Online delivery is used extensively as part of the delivery approach for many VET qualifications. But, what is the story when it is the major or only form of delivery?

A recent report from NCVER takes a look at this issue.

The study

The report,  authored by NCVER’s Tabatha Griffin and Mandy Mihelic, looks at how online learning is used to deliver entire qualifications in the Australian VET sector. It estimates the extent to which whole qualifications are delivered online. It also “investigates what this online delivery looks like and whether online training is providing students with similar experiences and outcomes as face-to-face training.” Finally, it identifies “what makes for good practice in online delivery.”

What the research found

Online delivery has been a growing component of VET delivery for individual subjects over time, with the extent of online delivery roughly doubling between 2010 and 2017 from 6% to 13%. The report also found that, for full qualifications offered wholly online between 2015 and 2017 (the particular focus of the study):

“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.”

The fall between 2015 and 2017 is attributed in large part to the demise of the VETFEEHELP program.

So, NCVER estimates that around 8.6% of all VET program commencements in 2017 were in courses delivered fully online. As they point out, though, this is not an insignificant figure given that VET qualifications are competency-based with a requirement that students demonstrate “they are competent in skills that can be transferred directly to the workplace.” This raises questions about exactly how suitable online learning might be for many VET qualifications, and especially for those focused on practical or physical activities.

Teachers and trainers interviewed during the study suggest that approaches to delivery have changed little over recent times. In the main online programs continue to involve the delivery of course content through text-based materials, videos, links to external sources of information and interactive elements. Student engagement is fostered using online conferencing tools, forums and Facebook groups. Teachers and student remain in touch by using email, phone, Skype and the online learning messaging systems. According to the report, students are assessed through short automated quizzes – which was not necessarily part of the formal assessment process, written work, recorded videos, virtual labs, live video and phone.

The study found that “withdrawal rates were around 10% higher for online subjects and completion rates for courses delivered entirely online around 10% lower in 2016.” In addition, satisfaction measures were lower for graduates of courses delivered online, although still relatively high. Employment outcomes for graduates from online courses were “mostly similar to, or slightly higher than, those for courses delivered via other modes.”

Finally, teachers and trainers interviewed as part of the study feel that online learning, like any other delivery approach, does not suit everyone or every circumstance. As the report’s authors point out, online learning:

“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.”