Australia is a large, sparsely populated country defined by distance. As such, distance education been important for over one hundred years to provide access to educational opportunity. Correspondence education and external studies were the main form of DE until 1970. Since the mid-1980s, open, flexible and, later, internet-based online learning have dominated distance education design and delivery. Since 1993, all universities are allowed to offer courses by whatever means they wish. However, six universities are the main providers of education to off-campus students. Australian higher education has a substantial number of international students, mainly from Asia. They enrol in online education in lesser numbers than domestic students do. Australian universities continue to be at the forefront of using and promoting Open Educational Resources, are developing their own MOOCs, and have a growing demand for lifelong learning. The chapter concludes that increased use of digital technologies has blurred on-campus education and distance education in Australia.
The chapter describes the history of open and distance learning in Australian higher education, and its transition from the margins to mainstream with a growing number of university students undertaking online and other external modes without ever having actually set foot on a campus.
Australian Distance Education from the 1900s to the 1980s
The goal of public education in Australia has always been equality of opportunity for all students, regardless of their geographic, social or economic circumstances. Blainey (1966) describes how, with a widely distributed population occupying the world’s largest island continent, ‘the tyranny of distance’ has shaped Australia’s people, institutions and ideas. One third of Australia’s 23,783,500 people live in rural and regional Australia. They contribute two-thirds of Australia’s export earnings but on average, they pay five times much as metropolitan residents to access such essential services as hospitals, schools, colleges and universities. Regional students remain under-represented in higher education A third of the university students are from urban centres, while 12.7% are from the inner regional areas, 12.5% from the outer regional areas and only 7% from the remote areas (McKenzie 2016). Therefore, it is hardly surprising that Australia has pioneered distance learning to try to equalise educational opportunities. However, it is not only those in the ‘outback’ who turn to distant study. Many students in the urban areas lead complex lives and face competing priorities and so opt for the convenience and flexibility of this mode.
Australian distance education has gone through three phases:
Correspondence/external studies, largely by means of mail and lacking direct student interaction with the teacher (1910–1970s).
Distance education, using multi-media and two-way communication to improve the effectiveness of the teaching and learning (early 1970s to mid-1980s).
Open, flexible and online learning, using the internet and digital technologies and providing increased student-teacher/student-student interaction, collaborative group work and flexibility for the learners (mid-1980s to the present day).
Following WWII, universities such as Sydney and Melbourne enabled service and ex-service personnel to study by external means but as Northcott (1984) observed, there were concerns about the academic credibility of this mode of study. For example, in 1951 the Professional Board of the University of Sydney concluded that:
The view in what became known as ‘dual-mode universities’ was that distance teaching was best provided by academics within the teaching departments rather than within external studies departments. However, in 1949, a desire to improve the quality of distance provision led UQ to make its division of external studies an academic department in its own right with specialists recruited to write and service external courses closely linked to those on campus. However, UQ’s 3000 external students proved too small a base for operating in this way, and no other Australian university adopted this model (White 1982; Store and Chick 1982).
External studies are necessarily greatly inferior to internal studies and even with the most carefully organised and well staffed external department so little could be achieved, and that so imperfectly, that the establishment of external studies cannot be recommended.
1954 saw another newcomer to external studies: the new rural university, University of New England, in the small New South Wales town of Armidale. The need to attract sufficient numbers of students to and ensure that the external courses upheld the reputation of the university, led UNE to pioneer a model of dual-mode studies that came to influence many institutions throughout Australia and the world:
The requirement that full-time academic staff teach both internal and external students concurrently in the same courses.
An emphasis on face-to-face contact between staff and students and students and students through residential and week-end schools.
The establishment of a Department of External Studies as a service unit for both students and staff (Eastcott and Small 1984).
