Flexibility through Online Learning

Contributed by:
Jonathan James
This consolidates a range of research funding as one of the initiatives of the Australian Flexible Learning.
Framework to increase the vocational education and training (VET) sector’s understanding of the pedagogical, technical, and managerial aspects of flexible learning. It specifically focuses on issues related to online learning and delivery.
1. NCVER Flexibility through
online learning
At a glance
This ‘At a glance’ consolidates a range of research funded as
one of the initiatives of the Australian Flexible Learning
Framework to increase the vocational education and training
(VET) sector’s understanding of the pedagogical, technical and
managerial aspects of flexible learning. It specifically focusses
on issues related to online learning and delivery.
Key findings
■ There appears to be relatively little pure online delivery
of VET. Online approaches are being used in combination
with other delivery methodologies.
■ Most students who experience online learning do so as
part of a program delivered by mixed mode using face-to-
face and other strategies as well as an online approach.
■ Because it is combined with other learning approaches it
is difficult to determine the exact amount of online
learning taking place.
■ Cost-effectiveness of online delivery is difficult to
determine accurately. However, it seems that online
delivery is likely to be more expensive than conventional
approaches, but is also likely to deliver better learning
outcomes and levels of learner satisfaction.
■ What learners value particularly about online delivery is
its flexibility—the convenience and freedom it offers;
that is, learning that is ‘just in time, just enough and just
for me’.
■ Other qualities of the learning experience which are
highly valued by learners include opportunities to
communicate and interact with teachers and other
students, responsive teaching staff who give frequent,
thoughtful and informed feedback, well-planned and
organised programs of learning, and well-designed,
interactive, up-to-date and accessible learning resources
and assessment materials.
■ Teachers as well as students are positive and enthusiastic
about online learning and its quality features but both
recognise the need for support to ensure more effective
online learning.
■ The changing role of teachers and the way they are
working to provide flexible training needs to be
acknowledged and supported.
■ A range of strategies has been identified to overcome
key barriers to the successful adoption of online delivery,
the most important being induction programs, cost-
reduction strategies for delivery, use of e-business
approaches, teachers’ professional development and
improved recognition of their work roles and the funding
models being used.
Supporting Flexible Learning Opportunities
An initiative of the Australian Flexible Learning Framework for the National Vocational Education and Training System 2000–2004
2. Introduction
Considerable funds have been invested in technologies, equipment, and in the development of individual
staff as part of the strategy developed by the Australian Flexible Learning Framework.Teaching and
learning resources have been nationally funded through Flexible Learning Advisory Group (FLAG)
programs such as Toolboxes and LearnScope. Considerable investment at the state/territory and provider
levels has also taken place. A suite of research projects has been funded over the period 2000 to 2002
which has sought to capture and report on the amount, cost, variety and effectiveness of these new
flexible, online practices.
The online environment
Computer and internet use has grown between the students themselves.They are also
tremendously in recent years in Australian used to introduce an element of face-to-face
households and workplaces.The attraction of communication or to improve interaction where
computer-based and internet-delivered education classroom delivery is impossible or difficult. Good
and training is therefore not surprising. Many communication is one of the key features students
people have access to the necessary hardware look for in a teaching program.
required either at work or at home, and individual
households are hooking up to the internet in ever- Calculating the precise nature and amount of
increasing numbers. According to the last census online learning actually occurring was difficult. What
figures around 6.1 million Australians aged 15 or researchers were able to measure probably only
over use a computer at home, while over represents a relatively small proportion of the
6.9 million use the internet at home, at work or actual online delivery taking place across the
elsewhere (ABS 2002). vocational education and training (VET) sector.
Improved information is needed on the full range
of delivery approaches being used at provider level.
