Equity, pedagogy and inclusion. Harnessing digital technologies to support students from low socio-economic backgrounds in higher education

Alison Elliott
University of Sydney


The term User in the literature on co-construction of users and technology often implies the represented user rather than the person in question. A representation of the user, or the user as representation has instrumental value. At the beginning of the volume 'How users matter', Oudshoorn & Pinch's (2005) review various theoretical perspectives within which the user is discussed in literature. In each of these perspectives we can see how representations of users serve the purpose of a particular agenda. Whether it is Woolgar's idea of user as a configuration activated by designers when they design the products which at some point meet the real users, or the users in Social Construction of Technology (SCOT) approach who are a social group participating in the construction of technology; every approach makes certain commitments to how the users should be ascribed agency in relation to technology. The very notion that agency is being ascribed to the users by the theoreticians makes it clear that we are talking about generalized representations of the users and not the living persons themselves. Even when the stress is on the multiplicity of the users as it is in the above-mentioned volume, what are being discussed are conflicting representations.

Australia, like many other countries, experiences persistent inequalities in higher education participation and outcomes. Despite a mass higher education system, substantial government funding, and a variety of student support mechanisms, higher education participation for people from low income backgrounds, including from regional and remote communities, is lower than for people from more affluent backgrounds. This concerns both governments and universities. The recent Bradley report (Commonwealth of Australia, 2008) noted that underrepresentation of people from low income and Indigenous backgrounds must be addressed as a matter of urgency.

In broad-brush terms using the available data, people from low SES backgrounds are about one-third as likely as people from high SES backgrounds to participate in higher education. The share of university places for people from low SES backgrounds — approximately 15 per cent of places, compared with a population reference point of 25 per cent — has remained virtually unchanged for 15 years despite the overall expansion of access to higher education during that period.... Students from low SES backgrounds comprise less than 10 per cent of postgraduate students.... The under-representation of people from low SES backgrounds is most marked in the Group of Eight universities (Grebennikov & Skaines, 2009, p.3).

The Bradley report stressed the need to “ensure that those from disadvantaged backgrounds aspire to and are able to participate in higher education. By 2020, 20 per cent of undergraduate enrolments in higher education should be students from low socio-economic backgrounds” (p. xiv)

This paper focuses on factors that “enabled” individuals who might otherwise have not studied at university to access higher education as external students via digital information and communication technologies (ICTs), very essence of community informatics. Clearly, the digital tools and learning platforms to support external (distance) education exist, but as de Moor says (2010), “practice is what ultimately matters” (p.2).

Not surprisingly, there is considerable concern about how to reach an across-the-board higher education target participation rate of 20 per cent by 2020. The Australian Technology Network of Universities indicates that “universities will have to increase their enrolments of low SES students to 139,200 by 2020 – an increase of 52,000 students over 2008 levels” and develop “a better understanding of where the increased number of low SES students will come from and how (to) stimulate demand and adjust or manage their admissions practices” (2009, p.3).

Increasing higher education participation of low income background students requires strategies to overcome access barriers to regular on-campus study. Typical barriers include work and related family and care commitments, high mobility in terms of residence (such as with the Defence Forces), living in isolated communities or in locations inconvenient to a university campus, and a myriad of attendant economic barriers. Lack of understanding about these impediments to access and the complexity of people’s lives, especially those from low income backgrounds, act to limit thinking around equity issues in university contexts (Elliott, 2002; Elliott & Slee, 2009). For example, what may appear a single factor issue such as distance from a university campus is compounded when considered alongside caring for an elderly relative or young children, and combined with unreliable or inconvenient and/or expensive public transport and lack of access to a private vehicle. In Australia, some “60 per cent of disadvantaged and unemployed people do not have access to a car” (Coombs, The Australian, April 07, 2010).

Reasons for limited higher education participation by people from low income backgrounds are complex but include a matrix of interacting financial and personal considerations. Financial considerations such as lack of capacity to pay university fees and charges and, often, accommodation and living costs, together with concerns about potential income loss while studying tend to interact with other deterrents such as aspirational and school achievement factors, course and institutional awareness and family care responsibilities (Grebennikov & Skaines, 2009; Elliott, 2002; Elliott & Keenan, 2009; Long, Ferrier & Heagney, 2006; James, Bexley, Devlin, & Marginson, 2007; Simpson, 2006).

