This week we welcome ‘guest blogger’, Dr Cathy Stone who is currently a NCSEHE Equity Fellow exploring institutional factors affecting the academic success and retention of external, fully online undergraduate students, many of whom are first in their families to enrol in university.Blog Frame_edited-1

With Australian university student numbers set to increase as a result of the demand driven system (Kemp & Norton, 2014) and the higher costs associated with on-campus university study (Bexley, Daroesman, Arkoudis & James, 2013) online studies are likely to become more feasible for a growing cohort of students, both young and old, from the perspectives of cost, time and distance.

(O’Shea, Stone & Delahunty, 2015)

Online learning has become a well-recognised part of the broader landscape of higher education. It is also proving to have a critical place in widening access and equity within this landscape. Increasing numbers of students from backgrounds historically under-represented at university are taking the opportunity to study online, particularly through open-entry and alternative pathways, with many of these learners being the first in their family or community to undertake university studies. (Stone, O’Shea, May, Delahunty & Partington, 2016).

However, retention in online undergraduate studies has been shown to be at least 20 per cent lower than in face-to-face programs. A 2015 Australian Government Department of Education and Training report measuring completion rates of domestic undergraduate students between 2005-2012 found that only 44.4 per cent of fully external, online undergraduate students completed their studies, compared with an overall completion rate of 72.3 per cent. Examining what is needed to engage and support diverse cohorts of students to stay and succeed in online education, is therefore of crucial importance.

Through interviews with academic, professional and management staff at a range of Australian universities and at the Open University UK, I am investigating teaching and pedagogy practices, institutional supports and retention strategies within online undergraduate learning.  The overall objective of this project is to develop a set of national guidelines to provide sector leadership on evidence-based ways to improve the access, success and retention of students in online undergraduate education.

Based on interviews and data gathered so far from 13 Australian universities and the Open University UK, preliminary findings are pointing to the importance of the following:

  • Institution-wide recognition of the diversity and needs of the online student body
  • Strategic approach by institutions, faculties and schools to ensure consistency and quality of online delivery and teaching standards, including tutor training and adequate resourcing
  • Collaboration between teaching and support, embedding support within curriculum
  • Regular engagement contact points between students, tutors and support services, personalised and targeted along the student journey; to build sense of belonging to a supportive learning community
  • Vital role of “tutor presence” in building tutor-student and student-student engagement
  • Learning design, curriculum and pedagogy that are engaging, supportive and specific to online delivery
  • Harnessing the capacity of learning analytics to inform appropriate interventions
  • ‘Front-loading’ of interventions – exploring student expectations, providing realistic understanding of what’s involved, facilitating appropriate preparation, improve early engagement and reduce early departure

Further findings are likely to emerge as I continue to gather and analyse data. Each month I am producing a short bulletin about the progress of this research. Please email me at if you would like to receive these monthly updates. The study will conclude in the first quarter of 2017, with the final report due by the end of March

I hope you have enjoyed learning of Cathy’s work.

Warm regards,



Australian Government Department of Education & Training (2015). Higher education reports.

Knightley, W.M., (2007). Adult learners online: students’ experiences of online learning.            Australian Journal of Adult Learning,47(2), 264-288

O’Shea, S., Stone, C., & Delahunty, J. (2015)  “I ‘feel’ like I am at university even though I am online.” Exploring how students narrate their engagement with higher education institutions in an online learning environment. Distance Education. 36(1), pp41 – 59.

Stone, C. (2012). Engaging students across distance and place. Journal of the Australia and New Zealand Student Services Association. 39, 49-55

Stone, C., O’Shea, S., May, J., Delahunty, J & Partington, Z. (2016). Opportunity through online learning: experiences of first-in-family students in online open-entry higher education. Australian Journal of Adult Learning. 56(2), (pp146-169)

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