Distance learning: making the most of online education


When Anna Dewar has a group project to work on for university, she fires up Skype on her laptop and calls her classmates.

“I’ve never actually met anyone in my course, but I’ll be talking to people in places like Perth and even Japan,” the Bachelor of Food and Nutrition student says.

The 22-year-old is one of a rising number of students choosing to swap the classroom for the bedroom, the kitchen table or the local library, after signing up to do her studies online.

She enrolled in her Latrobe University course in 2016 through Open Universities Australia, which has partnered with 15 institutions to offer 278 online degrees and 1,600 subjects.

As education evolves in the technology era, online courses are opening up higher education to a wider pool of students, with OUA alone recording a five per cent increase in Victorian-based enrolments last year.

Even sandstone institutions like the University of Melbourne are embracing the flexible form of learning and enrolling 1520 online students in 2017.

But experts say there are pros and cons to online courses, and students need to be more disciplined, organised and self-motivated.

For Anna, who has suffered chronic migraines since she was 13, the remote learning environment proved an appealing option after struggling to attend classes on site.

Her migraines were triggered by the bright lights of lecture theatres, sitting for extended periods and even the simple task of commuting when she attempted an on-campus course at the University of Melbourne.

“It’s a bit of a bummer that I miss out on uni life, and the socialising aspect, but sitting in lectures and going to tutes took too much of a toll on my health,” she says.

“Now I can work at my own pace, I can use a standing desk at home, and fit my study around my part-time jobs. I’ll get up in the morning, do a bit of study before breakfast, have a swim, then get dressed and do some more study. All I need is a laptop and Wi-Fi.”

The only times she’s required to be in a physical location are for supervised exams and a two-week lab intensive, with lectures delivered in short ten to 15-minute videos and online discussion boards used to converse with lecturers.

She enjoys the flexibility of being able to study whenever and wherever she likes, even taking her course with her when she flew to a wedding in the UK.

But she admits motivation can be a struggle and plans to attend some subjects on campus Latrobe in 2019.

“It will be a good change, refreshing, I’ll be able to meet some new people,” she says.

“Online study is great but with group exercises, for example, it can be a bit difficult and tedious.

Sometimes you just want to be able to sit down with people and nut it out.”

At OUA, one of the platforms for online study, the most popular courses are a Bachelor of Education (Primary Education) at Curtin University, a Bachelor of Psychological science at Swinburne University, Bachelor of Business at Swinburne University, Bachelor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Griffith University and a Bachelor of Accounting at the University of South Australia.

OUA CEO Stuart Elmslie says online students are generally older and working part-time or full-time, and opt for the non-traditional option to suit their busy lifestyles.

Nearly a quarter of students live in rural or regional areas and 55 per cent are aged 30 and over, with 8818 students enrolled from Victoria in 2018.

Isolation can be one of the big cons, but he says benefits include being able to study over an extended period and “As technology advances, online is becoming more and more prevalent, and the experience is getter better,” he says.

“In the early days there were certainly courses with the technology in its infancy that were more predisposed to online than others, but that’s changing... even if some elements require a face-to-face environment.

“You can now do even study architecture and law online. The kind of space we occupy is a unique product where students can give higher education a go on a unit by unit basis, without initially committing to a whole degree. If they enjoy it, they can convert them into a degree - it’s a fantastic pathway.”

He admits one of the challenges remains the “customer service” side of the digital model, including support deciding on the right course, which he says the organisation is working on with the sector.

So are digital degrees only suited to highly motivated students?

Mr Elmslie doesn’t believe so – nor does the University of Melbourne’s Paula de Barba, a research fellow in Higher Education.

“Anyone can embrace it if they want to, and students can learn ways to monitor and regulate motivation,” she says.

For example, she says students should take a break when they identify their motivation is waning, reflect on why the course is important to their life, and reach out to lecturers or students via discussion boards.

She says time management is another crucial skill to adopt, and the ability to prioritise course work over other commitments and distractions.

“A lot of people think of the positives in online study, like flexibility of time and location, but there are challenges. You are required to be more autonomous in your learning,” she says.

“A misconception is that it’s going to be easier or take less time. But flexibility of time does not mean less time, you are still required to put in the work to succeed.”

By Elissa Doherty, Herald Sun