Last updated May 18, 2017 at 10:21 am
What’s the best way to study? Ken Eastwood explores the options.
Imagine never having to turn up to a lecture; fitting online tutorials and study around your own social schedule; and never having to even be in the same state or country as the institution where your course is offered.
Welcome to the world of online education, where it’s now possible to complete subjects and even whole courses without ever having to step into a classroom or even onto a campus. And we’re not talking about dodgy internet degrees that aren’t worth the paper they’re printed out on, but good-quality qualifications that employers want.
How Popular Is Studying Online?
In some tertiary institutions, online study has completely overtaken the on-campus version. At the University of New England (UNE) in NSW, for example, of last year’s 23,363 enrolled students, about 18,681 were studying off campus.
At Curtin University in WA, 25,000 out of 61,000 students are now studying online and the number is growing. There are 89 courses you can study end-to-end, completely online at that institution alone. The degree you end up with is the same, and the cost is usually the same, as an on-campus course.
Online education initially developed out of distance-education courses, set up as early as the 1950s to service far-flung populations in Australia’s most remote areas. Programs were initially serviced using material posted by snail mail. But as computers became more proficient and ubiquitous, course materials gradually became available online.
It’s not surprising then that the institutions that were strong in distance education have been among the pioneers in online education, including UNE, Curtin, Deakin University in Victoria and Charles Sturt University in NSW. During the past 15 years, online learning has grown exponentially and now all of Australia’s tertiary institutions offer at least some or parts of courses completely online – from mathematics to music and engineering to fine arts.
The first online courses were very textbased. But they’re now more video-centric, with lectures, tutorials and laboratory simulations online. “We had something like 2.5 million downloads of our i-lectures last year,” says Professor Jill Downie, Curtin’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic).
“Students are looking for flexibility and versatility – they want to fit study around the other busy things in their life. They might want to watch [a lecture] at 1 o’clock in the morning or 7 o’clock at night.” “Rather than long, lengthy lectures though, they’re generally getting more, smaller bite-sized information through blogs and podcasts etc. And if you ‘gamify’ what you are teaching you will get even better learning outcomes, so we also having challenging, game-based platforms.”
In many courses the lectures are both streamed live and recorded. Online students are given opportunities to collaborate on or discuss the material via the institution’s own portal, or other software such as Skype or Google Hangouts.
What’s Not Possible Online?
Some courses, where clinical or laboratory work needs to be assessed, do not suit complete online learning. Examples include chemistry, pharmacy or nursing. But even then, courses can be constructed where most of the learning is online, and then students attend short, intensive on-campus programs to complete their requirements.
Professor Catherine MacKenzie, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Academic) at UNE says the uni hopes in the future, through virtual reality and other technology, to offer some courses online that previously weren’t possible. “We’re currently looking at an archaeology degree online, using 3D printers to recreate archaeological artefacts,” she explains. “A student will be able to download and print out the bone, the vase, whatever it is, so every student will have in front of them the actual item.”
Who’s Doing It Online?
Students choosing to study online tend to be older – perhaps holding down a fulltime job, or caring for children – and are more likely to live further from campus. For example, 70% of UNE’s on-campus students are under 25 years old, but less than 30% of external students are that young.
Dr Mandy Lupton, a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Education at Queensland University of Technology, says older students generally do better than younger students online. “One hundred per cent online works really well for people who already have a degree and are coming back for another qualification or to re-train. They already understand what learning at uni is about,” she says. “For undergraduates though, it’s quite risky for them to do 100% online. They need to be [adapted to] learning at uni, and it’s quite difficult to do that online. The attrition rate is a lot higher with undergraduates.”
Mandy says many courses are now blended, offering students a mix of on-campus and online experiences, and students are advised to try it all. “Some students actively look for an online course,” she says. “Others enrol in an on-campus course and some of their units are offered dual mode. And some then say “oh, this will be good – I won’t have to come to uni on that day and I’ll have some flexibility”.”
North American research has shown that the best approach, in terms of both academic outcome and enjoyment, is from the blended approach. Students might spend some time on-campus, and then revise lectures online, catch up on ones they missed, or engage with the material that’s available around the clock at times that suit them. “Intuitively as a teacher you can see that’s the case as well,” Mandy says.
So, What’s It Like Studying Online?
The downside is that you can feel isolated and miss real-world (as opposed to digital) social interaction with other students. Some find it frustrating that they might ask a question of a lecturer and it can take several days to receive an answer. “I hated online,” admits Dan Bowles, who’s based in the NSW city of Newcastle, north of Sydney, and tried studying a Graduate Diploma in Geographic
Information Science online at Curtin. “It lacked that kind of social side – not partying and having fun, but the interacting with other students and getting to know them, was not there at all.” His previous uni study had been a marine science degree at the University of Newcastle, which he’d really enjoyed. “There was lots of field work, lots of going to the beach and really enjoyable stuff – doing lots of field work in small groups in nature,” Dan recalls. “It was very collaborative and cooperative. For me that was just a hugely positive, enjoyable experience.”
