming them requires extensive buffering. Uploading any files for group work or assignments is extremely slow and frustrating when deadlines are looming. The fluctuating connection which completely drops at times makes live tutorials or meetings pointless.” (Internet download speed: 6.4 mbps Broken Hill)

 “I am currently unable to properly access my zoom calls and online lectures because of how unreliable my internet service is. It often cuts out or is incredibly delayed. (Internet download speed: 1.6 mbps Goulburn)

The median download speed test was slightly higher amongst those who disagreed (rather than ‘strongly disagreed’) that their internet was sufficient, at 10.6 mbps, although many experienced lower speeds than this. These students talked about interruptions, disrupted focus, reduced productivity, and being unable to study at certain times.

 “It’s challenging and frustrating to be productive when everything takes so much more time.” (Internet download speed: 5.2 mbps Broken Hill)

“If it is really slow you easily lose focus and you get easily frustrated. This can turn you right off studying in these conditions.” (Internet download speed 9.5 mbps Goulburn)

Only those with a download speed above 16 mbps agreed that their internet was sufficient. Even among this cohort, difficulty with video calls and slow internet at certain times of the day or evening were reported. Across the whole cohort, cost of internet was a recurring theme.

I also do not have access to NBN or broadband where I reside and having to complete my whole degree at home has become quite costly with all the excess data charges (for incredibly bad service)”

Students studying online are two and half times more likely than those on-campus to withdraw from university without a qualification.  Certainly, this survey revealed that internet problems can make it nearly impossible for a student to continue with their online course, much less perform at their best.

Access to reliable internet has been identified as a key equity issue for education in Australia, with previous research identifying that poor local residential internet connectivity is a significant barrier to regional university study.

The sudden and exponential increase in online delivery during COVID-19 restrictions has led to a heightened focus on the quality of online deliveryTechnology advances coupled with universities aiming to deliver a more engaging online experience means that online course content increasingly contains interactive and engaging content, such as video, live streaming,  collaborative tools and other interactive multimedia.  However, students with poor internet speeds will struggle with accessing, let alone participating in this more engaging and interactive remote learning environment.   Unless home internet connectivity is adequate and affordable, those in regional/remote areas and/or from low SES backgrounds are likely to be excluded from these technological and pedagogical advances in online learning.

The lifeline of Regional University Centres

Prior to the COVID-19 restrictions, many students in regional/remote areas were relying on Regional University Centres which offer high-speed internet connection (100 mbps up/down) to any student studying at any Australian University. These centres have been a lifeline for many online students in country areas, with some students willing to travel up to 150km to access a centre.

Country University Centre Clarence Valley
(Image by Monica Davis)

Offered free to students, the centres are supported financially by Commonwealth, State and local Governments, as well as community and university partners, and provide face-to-face support for regional online students, not only with fast internet but also with academic and social support.  Most of these centres have now reopened or are planning to reopen under socially distancing guidelines, however some students may face other COVID-19 related reasons they cannot attend their centres.

The COVID-19 restrictions have further exposed the inequitable access to adequate internet across Australian society, affecting those who are already among the most educationally disadvantaged. This is a problem that urgently needs attention if the past and current lower participation rates in higher education across regional and remote Australia are to be seriously addressed.

Cathy Stone, DSW (Research), is a Conjoint Associate Professor in Social Work at the University of Newcastle. Cathy  is an Adjunct Fellow with the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education, where she undertook research into improving outcomes in online learning as an inaugural 2016 Equity Fellow. Cathy is currently an Independent Consultant and Researcher on the support, engagement and success of diverse student cohorts in higher education. She can be contacted for any questions or further discussion at cathy.stone@newcastle.edu.au Cathy is on Twitter @copacathy

Monica Davis is the Director of Educational Delivery for the County Universities Centre. In this role she focuses on student support and collaborations with Australian universities to make higher education more accessible to regional, rural and remote students. Monica completed her Bachelor of Science with Hons I from the University of Newcastle, and a Masters in Geostatistics from the University of Adelaide. Monica believes that the future of an aspiring student should not be predetermined by where he or she lives. She can be contacted for any questions or further discussion at monica.davis@cuc.edu.au The Country Universities Centre is on Twitter @countryuc

Students say uni online learning is mostly ‘busy work’. Here’s what will really engage them

To combat high failure and student drop-out rates, universities have developed strategies to monitor online student engagement through measurable activities. We explored if and how these monitoring activities accurately measure online engagement.