The current size and scope of Harper et al. (2000) report that there is evidence
online delivery of extensive exploration and experimentation in
online learning. However, it has not yet become a
One of the research projects investigated the size mainstream delivery approach, and numbers using
and scope of online learning and found that it is it appear low. Data from the most recent survey of
not clear-cut. Definitional issues arose, and different student outcomes undertaken by the National
groups provided information on different aspects Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER
and technologies. Online learning is often 2002) indicate that under 2.5% of respondents are
combined with other approaches, making it difficult participating in learning programs involving at least
to isolate and measure. some online learning component. Of these, only a
very small proportion said they were studying
In fact, pure online learning would rarely be the purely online.
mode of first choice for students (Warner, Christie
& Choy 1998) and would generally only be used A recent report commissioned by TAFE frontiers in
when other approaches are not readily available. Victoria and entitled The current status of online
Students prefer hybrid approaches which mix learning in Australia found that the number of
modes of delivery, resources and technologies to organisations in their sample planning to use the
achieve maximum flexibility and interaction with internet or intranet to deliver training or provide
both teaching staff and their fellow students. In this access to learning appears set to more than
way the learning processes accommodate a range double.They cite cost, accessibility, speed,
of preferred learning styles. consistency and improved learning outcomes
as their reasons for choosing the online mode
Online technologies are used to facilitate contact of delivery.
and communication between staff and students and
2 Flexibility through online learning
3. Cost-effectiveness in comparison with other modes of delivery
Curtain (2002) attempted to answer the following intensive staff–student interaction and new work
questions: Can technology improve the cost- functions, such as providing helpdesk support for
effectiveness of vocational education and training? Is students. Nevertheless, satisfaction levels are higher
online delivery able to lower costs and widen amongst off-campus students learning online than
access while lifting the quality of the learning for traditional distance education students and on a
experience and improving learning outcomes? Can par with those for students in classroom-based
learning effectiveness be increased, or more programs.
students taught to the same level or better for the
same level of cost? Curtain’s case studies show that there needs to be
a move away from learner–content interaction and
Curtain (2002) gathered information on all aspects towards learner–instructor and learner–learner
of costs. Course effectiveness was measured using interaction.This is not surprising as most students
a student questionnaire and by obtaining course emphasise the importance of the social and
completion data where available. networking aspects of learning.The interaction
between people, and lots of it, is the key to
Not unexpectedly, the findings of his research were success.
equivocal since costs are difficult to calculate and
the basic data required are often not collected. In Other research suggests that we need to recognise
addition, there is a wide variation in the way costs what online learning can and cannot do. It is
are determined, and what cost elements are effective in areas with high theoretical content, less
included or excluded. effective in those with a more practical basis, or
where the processes of communication, critical
The six case studies Curtain undertook suggest thinking and values clarification are central to the
that, by and large, the online programs were more subject area. It is effective in undertaking case
effective but cost more when compared with studies (‘what would you do if …?’). If the
current and more traditional delivery approaches. processes are established correctly, it is useful for
Establishment costs were higher. Recurrent costs linking material, researching information and for
were variable, dependent on the approaches used, discussion.
the extent of online learning and the location of
the students (on- or off-campus).
Curtain has estimated that the recurrent costs of
mixed online delivery in a classroom could be
double or more that of face-to-face delivery alone.
However, his results also suggest that, for mixed-
mode delivery that is classroom based (the most
common form of online approach), high levels of
interactivity using the internet and pre-existing
web-based resources can contain costs and lead to
levels of student satisfaction above that for
conventionally taught courses.
Online delivery to students based off-campus may
appear, on the surface, to be a low-cost option
when compared with traditional distance education
delivery by correspondence. However, when
compared with traditional modes of distance
delivery, it appeared to be more costly because of
the extra support learners required or demanded.
Much of the cost increase relates to the more
At a glance 3
4. Key elements of good online learning and teaching
Learner and teacher views
One of the projects (Cashion & Palmieri 2002) identified a range of key features which students believe
constitute a high-quality online learning experience.The research has identified that the three most
important quality features for students (in order) are:
 flexibility: the time, place, pace of learning
 responsive teachers: interactive, responsive, available, negotiated response times which are adhered to
 quality of materials and course design: well-designed, interactive, up-to-date, fast to download, easy to
read, easy to navigate, good visual design.
These top priorities and other key features of a quality online learning experience are summarised in
box 1 and were confirmed by findings from a number of the research projects. Figure 1 provides a visual
presentation of these key quality features and also includes a fourth important feature of online learning
from the learner’s perspective.This is the ‘self ’ feature—the individual attributes that learners require to
‘succeed’ online.
