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Improving student outcomes in post-secondary online learning requires a strategic, tailored approach, emphasising student engagement and individualised monitoring, support and outreach. Qualitative interviews with education practitioners from 15 Australian universities and The Open University UK informed 10 National Guidelines to Improve Student Outcomes in Online Learning. This resource provides evidence-based sector leadership on improving the success and retention of students in online education.


Online learning has a critical place in widening access and participation in education for a diverse range of students, many of whom are from backgrounds which have been historically underrepresented at university. Students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, students with disability, regional and remote students, Indigenous students, and students who are first in their families to enter university, are represented particularly strongly in online undergraduate programs.

However, both retention and completion rates for online, distance students are considerably lower than amongst those enrolled as on-campus students. As a result, concerns about student retention and academic achievement within online studies have been emerging across the global higher education sector.

The research discussed in this report has been conducted for a national Australian study with United Kingdom participation to address these concerns.

Objectives and methodology

This study was designed to complement the existing body of online student experience research.

Interviews were conducted with 151 individual academic and professional staff members, across a total of 16 higher education institutions, which consisted of: 14 Australian universities offering both online and on-campus studies; Open Universities Australia which enrols students into online higher education studies, largely by open-entry, across 13 Australian universities; and The Open University UK, which provides open-entry distance education, delivered primarily online.

The interviews investigated the practices and strategies being used within the online higher education context, including planning, teaching, support and education delivery, and the extent to which these practices are effectively supporting students to stay and succeed.

Key findings and recommendations

From analysis of the interview data and other related published research, seven key findings emerged:

  • A strategic whole-of-institution approach is required; one that recognises online education as ‘core business’. This approach needs to include an institution-wide understanding of the nature and diversity of the online student cohort as well as the development and implementation of quality standards for online education, which undergo continuous quality improvement.
  • Early intervention with students to connect, prepare and engage is essential; particularly in terms of providing realistic expectations and encouraging and facilitating academic preparation.
  • ‘Teacher-presence’ plays a vital role in building a sense of belonging to the learning community and in improving student retention; however the time-consuming nature of developing and maintaining a strong sense of ‘teacher-presence’ is not always recognised in existing workload models.
  • Content, curriculum and delivery need to be designed specifically for online learning; they need to be engaging, interactive, supportive and designed to strengthen interaction amongst students.
  • Regular and structured contact between the institution and the student is important in providing connection and direction along the student journey. This includes proactively reaching out to students at particular points along their journey, and is best achieved through the development of an institutional framework of interventions.
  • Learning analytics play an important role in informing appropriate and effective student interventions, including through predictive modelling and personalising the learning experience.
  • Collaboration across the institution is required to integrate and embed support; delivering it to students at point of need. When academic and professional staff cross traditional boundaries to work more closely together, a more holistic student experience can be delivered, including embedding support within curriculum.

Conclusions and considerations for policy

Findings from the research conducted along with other international research findings have been used to inform the development of the National Guidelines, to provide sector leadership on evidence-based ways to improve the success and retention of students in online education. Through advising institutions on ways to improve outcomes for online students, the National Guidelines have the potential to make a significant impact in and beyond the Australian context by increasing opportunities for diverse cohorts of students to achieve their learning goals at any stage of life.

These guidelines outline practical means by which institutions can provide online students with a more engaging and supportive learning experience, hence making it possible for many more to stay, participate and achieve their learning goals. The focus of these guidelines is on improving student outcomes in online undergraduate programs and in online pathways/enabling programs. However, they may also have relevance and applicability for other areas within post-secondary education. One of these is the area of online postgraduate studies where, in any given cohort, there are likely to be a certain number of students who have gained entry to their degree via recognition of prior learning, through previous vocational level studies and/or work-based training and experience.

These guidelines may also be useful within the VET sector, where similarly there are likely to be many students entering with little prior experience of formal online study. Hence, these guidelines, while developed from research centred on undergraduate and enabling online education may be regarded as applicable to the post-secondary online education sector more broadly.

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