Perhaps our most surprising finding was that the teacher-education students in our study did not see their set online tasks as being valuable to their learning. The students complained about being given ‘busy work’ – tasks given to them that appeared to be aimed at just keeping them busy or monitoring simple engagement through a metrics-based tool.

The students reported a number of other activities that did prompt their engagement in learning, but many of these would not be picked up by the usual ways of measuring engagement.

We believe our study and its findings would be particularly useful to teachers at the moment, in any sector, who are creating online learning activities for their students.

Our study

Our research study involved interviewing nine online third-year students (8 female, 1 male) from a four-year teacher-education degree at a regional university in Australia. Each student had been reported as being ‘highly engaged’ by their course coordinator. With their consent, they participated in fortnightly interviews throughout a 13-week semester. The aim was to find out more about what engagement meant for them, how they enacted engagement in the online space, both visibly and invisibly, and the factors that influenced their degree of engagement at different points in time. Interviews were held in the week prior to the start of semester, fortnightly during the semester and within two to three weeks of the semester’s end – eight interviews with each student in all. 

We described a ‘highly engaged’ student as someone who consistently and reliably participated in discussion boards or other learning activities, collaborated with other online students, and engaged with the lectures/readings. Reflecting the typical online student profile in general, all were mature-age students, in paid employment family/caring responsibilities.

Simplistic measures perceived by students as not useful to learning

From analysis of the interview data, we found that most students were critical of practices that were clearly designed to measure engagement in simplistic ways. These included

  • being required to make a specific number of posts a week
  • give feedback to a certain number of other students
  • do ungraded online activities such as quizzes that did not add to learning.

While these conscientious participants diligently met these requirements, seven of the nine reported that such mandated posts and activities did not encourage true engagement and deep learning. They were described as being ‘a means to an end’, and ‘busy work’ designed simply to ‘try to make you fill the expected ten hours of study per week.’ The mandating of posts to prompt engagement was described as ‘ridiculous’ and as taking ‘a huge amount of time’, which they believed could have been spent differently to promote deeper learning.

Students experienced profound disappointment and an even greater sense of having wasted their time when their diligently crafted, mandatory posts, received no commentary or replies from either teacher or other students. In addition, such mandatory posting tended to make the online learning platform clogged and overwhelmed with discussion threads that lacked coherence and structure.

Activities reported as being valuable to learning

There were a number of other ways these students reported as engaging them in their studies, which unfortunately, would not be captured by standard systems of measuring online engagement. These included

  • engaging in learning with their peers on platforms other than that offered by the university, such as Facebook, Messenger or other social media platforms where they could meet other students and study
  • following suggestions by lecturers or other students to do additional, relevant activities such as listen to TED talks, watch a YouTube video, or check out a curriculum resource
  • learning activities that prompted their creativity and ultimately contributed to their final assessment task
  • lecturers who used a diversity of approaches to learning in the online space  
  • well-designed, engaging assessment tasks

This study has unearthed some of the complexities that emerge when online engagement is measured in mechanistic ways. It also unveils alternative measures of engagement that might be more meaningful for promoting student learning. As such, this research contributes to a broader conversation about measuring engagement in the online space and can frame the direction for future research, practices, and policy on these matters.

Perhaps there is another way of understanding student engagement, that is not tied up with metrics and monitoring. Engagement for online university students happens in many ways, both visible and more hidden. What if we changed our way of thinking about what engagement is? What if we listened to what students have to say about their own engagement?

We invite educators to move away from having fixed ideas about where and how and when online students should be engaging, and offer a critique of the superficial, descriptive, tick-the-box exercises that are usually designed to monitor engagement by computer rather than through human interaction. We hope educators will take this opportunity, where so many of us are moving to online teaching, to explore other ways of understanding student engagement in the online space.

