Getting connected: Professional development of contract and casual staff providing flexible learning - Volume 1

By Tom Stehlik, Michele Simons, Lyn Kerkham, Ron Pearce, Judy Gronold Research report 31 October 2003 ISBN 1 920895 11 6 print; 1 920895 12 4 web


The experiences of contract and casual staff 'getting connected' with flexible delivery and online learning technologies and engaging in professional development is the focus of this report. The study finds a significant proportion of professional development relies heavily on learning by doing, informal learning, and networking with colleagues. The professional development needs of staff often become apparent after they use flexible delivery and online learning. Opportunities exist to increase informal learning and integrate contract and casual staff into wider working groups. The report is published in two volumes. Volume 1 is the main report while volume 2 contains the appendices and is available in PDF format only (see related items).


Executive summary


Policy development within the vocational and education and training (VET) sector has led to an increased demand for flexible service delivery. This approach aims to give learners greater choice over when, where and how they learn. Flexible delivery includes strategies such as distance education, online learning, mixed mode delivery, self-paced learning and self-directed learning.

These policies are being developed at a time when the sector has witnessed a growth in the number of contract and casual teachers and trainers, who are usually employed on a part-time or short-term basis, sometimes by more that one provider. The nature of this employment arrangement has potential implications for the extent to which contract and casual staff are able to implement flexible and online approaches to learning, as well as their access to professional development to support this work.

This study explored the experiences of contract and casual staff in the provision of flexible delivery and online learning in the VET sector, particularly their ability to ëget connectedí with flexible and online learning technologies and the opportunities they have to engage in professional development activities to support their teaching practice in these areas.

The methodology for this study involved a combination of qualitative and quantitative approaches, which address both the analytical and descriptive nature of the issues being studied. This multimethod approach included:

  • a review of current policies and practices in flexible learning delivery in the VET sector and the literature on professional development for VET teachers and trainers
  • case study interviews with teaching staff and educational managers at six VET sites representing public and private providers in South Australia and Queensland
  • an online survey administered by the University of South Australiaís Marketing Science Centre and directed at contract and casual teaching/training staff, disseminated through a number of networks of VET providers.

Summary of key findings

Adoption of flexible and online approaches within VET providers

The six registered training organisations (RTOs) that participated in the study confirmed that the utilisation of flexible delivery, and the extent to which they include online technologies, varies significantly. The study found that about 10% of courses are delivered entirely online. In most cases a form of blended delivery is offered, involving a range of approaches, including face-to-face teaching, video streaming, on-the-job training and print-based options.

The study also highlights that the adoption of flexible delivery is often affected by the:

  • availability of technology and resources
  • reluctance of students
  • hesitation to change by teachers and trainers
  • time constraints of staff
  • history of the RTO
  • availability of funding
  • recognition that online learning does not cater for all learning styles
  • fact that not all programs lend themselves to this type of delivery.

Contract and casual staff involvement in flexible and online learning

Contract and casual staff usually become involved in flexible and online learning by choice when opportunities are offered to them. Some are motivated to keep their job or increase their employability; others see it as just being 'part of the job', while some are focused on giving students the best possible outcomes. Opportunities to become involved would seem equally available to all staff, regardless of employment status. In fact, in some organisations the employment of contract and casual staff is central to the overall organisational goals to adopt flexible and online learning. However, casual staff are generally involved in delivering and assessing flexible and online programs, not in designing and developing them. This is because designing and developing programs requires:

  • time
  • technical knowledge
  • access to resources and information
  • ongoing employment security.

These activities are therefore normally limited to full-time contract or permanent staff, meaning that short-term contract and casual staff—who are usually appointed directly from industry specifically for their current knowledge and experience—are subsequently faced with delivering a package developed and designed by someone else. This has implications for succession planning if casual staff are excluded from design and curriculum work, yet are assumed to be the next generation of full-time or permanent staff. It is therefore essential that they are not excluded from staff development opportunities in flexible and online learning. In fact, some training providers highlighted the benefits of ensuring they involved their contract and casual staff as much as possible, so that staff were an active part of the teaching team.