It’s not unexpected that a major impediment to access and participation in higher education is financial status. Attending university, especially if a student lives ‘away from home’ or pays rent or a mortgage and/or travels or commutes for considerable distances is expensive, and/or must pay high child care costs. Obviously too, full-time university enrolment is time consuming- typically involving the equivalent of a full ‘working week’, and on-campus classes are generally held during business hours. For many, if not most prospective students from low income backgrounds, the barriers to earning an income that can sustain reasonable day to day living costs while studying full-time on campus are insurmountable. People who have to support themselves and often a family and pay rent or a mortgage must work. Most have to work full-time.

Combining paid work and often unpaid work caring for children and other family members, with commuting and study, especially on-campus study, is not realistic for many potential students. It is simply not possible to sustain major employment commitments and attend day classes at university and course-related clinical/professional experiences, plus deal with day to day home and family responsibilities, especially when income stressors are added. A “significant proportion of students” with low incomes and/or from low income families who do combine paid work with study, especially extensive paid work during the semester, “are adversely affected in their capacity to study effectively” (Universities Australia, 2007).

Given the challenges faced by many low income-background students and/or career changers in accessing higher education and progressing in a satisfactory and timely manner (Elliott, 2002), it is surprising that greater attention has not been paid to promoting access to contemporary mainstream higher education via off-campus study using the information and learning technologies that now characterise distance education. Distance education or external studies (variably called ‘open’ education or ‘flexible learning’), and originally known as ‘correspondence education’, has a long history in Australia (and elsewhere, see Perraton, 2010) as an enabling pathway to higher education. Today, the sophistication of information and communications technologies (ICT) has transformed distance education delivery modes and created opportunities for rich pedagogies with both synchronous and asynchronous learning experiences. ICT tools enable a range of ‘blended’ approaches to student learning that that make off-campus study an experience commensurate with the best of on-campus, in-class learning. However, as shown in this paper, while new technologies are integral to contemporary distance/external education delivery, the technology alone, although robust and efficient, requires a thoughtful pedagogy to create meaningful learning experiences for students (Simpson, 2006). Consistent with de Moor’s (2010) contentions about the value of a “human-centred approach” (p. 4), most external students in the present study indicated that while they want to learn “in their own time”, they valued and wanted personalised educational experiences and close contact with academic staff, in addition to technological effectiveness.

Despite Australia’s long history in distance education (for students planning to be teachers, in particular), increasing numbers of students studying externally, and current initiatives harnessing communication and learning technologies to strengthen off-campus learning pedagogies, we know little about the backgrounds and experiences of students who study ‘externally’ using on-line learning platforms. In particular, we have a limited picture of the ‘success stories’ and especially for low income-background students who study externally and who successfully combine study with predominantly full-time work and/or full-time family commitments. What enabled them to access higher education in the first place, when data show that their contemporaries tend not to? What factors contribute to these students’ successful management of off-campus, on-line study and other life responsibilities and commitments?

Digital pathways to learning and equity

The rapid spread and use of digital learning and communication technologies in education and society since the mid 1990s has enabled higher education providers and teacher education programs specifically, to expand and enrich teaching and learning opportunities and pedagogies. At the same time, teacher education is concerned about “the professional learning of teachers so they have the confidence to exploit new technologies to expand, extend and modify their practice” (MCEETYA, 2002, p. 4). Today, Australian and other teacher registration authorities require teachers to demonstrate competence with digital learning technologies across teaching areas. Importantly, all graduate teachers must be able to integrate digital learning tools confidently and competently to enrich their pedagogy and engage effectively with young learners. Clearly, informatics do not stand alone in teacher education courses or classrooms. They are connected to the wider issue of learning for the knowledge age, and to broader issues of education quality and standards and learning outcomes. But, unless teachers feel positive and confident about using digital technologies in learning they are not likely to optimise them for classroom teaching (Becker, 2000; Elliott, 2003; 2004). So in terms of teacher education courses, ICTs enable access to higher education, carry and support pedagogy, and become tools for teaching about teaching.

