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Online provider makes the grade

This was originally published in the Australian Financial Review.

Swinburne University's education joint venture with online employment firm SEEK is taking off, with 130 per cent revenue growth in the past year.

Swinburne Online, owned 50:50 by the university and SEEK, enrolled 5699 students in the latest four-month teaching period to June 2014,71 per cent higher than the corresponding period in 2013.

Revenue in the 2014 financial year was $53.5 million, compared with $23.3 million the previous year. Earnings nearly quadrupled in the period from $5.1 million to $19.5 million in the 2014 financial year. Swinburne Online's performance was reported in SEEKs full-year results last Thursday.

Swinburne Online CEO Denice Pitt said online education appealed to time poor mature students who often had work and family commitments.

Swinburne Online offers degrees and diplomas from Swinburne University of Technology and is promoted through SEEK's employment website.

It has benefited from the crossover between people looking for jobs and the people looking to upgrade their qualifications. Ms Pitt said about two-thirds of Swinburne Online's students came from SEEK Learning, the unit of SEEK which sells courses to job hunters.

Swinburne Online paid its first dividend of $2.3 million during the year and will pay another dividend of $13.2 million in the first half of the 2015 financial year.

SEEK's $7.7 million half share of these dividends is more than the $5 million total capital it has outlayed in the venture, which offered its first courses at the beginning of 2012.

Swinburne Online now offers 21 courses in business, communication, design, education and social science.

Most of its courses are bachelor degrees which students can complete part-time in four years, due to a trimester system in which there are three study periods each year. It has just launched an MBA and a Master of Professional Accounting.

Ms Pitt said it was essential for an online educator to listen to students and ensure they had sufficient study assistance. "Every year we need to adapt and increase the level of support," she said.

In response to student feedback Swinburne Online has extended its "live chat" student support and a service that offers feedback on drafts of student assessments.

Ms Pitt said they were also looking at staggering assessment due dates so that assessments in different subjects did not fall at once.

She said their learning model differed to a massive open online course (MOOC) in which one instructor taught large numbers of students. At Swinburne Online, there was one teacher (called an e-learning adviser) for about 24 students.

As Swinburne Online grows, student numbers at Australia's largest online learning provider, Open Universities Australia (OUA), continue to fall.

In 2013 OUA recorded 49,055 students, 17 per cent down on 2012. Swinburne is one of seven universities which jointly owns OUA.