For those who want more Beyond busy work: rethinking the measurement of online student engagement

Cathy Stone, DSW (Research), is a Conjoint Associate Professor in Social Work at the University of Newcastle. Cathy  is an Adjunct Fellow with the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education, where she undertook research into improving outcomes in online learning as an inaugural 2016 Equity Fellow. Cathy is currently an Independent Consultant and Researcher on the support, engagement and success of diverse student cohorts in higher education. She can be contacted for any questions or further discussion at cathy.stone@newcastle.edu.au Cathy is on Twitter @copacathy

Naomi Milthorpe is Senior Lecturer in English in the School of Humanities at the University of Tasmania. Her research interests centre on modernist, interwar and mid-century British literary culture. Naomi is the author of Evelyn Waugh’s Satire: Texts and Contexts (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2016) and the editor of The Poetics and Politics of Gardening in Hard Times (Lexington, 2019). Naomi is on Twitter  @drmilthorpe

Dr. Janet Dyment is the Director of the School of Education at Acadia University in Nova Scotia, Canada.  Prior to her move to Acadia, she spent 20 years at the University of Tasmania in the Faculty of Education.  Janet’s research interests include online teacher education, student engagement, environmental education and education for sustainability.  With the recent COVID pandemic, Janet is leading her new teacher education team to reimagine on-campus offerings as remote delivery options and encouraging her staff to ensure student engagement remains high in these new modes of deliveries.

Ten ways to improve online learning for students

Online learning has become a well-recognised part of the broader landscape of higher education. It is also proving to have a critical place in widening access and equity within this landscape. Increasing numbers of students from backgrounds historically under-represented at university are taking the opportunity to study online, particularly through open-entry and alternative pathways, with many of these learners being the first in their family or community to undertake university studies.

However, retention in online undergraduate studies is considerably lower than in face-to-face programs. An Australian Government Department of Education and Training report in 2017 said only 46.4% of fully external, domestic online undergraduate students completed their studies from 2005 to 2014 compared with a completion rate for internal, on-campus students, of 76.6%. Similarly, the recent Australian Higher Education Standards Panel (HESP) Discussion Paper shows that external, online students are 2.5 times more likely than on-campus students to leave university without a qualification.

So I believe it is crucial to look closely at what is happening and to do something about it. My research is focused on examining what is needed to engage and support diverse cohorts of students to stay and succeed in online education.

My role as Equity Fellow

During 2015 the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE) at Curtin University called for applications for three inaugural Equity Fellows to be appointed in 2016, with a further three to be appointed for 2017. Applicants needed to propose a research project aimed at improving student equity in higher education. I was very fortunate in being selected as one of these three Equity Fellows for 2016. For my research project, which was completed at the end of March 2017, I investigated teaching and pedagogy practices, institutional supports and retention strategies within online undergraduate learning; the overall objective being to develop a set of national guidelines to provide sector leadership on evidence-based ways to improve the access, success and retention of students in online undergraduate education.

Seven key findings

I interviewed 151 participants involved in online learning – academic, professional and management staff at 15 Australian universities and at the Open University UK. I sought the combined wisdom of practitioners in online learning; asking them about the interventions/strategies for online students (in teaching and/or support) that they (or others in their university) were using, which they thought might be having a positive impact on access, retention and/or academic success.

I asked them whether any of their interventions/strategies were being measured or evaluated, and if so, in what ways, and did they know of any results? I also asked them what else they thought was important for institutions to do to help their online students stay and succeed?

From these 151 interviews, seven key findings emerged:

  1. A strategic whole-of-institution approach is required; one that recognises online education as ‘core business’. This approach needs to include an institution-wide understanding of the nature and diversity of the online student cohort as well as the development and implementation of quality standards for online education, which undergo continuous quality improvement.
  2. Early intervention with students to connect, prepare and engage is essential; particularly in terms of providing realistic expectations and encourage and facilitating academic preparation.
  3. “Teacher-presence’ plays a vital role in building a sense of belonging to the learning community and in improving student retention; however the time-consuming nature of developing and maintaining a strong sense of ‘teacher-presence’ is not always recognised in existing workload models.
  4. Content, curriculum and delivery need to be designed specifically for online learning; they need to be engaging, interactive, supportive and designed to strengthen interaction amongst students.
  5. Regular and structured contact between the institution and the student is important in providing connection and direction along the student journey. This includes proactively reaching out to students at particular points along their journey, and is best achieved through the development of an institutional framework of interventions.
  6. Learning analytics play an important role in informing appropriate and effective student interventions, including through predictive modelling and personalising the learning experience.
  7. Collaboration across the institution is required to integrate and embed support; delivering it to students at point of need. When academic and professional staff cross traditional boundaries to work more closely together, a more holistic student experience can be delivered, including embedding support within curriculum.

