Online learning brings greater choice

New technologies have been a boon for those living in regional and rural areas who, through improved online innovations, have hugely expanded access to services and support, including higher education.

The transition to remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that being online can help us continue working, even when we can’t meet in person at the same location. For example, health professionals now routinely offer online sessions.

The events sector has also adapted quickly in order to offer enriching online experiences during the pandemic to broader audiences than ever before. At La Trobe, we’ve had the biggest ever audiences attend some our talks and panel discussions this year, with many more people joining online than can be accommodated in a lecture theatre.

New educational technologies and innovative approaches to teaching have ensured that our online classes and learning activities are an engaging, stimulating learning experience. We’ve been developing creative online courses long before COVID hit, but the pandemic has showed us what students have appreciated so that we can further refine and develop our online offer.

We have been able to design and offer interactive learning experiences, such as lab simulations, to all of our students, when normally these would have been only available for those able to travel to specific locations. Our students have clearly told us that they enjoy the flexibility and access that comes with these experiences, and they’ve appreciated the quality of our online delivery – at first related to working remotely because of COVID, but quickly developing into a sophisticated blend of interactive materials and learning experiences.

We’re even winning national awards for our innovative use of technology to create immersive learning experiences with our Lightboard Studio in Bendigo.

By offering more courses and subjects online, we provide students with more choice, greater flexibility and more access to a wide range of learning experiences and study areas. This is especially important for mature age students, who welcome the ability to schedule their study time around caring responsibilities or their careers, those who live in remote areas or face other obstacles getting to campus, or young people juggling study with part-time jobs.

An integrated, or blended, approach gives even greater choice and flexibility so that people in regional and rural areas have opportunities to participate in activities that used to be – literally – out of reach.

We think that this blended approach of combining online and on-campus activities is a win/win for our students. They can study when and how they want, they can meet up with their friends, and access pastoral services and their academic support network either online or on campus as best suits their circumstances and individual needs.

It’s also why we think our students’ experience and achievements will be maximised through our proposed online Bachelor of Arts at our regional campuses. Far from being a second-best alternative to in-person teaching, our online BA will increase flexibility for students and substantially expand the choice of majors and subjects available in multiple locations. Students will also have the chance to engage with a wider diversity of fellow students through online tutorials and seminars.

At the same time, they won’t miss out on the campus experience that’s so significant for many of our students. We know first-hand the importance of community connectedness and making sure our students are supported by our regional campus teachers and support team. Our new Regional Connect program will provide on-campus facilities, services and social connections, face-to-face and virtual events such as lectures and debates, and opportunities to connect with local employers.

And our regional students will continue to kick-start their careers with work-integrated learning, internships, placements, volunteering, mentoring and Industry PHDs – all in the local community.

We can never replace the on-campus experience, nor would we want to. But we can give our students the best of both worlds by opening up access to learning online, on-campus, or through a combination of options. We know this will offer greater access and choice for regional communities and will open up exciting new career opportunities for our students.

Originally published in The Bendigo Advertiser and The Border Mail.