Knowledge, skills and attributes needed for flexible and online learning

There is little or no evidence that contract and casual teachers require different knowledge, skills and attributes for their work in flexible and online delivery from that required by permanent staff. All staff involved in flexible and online learning require a wider scope of knowledge This is due to the hybrid nature of the work, usually requiring staff to work across multiple learning environments (classroom, workplaces, web-based environments, distance education). However, the cornerstone of skill and knowledge development stills rests in the classroom, as classroom delivery is important for working in both flexible and online environments. This becomes an issue where contract and casual staff employed for their technical knowledge have had no previous face-to-face classroom experience.

In order to deliver online programs, well-developed skills in writing, communicating, interpreting, conveying meaning and providing logical concise information, are just as important as technological skills, such as the ability to use email, internet and power point applications. The design and development of online courses, however, does require a specific set of technical skills, as well as certain administrative and organisational skills. This highlights the importance of providing contract and casual staff with appropriate development opportunities.

Contract and casual staff development in flexible and online learning

The outcomes of this study indicate that a number of opportunities exist for contract and casual staff to undertake professional development in flexible and online learning, ranging from university degrees to in-house training, with some receiving financial support from their employer. However, the less attached staff are to the workforce, the less likely they are to have access to professional development.

Contract and casual staff are usually employed part-time, while also working in the industry from which they have been recruited to teach. They are also possibly teaching in more than one organisation, and the time spent with the RTO is limited to what they are paid for. As a result, managers are more likely to give permanent and full-time staff priority for staff development when funding is available. Contract and casual staff who do get selected for training opportunities tend to be those who show interest and are already seen as experts in the field. This highlights the politics and practical difficulties involved in managing a diverse workforce.

The case studies also emphasised that professional development needs will often only become apparent after the transition to online learning delivery has begun. That is, it is only after experiential learning, informal learning and networking with colleagues, that more formal staff development needs are identified.

What also emerges from the study is that informal learning activities supporting flexible and online environments are significant, and that learning from peers and colleagues, self-directed study, hands-on practice and individual reading on the topic are very useful for personal and professional development. An interesting factor to emerge is the notion of support for development being teambased. For example, a staff member may be chosen to be involved in a program such as Learnscope (a professional development activity which aims to improve of the knowledge and skills of VET teachers and trainers, required for new learning technologies) and return to share new knowledge and skills with other staff.


All teachers and trainers, regardless of their employment status, are likely to be challenged by the introduction of flexible and online delivery and will require appropriate professional development opportunities to enable them to deal with these changing demands. What this study provides is an exploration of how contract and casual staff are prepared to react to this change.

While there are professional development opportunities available for contract and casual staff, they are usually more accessible for permanent and full-time staff. Often, the extent to which contract and casual staff become involved depends on the individualís enthusiasm and willingness, and how active they are in seeking out opportunities and information. It is also dependent on the culture of the organisation and the extent to which contract and casual staff are included in the communication networks, as well as the internal support available to them.

Access to professional development for contract and casual staff is vital as it has potential implications for succession planning of VET in the future. As contract or casual teachers of today may become the permanent teachers of tomorrow, it is essential that they hold the knowledge, skills and attributes required to ensure their professional competence. This includes an underpinning knowledge of education, learning styles and curriculum development, not just technical skills, knowledge of industry and content skills.

The benefits for individuals and teams from involvement in Learnscope projects emerge clearly from this study, and the receivers of such types of funding should ensure that appropriate opportunities are available to casual and contract staff, as well as permanent or full-time staff. A team-based approach to learning also emerges as a model of good practice in managing the skills requirements of a diverse and segmented workforce, in an evolving educational and technological environment.


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