The professionalism of those involved in distance education and their willingness to reach out to others in the region was reflected in the formation of the Australian and South Pacific External Studies Association (ASPESA) in 1973 (now the Open and Distance Learning Association of Australia4), the initiation of biennial ASPESA forums, and the publication of the peer-reviewed journal Distance Education in 1980.5
We are convinced that there is a definite need in Australia for universities to be given on a part-time and on an external basis. In particular, we think external courses have an important service to perform for many teachers who live in country districts. (para 108)
By 1981 there were 13 universities providing external courses across the nation and recognised by the Tertiary Education Commission:
This growth was in response to a more competitive labour market; increased community interest in lifelong learning and upgrading qualifications; increased numbers of older students attracted to external study; increased concern for the education of women with families, disabled persons and other groups; improvements in the quality of courses, tuition and study facilities; and the need of some institutions to attract external students in order to maintain their total enrolments.Queensland:
Capricornia Institute of Advanced Education, Rockhampton (later Central Queensland University). The University of Queensland, Brisbane.
Darling Downs Institute of Advanced Education, Toowoomba (later University of Southern Queensland).New South Wales:
The University of New England, Armidale.
Macquarie University, Sydney.
Mitchell College of Advanced Education, Bathurst (later Charles Sturt University).
Riverina College of Advanced Education, Wagga Wagga (later a campus of Charles Sturt University).Victoria:
Deakin University, Geelong.
Warrnambool Institute of Advanced Education, Warnambool (later a campus of Deakin University).
Gippsland Institute of Advanced Education, Churchill (later a campus of Monash University). Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Melbourne (later RMIT University).Western Australia:
Murdoch University, Perth.
Western Australian Institute of Technology, Perth (later Curtin University).
Concerns about the proliferation of external studies courses led Johnson (1983) and Shott (1983) to recommend a national policy of collaboration and co-ordination to ensure quality and avoid duplication and gaps in provision. The Commonwealth government had now assumed full responsibility for higher education funding and a federal election in 1987 saw a new Labor government accepting the Commonwealth Tertiary Education Commission (1986) recommendation to limit the number of providers to six (later expanded to eight) specialist Distance Education Centres (DECs) funded to raise the quality of distance education provision and collaborate with non-DECs whose role was limited to delivery. However, in 1993, recognition that there was more to distance education than pre-packaged learning, and growing interest in distance learning in many other institutions led to the abandonment of the DEC monopoly, enabling all institutions to offer courses by whatever means they wished (Johnson 1996; Stacey 2005).
Australian Distance, Open, Flexible and Online Education from the 1980s to the Present Day
At the time of writing, Australia’s 40 public universities, two international universities and one private university (See Annex) were serving 1,410,133 students (1,046,682 domestic and 363,451 overseas) (Australian Government Department of Education and Training 2016, 2017a, b). Under both Labour and conservative Liberal-National Coalition governments, university funding has been reduced, study costs have been transferred from the state to the individual, there have been increasing calls for quality assurance and accountability and the universities have had to compete nationally and internationally for their students. The institutions have therefore had to ensure that their courses and services are client-responsive, cost effective and innovative and this has led them all to adopt forms of open, distance and online learning.
The use of blended and digital learning solutions blurs the boundaries between conventional on-campus education and distance education. The Federal Department of Education and Training’s national statistics6 do not include distance education as a separate category but they do record off-campus and mixes of on-and off-campus enrolments and show that online is now the dominant form of off-campus delivery. Most universities have some online enrolments, but the six regional universities are the major off-campus providers, teaching more than three-quarters of their students off-campus. Charles Sturt University in regional New South Wales is the largest off-campus provider, serving 29,000 students. The other major providers are the University of Southern Queensland (18,000 off-campus students), University of New England (over 17,000 students), Deakin University in Melbourne (13,000 distance students), Central Queensland University (9400 students) and The University of Tasmania with (8700 students). The majority of students at Charles Darwin University, serving Darwin and the Northern Territory’s tropical and desert regions, are studying at a distance and one third of the students at Southern Cross University serving the north coast of New South Wales and southern Gold Coast in Queensland study by these means.
