An education programme that really goes the distance

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James Balazs’s first foray into distance education in Australia lasted for just one semester. The masters degree in international relations he attempted via correspondence in 2001 was “not online or flexible, and allowed [for] no interaction with my cohort or professors,” he recalls.

In spite of that less-than-satisfactory experience, the Sydney-based human resources manager at Pacnet, a telecommunications service provider, recently embarked on an online MBA degree. Launched in 2007 by RMIT University in Melbourne, in association with Open Universities Australia, the MBA includes two face-to-face learning units – and Mr Balazs has become an enthusiastic advocate.

While he “regularly engages and chats online” with his fellow students and instructors, the initial unit – delivered as an intensive residential programme over four days in Melbourne – provided “a fabulous opportunity to network”. With a job requiring frequent overseas travel, being able to study at a time and place of his choosing is another benefit of the course. “I also have a young daughter, so my study is often done at the beach,” he says.

Demand for distance learning has surged in recent years as career-minded Australians living in metropolitan areas turn to online courses to expand and upgrade their qualifications.

One of the big beneficiaries of the boom in e-learning has been Open Universities Australia. Established by the Federal government in 1993 as Open Learning Australia, OUA is owned by a consortium of seven universities located across five states, including Monash University in Melbourne, Queensland’s Griffith University and the University of South Australia.

In the past three years, enrolments in study units offered through OUA have soared from 25,000 to 68,000 – or an increase of between 20 per cent and 30 per cent per annum, says chief executive Stuart Hamilton. As students can begin their studies in any one of four intakes each year it is too early to tell about the figures for 2008. “But the rate of growth is looking very healthy,” he says.

Numbers are up across the range of disciplines on offer. Business courses experienced a 25 per cent increase in enrolments last year, while science enrolments grew by 45 per cent and humanities rose by 33 per cent.

Mr Hamilton attributes the surge in interest to the rebranding undertaken by the organisation in 2004 “to focus on the fact that we were actually offering open access to universities”, as well as a big advertising campaign and the introduction of Fee-help, a Federal government loan scheme for distance learning students.

Another driver of growth has been the OUA’s expanded range of study options. Four years ago, the Melbourne-based non-profit organisation offered access to 30 undergraduate and postgraduate qualifications. Today, it offers around 60 degrees, or 750 individual one-semester units.

Recently introduced programmes include a graduate certificate in tertiary teaching from Curtin University in West Australia, a Masters in Policing, Intelligence and Counter Terrorism offered by Sydney’s Macquarie University and a graduate law degree from RMIT University.

Most courses offered through OUA are open access, with the exception of postgraduate degrees that require undergraduate qualifications or relevant work experience. Yet students still study the same content and receive the same qualifications as their on-campus counterparts, says Mr Hamilton. They also can enroll in individual units and, if they choose to undertake a degree, can take advantage of the cross-crediting arrangements in place between the OUA’s 15 tertiary education providers.

While postgraduate programmes tend to cost between A$1,400 and $3,000 a unit – which approximates to the fees paid by on-campus students – undergraduate fees are more economical, ranging from A$610 for humanities and social science units to A$845 for business-related courses.

“Our prices reflect the fact that you are getting course-led services [rather than] the full on-campus experience,” Mr Hamilton says. “So we are not recreating a campus-based experience but providing an online alternative.”

Around 85 per cent of courses are offered through e-learning. “We support the continuing use of traditional materials for access reasons, however, we are focusing on trying to convert as much as possible to online,” he says.

The organisation provides grants to encourage universities to convert their courses, “not just by dumping all their course materials on to files, but by actually making their learning materials useable in a relevant way, through online discussion forums, interactive material and so forth”.

While the drop-out rate for online students tends to be higher than for their on-campus counterparts, Mr Stewart says that around half of the OUA’s students return the following year. He says: “In distance education terms [that] is a pretty good figure, particularly given that a large number of our students only undertake a couple of units with us.”

When Mr Balazs attended an MBA intensive residential unit in Melbourne last September, the class of 25 included students from across Australia and overseas. Around 5 per cent of OUA students each year are based overseas. The group is now considering international expansion and is in talks with a Chinese education provider about a possible partnership.

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