We talk to Professor Barney Dalgarno, Co-Director of the uImagine Digital Learning Innovation Laboratory at Charles Sturt University (CSU) about three questions people contemplating online study should consider.
Studying a university degree or course online gives you the chance to continue your work, lifestyle and family commitments while also working towards a dream career or upgrading your knowledge to get new qualifications. But not all online education is created equal. Here’s what you need to know to make the right decision.
How important is online study to Charles Sturt?
Firstly, you should consider whether online learning or distance education is an integral part of the way the university operates. Is it a fundamental part of the ‘institutional DNA’ to cater for students who don’t attend classes and lectures in person?
Finding out the university’s overall approach to online education means you can assess whether it will provide you with the support and understanding you need and whether or not it really gets the unique challenges faced by students studying remotely.
You should look at the university’s track record in the online education space and try to find stories from past and present students who have done the course or subjects you’re interested in. Knowing how many online students the university caters to each year, how many of its courses are available online and what its graduate employment rate is like are other crucial factors in making an assessment.
Apart from the track record of the organisation, it’s also important to examine what structures the university has in place to support online learners. Does it really understand that you won’t be able to just ‘pop down to the library’ to ask a question about a book or a resource you need? Does it have great telephone and email support resources? Often it’s these seemingly small things that create the greatest frustration and cause people to withdraw simply because they aren’t supported. Your chosen university needs to be able to provide you with real help, from people who understand that you’re an online learner, really easily.
What is the online learning experience really like?
Your next consideration should be the kinds of learning experiences you will have as an online student. Will you be getting learning resources that are professionally produced with rich media content that combines text, graphics, video, audio and simulations? Or is it more likely to just be reading course materials sent through by email then writing assignments? It’s important that the teachers for online students acknowledge and understand that the experience is entirely different and commit to providing the best possible types of content.
Things you should look for include opportunities for regular synchronised meetings between students and teachers and the availability of recorded video and audio content from these in case you can’t attend at the specified time. Many online students report that even just listening to or watching these interactive sessions between teachers and other students in their own time is a valuable resource that adds to the overall learning experience.
There’s also a great new wave of online and interactive technologies that are helping universities to better connect with and teach their online students. Some of these that your chosen institution may use already or be soon to establish include online examinations, which can be done in your own time and location supervised over webcam, and simulated laboratory sessions or online role-play activities.
Is there opportunity for engagement with teachers and other students?
For an online student, it’s important to know from the outset what opportunities there will be for regular, supported engagement with your student peers. The days of the empty discussion forum should be long gone and ideally there will be a dedicated online space and time for teachers to be present and to facilitate your learning.
Creating a network of your fellow students is helpful for any type of student but increasingly remote students are also expecting fulfilling engagement with their peers. From an employment point of view, developing the ability to work collaboratively is also important so resources to facilitate group work between online students need to be available. At the same time, your chosen university needs to appreciate your need for flexibility and ensure there are options available for engaging at different times to other students.
Social media now offers more opportunities for interaction and engagement between online students than ever before. In many instances online (and on campus) students now create informal channels of communication on Facebook and similar networks which have become the new version of the traditional post-lecture coffee shop debrief session.
While online study certainly offers the ultimate in flexibility and is a fantastic way to combine your learning with your busy life, it’s important to realise that it will take self-motivation, organisation and commitment to stay on track. Understanding how you want to learn, how you want to engage with the university and what support you’re looking for will ultimately help you to make the right choice about the institution with the best resources and approach for you.