Box 1 The turn-ons: Features constituting quality online experiences
Priority features
Flexibility flexibility to be able to work at the time, place and pace that the student chooses;
accessibility, convenience, freedom and blending delivery approaches to provide a
variety of learning outcomes and pathways
Teachers teachers who are motivators and helpers and respond promptly, thoughtfully,
comprehensively and in an informed way to requests for help and in other contexts;
who keep in regular contact by bulletins, phone, email or other means and indicate
their availability; who build good relationships with students and develop trust
Quality of materials and materials that are fast to download, easy-to-read, up-to-date, interactive,
course design comprehensive and well-designed, with clear navigation and structures, clear
directions to learners, containing ways by which students can judge their progress
Other key features
Access to resources links to other resources online, including interesting people; resources and links that
are updated continually to maintain their currency, and links that work
Online assessment and assessment that is valid, reliable and easy to use, download and submit, with rapid,
feedback informative and comprehensive feedback; clear assessment guidelines including
details about when and how to submit work
Improving IT skills experiences which give students the opportunity to use and further develop
existing information technology (IT) skills; induction program to address IT skill
needs and provide an orientation to studying online
Learning styles online resources that cater for a variety of learning styles and approaches; online
learning promotes independence and offers opportunities for reflection
Interaction and using computer and other technologies (phone, email, fax etc.) to support
communication interactions between individual learners and learners and teaching staff and to
encourage both co-operative and self-directed learning by students, as well as
teacher-directed learning; regular advice, directions and feedback from teachers
expected by students
Ease of use the use of processes and design features to minimise confusion and reduce
download times for resources and make access to necessary information easy, quick
and inexpensive
4 Flexibility through online learning
5. Figure 1 Factors contributing to a high-quality online learning experience:The learners’ view
✦ interactive
✦ responsive
✦ available
Online material
LEARN ✦ well-designed, interactive,
✦ motivated NL G up-to-date
O ✦ access to online resources
✦ managing time C O
HN LOG ✦ functioning links
✦ learning style TE Y
✦ ease of use
✦ gaining computer FLEXIBILITY
and internet skills ✦ time
✦ interacting with ✦ place
others ✦ pace Assessment and feedback
✦ communicating ✦ responsive, speedy
✦ easy to download and submit
Online Face-to-face
These ‘self ’ attributes involve students’ personal motivations, organisational and IT skills, their abilities to read,
write and use the internet effectively as well as their abilities to work and communicate with both teaching
staff and fellow students. Possessing these attributes will influence considerably the quality and effectiveness
of their online learning experience. However, as the research found, online programs frequently make
unequivocal assumptions about learner characteristics and traits (motivated, literate, well-organised and with
high-order cognitive skills) that do not match the actual skills and attributes of the learners.
The key features of a quality online learning experience that were identified by teachers are very similar to
those identified by students, but with an additional emphasis on student support issues and drawing
attention to organisational and professional development aspects of the introduction and delivery of
learning online.
Student support needs
One of the projects investigated the support students need when studying online (Choy, McNickle &
Clayton 2002).The researchers presented the ‘top 10’ student support features that students valued most.
Three of these relate to communication with staff and timely and helpful feedback.The students surveyed,
like those in many of the other studies, clearly want responsive teachers. Of the remaining seven ‘top 10’
support services, almost all relate to being able to access detailed and high-quality information, to
understand course and assessment requirements, how to enrol and how to get help when required.
The essential features of student support include:
 Pre-enrolment support: career advice/counselling, clear information about the course enrolment
procedures and payment of fees
 Teaching and learning support: induction and orientation to the course and to online learning,
communication strategies (including processes to keep students in touch with each other and with staff),
access to study and research skills (time management, learning-to-learn skills/independent learning skills),
information literacy, and using the web to access information, general learning support, and providing
access to learning resources
 Technical support: IT support to provide students with a range of options to access assistance including
phone, fax, email, frequently asked questions and helpdesks; provision of hardware and software support
for students as well as ensuring that the systems function well, are easy to use and are reliable.
At a glance 5
6. Teacher support needs
The nature of teachers’ work
It is clear from the research that teachers are very important to students studying online. Boxes 1 and 4
show the importance of having teachers who are responsive to the needs of their students studying
online. Rather than removing them from the learning equation, teachers are integral to the whole
process of online delivery. But how teachers work when teaching online is very different from their
delivery of programs purely in the classroom. Many teachers are now working in new and often
unfamiliar ways which, in turn, may not be understood by both middle and senior management in their
Most of the learning that students do is in mixed mode, and so many of the traditional teaching skills are
still valid. However, the online environment brings its own set of teaching and learning issues.
