This research provides a contemporary view of how online learning is used to deliver entire qualifications in the Australian VET sector. It estimates the extent that entire qualifications are delivered online, investigates what this online delivery looks like and whether online training is providing students with similar experiences and outcomes as face-to-face training. It culminates with identification of what makes for good practice in online delivery.
About the research
The online delivery of training is well established in the vocational education and training (VET) sector, and it is not unusual for a course to include training that is delivered online in one or more units. However, little is known about the online delivery of entire qualifications in VET and how this works, given the overarching role of the competency-based training system in the sector.
This research provides a contemporary view of how online learning is used to deliver complete qualifications in the Australian VET sector. It estimates the extent to which entire qualifications are delivered online, as well as investigates the nature of this online delivery and whether this training is providing students with a similar experience and outcomes to that of face-to-face training. The final element of this research identifies the factors that contribute to good practice in online delivery.
- It is estimated that 8.6% of all VET program commencements in 2017 were in courses delivered fully online. While this proportion appears relatively small, it is not insignificant, noting that in New South Wales and Queensland more than 10% of courses are delivered fully online.
- Online VET is characterised by higher subject withdrawal rates and lower course completion rates. Analysis of 17 qualifications across six subject areas revealed that qualification completion rates for fully online courses are consistently lower than for all other modes of delivery.
- Higher subject withdrawals and course non-completion can be due to many factors, such as poor quality training, the delivery mode not suiting the student, issues with securing a work placement (if required), or the student lacking access to the necessary tools or technology to complete the course. This research cannot differentiate between these reasons due to limitations in the available data.
- For those students who completed an online course, the outcomes were mixed but in general, comparable to other delivery modes. Overall, student satisfaction measures were lower for graduates of courses delivered online, although they were still relatively quite high. For many of the individual qualifications examined, satisfaction with teaching (one of the satisfaction measures) was lower for courses delivered online. Conversely, for many of the qualifications, graduates who studied online were more likely to report they had achieved the main reason for doing the training. Additionally, the employment outcomes for graduates of online courses were similar to, or slightly better than, those of graduates of courses delivered via other modes.
- The attributes of good practice in online delivery include:
- a positive and supportive attitude and ethos in the training provider
- students with realistic expectations of the course and delivery mode on enrolment
- well-structured, up-to-date and engaging resources that cater to a range of learning preferences
- an effective and accessible student support system
- highly skilled and knowledgeable teachers and trainers, who display empathy and are creative problem-solvers.
Many of these attributes of good practice are not unique to the online delivery context but how they are implemented may be.
Online learning is well entrenched in Australian education, including in the vocational education and training (VET) sector. However, since the VET sector is underpinned by a competency-based training system, it may experience unique challenges in the use of online learning as a delivery mode. The integrity and ultimate success of the sector is based on students demonstrating they are competent in skills that can be transferred directly to the workplace, raising questions about how suitable online learning might be for VET, especially for those courses focused on practical or physical activities.
While the use of online learning has increased in all education sectors internationally and in Australia, there is a lack of evidence for how much is currently delivered online in Australian VET which this report seeks to fill. A particular focus are fully online courses where an entire qualification is completed online. In addition to the extent of full online qualification delivery, this report gives a better understanding of whether online qualifications provide students with the same experience and outcomes as do face-to-face courses. This study also identifies the elements that constitute good online delivery.
To get a picture of the levels of VET delivered online (defined as predominantly electronic-based in the National VET Provider Collection) over time, it is necessary to look at government-funded training since total VET activity has only been collected since 2014. Over time, for individual VET subjects, the extent of online delivery roughly doubled between 2010 and 2017 (from 6% to 13%).
While these figures demonstrate an increase in the online delivery of VET at the subject level, the key interest to this project is the online delivery of entire qualifications. For full qualifications (analysed for 2015—17), government-funded online delivery slightly increased as a proportion of all delivery, from around 5% to over 7%. However, for total VET activity, which includes fee-for-service and government-funded training, the online delivery of full qualifications decreased from around 10% of all delivery in 2015 to 8.6% in 2017. Hence, the growth in online learning for full qualifications appears to have slowed in recent years, largely due to a dramatic decrease in commencements for online fee-for-service diploma or higher qualifications over that three-year period, which may be associated with changes to the VET FEE-HELP scheme which focussed on higher qualification levels.
While the proportion of full VET qualifications conducted online appears relatively small, it is not insignificant. This is particularly true in New South Wales and Queensland, where more than 10% of delivery is conducted online. It is therefore important to understand how it is delivered and how the outcomes for students compare with other, more traditional, forms of delivery.
Teachers and trainers, when interviewed, indicated that online learning, like any form of learning, does not suit every individual or situation. It is inherently different from other delivery modes and comes with its own advantages and disadvantages. The disadvantages — such as feeling isolated, the requirement for high levels of self-discipline, or an incompatible learning style — may mean that some students find it more difficult to complete the training, or do not enjoy it. This mismatch for some individuals may partly be reflected in the higher subject withdrawal rates and lower course completion rates seen in online delivery.
Withdrawal rates were around 10% higher for online subjects and completion rates for courses delivered entirely online around 10% lower in 2016. Higher subject withdrawals and lower course completions may be due to a variety of reasons, such as the delivery mode not suiting the student, the student’s inability to secure a work placement (if required), or the student not having the necessary tools or technology to participate in the course (for example, access to a computer, specific software or adequate internet access). Poor-quality delivery may also lead to higher subject withdrawals and lower course completions, but this analysis cannot differentiate between this and other non-quality related reasons.
