Screening online learning

How Australians choose to study

Australian students are choosing to study online (Photo: Rabeah Zafrullah)

With the rise of the internet, distance learning was revolutionised and now millions of students around the world are choosing to pursue their studies online.

However, regardless of the method, the effectiveness of e-learning is still debated when compared to traditional studying methods. But while employers and prospective students may question the worth of online degrees, educators are finding little fault with it.

Ozge Suzan is a high school teacher who is studying a Masters of Education online after having completed her Bachelors on-campus. When considering the effectiveness of online teaching methods and comparing them to traditional teaching, Ms Suzan suggests that they can be equally effective although the learning experiences may differ.

“It depends on what your purpose is,” she says. “You’re still getting the same educational knowledge, just without the social experience as going to Uni. For some people, that’s okay, but other people need that interaction to keep going.”

Ms Suzan asserts that the education students are provided with online is the same as traditional courses, but the effectiveness of the education depends on the institution and how their courses are structured.

Many online education facilities are now introducing practical elements to supplement their online courses. These range from intensive on-campus sessions to internships and work placements.

“Regardless of what you do,” Ms Suzan states, “your degree is trying to help you get ready for the real world, for your job. And whatever your job is, there is some practical component in it. It’s important to get some experience of that while you’re still under the wings of uni.”

Charles Sturt University, a facility that offers online courses, agrees. “Even with the technology we have now, we still have practical components,” says William of CSU. Courses at the university include practical elements and learning placements to improve the students’ understanding.

With more online universities offering practical units, interactive features and multi-media based education, the online learning experience is quickly becoming a serious contender for traditional studies.

(Video: Rabeah Zafrullah)

The advantages of learning online are almost indisputable. With flexible timings, students can schedule their studying time themselves, freeing them up for other responsibilities.

Most students who study online are working full-time. Given the rising costs of education, this income is indispensable. However, while the advantages may seem clear, it can come at a cost.

“When I was working part-time and studying, I could balance it out and got the best of both worlds,” says Ms Suzan, “now that I’m working full time, I’ve actually had to stop studying a bit so I can focus on work.”

Although working and studying full-time simultaneously can be difficult for some, it gives students the benefit of having substantial work experience before their degree ends. With the rising expectations of employers, students with experience in their fields have a significant edge over those without. But this might not always be the case with an online degree.

Results show that high school principals prefer applicants with traditional degrees (Source: MacroThink Institute)

In 2013, an American research organisation interviewed 600 employers regarding online degrees. The results showed that 56% of them were more likely to give jobs to applicants with degrees from an average traditional school over those with online degrees from top-notch universities.

While perceptions of online learning have improved since then, a recent survey of high school principals gauged the likelihood of students with online degrees gaining employment in entry-level teaching positions. In the survey, 96% preferred teachers with traditional degrees over those with online degrees, while 73% preferred applicants with traditional degrees over those who were partially online and partially on-campus.

Despite this negativity, 49% of the respondents also agreed that teaching experience and good references were the most crucial factors when deciding employability. And, as Martin Birch the managing director of High Fliers Research told the Huffington Post, “New graduates who’ve not had any work experience at all during their studies are increasingly unlikely to be offered a good graduate job after university.”

The flexible timings and remote availability of online education has made it more accessible for mature aged students.

In 1985, Hina Rafiq came to Australia to complete her high school studies and was later accepted on a scholarship to study a Bachelors in Science at the University of Sydney. While she had planned to finish her degree immediately, she found herself unable to, after getting married and having a child.

Now, as a mature aged student with three kids and a full-time job, Hina has started studying once more by completing certificates and diplomas online. For Hina, online learning is a way to improve her skills without sacrificing her work or personal life.

“The challenges of studying online are similar to going to university,” Hina says. “I can do my studies while I’m working and study at my own pace.”

Online learning statistics from Open Universities Australia, one of Australia’s largest e-learning facilities. (Source: Open Universities Australia)

Despite the fact that online degrees require a better grasp of technology and using the internet, research has shown that online-only students are generally older than on-campus students.

The ease of access for online degrees is only one of the reasons behind this- as technology advances, more and more people are finding themselves in need of retraining or up-skilling to remain up-to-date with evolving work environments. For mature aged individuals who are unable to leave full-time work, this means turning to the courses available online.

By being available to anyone with an internet connection, online education also becomes a serious choice for students living in rural areas. With the costs and difficulties of travelling to university considered, many rural students find online studies to be more sustainable. The wide variety of courses available online also means that students may choose to study degrees online that aren’t available in their local colleges or facilities.

For Saadiyah Khan, a Kindy teacher’s aide in Plumpton NSW, online learning was the only feasible choice.

“We moved to a more rural area just after I finished high school so I thought it would be easier for me, instead of travelling every day, if I could just do it online,” Saadiyah comments. “I studied a teacher’s aide course for one year… Now I’m studying a Bachelor of Education at Curtin Uni while I work full-time.”

Even with the possible disadvantages considered, the effectiveness and availability of online education means that for many students, it is a realistic choice that may suit them better than a traditional degree might. With the opinions of online degrees improving and the rising standards from the facilities that provide them, online learning is set to become as established as traditional education.

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