Researching the size and scope of online usage in the VET sector

By Robyn Hill, Peter Malone, Selby Markham, Renu Sharma, Judithe Sheard, Graeme Young Research report 13 May 2003 ISBN 1 74096 153 6


An overview of the extent and usage of online learning in Australia's vocational education and training (VET) sector is presented in this report.


Executive summary

This project identifies, describes and analyses the size and extent of use of online learning in the vocational education and training (VET) sector in Australia, and highlights a range of features of online learning, and of the providers and users. The research described here contributes to the knowledge about online learning in the VET sector by looking beyond the specific contexts to identify the facilitators and inhibitors to successful experiences. This project was the first to collect national data relating to the size and scope of online usage in the VET sector and it was not able to deliver conclusive answers.

The methodology for this research was qualitative and quantitative. Meta-analytical methods were used to establish the broad parameters; quantitative methods were subsequently used to collect the core data. Case studies and semi-structured interviews were employed to validate and cross-check information and findings.

As a part of the literature review the historical and current interpretations of online learning and associated terms and definitions were examined. Importantly for this project, the terms 'online learning', 'online delivery' and 'virtual education' tend to be used interchangeably. 'Online delivery' refers to the technical focus but does not exclude individuals, teachers and learners who are an integral part of the delivery mechanism. 'Online learning', on the other hand, is more concerned about a learner-centred environment which is in turn facilitated by a range of technologies that permit online delivery. This distinction between delivery and learning reflects the complexity of the area under investigation.

Analysis of quantitative data demonstrates a varied understanding of a wide range of features of 'online'. The collection of these data also highlighted a need to identify and promote the use of consistent terminology in online learning. In addition, there is a significant difference in the scope of concept concerning what constitutes online methodologies.

Issues investigated in the literature review included the provision of support services and materials for institutes, teachers and learners. Online learning is heavily supported, in most states, through grant and project money and through a policy directive encouraging individual institutes to become involved.

If we look at the information gleaned from the interviews and case studies it would appear that the development of online materials is dependent upon a combination of availability of resources and staff skills. Furthermore, limited teaching or pedagogical models or structures within which to place online delivery, necessarily restrict development of integrated learning environments.

The case studies and semi-structured interviews provided the project with descriptive information on who is developing materials. There appear to be three groups: those embracing the online teaching?learning environment, those who are deeply engaged with the electronic learning environment and those who are simply tuned into the online world. The ultimate level of the online culture is what can be called the virtual delivery culture, a culture populated by those committed to the development of online delivery, who see its structure and possibilities, and whose practice reflects 'best practice'.

Support appears to be lacking in curriculum development and course design skills upgrading. The provision of a common platform such as WebCT may make it easier to develop online courses but the skills needed for creating any form of online delivery are very different from those needed for good classroom delivery. Comments from the interviews suggested that those we dubbed online 'sophisticates' were sceptical about the possibility of the average staff member creating effective electronic media.

Results of the student outcomes surveys for 2000 and 2001 indicate little engagement by learners with the online option, in spite of the large number of modules identified by the state organisations as being offered online. Interviews with registered training organisations were designed to gather data to support the following research questions:

  • How extensively is online being used as a stand-alone process?

  • How extensively is online learning being used:

    • within particular states/territories?
    • according to provider type?
    • by particular program areas?
    • at particular levels of qualification?

The results of these interviews give the impression that registered training organisations across the country are offering and delivering online modules in a wide range of industry/occupational groupings. It is apparent that there is a need for greater conformity in the nomenclature and the identity of the courses offered in the different states.

Unfortunately, the states are not able to provide details on enrolment numbers within modules. As little information is available on the student enrolment, it is difficult to say which modules are most or least popular with students. Some idea may be derived from the number of modules offered in each of the industry groups.

Overall, the most popular industry groupings for online modules were property and business, communication, agriculture, forestry and fishing. The industry group of electricity, gas and water was the least covered and both mining and wholesale trade also had very few modules on offer.

The overall impression is that registered training organisations across the country are offering and delivering a wide range of online programs.

The reality to be faced in investigating online learning and student uptake is that the available statistics show very small numbers undertaking modules in an online mode. The National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER) student outcomes survey data gave no indication that the students engaged in online activity were markedly different from the standard delivery student population. In looking at age groups for the 2001 data, the 20 to 24 year age group consists of over one-fifth of the online delivery for graduates (22%) followed by the 35 to 39 year age group (15%). For module completers, the 15 to 19 year and the 20 to 24 year age groups make up the largest portion.

The proportion of training received by online delivery methods among graduates in 2001 was around 60% for graduates in capital city areas and 40% for graduates in rural areas. For module completers the proportion was around 51% for both capital city and rural dwellers.

The current state of development of online delivery has not necessarily been driven by knowledge of the education market or by developments in educational models. Consequently, any suggestions about opportunities would need to be closely evaluated to determine if they were anything more than opinion. A real issue, which online deliverers need to address, is that of the quality of delivery and efficiency of delivery, since quality and efficiency are likely to attract students to courses.

Similarly, the size of the online education market is unknown because it cannot be said that all possible students want to undertake training online and not all of the desired subjects (an unknown proportion) are available online. This is clear from the data collected in this project. The provision of online courses in any given area could rapidly saturate that area of the marketplace. The need for education market research is obviously important.



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