For those students who do complete online qualifications, satisfaction measures are lower for graduates of courses delivered online, although still relatively high. Qualifications in six different subject areas were also examined. Across many of these courses, graduates of online courses were less satisfied with the teaching although were often more likely to report they had achieved their main reason for doing the training. Across these six subject areas, the greatest number of differences in student satisfaction measures were noted in two fitness qualifications, where almost all satisfaction measures were lower for the courses delivered online. Notably, of the individual qualifications investigated, the fitness qualifications are those where training and assessment involve the most physical activity and, hence, may be less compatible with delivery in a fully online environment. It is important to note that, unlike for some of the community services qualifications (that are also quite practical in comparison to the other qualifications examined), work placement is only suggested, and not required, for these fitness qualifications. This leads to a further question of whether there is any difference in student satisfaction with fitness qualifications that include a work placement compared with those that do not. However, this cannot be determined from this analysis.
Employment outcomes for students who graduated from online courses are mostly similar to, or slightly higher than, those for courses delivered via other modes. These positive outcomes can be viewed as offsetting some of the more subjective satisfaction measures which were already quite mixed. Hence the evidence suggests that while students are less likely to complete an online qualification, if they do, their employment outcomes are comparable with graduates of non-online courses.
These course completion rates, student satisfaction measures and employment outcomes need to be considered in the light of the data limitations. The analysis of the National VET Provider Collection is limited by the proxy used for ‘online delivery’; defined as delivery predominantly electronic-based. Moreover, this characteristic is collected at the subject level, with sophisticated matching techniques required to construct program-level data, a further limitation. Similarly, for the National Student Outcomes Survey, the analysis is limited by how online learning is defined and the coverage of the survey. A more accurate picture of the extent of online delivery in VET, as well as student satisfaction and employment outcomes, would require a more targeted and specific data collection. Overall, with these limitations, we cannot confirm or preclude quality issues or any other reasons for the higher subject withdrawals and lower course completion rates seen in online delivery.
Given that online delivery in VET is used by around a tenth of VET students at the program level, the quality is important. From the regulator’s perspective, the quality of an online course is measured by its compliance with the ‘Standards for RTOs 2015’. The Australian Skills Quality Authority (ASQA) reports that auditors use the same audit approach for registered training organisations (RTOs) whose students undertake online training as for those where courses are face-to-face. Specifically in regard to online delivery, ASQA advises that RTOs must ensure that the delivery mode is appropriate for the course and that the resources required to support online delivery are adequate.
Interviews with teachers/trainers and other RTO staff revealed, however, that some feel that RTOs delivering online programs are disadvantaged and that many auditors have a negative view of online delivery. These interviewees want online and face-to-face delivery to be judged fairly and equally and spoke very highly of the quality assurance procedures in place at their RTOs. To alleviate some of the challenges faced by RTOs in the delivery of online VET, a more risk-based approach to assessment requirements and the auditing process was suggested.
A number of the teachers and trainers interviewed for the research (from the qualification areas selected for examination) reported that online delivery has changed very little over the past 10 years, with the possible exception of the use of higher-quality graphics and chat bots. The online tools described by the teachers and trainers included:
- course content: text-based materials, videos, links to external sources of information and interactive elements
- engagement among students: online conferencing tools, forums and Facebook groups
- communication between the student and trainer: email, phone, Skype and the online learning messaging system
- assessment: short automated quizzes (not necessarily formal assessment), written work, recorded videos, virtual labs, live video and phone.
Of interest to this research was the approach adopted for non-online elements. The training packages for some courses specify the requirement (or a suggestion) for a work placement. Online delivery of these qualifications does not preclude these requirements, and interviewees described how students were required, and often supported, to find appropriate work placements. This demonstrates that, while these courses are considered and marketed as online, the work placement element ensures that students can learn and demonstrate competence of their skills in an authentic workplace.
The attributes of good practice in online delivery were identified from the interviews with trainers and other RTO staff and subsequently categorised into five components:
- The training provider and staff: the attitude and ethos of the training provider plays an important role in good online delivery. Good intentions of the provider and staff set the tone for high-quality training and assessment, regardless of the mode of delivery.
- Before and on enrolment: ensuring that students have realistic expectations of the course and delivery mode helps students to make informed decisions about their training. Informing students about any non-online elements, such as work placements, and what they’ll need to do to complete the course will help to reduce the chance of students enrolling in a course that does not suit their learning style or situation.
- The online learning platform, resources and assessment: the system needs to be easy to navigate and use and the resources well-structured, up-to-date and engaging. Content should be delivered in a variety of ways to cater to different learning styles and should be developed specifically for online delivery.
- Student support and communication: an effective student support system is integral to good online delivery of VET. How support is provided may depend on student numbers and, hence, may be provided by an individual teacher/trainer, or by a dedicated support team. Support should be offered in a variety of ways to suit the communication style and the various commitments of the learners.
Building a relationship between the teachers/trainers and the students was another element of good practice. This ensures that students feel less isolated — understanding that there is a trainer available to support them — and assists in identifying plagiarism and issues of authenticity.
- Quality and the attributes of teachers/trainers: the involvement of highly skilled and knowledgeable teachers and trainers, as well as displaying empathy and being creative problem-solvers, is an important attribute of good practice. The dedicated commitment of teachers and trainers to see students succeed helps to enable good outcomes for students.
Many of these attributes of good practice are not unique to the online delivery context but how they are implemented may be.
In conclusion, the characteristics of online delivery mean that it is not appropriate for all individuals or for all situations. However, high-quality online delivery can lead to a positive training experience and good employment outcomes for individuals who are suited to that delivery mode.
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