Why more people are flocking towards virtual learning

26-year old Aerlie Vade is a teacher in Sydney and Head of K-6 Curriculum at her school. She’s also on a journey to further her education and has recently commenced the online Master of Clinical Teaching through the University of Melbourne.

Coming from a family of five, with a brother in the army, a mum who went to art college and a father who’s a surveyor, she’s the first in her family to pursue postgraduate studies. She has always been motivated to do further study. She says, “I have seen a pattern in the lives of people I view as successful — they place great value on education and have all studied further.”

Initially toying with the idea of commuting interstate on weekends to study in an on-campus setting, Ms Vade eventually settled on the idea of online learning after speaking to several heads of professional development within the Sydney independent education system, who all highly recommended the University of Melbourne’s online graduate course.

While furthering her education was “definitely” on her “bucket-list”, Ms Vade was not in a position to stop working full-time. She says online learning has given her a great sense of freedom. “With online learning, you have control over when and where you do your study — I can sit at a cafĂ©, in my classroom or on my couch. I also have the time to digest the content and reflect on thoughts throughout my day as I see what I am learning in action.”

Online learning offers a flexible study option for individuals looking to further their education, whether opting to study a full degree or dabbling in professional development single subjects. The online experience has been specifically designed for people who are juggling work or other commitments, can’t commit to full-time study or don't have access to a nearby educational institution.

University of Melbourne Learning Designer, David Seignior describes the online learning environment as “an interface to connect with people, content and ideas, not just a screen.” He says, “it is a portal to a diverse, multifaceted learning experience where people are connected to people.”

Online education provides opportunities to shift how learning happens. The Pro Vice-Chancellor (Teaching and Learning) at the University of Melbourne, Professor Gregor Kennedy says, “The trick is to create stimulating, deep, rich interactions between students and teachers and then determine how we can harness exciting technologies and tools to support this.” He adds, “What’s important in education is a curated interaction between students and teachers, students and students and students and content, and to use technology-based tools to facilitate these interactions.”

When it comes to the quality of education, online learning connects students with great minds. At the University of Melbourne, the graduate-level online programs routinely draw on a wealth of expertise from the likes of Professor Frederic Jenny, the current Chairman of the OECD Competition Committee, Professor John Hattie, whose ground-breaking book, Visible Learning, has been described by the Times Educational Supplement as “the holy grail of education’’ and Professor David Coghill, senior author of the Oxford Specialist Handbook on Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

 Professor Frederic Jenny from the Global Competition and Consumer Law program
Professor Frederic Jenny from the Global Competition and Consumer Law program

Online learning also breaks down antiquated barriers of access to study, such as location. For 89-year-old grandmother Lorna Prendergast, born in the regional Victorian town of Bairnsdale, online learning has opened up an exciting new path. She says, “I still can’t believe my good luck at being able to study online after living all my life in the country, without the educational amenities that are available in cities.” She adds, “The best part about studying online is that we’ve got people from around the world giving us insight into what’s happening in their countries in the field of ageing.”

The retired librarian is currently finishing her seventh subject towards an online Master of Ageing qualification at the University of Melbourne. She recalls how clunky her training through correspondence was almost 50 years ago and compares it to her experience now, stating, “Webinars are magic compared to any studies I’ve done in the past.” Prendergast hopes one day she will “get the opportunity to advocate for a better quality of life for the elderly.”

Webinars facilitate collaboration between students and lecturers
Webinars facilitate collaboration between students and lecturers

Over the last few years the focus on online classrooms and use of technology in further education has grown, with a rapid rise in the numbers of students wanting to study online. According to an annual report into online education trends, in the USA alone an estimated 5.8 million students have taken up online learning.

For Catherine Earles, an in-house lawyer for an Australian energy network business, studying the Master of Law (Global Competition and Consumer Law) is her first foray into online study. This will be the second post-graduate qualification for the lawyer who works remotely from Dubai. She chose online study this time around because Global Competition and Consumer Law (GCCL) offered her the qualification she “wanted with the flexibility of studying from home.” She says, “My current work and family commitments mean I cannot regularly travel overseas for intensive coursework, and I wanted a more in-depth knowledge base than what is generally available from completing a short course.”