The research suggests that the online environment demands that teachers develop new ways of building
relationships that rely more on emails, chat rooms and other devices, which require high-level written
and other communication skills. An important success factor in online learning is developing rapport
with the students: knowing them, their progress and their interests intimately to help to enrich their
learning experiences as much as possible.
Teachers need to have mastered the range of technologies being used in the program and know
intimately the content, learning resources and the learning options available to the students.
Teachers cannot depend on their students being at the same stage at the same time, especially when
the program is self-paced. Because students may be working at any time of the day or night, providing
continuity of support has become an issue, especially given a teaching workforce which is becoming
increasingly part time or casualised.
Teachers suggested that their preparation of online learning materials is no more time-consuming than
the preparation of print materials (assuming that the teacher has sufficient skills). However, all agreed
that teaching and managing online demands more time than does teaching an equivalent group in class,
especially when the program is self-paced.
Professional development needs
Professional development is needed in a wide range of areas to help teachers make better use of online
learning and delivery. For example, focus group participants in one of the studies suggested that ‘those
who make the easiest transition to online teaching are those with experience with flexible learning or
distance education: the qualities needed for online are the same, it is only the medium that is different’.
For others it is harder.
Professional development needs were recognised in relation to reflecting on pedagogical issues, using the
technologies, seeing what others are doing, keeping up to date with new developments in a fast-moving
field, resource development and, importantly, the development of adequate levels of written and other
communication skills for the online environment.
Several groups in one of the studies suggested that teachers need training in online facilitation, especially
in the management of self-paced groups. Moderation of online discussion groups was an element of
online teaching that was thought to need particular attention. As an example, teachers need to
understand protocols that are available for online interaction in web discussion, chat and other
approaches, to ensure that all those who wish to participate can do so. It was suggested that teachers
who already have good management and teaching skills may find such tasks easier.
In the context of online teaching, the changing role of teachers and support staff should be recognised,
and appropriate professional development made available.Teacher support needs are summarised in
box 2.
6 Flexibility through online learning
7. Box 2 Identified teacher support/services required
■ recognition by management of the need to support online teaching staff, taking into account management
structures, casualisation of the teaching workforce, as well as changes related to new course content, learning
resources and technology
■ training in use of new technologies to ensure effective communication and interaction
■ dealing with technology problems
■ writing and other communication skills involved in using the online medium
■ conducting assessment online
■ market research skills
■ skills in evaluating the effectiveness of learning experience provided online
■ skills to facilitate the development, maintainance and improvement of online programs and resources
Assessing online
Booth et al. (forthcoming) argue that because assessment is an integral part of learning it needs to be
planned at the stage when the learning strategies are being developed. Assessing online involves the same
rules as all other forms of assessment: it needs to be valid, reliable, flexible and fair. However, being in its
relative infancy, some concerns have been evinced; for example, the increased possibilities for cheating. But
this can be overcome by designing assessment processes appropriately.
Online approaches seem to be used more extensively for formative than summative assessment. In
formative assessment, which helps learners monitor their learning, quizzes, true/false questions and item
banks are being used extensively to check learning progress. In summative assessment, where judgements
about competence are made, email is being used for the submission of assignments and providing
feedback, but it is generally acknowledged that there is a way to go before this form of assessment is used
effectively and to its full potential online.
There are promising developments in relation to project-based assessment and the use of case studies,
simulations and chat rooms and bulletin boards. Significantly however, the literature and the examples in
one of the studies highlight a re-thinking of assessment in light of the potential for collaborative and online
learning communities in open, distance and flexible learning arrangements.
Learner-centred assessment approaches, which include peer, group and self-assessment, create further
opportunities for assessment processes online while assisting in the development of collaborative skills and
other essential workplace and life skills.The objective is to make assessment a much more integrated and
transparent process which can be supported by the new technologies, creating portfolios of evidence,
developing assessment criteria available to all, and generating opportunities for a greater role to be taken
by the learners themselves.
Nevertheless, a range of forms of evidence is needed to assess competence accurately, and online will not
be appropriate for them all.Therefore a blend of off- and online assessment approaches may be utilised,
the choice of approach being influenced by learner needs and access to technology, available resources, the
nature of the discipline area being assessed and most importantly what is to be assessed.
