In Stories from Deans

Students and graduates explain why online study is the best fit for them, while an education professor debunks myths about off-campus education courses.

Article by Erica Cervini

Mary Sparkes is entering the fourth year of her online education degree in secondary arts at the University of New England (UNE). After she began her course, she had a car accident and experienced the upheaval of moving home three times. Yet her degree has been a constant in her life.

“It [online degree] was just the best option for me,” Ms Sparkes says. “I didn’t have to drop out.”

Her decision to do her course online meant she could organise her study around events in her life. Besides, Ms Sparkes was keen to stay in her home town of Mudgee in NSW at the start of her degree because she was involved in her local community through sport and youth events.

Studying online also opened up time during the day for Ms Sparkes to work for a large company. This real-life experience, she says, has added a rich dimension to her classroom teaching of commerce.

Mary Sparkes is one of hundreds of students across Australia who have decided that studying online is the best way for them to achieve their goal of becoming a teacher or doing postgraduate education study. Some students, particularly regional students, may be unable to move close to a campus to do face-to-face degrees, while others have caring responsibilities that make it difficult for them to commit to on-campus courses.

Brenda Wolodko, Head of the School of Education at UNE, says some people want to change careers and go into teaching because they “want to make a difference”.

“When I’ve spoken to them about it, most of them feel like they want to make a difference,” she says. “And they think that being a teacher makes you feel like you’re making a difference.”

While there are myriad reasons why people undertake online teaching degrees, there is a common thread to their choice – the flexibility. Professor Wolodko says in the case of people transitioning into teaching from another career they have the flexibility of still being able to work full or part time.

Carley Marscham, who graduated in August after studying a postgraduate program specialising in educational leadership at Charles Sturt University (CSU), welcomed the flexibility of doing online study. In 2014, Ms Marscham was on maternity leave from Arthur Phillip High School in Parramatta when she decided to embark on further study after giving birth to her first child. She had two more children while studying.

“I needed flexible study that didn’t take me away from home,” she says. To complement her online program, Ms Marscham also implemented a study strategy. She would not leave her assignments to the last minute but begin them immediately in case she had to tend to a sick child later on. And, if Ms Marscham felt sick or too tired herself, she would make time the following day to catch up on her studies.

“To be successful I had to be organised and on top of my assignments,” she says.

Ms Marscham adds that she wanted to do the study. “Postgraduates are intrinsically motivated,” she says.

Ms Marscham, who already has a degree in secondary teaching from the University of Western Sydney, which she did on campus, had no qualms about studying online. This is despite the perceptions some people hold that online learning is in some way inferior to face-to-face teaching.  She says she found her course just as rigorous and engaging as her on-campus degree.

David Smith, the Head of the School of Education at CSU, says he has heard the myths about online courses and says that the biggest one is that online education is not as good as fronting up to university. He points out that an online experience cannot be made the same as an on campus one.

“You can create a totally different environment,” Professor Smith says. “The common element is how you engage your students. But you can’t use similar engagement strategies as you would in face-to-face as you do online courses, because you’re working in a virtual environment and virtual rooms, virtual speaking places.”

Professor Smith says research shows that there is no difference in the achievements of pre-service teachers studying online or on-campus. In other words, online students are not disadvantaged. He added that the development of online learning has not stopped, and that further research is always being done in the area.

“We’re on a new trajectory, and there’s more to be done. And, particularly once you look at say virtual reality and what could be possible there.”

Charles Sturt University and The University of New England offer face-to-face programs as well as off-campus ones, which they both have been delivering for decades. CSU offers a range of online education programs including undergraduate teacher education programs in early childhood, primary and secondary as well as graduate and postgraduate degrees in education. UNE also has a range of primary, secondary and early childhood teaching degrees online.

Popular double degrees can also be studied online. Shannai Clissold, now a primary teacher at Bakewell Primary School in the Northern Territory, completed a double degree in disability studies and primary teaching at UNE. She says the expertise she gained in the disability course complements her teaching and has helped her to identify students who may need extra help in the classroom.

Ms Clissold has introduced yoga balls for students with ADHD, who often want to move around the classroom. The feedback on their introduction, she says has been “great”.

Ms Clissold was living in Tamworth when she began her degrees online. She was already working with people with disabilities in a group home and couldn’t attend face-to-face classes because of her rosters.

“If there hadn’t been an option to do online, I wouldn’t have done it,” she says.

Ms Clissold says her experience of doing her degrees online was positive, particularly because the “university really made me feel that I would be able to do it”.

Although Ms Clissold is a relatively new teacher, she is already planning to do further study online.

“I would do it (online study) again,” she says. “I have applied to do my masters.”

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