There are, however, plenty of people who love learning online. Take, for example, Bachelor of Science student Dean Marchiori, of Wollongong. He’s in his final year of a mathematics major at Charles Sturt University and studying about 20 hours a week online while working full-time. “When I wanted to go back to study, I didn’t want to give up full-time work,” he says. “It’s not that bad – it’s just about putting in a consistent effort. You’ve just got to do something every day. You can’t let it get off the boil for a few days because it gets out of control.”
To stay on top, he always doubles his efforts before a trip away: “If you’ve got a good work ethic, and are accountable and self-driven, it’s not that hard. If you’re lazy, it’s going to be harder.”
Dean says that he previously found having to attend classes on campus wasn’t the best use of his time, whereas now he can choose how to spend his available time. “All the resources are there and it’s all on demand,” he says. “Some [of us] ask other students questions, others pull out of the forums and just work on their own. You can ignore the things that don’t work for you and pick things that do.”
What Equipment Do You Need?
Online students need a basic computer and an internet connection with a decent data plan. “What I tell my students is that they need an up-to-date computer with reasonable broadband,” Mandy Lupton says. “Just a phone plan wouldn’t do it. I reckon you’d need at least 10 gig a month. Course materials are very video-heavy now, so they use a lot of data. One student said watching one little YouTube lecture chewed up their whole phone plan for the month.” Some universities, such as Deakin, have arranged for students to access special broadband plans.
Online students should have the ability to create documents and emails, and access video and audio files. In addition, each course may have its own software requirements. For example, an online architecture or design student may need AutoCAD software, whereas on-campus students studying the same degree would be able to use facilities at the institution if they didn’t want to pay for the software.
Each university has a vast online platform for students, lecturers and tutors to interact digitally. It provides opportunities to chat and hang out, review each other’s work, cooperate on projects, view lectures and tutorials, complete assignments, ask questions, and undertake challenges, quizzes, games and tasks as required.
What’s The Advantage Of Being On Campus?
Ruby O’Driscoll is a fourth-year mechanical engineering student at the University of Wollongong. She says she couldn’t imagine studying some engineering concepts purely online. “I think in any of the STEM subjects, having contact with your lecturers and your peers, you communicate better if it’s face-to-face,” she says. “There are lab experiences and experiments – chemistry, solids, forces, the way [things are] measured; watching how fluids move at different velocities.”
Ruby is also holding down a job and so doesn’t get much time for extra-curricular activities. But she still says the on-campus lifestyle is attractive. “University is about the uni life – being part of societies, doing sports,” she explains. “I enjoy when I do uni for the day, just being able to sit on the grass when they play live music.”
Destiny Paris, who is on-staff at Wollongong University and trying to attract more young women into STEM subjects, has a personal preference for on-campus learning. She did a double degree in engineering and business management on campus in South Australia. “Everyone has their different learning style, and we’re trying to do everything to entice people into STEM, particularly women,” she says. “For me personally, I like the interaction – I like to talk through ideas rather than read the ideas.
I like to go through the actions – if I see something in practice and can see it in context, I’m more inclined to take in the lessons.”
Can I Study Australian Courses, If I’m Not Based Here?
Yes, and there are several universities supporting overseas students to study. For example, UNE has students – some of whom are in the armed forces – in Afghanistan, Iraq, East Timor, Antarctica and South Africa.
Curtin has several affiliated campuses in other parts of the world, with thousands of students in Singapore and throughout Asia. Sometimes students here in Australia work together with students at the other campuses. For example, journalism students at Curtin work with students in Shanghai, writing scripts together. At other times, on-campus students will share a lecture or tutorial with students overseas, via online connections. For example, the other students may be together in a classroom in Sri Lanka or Malaysia, or joining in the discussion individually.
“We can in real time and in synchronous mode link with a cohort in another location,” explains Curtin’s Jill Downie . “The students all sit in the same classroom, so in a sense they’re all together. The technology is so good now that whether it’s the lecturer that speaks or the student, the microphone follows them and picks them up… You’re really delivering a global classroom and they’re getting that real global experience, learning from people overseas.” Jill says that overseas learning is growing at Curtin, and that the university occasionally has guest lecturers presenting from across the world. “We’re certainly developing it more and more.”
Ken Eastwood reckons he’s been a journalist and photographer since the late Devonian – writing, editing and photographing for books and magazines throughout Australia and the world. A self-confessed adventure junky, he’s travelled with scientific expeditions into remote areas, from the Arctic to Antarctica, to tell their stories. kensbigbackyard.com.au
Originally published in Ultimate Science Guide 2016. Read the new Ultimate Careers magazine and find your Ultimate Careers here.