Voices of online students and the importance of connecting

I compared these findings with the findings of two previous research projects that I was involved with in 2015 and 2016, where online students were interviewed about their experiences of online study. I found remarkable congruence between the perceptions of those students, and the perceptions of the staff interviewed for this research project, about what is most important in creating an engaging and supportive learning environment for online students.

For example, students in these previous studies talked about their need “for inductions and orientations on how to use stuff”; and how difficult it can be to understand what’s required when told “you all need to redo your referencing for the next assessment, which was another essay; they gave us no tutorial or anything”.

The students also knew that “what works in person is not the same as online”. They stressed the need for a “relationship with people” and having staff who “connect with us students”. This need for connection was expressed in many ways, such as: “it’s nice to hear another human being’s voice”; or, when contact and connection was not forthcoming, they spoke about “the lack of interaction” and being “in isolation, teaching myself”, leading to a belief that “universities don’t really care about or engage with online students very much”.

National Guidelines for improving student outcomes in online learning

 The seven findings from my research have informed the development of a set of 10 National Guidelines for Improving Student Outcomes in Online Learning, designed to inform institutions about ways to improve student outcomes primarily in undergraduate online education, where there tends to be a considerable diversity of the student cohort; this includes students from backgrounds historically underrepresented at university, as well as those with little prior experience of academic study and/or online study. However, these guidelines are likely to be at least in part transferable to other online post-secondary education settings particularly where there is a similar diversity of student cohort.

  1. Know who the students are – at an institutional level, understand the cohort, its diversity and needs
  2. Develop, implement and regularly review institution-wide quality standards for delivery of online education – ensuring that online education is ‘core business’ and not an ‘add-on’
  3. Intervene early to address student expectations, build skills and engagement
  4. Explicitly value and support the vital role of ‘teacher-presence’ – through training, mentoring, resources, workload and payment
  5. Design for online – adopting an ‘online first’ approach to curriculum, content and delivery design
  6. Engage and support through content and delivery – building an interactive and inclusive learning environment
  7. Build collaboration and teamwork across faculties, services and divisions, to offer holistic, integrated and embedded student support
  8. Contact and communicate throughout the student journey – developing a comprehensive intervention strategy, with academic and professional staff working together
  9. Use learning analytics to target and personalise student interventions – building a learning analytics strategy that underpins student engagement and support
  10. Demonstrate the importance of online education through appropriate institutional resourcing – treating online education as core business, budgeting for it appropriately, and understanding that it is not a money-saving option

Each of the above guidelines is discussed in more depth in the full report, with suggestions on how each guideline can be translated into action. For example, some of the possible actions for Explicitly value and support the vital role of ‘teacher-presence’ (Guideline 4) include institutions’ ensuring that the role of teacher-presence is recognised and valued within institutional quality standards for online education. Within these standards, online teachers would receive appropriate training, support and resourcing, through the allocation of sufficient teaching time, workload allocation and appropriate technology. Through such measures, online teachers would be in a stronger position to provide an interactive, connected learning experience for online students.

For more detail please go to the full report Opportunity Through Online Learning

 

Cathy Stone, DSW (Research), is a Conjoint Associate Professor in the School of Humanities and Social Science at the University of Newcastle. Cathy was an inaugural Equity Fellow during 2016 with the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education, where she is currently a 2017 Visiting Research Fellow. Much of her research and publications focus on the experiences of mature-age, first-in-family and online students. Cathy is currently an Independent Consultant and Researcher on the support, engagement and success of diverse student cohorts in higher education, and is an Accredited Mental Health Social Worker with the Australian Association of Social Workers.Cathy can be contacted for any questions or further discussion at cathy.stone@newcastle.edu.au

 

Cathy is one of the hundreds of educational researchers presenting their research at the 2017 AARE Conference in Canberra all this week.

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