Bringing together a coherent provider strategy for effective online learning is a complex task.

We juggle many factors in planning and implementing online environments that work for our learners, whether they study wholly online or in blended modes. The challenges multiply when we serve online learners who are unfamiliar with what tertiary education asks of them, and when they are unfamiliar with how to use digital learning technologies.

Cathy Stone from the University of Newcastle spent 2016 winkling out the characteristics of online learning that give firm traction for learners, teachers, support staff and managers. The result of her year as an Equity Fellow with the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE) is her report, Opportunity through online learning: Improving student access, participation and success in higher education (85 pages).

Ten guidelines for online design, delivery, support and management

Rather than start with the full report, you could enter the fray with the common sense take-outs from Stone’s research, presented as a set of National guidelines for improving student outcomes in online learning (8 pages). There are ten of them:

  1. Know who the students are
  2. Develop, implement and regularly review institution-wide quality standards for delivery of online education
  3. Intervene early to address student expectations, build skills and engagement
  4. Explicitly value and support the vital role of ‘teacher-presence’
  5. Design for online
  6. Engage and support through content and delivery
  7. Build collaboration across campus to offer holistic, integrated and embedded student support
  8. Contact and communicate throughout the student journey
  9. Use learning analytics to target and personalise student interventions
  10. Invest in online education to ensure access and opportunity.

Each guideline sets out principles and characteristics and then describes how a provider can translate them into action. Each guideline emphasises the learner and learning – technology is a tool for learning, not the engine.

Valuing and supporting ‘teacher-presence’

Let’s take as an example the fourth guideline, which is: Explicitly value and support the vital role of ‘teacher-presence’. In part, the principles and characteristics that accompany it state:

‘Online teachers are absolutely crucial in building teacher-student and student-student relationships. A strong teacher-presence provides online students with a sense of belonging, helping them to feel connected to a community of learning and increasing their likelihood of persisting.’

From there the guideline moves straight into describing actions providers can take, like:

‘Online teachers are trained, supported and resourced to create an obvious, supportive, encouraging and professional presence within their online classroom. Sufficient teaching time and appropriate technology is allocated to enable them to provide an interactive, co-created learning experience that eases the isolation of online study and helps students feel connected with the teacher, their fellow students and with the class as a whole.’

Guideline 4 then offer examples of what professional practice looks like, and offers a short list of useful resources.

The National guidelines provide useful benchmarks for assessing an RTO’s current performance in online learning design, delivery and support.