Good pedagogy
One of the projects developed a list of pedagogical effectiveness indicators for online delivery of
vocational education and training (Brennan, forthcoming).These are set out in box 3. It is suggested that
these are ideals but that practice rarely conforms fully to these principles.The dominating influence of the
technology has created assumptions about the nature of learning, the role of the teacher and the student
characteristics that do not match well with teacher and learner expectations and/or experiences.
At a glance 7
8. Communication, interactivity and the
Box 3 Indicators of pedagogical effectiveness development of strong links between those
who are learning and teaching are very
There are a number of ideal indicators of pedagogical effectiveness important. Effective teacher–student
which are clearly expressed by all stakeholders in the online
relationships are regarded as a critical success
delivery of VET.These can be organised under a series of headings.
factor to develop in an online environment.
Learning related
The research findings show that effective
■ a learner-centred environment
student learning online requires teaching and
■ teaching and learning strategies which develop cognitive skills
learning environments where students have
■ high levels of interactivity between all participants
the opportunity to:
■ engagement with the online materials
■ learning experiences which encourage synthesis and analysis  reduce their reliance on text
■ opportunities for ‘deep learning’
 explore and value their intellectual, social
Teaching related and cultural backgrounds
■ approaches enabling learners to build new knowledge and
skills based on what they already have (constructivist
 develop their knowledge beyond the
approaches) transmission and assessment of content
■ consistent levels of feedback  reflect on their own learning
■ thoughtful matches between materials, learning styles and
learning contexts  be part of an inclusive learning
■ a model of delivery that includes thorough planning, environment
monitoring, reviewing and evaluating course materials and  communicate extensively with their peers
student progress
and their teachers
■ teachers who are imaginative, flexible, technologically
gymnastic, committed, responsible and expert communicators  become self-regulated and engaged with
Materials and resource related their own learning
■ high-quality materials design  develop a group identity that connects
■ a range of available navigational choices for students them with their learning and with the
Technology related broader social environment.
■ guaranteed and reliable forms of access to the technology
However, online learning takes place in an
■ quick and easy access to the training site and the online
technology environment that frequently militates against
achievement of these features.
Barriers to effective online learning and delivery
From the learner’s perspective
The full range of potential deterrents for students is described in box 4. For the most part deterrents arise
when quality and support features that should be good actually are not.
The greatest deterrents to a high-quality online learning experience for students are problems with
technology and access to the internet (Cashion & Palmieri 2002). For students, barriers can include
bandwidth, fast and affordable internet access, speed of software and access to up-to-date equipment.
Significant issues which may also constitute barriers include the level of technical support available (help in
downloading information, how to participate in discussion, web etiquette and quick response to problems),
their literacy and IT skills and other aptitudes (such as their ability to be self-directed, confident, motivated
and willing to interact with teachers and peers through email, chat rooms etc.)
The research also found that students believe technical systems and issues are the areas most in need of
improvement and noted that quick and easy access to technical support is what they really need. Cashion
and Palmieri (2002) also found that unemployed students or those who are employed part time are more
concerned about hardware and software requirements for an online program than those employed full
time, perhaps because they are less likely to have access to the necessary equipment, software and
internet connections. Over half the students they surveyed (59%) study at home or mostly at home. Only
2% access the materials at a computer centre.
8 Flexibility through online learning
9. Box 4 The turn-offs: Features which detract from a quality online learning experience
The main turn-off
Problems with technology technologies that are confusing and difficult to use, especially for those without IT experience
and internet access and skills; hardware and software requirements beyond the reach of some students; access
problems to the internet; faulty technical features; provider IT facilities and technologies unable
to support the level of student use
Other turn-offs
Self-motivation maintaining motivation and self-discipline with little or no student or teacher interaction and
few group-based activities
Unsatisfactory assessment assignments that are hard to download and submit; slow, poor-quality feedback
Lack of teacher poor teacher response times; lack of availability when needed; changes in staff and lack of
responsiveness consistent and clear advice; teachers who have not mastered the content and the technologies
Confusion unclear instructions and content
Poor or inadequate resources that are poorly designed and structured with poor navigation and broken links; old
resource materials and out-of-date resources; resources that are wrong or not available
Lack of support, including lack of prompt, responsive, knowledgeable and friendly assistance for students with technical
adequate helpdesk services and learning difficulties; lack of other student support services (e.g. facilities for enrolment and
payment of fees); students not kept informed; support in a variety of forms—not just online
Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data show that access to a computer is related to both income and
employment status.Those with higher household incomes are also far more likely to have internet access
at home (ABS 2001a, 2001b). Equity of access needs to be kept in mind as these technologies and
learning approaches can exclude many who are on low incomes or who may not be in work.