In the last decade, the proportion of domestic students studying externally7 has increased from 21 to 25%, or 29% if the private Open Universities Australia (OUA) consortium (described later in the chapter) is included. The increase has been in postgraduate, ‘multi-modal’8 and OUA courses rather than in undergraduate courses in the public universities. Part-time and older students are more likely than full-time school leavers to take at least some of their courses off-campus. It is estimated that about 60% of the students are enrolled in courses that have the potential to be wholly online. Education and postgraduate courses make greatest use of off-campus study. Business and IT courses which would seem to lend themselves to online study have only mid-range levels of off-campus enrolment. Architecture, science, engineering and creative arts are the fields where off-campus study is the least common.
Insert chart with the development of enrolments here.
There has been a decline in the number of international (mainly Asian) students studying off-campus—from 24,000 in 2004 to 11,000 in 2011. This is largely due to Asian families regarding on-campus study as “real university education” and on-campus attendance being obligatory for some degrees, especially at advanced level and changes to migration rules in 20039 Expatriates now account for much of this market (Norton et al. 2013; Innovative Research Universities 2013).
The universities are adopting more flexible and multi-modal study and enabling students to embark on their studies whenever they are ready and to gain their qualifications more quickly (Online Study Australia 2015). Examples include Monash University offering mixed-mode postgraduate courses and research degrees with six intakes and six-week teaching periods throughout the year, Swinburne University’s Swinburne Online enabling students to fit their study schedule and workloads around life and work, and Curtin University’s Curtin Online, whose study options include undergraduate postgraduate and OUA courses and MOOCs. The University of Queensland is but one institution embracing the “flipped classroom model”. In the psychology course, The Science of Everyday Thinking, online lectures are viewed as homework, and class time is used for discussion, problem-solving and challenging students in their learning (Norton et al. op cit).
Lecture capture has become pervasive in Australian universities, student demand being the primary driver. It helps students who have scheduling difficulties, are unfamiliar with the language, terminology or concepts, or would like to review the content. Evidence suggests that students who don’t attend class and access lecture recordings perform better than students who neither attend lectures or access lecture recordings and students from non-English speaking backgrounds and with disabilities and medical conditions gain specific benefits from this but the size of the impacts is not very large, in part because lectures are just one element of students’ learning experience (McGrath 2015). Sankey (2013) concluded that while lecture capture was popular with students it was in danger of increasing their workload and encouraging passive learning and that the use of short videos in flipped classroom contexts might be a more effective way of scaffolding the learning.
Open Universities Australia
A report to the Universities Commission (Committee on Open University 1975) rejected the concept of an open university for Australia, due largely to opposition by the existing distance education providers and its recommendations for a national institute of open tertiary education to stimulate innovation were never adopted. But in 1992, Open Learning Australia (OLA) was launched to meet the needs of the large number of students with diverse backgrounds, qualifications, motivations and capacities for higher education study who seemingly could not gain access by conventional means. Initially funded and supported by the Federal Government, the OLA grew out of an earlier TV Open Learning Project pioneered by Monash University, some partner universities and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. It was not an open university granting its own degrees, but a private educational broker which waived matriculation, had no quotas, provided special preparatory and bridging programmes and operated credit transfer and credit accumulation systems that enabled learners wishing to do so to graduate from the conventional universities of their choice (Latchem and Pritchard 1994; King 1993). In its first four years, it attracted over 30,000 students who would not otherwise have had access to university study.
Today, renamed as Open Universities Australia (OUA)10 this for-profit consortium which is owned by seven public universities—Curtin, Griffith, Macquarie, Monash, RMIT University, Swinburne and the University of South Australia—and 14 other higher or vocational education providers provide open entry units which do not require any academic entry requirements. At the time of writing, OUA offers 1000 online units and more than 156 qualifications in arts and humanities, business, education, health, information technology, law and justice, and science and engineering provided by 12 of Australia’s leading universities. The students pay a fee for 13-week units of undergraduate study (half the cost of a semester’s study through a conventional university). The collaborating universities offer degree pathways and by successfully completing a number of units (24 in the case of most of the bachelor’s degrees) graduates become eligible to graduate with a full qualification.
