What Do The Experts Ask? Technology and Online Learning
Over the past twenty or so years, the demands for upskilling and increased qualifications have ensured the growth of vocational education and training organisations, and empowered by technology advances, the trend for online training was born. According to ASQA, there are presently 5000 Registered Training Organisations (RTOs) operating throughout Australia, many of which are now offering online or blended training courses to accommodate the schedules and preferences of their students. Even courses such as training and assessment, RSA, counselling, and so on, those that were originally seen as only suited to traditional classroom teaching are now offered online by some organisations. Whereas online training courses may have originally been viewed as an annex to our traditional learning pathways, in some cases they are proving to be the most achievable and affordable way to complete career development training.
Thus, when RTOs come to me for advice and recommendations, I am often asked whether online training courses are the best way for vocational students to learn. And my answer may be yes. It may be no. It may also be maybe. You see, before providing the right answer, there are critical questions that need to be discussed with both potential students and the VET organisations themselves in order to determine whether online learning could be the most suitable mode of education delivery for them.
As an education provider, while you may not have a direct responsibility to ensure that these potential students have the required skills and equipment to undertake online training, it could really make a big difference (particularly in terms of student engagement, retention, and satisfaction). After all, any value-added interaction that enhances the learning experience will likely garner repeat or referred business from happy and successful students.
Given the fierce competition out there among VET organisations, it imperative that you are able to set yourself apart from the crowd – not only by the courses that you offer, but also through the extent of your value-added services. This could become the key competitive advantage that makes your organisation unique in the vocational education space. Word of mouth marketing has proved to be exceptionally powerful and cost effective; and for every student who enrols with your institution, you should be ensured that their ‘word of mouth’ would be positive and reflective of their fruitful study at your training organisation. Repeat business by re-enrolling students, or referral business that is born through honest word of mouth by former students and career counsellors like myself, can have a massive impact on your bottom line – and you don’t need to spend millions in marketing materials. It’s all about simply ensuring that your training solutions promote great success rates and a positive experience.
In this article, I will outline the top 3 questions that an RTO should pose to its potential students and then the top 3 questions to ask itself.
Let’s start with the top three value-added questions to ask your potential students.
Question for Students #1. How are your computer skills?
We generally assume that all students have an equal footing in the technology stakes, and you will find this is not necessarily true. RTOs need to be mindful of which specific areas of technology a student needs to be competent in when studying online with them. Sure, someone may know how to use Facebook and other social media platforms, but at the same time has difficulty with emails, attachments, or specific computer programs. This happens more often than you would think; and it’s important to challenge our own assumptions.
In order to excel at online study, students should already have a good level of competence in the basics. Students who don’t will require far more training and support, and the learning experience might be jeopardised.
My advice for RTOs is to: Prepare the students prior to enrolment by confirming exactly which computer programs will be needed to complete their studies with you, and encourage them to assess their competence before committing to study. This could be done in the form of a checklist document attached to the course description outline.
Question for Students #2. What kind of technology access do you have?
In the old days (or to be more exact, in the last five to ten years), the basics needed to undertake distance education were fairly simple: computer, printer, fax, scanner, and Internet modem. Learning materials were either downloaded or viewed online, and assignments were emailed or handed in as hard copies to the teachers. Today, these basics certainly still apply (with the exception of perhaps the fax machine); however there are a few extra considerations that your students need to take into account. As we all know, many will not do this without some prompting from the training organisation.
- Throughout the length of the course, they will likely need to work from more than one computer device (e.g. computers, laptops, tablets, or even smartphones). Ideally, each of these devices will have full high-speed Internet connectivity and a capacity for USBs. Additionally, students may also need to use cloud-based programs such as Dropbox or Google Drive to ensure that their work remains frequently updated, regardless of which device they are working on.
- They will need adequate to high Internet speed that allows for an increasing number of web-engagements like attendance at webinars, possible video chat with teachers and classmates, contribution to class discussions via chat platforms, downloading data, and of course, uploading assignments. Some VET organisations also have online quizzes and assessments that are timed; and it’s crucial that students have good enough Internet connectivity to not drop out half way through.
- Their computer system may need to be able to handle specific programs or databases dependent on their course of study. Different operating systems and browsers can run programs differently and students may need to make adjustments.