Others live where the maintenance of a reliable and high-speed connection to the internet is
problematic, such as rural and remote areas. In a world becoming increasingly dependent on computer
technologies and access to information and knowledge there is a danger that, while online learning will
open doors for some, others will become further marginalised. On the other hand, the research has
shown that online learning can enhance opportunities for learners whose educational prospects are
limited by distance, illness or disability.
From the teacher’s perspective
For teachers, barriers relate to their ability to use the technology in ways which support a student-
centred and facilitation approach to teaching and the institutional structures in which they work.The
fact is that many structures and policies are still based on an assumption of face-to-face delivery.
The studies found that most teachers were enthusiastic about online teaching, finding it challenging,
enlivening, rewarding and enriching.Their concerns centred on the fact that the changes it demands of
teachers’ working patterns are not recognised in budgets, working conditions or state reporting
requirements.There is a need for greater staff availability throughout the day and across the week, with
the associated industrial relations issues for their institutions—including more flexible views about the
nature, hours and place of their ‘work’.
Budgets, workloads and outcomes reporting are still framed in terms of student contact hours, which
bear little relation to the way in which online teaching and learning takes place. As Stewart-Rattray,
Moran and Schueler (2001) reported, online delivery is surrounded by rhetoric and policy that far
exceeds implementation; it suffers from a lack of clear definition at all levels and is supply- rather than
demand-driven. Furthermore, industrial relations issues associated with teaching awards and conditions
covering teaching and technical support staff are likely to be problematic. It seems that it is mostly
championed at the operational level by teachers and with little or no understanding and support of
senior management at the institute and state and territory levels.They believe that if online teaching is
successful it is despite the system not because of it.
At a glance 9
10. Issues for stakeholders
This research has highlighted a variety of issues which need to be addressed if online learning is to be
effectively implemented and has identified strategies to overcome these issues and improve cost-
effectiveness.These strategies are summarised in box 5.
First and foremost, it needs to be recognised by both policy-makers and practitioners that online delivery is
just one of a range of approaches that can be used in promoting more individualised and flexible learning
and delivery.To place undue emphasis on it at the expense of other approaches may be to limit rather than
enhance options for delivery and learning.
Booker (2000) presents a range of definitions of online learning but, in her view, one of the most
encompassing is that used by Tony Bates (1997, p.9) or what he calls ‘a distributed learning environment’:
… a learner-centred approach to education, which integrates a number of technologies to enable
opportunities for activities and interaction in both asynchronous and real-time modes.The model is based
on blending a choice of appropriate technologies with aspects of campus-based delivery, open learning
systems and distance education.The approach gives instructors the flexibility to customise learning
environments to meet the needs of diverse student populations, while providing both high quality and
cost-effective learning.
Online learning is sometimes defined more narrowly but it is most properly seen as a way of contributing to
solving learning problems faced by individuals and enterprises in the most expeditious way, by enhancing,
extending or replacing traditional teaching and training practices. It offers and enhances flexibility and options
so that the learning is potentially of the highest quality. But it also needs to be more ‘whole of organisation’
so that it provides access to appropriate and comprehensive student support systems, information and other
services. Online delivery needs to be set within appropriate pedagogical and business frameworks.
Greater use could be made of induction programs (awareness of technology, how to use technology
interactively, the conventions associated with technology usage) to ensure that all students who enrol in
courses are prepared for the use of online approaches. Induction programs should also cover study skills.
Programs such as these may help to reduce unnecessary attrition and assist students to develop the
‘technical’ and other ‘soft’ skills they need to enable them to focus on learning, rather than focussing on
mastering the technology.
Costs can be reduced by such strategies as redesigning work processes to change how student support is
delivered; for example:
 using different people to deal with relatively simple helpdesk queries
 integrating back office systems for managing student enrolments, payment processes and other services, as
well as tracking student progress
 having instructors use automated response systems to reduce time spent on dealing with individual
queries or making use of synchronous discussion groups to make it easier for students to help each other.