OUA’s services include Smartthinking, a free 24/7 service providing tutorial and advisory services, feedback on assignments or drafts, and a learning analytics system tracking individual learners’ progress. Studies suggest that OUA’s costs per student place are about half those of the public universities (Norton et al. 2013). Since 1993, OUA has enabled nearly half a million students to achieve their educational and career goals, but having demonstrated the educational and commercial potential of open learning for the learning cohort of 25 years and over, it faced competition from Australian, Asian, US and European universities and corporate entities and so transformed itself into an online provider across the whole of the tertiary sector. In 2013, it launched Open2Study, a teaching, learning and assessment platform which enables universities to offer free courses online and compete with global online learning platform providers such as Coursera and EdX. The learning platform consists of self-contained interactive weekly modules which are completed over a four-week period with online multiple-choice assessments at the end of each module, at the end of which students scoring 60% across the four test for each course receive a completion certificate. In 2013, it also acquired a 100% interest in Interact Learning Pty Ltd., trading as e3Learning, an Australian online training and compliance provider for corporate customers in Australia, New Zealand and the UK and launched the Open Training Institute, a Registered Training Organisation (RTO) offering online Vocational Education and Training (VET). In 2015, OUA had 45,065 students enrolled in 126,361 units, aged 13–95 (68% 30 and over) from 107 countries and despite the sector undergoing enormous change and plateauing enrolments for the first time since the Federal Government introduced the demand-driven system and competition from the universities, it managed to achieve a modest growth in students number and record a net profit (OUA 2016).
Australian universities have been at the forefront of promoting the use of open education resources (OER). Charles Sturt University, University of Tasmania and University of Technology and the Australian Government Department of Education and Training (Student Information and Learning Branch) Higher Education Group have developed a National Roadmap to support policies for the (re)use and production of open education resources (OER), promote innovative pedagogical models, and respect and empower learners as co‐producers in their lifelong learning. It has sourced 22 case studies and drafted 25 strategies to demonstrate the benefits of developing and using OER and need for a national strategy to leverage their use to improve the productivity of higher education.11
The University of Southern Queensland (USQ) made an early commitment to OER by offering 10 of its courses to the MIT Open CourseWare Consortium (now the Open Education Consortium) in 2007. Since that time, USQ has encouraged the use of OER in its programmes, joined international partnerships to share open courses and content globally and allowed its materials to repurposed and reused by other Australian and US universities, Australian TAFE Colleges, and other providers. USQ was also a founding anchor partner of the global Open Educational Resources universitas (OERu)12 and continues to contribute open courses for credit.
For all the criticisms of massive open online courses (MOOCs), their rise signals that people want to learn in very different ways. Recognising this, Australian universities are developing their own MOOCs, some of which institutions including the Australian National University, Monash University and University of Queensland are contributing to some of the global MOOC platforms. Others, including Queensland University of Technology, University of New South Wales, and Swinburne University, have added their MOOCs to the OUA’s Open2Study (The Good Universities Guide 2016).
Social isolation, particularly for the older members of the community and people with disabilities, can be demoralising. One organisation that is well aware of this is the University of the Third Age (U3A), an international movement that provides low cost, informal lifelong learning for millions of retired people around the world. No prior qualifications are necessary and no degrees are awarded.
