Budget and other pressures on VET providers mean that online learning is an attractive delivery option. It is also a way of ‘reaching out’ to those that cannot readily come to a campus.

Online learning can be overused, and in ways that are not really suited to the content of the program. In short, it is sometimes not a good way to deliver particular courses and content.

Six hints for good online delivery

These first five golden rules come from a blog on managing online student cohorts.

Rule 1: Make sure you have engaging and varied content

There has always been a tendency to take the easy route and just upload text files into a learning management system. However, it is far better to use a variety of content and approaches to engage students actively. These can include images, short videos, dynamic text with links, discussion boards, online forums and self-assessment tasks “to support progressive learning”. These need to be available 24/7 to suit their study schedule.

Rule 2: Understand the limits of online communication

Use case studies and stories to help bring the material to life. Having course sessions, discussions and forums available in real time is a way students and teachers can communicate more effectively and build a group dynamic when face-to-face is not possible.

Rule 3: Be really clear

In online learning the opportunities to use non-verbal cues and hints are limited. So the materials really need to “spell it out”. This is what makes these sorts of materials so hard to develop. It also needs those developing the programs to have really strong writing skills. So:

“Ensure clarity at all times, ask for feedback. That’s what the discussion forum is for. It’s also advisable to have your written course materials, assessments and course instructions peer-reviewed for a sanity check, and to make sure everything is unambiguous and clear to participants.”

Rule 4: Support your students when they need it

Real-time sessions are really valuable, but it will not suit all the students all the time.

“A key recommendation is to have an after hours support system in place to assist students, but here’s also where the discussion board and forums come into play, where students can post queries for everyone in the cohort to see. Have a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) section for common questions and issues, and you may even find that some answers or advice comes direct from another student before education staff can respond more formally.”

However one thing I have learnt over the years is not to create an expectation of immediate response to a request for support. Teachers need their time off too!

Rule 5: The water cooler factor, that is: provide opportunities for informal peer chats

Achieving a level of social integration in the student group is a key retention factor. And, as a number of the other rules have suggested, opportunities for engagement with peers and lecturers should be maximized. One of the key roles of an online course facilitator is “to manage those discussion boards and forums with precision, passion and flair.”

And here is a final one of my own.

Rule 6: Know the limits of the online environment

If there is one key mistake it is to try to use this medium to develop practical skills that really need a strong and monitored experience component. This is best achieved though mixed-mode approaches where face-to-face and workshop or lab experiences are used to provide, and build, practical skills. Sure, the workplace can be used for this practical component too – but students have to have access to one.

A final note

National online learning guidelines have been published in Australia in 2017. The guidelines have been developed from the combined wisdom of 151 education practitioners working in online education at 16 different higher education institutions, mainly in Australia. Their ten ‘golden rules’ are also well worth a look as they are applicable to VET too.