Providers could adopt a more ‘whole-of-organisation’ approach to the use of online and other flexible
approaches to delivery. Online learning is just one component of an integrated e-business approach,
whereby organisations can use the opportunities provided by these technologies to improve systems,
reduce costs where appropriate, and work in more integrated and effective ways. Mitchell (forthcoming)
documents a number of Australian VET providers which are using e-business practices inventively—doing
more business electronically—and are already moving towards bringing e-business and online learning closer
together.Traditionally, administrative and support processes have been kept largely separate from those
concerned with teaching and learning. Now, back and front office functions need to be merged and used
to provide a wide range of other services for students, and for functions such as marketing, enrolment and
information provision.
10 Flexibility through online learning
11. Even so, barriers within providers to achieving these improved customer services and business
efficiencies still exist.These include costs, user resistance, technology availability, limited staff skills and
organisational inexperience.There are significant risks associated with e-business and privacy invasions
and legal issues also need to be addressed when embedding online learning within an e-business
It is therefore no simple matter to merge online learning and e-business.The secret to success lies in
good planning. Mitchell (forthcoming) highlights a new business philosophy that many VET managers are
developing whereby more flexible approaches to learning are seen as an important part of being in the
education and training business. It is about being demand-driven, not supply-driven. It is also about being
market-driven, not ruled by technology. Adopting an e-business solution which meets the provider’s—but
especially its customers’—needs offers a way of achieving these business goals. But to do this, and to
make the teaching and learning experience better, some things about the ways both staff and providers
work need to change.
As noted earlier, professional development of teachers and other staff is needed to provide them with
support and confidence to incorporate online learning into their practices. One suggestion is to develop
guidelines for teachers and students in using this approach as well as a code of practice that outlines the
roles and responsibilities of both teachers and learners. Furthermore, adequate time is needed to allow
staff, both as individuals and as teams, to reflect, evaluate and learn from what they are currently doing
so that practices can be improved.
Better information about the range of delivery approaches being used is needed at the provider and at
both the state/territory and national levels to guide resource allocation, and better planning and
decision-making.The learning approaches and strategies used by providers require ongoing evaluation to
ensure improvement in learning and delivery.
Finally, more research is needed on online teachers’ working patterns to ensure that staff receive
adequate recognition of the ways they work in these new and more flexible learning and teaching
arrangements. In addition, there needs to be a fundamental reappraisal of how online learning is funded
so that it better reflects what is involved.
Box 5 Strategies to overcome barriers and improve cost-effectiveness
Induction programs to ensure that all students who enrol in courses are prepared for the use of online
approaches; induction programs should cover study skills, awareness of learning styles and
interactive use of technology
Cost reduction by redesigning work processes to change how student support is delivered, using different
personnel to deal with relatively simple helpdesk queries, integrating back office systems for
managing student enrolments; use by instructors of automated response systems to reduce
time spent on individual queries; use of synchronous discussion groups
E-business approach for enhanced service delivery and support for online learners; online learning to become one
component of an integrated e-business approach in a customer-focussed organisation
Professional to provide them with support and confidence to incorporate online learning into their
development of teaching practice; development of guidelines for teachers and students and a code of practice
teachers to outline roles and responsibilities of both teachers and learners
Better data collection at the provider level, for which processes are currently underway
Further research into online teachers' working patterns and services undertaken with a view to determining
how best to fund online learning
At a glance 11
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How can I find out more?
An overview of the program of initiatives that form part of the Australian Flexible Learning Framework can be
obtained at http://flexiblelearning.net.au
Further information on the research can be found on the NCVER website at http://www.ncver.edu.au/online.htm
The VOCED international research database contains considerable information about
both flexible and online delivery at http://www.voced.edu.au
© Australian National Training Authority, 2002 Comments and suggestions regarding this publication are
welcome and should be forwarded to NCVER.
This work has been produced with the assistance of
funding provided by the Commonwealth Government This publication was produced by the National Centre
through the Australian National Training Authority (ANTA). for Vocational Education Research Ltd ABN 87 007 967 311.
Copyright for this document vests in ANTA. ANTA will
allow free use of the material so long as ANTA's interest NCVER Ltd, 252 Kensington Road, Leabrook SA 5068
is acknowledged and the use is not for profit. PO Box 115, Kensington Park SA 5068
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12 Flexibility through online learning