In 1998, U3A ACT in Canberra and U3A groups in New Zealand considered the possibility of an Internet-based project for the UN International Year of the Older Person. To meet the costs of this initiative, these groups partnered with Griffith University in Queensland and Adult Learning Australia Inc. And since no-one had any knowledge of how to organise virtual courses for older persons unfamiliar with using the Internet, assistance was also sought from the University of Canberra’s Faculty of Education, and a Canberra-based Internet enterprise was appointed to host the website. In June 1999, U3A Online Inc.13—the world’s first virtual University of the Third Age - began offering online courses and basic computing skills for the elderly and disabled in homes, aged care facilities and retirement villages across the nation. U3A Online is incorporated in NSW as a non-profit association and its website is hosted by Griffith University in Brisbane. Its online courses are developed by volunteer subject writers and editors, accessible throughout the year, and studied independently or with the guidance of volunteer course leaders.
Universities are also increasingly offering informal online courses. For example, the University of Western Australia’s UWA Extension offers fee-for-service six-week interactive courses in conjunction with the global virtual college, Education to Go. The learners work through tutorials, take quizzes, complete assignments and participate in discussions with their fellow students and instructors. Those receiving over 64% in their final multiple choice exam receive an Online Certificate.
Accreditation and Quality Assurance
Australia’s universities are self-accrediting and have a reasonably high level of autonomy to operate within the legislative requirements associated with their Australian Government funding. The Tertiary Education Quality Assurance Agency (TEQSA)14 registers and evaluates the performance of higher education providers against the Higher Education Standards Framework (Threshold Standards) 2015, which all providers must meet in order to enter and remain within Australia’s higher education system.
Institution-wide policy and governance for technology enhanced learning.
Planning for institution-wide quality improvement of technology enhanced learning.
Information technology systems, services and support for technology enhanced learning.
The application of technology enhanced learning services.
Staff professional development for the effective use of technology enhanced learning.
Staff support for the use of technology enhanced learning.
Student training for the effective use of technology enhanced learning.
Student support for the use of technology enhanced learning.
The findings from a 24 university study regarding the fitness for purpose of the ACODE Benchmarks and the benchmarking exercise activities show that they need minor modifications to generate useful quality assurance information but that they represent a robust approach to benchmarking and can assist higher education institutions in meeting their regulatory compliance obligations and should be used to inform QA agencies and be embedded within their standards and/or practices (Sankey and Padró 2015).
What Is the Future for Australian Distance Education?
With globalisation and measured progress of change being replaced with an explosion of new and unforseen ideas and developments such as MOOCs and online start-ups in search of revenue changing student demographics and societal expectations, ever-increasing costs and reducing government funding, Australian universities,16 will need to consider how respond to and extract maximum value and benefits from the various forms of distance education. PwC and Australian Higher Education Industrial Association (2016) claim that the introduction of new technology and new devices familiar to the students into universities is challenging the traditional on campus experience, lowering the barriers to entry for new and differentiated tertiary education providers and providing new revenue streams, competition and disruption. They also suggest that to remain relevant and competitive the universities will need to maintain their inherent advantages while embracing the ways in which digital technologies can transform and improve the ways in which their courses are delivered and accessed.
With Australian Government Department of Education and Training (2017a, b) releasing its latest data on completion rates at Australian universities, The Conversation (2017) points to the fact that in years past, students were typically 18 years old, middle-class, child-free and otherwise unencumbered school-leavers who often received financial support from their families for university study. Today, the students who study off campus are typically part-time, older, from working class, indigenous or disadvantaged backgrounds or regional areas of Australia—and less likely to complete their courses. While a large number of students (670,000) are in the 18–22 years age bracket, latest available figures from 2015 show there were over 181,000 students aged 30–39; almost 90,000 aged 40–49; over 36,000 aged 50–59; and almost 10,000 aged 60 and over, a growing number of whom never actually set foot on campus. Many dip in and out of study, some change programmes or even universities and some take almost a decade to complete their three-year degree, and rural and regional students tend to take longer than metropolitan and higher socio-economic status students to complete their studies. They lead complex lives and have to manage competing priorities, including paid employment while studying. They lack familiarity with university life and expectations and this means they need special personal and academic support and mechanisms for measuring, monitoring and responding to their attrition rates.
Political agendas, commercial imperatives, the requirement to provide evidence of quality in outputs, outcomes and impacts and technology innovation will continue to be the main drivers of change.