- They will need a BACKUP SYSTEM. I can’t stress this one enough. Portable hard drives are so cheap and readily available these days, that you’d be a fool not to consider it a necessity for online study.
Question for Students #3: How easily do you adapt to rapidly changing technology?
Is the student a quick learner when it comes to technology, or a slow burner? It is important for students, who are about to enrol in fully online or blended courses, to take stock of how quickly they can actually adapt to new or changing technology and programs, as they may well encounter changes that they need to promptly adapt to during the course of their study. Once again, a simple checklist would assist in the student’s honest assessment of their skill in this department; and additionally, it may also help to clarify the RTO’s available support services.
That brings us to the next important point of discussion: Now that you’ve considered the value-added questions for your potential student, here are some questions to ask yourself. VET organisations, especially the private RTOs, need to spend some time to critically assess their actual capacity and capability in delivering a fully online training course or a blended one. Below are 3 main areas to address, in order to anticipate and mitigate possible problems that students could encounter during their course of online study with you.
Question for the RTO #1: What support, in real terms, is available for your students?
Most RTOs in Australia, generally speaking, provide an adequate level of student support. Particularly, the ones that offer online learning or blended learning usually have support staff, FAQ or forum services, live chat, peer support, and so on. However the difficulty for many is having a clear understanding of how their students can access said support and what the limits are.
Often when assisting VET organisations in the planning stage, I will ask the RTO directly “what kind of support can you provide to assist students with technological queries”. This helps to develop a clear set of guidelines with which we can then educate the organisation BEFORE they start offering the course. It is important to draw boundaries and have a clear idea of what the business is committing to.
By identifying and setting clear guidelines and boundaries, a training organisation can ensure that their students will be aware ahead of time exactly what they will need to master before studying and how to make the most out of the support that is provided by the RTO. Don’t do yourself a disservice by overpromising and under-delivering. This has, in many cases, proved to be harmful to training organisations’ level of student satisfaction.
Question for the RTO #2: Do you have an option for using older technology?
With the rapid rate at which technology progresses, many students may not be able to readily use the most current version. This is particularly relevant in the cases of operating system updates or the launch of new devices.
Let’s look at a real life example. When Windows 8 was released, many people (including myself) experienced difficulties in adjusting to the differences in its appearance and capabilities compared to its predecessors. After speaking several times with the Microsoft Helpdesk, it was suggested to me that many customers simply preferred to revert back to their old operating systems, rather than input the hours in learning the new one (and that sounded like a great idea to me).
So in terms of developing your online training programs to suit the most up to date technological systems, you need to also be aware that several of your students may in fact be using older versions. And that should be an option for them.
So the question essentially is, as the training provider, do you make online study achievable and easy for students who don’t have the latest version? Do you make it clear what system requirements are needed before enrolment?
Question for the RTO #3: Does your online training allow for the use of assistive technology?
There have been many amazing advances in assistive technology in online learning, which have facilitated a much greater number of people to undertake training and employment than ever before. Technology is now available to assist with vision, hearing, upper limb use and general motor skills.
Whilst some of the products available are unlikely to be impacted by the delivery of online study modes, such as adaptive keyboards, mouses, and touchscreens; other products may well require some additional setting up and in some cases, may not be compatible with some computer programs. Products to assist with vision impairment for example, may not be compatible with databases or processing programs where tables of information or infographics are involved. Similarly, some products to assist with hearing impairment may not be operational with all webinar programs.
It is important to have a clear understanding of the commonly used assistive products, and whether they are in fact compatible with your chosen mode of course delivery.
More than ever, in this digital era, we are able to offer training via online or blended study, allowing for a more flexible approach to education and reaching thousands more students from all over the globe. The impact of this is wide ranging, prompting a better work / study / life balance for some, and engaging others who may not be too keen on the classroom experience in the domain of education.
By considering some simple value-adding questions to ask both yourself and your potential students, you will ensure that all students are as prepared in the technology stakes as they can be. And as we all know, happy and successful students are far more likely to result in repeat and referred business, which at the end of the day, is an RTO’s best advertisement.
- Opinion piece contributed by Lauren Maxwell. Lauren is a Career Development Practitioner and the founder of Headstrong Women, who is often asked to make recommendations regarding training strategies. She is passionate about ensuring a good-fit between students and RTOs, and always knows the questions to ask in order to get the most out of the learning experience.