The high-achieving mother of two would ultimately “love to practise as a competition lawyer” and explains that one of the rewarding aspects of online learning is making contacts all over the world. She says, “The course attracts students with a wide range of skills and expertise. By sharing our knowledge in the weekly discussion boards, we not only learn from each other but develop personal and professional networks with people from around the world.”

So, what’s driving the trend in online learning? Professor Kennedy says, “We’re increasingly seeing that people want to engage with the University in different ways. Our online graduate courses really target people who are looking for more flexible options. They’ve already got a degree but are looking to change careers or advance their careers and online learning is just what they are looking for to help them achieve those goals.”

At the University of Melbourne, an extensive design and development process goes into the preparation of subjects for an online environment. Academics and learning designers spend several months carefully planning each experience for the students. Seignior says, “Probably the most important consideration when building an online learning platform is that effective curriculum design comes before the technology. So, we always work from what the student will be doing and then consider how that can be done in an engaging manner online.”

Seignior’s University of Melbourne colleague, Betina Przybylak, who is a Senior Learning Designer adds, “Review and improvement based upon student feedback is built into the process. The time and energy put into each subject ensures that each student is catered to and is able to learn in a way that best suits them.”

Time invested in the development, evaluation and improvement of online learning is quite unique to the University of Melbourne. Przybylak says this allows the designers to “create a truly meaningful, targeted and responsive learning experience for students.”

Where once online learning had difficulties in providing a rich educational experience for students, these days the technologies used provide additional affordances to engage learners. The student experience is rich and multifaceted as they engage with content, teachers and peers in a diverse range of ways from reading texts on screen, to watching a video, listening to a podcast, interacting with graphics and animations, chatting on a discussion board, or participating in a live webinar or tutorial. A cornerstone of the University of Melbourne’s online programs is students working on problems or real-world scenarios using virtual collaboration tools, which helps to prepare students for the contemporary and future workforce.

Video content being edited for the online classroom
Video content being edited for the online classroom

According to Seignior, online learning forces designers and academics to think outside the box and innovate. He says, “From constraints come ideas and opportunities to do things differently.” A recent example from the University of Melbourne is the use of a software called Shiny R which has been adopted by the Faculty of Business and Economics to enable students to manipulate, visualise and interpret data.

Shiny R software being utilised in the online classroom.
Shiny R software being utilised in the online classroom

By stepping inside a virtual classroom, students can also be taken to places that they otherwise couldn’t physically go. Przybylak describes one of the latest developments in teaching healthcare, which she says, allows students to “walk through an operating theatre both before and during a surgery.” Przybylak explains that this mode of engagement has created a huge potential in the online learning space and says it “allows interaction and play for students and their learning in ways that haven’t been possible before.”

Seignior adds that there is also now a ‘choose your own adventure’ type of learning method that is all about adaptive learning pathways. He says, “Students can not only choose their streams of learning, they can also explore simulated clinical scenarios and make real decisions.” This can be used in any subject from business to teaching. Giving another example from health, Seignior says, “Students can decide what type of imaging scan to use – between an X-Ray, MRI, CT Scan or Ultrasound for a diagnosis – so they can experience and learn from the consequences of their decisions.”

The design and development possibilities of online learning are boundless. So, what can we expect in the future? According to Przybylak there are some exciting developments that are happening in the area of virtual reality. Her account of a series of possible instructional scenarios is motivating. She says, “Imagine exploring a virtual archaeological dig in Ancient Rome from the comfort of your study space then jumping to an enactment of real life in that town in the past.”

While the uptake in online learning has been increasing at a phenomenal rate around the world, will it remain a niche concern for universities or are we likely to see a major transformation in contemporary education? For Professor Kennedy, online learning is increasingly just another part of our educational landscape. He says, “We’re entirely committed to campus based education and see what we do in online learning as a significant complement to this. As the University looks to the future it will increasingly see its courses represented by a variety of modes of delivery, and online learning is clearly going to be one of them.”