With the proliferation of public, private and online providers, the universities will have ensure that they use digitisation to enhance learning experiences and improve outcomes rather than for the purposes of cost cutting or profit.
Many students are likely to still want the on-campus experience but the roll-out of Australia’s National Broadband Network and a generation of students well used to ICT and online study, work and collaboration is likely bring about a growing demand for online learning.
Uses of technology will affect student choices between education providers and so the institutions will need to ensure that their teaching and learning is accessible, equitable, student-focused, flexible, affordable and informed by the latest theories and practices.
The universities will need to capitalise on the potential of online learning in their international (particularly Asian) markets. In 2015, The total export income generated by all international education activity (spending by onshore students and offshore earning from other educational services) was $19.4 billion, making this Australia’s third biggest export and largest services export industry. Of this total, higher education generated $12.9 billion (Australian Government Department of Education and Training 2016).
With the growing demand for lifelong, lifewide learning, the universities will need to find ways of providing more nonformal and formal learning for mature students, using prior learning assessment and recognition, free or low-cost short online introductory courses, credit transfer and learning pathways linking informal/nonformal learning to degree-level studies.
To remain at the cutting edge, reduce costs, diversify, and be competitive, the universities will need to share their knowledge, skills and resources with other higher education institutions, the corporate sector and others in the developed and developing world.
Secondary level correspondence education for school children began in 1909 in the state of Victoria and in 1914 at primary level. Other states soon followed. The famous School of the Air was born when it was realised that outback children were all taught to use the Royal Flying Doctor Service radios and that that this network could be used to broadcast school lessons. In 2005, there were more than sixteen schools of the air located around Australia. New digital means of teaching and learning are constantly being incorporated into the schools of the air.
By 1910, correspondence courses for teachers were also on offer (Stacey 2005).
This first national and wide-ranging investigation of Australian university education by the Committee on Australian Universities in heralded the beginning of government influence on higher education. It revealed acute inadequacies in the standard of university education and recommended increased expenditure so that universities were not only for the privileged few, and the formation of a Universities Grants Committee (see http://www.voced.edu.au/content/ngv%3A53782).
http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/cdie20#.VmzbZkp96Uk. This was one of the first journals ever published focusing exclusively on research in the fields of open, distance and flexible education and it remains a primary source of scholarly work in these fields.
Where lesson materials, assignments, etc. are delivered to the student and any associated attendance at the institution is of an incidental, irregular, special or voluntary nature.
Where study is undertaken both on and off campus.
Many international students dream of staying in Australia after they have completed their studies. However, to meet the General Skilled Migration requirements administered by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection and driven by the labour market needs of Australia depends upon applicants’ scores in the Points Test. One of the requirements is that applicants have obtained an Australian qualification in Australia (excluding online or distance study) as a result of at least two years of study.
See: http://www.acode.edu.au/. An organisation of Australasian universities, ACODE's mission is to enhance policy and practice in open distance and e-learning in Australasian higher education by:
disseminating and sharing knowledge and expertise;
supporting professional development and providing networking opportunities;
investigating, developing and evaluating new approaches;
advising and influencing key bodies in higher education; and
promoting best practice.
To be classified as universitities in Australia, organisations must meet set criteria as governed by Commonwealth Government Provider Category. The most restrictive of these is the requirement to be active in research ‘across at least three broad fields of study: disciplines such as health, engineering, education or science’. In mid- 2014 there were 172 higher education providers operating in Australia of which only 40 of these were classified as universities. The remainder of these providers are classified as nonuniversity higher education providers (NUHEP) comprised of both private and publicly listed organisations, largely with a focus on teaching only and often providing specialist or vocationally focused courses (PwC and AHEIA 2016).
The author acknowledges the suggestions and advice offered by Ms. Julie Hare, Higher Education Editor, The Australian and Dr. Som Naidu, President of ODLAA and editor of Distance Education.
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