The rise and rise of online learning
In the pre-pandemic world, despite the seemingly unstoppable growth of online learning, it was still viewed with apprehension in some quarters. Alongside the many clear benefits of studying online — enhanced flexibility, greater convenience, and access to new learning techniques and smart technologies, to name a few — there were fears that employers might not take online qualifications seriously.
But those days are long gone, says Andrew Vincent, Director of Digital Education of Australian Catholic University’s ACU Online (ACUO). In the post-pandemic world, employers will see online study in an increasingly positive light.
“I think it’s become clear that there are benefits to this mode of learning that are immediately applicable in real-life employment situations,” says Mr Vincent, who has worked in higher education for more than 30 years, most recently as program director for a major online education service provider.
“If you successfully complete a program of study online, it shows employers that you’re digitally fluent and have developed a whole suite of online skills, that you can communicate with people in various ways, and that you’re motivated and can manage your time effectively.
“Add to that the discipline-specific skills that you gain through your course, and you can see why you’d be extremely attractive to employers who understand the changing nature of work.”
Making the shift
As a much-cited article in Nature Electronics contends, the forced shift to online learning through the pandemic was “a moment of change and a time to reimagine how education could be delivered”.
In the middle of this evolution, ACU made the decision to design and launch its first fully online education portfolio, offering a personalised student experience that is supported by smart technologies. ACU Online provides educational opportunities for new communities, especially those who struggle to access on-campus courses because of work or family commitments, disability, or the fact they live in rural or remote areas.
These courses go way beyond the emergency online learning that was prevalent during the pandemic, with interactive videos, discussion boards and well-written course materials, and a focus on the development of virtual and augmented reality, creating a richer and more immersive student experience. ACU recently announced a partnership with Canvas, a state-of-the-art learning management system that provides students with a seamlessly integrated platform to enhance their studies.
“The possibilities for new ways of learning are endless. We’re really excited to continue to embrace technologies that provide greater connectivity and community building, enabling our academics to bring our courses to life,” says Mr Vincent, who works with a team of digital learning designers, interactive developers, graphic designers and videographers to continually enhance online learning materials.
“We have adopted a multi-literacy stance, which acknowledges the need for a range of different media to be present across all ACU Online units. So, if we have students who prefer to read, we’ll focus their learning on high-quality written material. If we have students who prefer to listen, we’ll have expert podcasts. Students whose learning styles prioritise visual experiences will be given opportunities to learn via high-quality, professionally shot video. And for students who prefer an active, kinaesthetic engagement with their material, we offer immersive simulations, multimedia scenarios and complex interactives which animate learning material through a synergy of emerging technology and progressive digital learning design.
“We’ve invested heavily in digital capabilities so that we can continue to refine and improve the courses on the go, ensuring that we’re engaging with diverse learning models to enhance the scope of higher education.”
The human factor
In the past, one of the key concerns around online learning was the apparent lack of adequate personal interaction between students and instructors.
The fears were that the benefits of digital education could come at a high cost, starving students of face-to-face learning experiences.
To counter this, ACU has put its focus squarely on providing expert human support to online students – both in the virtual classroom and beyond.
“The interaction with real human beings is still there, because the human element is wrapped around everything we do,” says Mr Vincent, pointing out that all online students have access to highly-skilled academic staff, learning facilitators, student success coaches, counselling services and more.
“We’ve been really conscious of making sure that our students are not alone, and that means we have teams of people who help students through every part of their journey, ensuring that our platform isn’t just a channel for delivery – it’s a campus experience in itself.”
He adds that the flexible approach of the courses is extended to the way that academics run their classes.
“Our academic and support staff are attuned to the complexities of the asynchronous online mode and are available to support students as required. This human support is achieved in a variety of ways: online interactions through discussion boards, individual consultations, virtual office hours, emails and live sessions dedicated to supporting students to succeed at their assessments. Ask ACU Online offers individualised support for students in terms of administrative issues, and work closely with academic staff to ensure students are fully supported.”
Importantly, all of ACU’s online courses are an in-house creation. Rather than contracting a third-party digital program manager, as most tertiary institutions do, the university decided to create, market and deliver the courses itself. This is a major benefit for an institution that is so thoroughly grounded in its mission.
“We are very much of the opinion that we should own the student experience, so that we can integrate our mission through everything we do for the benefit of the student,” says Mr Vincent, who joined ACU in 2019.
“As a result, we have a suite of high-quality courses that are designed specifically for online. This creates an innovative learning experience that reflects our focus on academic excellence. It continues the excellent student outcomes that ACU is known for, allowing students to progress their career while learning how to make a positive impact in their communities.”
Keen to study online at ACU? Explore the options.