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It takes more than just technology to offer a great online degree

This article was originally published in Venture.

Paralympics swimmer Matt Levy has commitments 60 hours a week – if he’s lucky. The London 2012 Gold Medallist works part time, swims and regularly travels around the world for competitions. But each week, wherever he is, Levy goes online and chats with a group of people who share a goal with him – completing their university course under a hectic schedule.

Across the country, thousands of people like Levy and his classmates, from working professionals to parents with newborns, are keen to pursue a tertiary education, but can barely afford the time. To help people further their studies without compromising their financial or family obligations, Swinburne Online (SOL) – a partnership between Swinburne University of Technology and Seek – aims to help students such as Levy, who can’t, or prefer not to, study on-campus.

SOL has more than 5000 students pursuing degrees in Business, Communication, Design, Education and Social Science. Director of Strategy Professor Kay Lipson thinks what sets SOL apart from other online programs is that it has redesigned all its courses to suit an online‑learning environment.

“Once we decided to offer a fully online program, we changed the learning materials, adopted a different teaching method and set up support that’s available outside of business hours, seven days a week, for our students,” Professor Lipson says.Online students do not have to buy costly textbooks, wait for printed readings to arrive in the post or arrange their schedule around online classes, she says.

Everything the students need for their course is accessible any time, anywhere. The average age of a SOL student is 31, and most of them are working professionals or busy parents. With their packed schedules, it’s important that learning materials are relevant and focused, designed specifically for the best user experience, Professor Lipson explains.

So instead of assigning videos of hour-long lectures or pages and pages of text, learning materials consist of manageable, palatable chunks, including infographics, TED Talks or other video clips, short texts and even games. All the materials are developed by online course designers, who have worked with Swinburne’s academic staff to ensure that the materials match the quality of those offered to on-campus students. Academic Director Sue Kokonis explains that SOL also emphasises active learning. “It’s not just about lectures, books and exams. In our experience, students who discuss what they learn with others develop a better understanding of the subject more quickly,” she says.

Shared knowledge

To provide a richer learning experience in an off-campus setting, each week students are encouraged to share what they learn with their classmates in discussion threads. Their eLearning Advisors (eLAs), who are often industry practitioners with real work knowledge and experience, teach the course as well as raise questions to stimulate conversations and facilitate the discussions.

“Those not involved in online education often express concerns about the lack of in-person interaction in online studies, but surprisingly, our students have told us they feel strongly connected to their classmates and their eLAs,” says Kokonis. “We think when you’re on campus, you can be anonymous in a sea of faces, but you are an individual when you express your views and insights online.”

Kokonis explains that it’s critical that the eLAs know how to communicate online as they don’t speak to students face to face. “Before they teach, all of our eLAs go through intensive training by and are taught to give clear, constructive and motivating feedback via both written and audio feedback.”

SOL alumnus Alyse Henry says that apart from the flexibility the program offers, the best thing is how the eLAs often provide firsthand industry experience in the discussion threads. “There’s also an online conference before an assignment or an exam, so everyone can ask their questions and get immediate replies. The entire session is also recorded, which is great.”

Another service rarely found in traditional campuses is the constant support for students. As many of them need support after business hours, SOL Student Liaison Officers are available online or on the phone from 9am to 9pm on weekdays, and 10am to 6pm on weekends and public holidays. These officers are academic staff who can help with everything from writing an essay to fixing a technical problem.

The combination of online learning materials, weekly discussion threads, highly trained eLAs as well as after hours support offers a highly supportive and tailored learning experience for the online learner, Kokonis says. “An on-campus course may have lectures, readings, tutorials, followed by assessments. SOL, while offering more flexibility in location and time, is less about lectures, and more about participation.”

But SOL students are still held to the same standards as on-campus learners, Professor Lipson adds. “They get the same degrees, so flexibility doesn’t mean our students can start or finish the semester whenever they like. They don’t have to attend a particular class at 3pm every afternoon, but they still have the same assignments, deadlines and exams.”

Giving students a fresh start

Enrolments have increased dramatically since SOL was first established in 2011. Chief Executive Officer Denice Pitt outlined a number of reasons for the rise in demand for courses, including how online education has made it much easier for students with full-time work or family commitments to access higher education opportunities.

Pitt says the demand for online study will continue to increase. In response to this growing market, SOL is planning to expand its postgraduate course offerings later this year to give people who cannot attend on-campus study the opportunity to gain advanced degrees. “SOL focuses on providing a flexible and rich learning experience for students who have busy lives and find the traditional university model inaccessible,” she says. “Online study has enabled Australians with full-time careers, families and other lifestyle demands to complete their tertiary education and obtain a university degree in their own time.

“We just celebrated our first graduating class – a first for Australia, and we expect many more. Our goal is to give our students a chance to increase their education in a seamless journey. We measure our success by how they progress and how their needs are met.”

Student experience

Matt Levy

Working part time in a bank as well as attending strenuous swimming training each week made studying on-campus an impossible feat for Matt Levy. However, with the flexibility and support provided by Swinburne Online, the London 2012 Games Gold Medallist no longer has to miss out on a tertiary education.

“The range of business degrees made Swinburne Online a great fit for me, and we can take our exams at an external location – something that other universities didn’t provide at that time,” Levy says.

The 27 year‑old now studies wherever his swimming takes him. He also appreciates the support and advice from the online discussion threads: “It’s great to communicate with fellow students and bounce ideas off each other. “Some of our classmates work in the industry, and their experience helps create a bigger scope for discussion as well as provides a richer viewpoint.”

Alyse Henry

When Swinburne Online celebrated its first graduating class in March this year, Alyse Henry was one of the students who threw their hats into the air. With a Bachelor of Business (Accounting), she is starting a new position as an accountant in a firm where she previously worked as a personal assistant. “Instead of going to university, I worked after high school because I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” Henry says. Eight years after she started working, Henry wanted to pursue her tertiary studies to move forward in her career, but she didn’t want to lose her financial stability.

“Swinburne Online offered me this flexibility, so I had the best of both worlds,” she says. “It was also great that my e-Learning Advisors and classmates were in similar e-Learning situations. Many of us worked or took care of our families, so we understood and supported each other, and grew together.”