In higher education more generally, digital teaching tools are used in two main ways. First, on-line teaching platforms such as Blackboard, Web CT and Moodle are used to complement on-campus, face-to-face teaching. They hold and/or communicate information such as lecture notes, podcasts of lectures, provide access to journals and other content and streamline course organisation and management such as assignment submission and assessment. Often, they are used to facilitate student-to-student and staff-to-student discussions and interactions outside scheduled class meetings. Second, they operate to deliver whole units (subjects) and/or whole courses (programs), often in concert with other strategies, such as one-to-one phone/Skype conversations, emails and student workshops (on-campus and off-campus) and site visits. Some courses are delivered completely on-line, and students are enrolled ‘externally’. External study may require no formal ‘on-campus’ attendance, although traditionally it has involved ‘residential’ workshops or on-campus ‘clinical blocks’.

The teacher education courses referred to in this paper were available in both internal and external modes. Enrolment was also available in ‘mixed mode’ meaning students could switch between internal and external study or could study some subjects internally and some externally, simultaneously. External subjects were fully on-line using the Blackboard platform and additional synchronous and asynchronous communications technologies where these enriched pedagogy and where individual lecturers and/or students sought communication enhancements. Holden and Westfall (2006) distinguish between asymmetrical interaction (one-way communication such as a videotaped lecture or reading text material on-line) and symmetrical interaction (such as a phone conversation or a video conversation). Generally, as Bernard et al., (2009) contend, the synchronous and asynchronous features of platforms such as Blackboard incorporate elements of both asymmetrical and symmetrical interaction.

Digital learning and communication technologies are widely viewed as having the potential to enhance and customise teaching and learning opportunities and experiences (Elliott, 2009) but they tend not to be used to maximum potential (Elliott, 2003; 2004; 1999). It is often argued this is because of educators’ limited access to state-of-the-art tools, poor technical infrastructure and support, and/or inappropriate pedagogical knowledge and skill. Similarly, students’ limited access to relevant technologies and inappropriate use can curtail educational and learning opportunities. Not unexpectedly, given the variability in teacher (and student) competence and commitment, distance education can be much better, about the same, or much worse than face-to-face classroom instruction (Bernard et al., 2009). At its worst it can stifle learning and exacerbate existing educational inequalities (see discussions in Warschauer, Knobel & Stone, 2004). At its best, distance education programs both enable access to higher education and generate effective engagement and connection with learning, especially for students who are isolated by location or by circumstances associated with work and family commitments (Elliott & Slee, 2009; Perraton, 2010). In the last decade or so, the availability of digital learning and communication technologies has expanded the pedagogies available to support off-campus study bringing with it the potential for enriched learning including close staff-student interaction.

Digital learning and communication tools provide a vital pathway to higher education and a means of re-engineering pedagogies to better meet students’ learning needs, especially when students cannot access regular on campus face-to-face teaching. But, as Bernard et al. (2009) concluded in a comprehensive meta-analysis of teaching approaches in distance education, we know very little about “what works” best in distance education because the nature of the questions we ask “impede our ability to discover what makes (distance education) effective or ineffective”. Typically, questions are “cast as a contrast to such starkly different forms of achieving the same end” (p. 1245), for example, attempting to compare different pedagogies in different contexts, and failing to consider the different learning needs and circumstances of learners. Similarly, research methodologies are confounded when probing vastly different methods, different learning environments, different media and different pedagogies. This “makes causal inferences” about conditions of design, pedagogy, and technology use “nearly impossible to make with any certainty” (p. 1245).

Method and results

This paper focuses on broad-brush factors teacher education students say supported their study success while undertaking some units/subjects that were part of an externally delivered (on-line) teaching degree. It reports some impacts of flexible learning options via digital learning and communication technologies on students’ decision to study and their subsequent study experiences, progression and outcomes. It draws on data from students’ course /unit evaluations and on conversations with them about their learning experiences during phone contact, on-line interactions and face-to-face meetings that were integral parts of the teaching-learning experience.

Data from 84 ‘external’ students who completed course/unit evaluation forms were scanned and relevant comments on ‘what works’ and ‘what doesn’t’ noted. Some students lived a considerable distance from a university campus, often many thousands of kilometres (for example in Laos), while others lived ‘just around the corner’ from the campus. In most cases, students would not have been able to study had they not enrolled as external/distance education students. (See Elliott, 2010 and Elliott & Slee, 2009 and Elliott & Keenan, 2009 for details of a special study program we initiated for Indigenous Teacher Assistants in remote communities). Typically, there were no convenient or manageable options for university study that could accommodate both their work and family responsibilities in their homes and communities. Generally, students worked full-time (or 20 hours + per week) in low to moderately paid positions (such as a fitness instructor, child care worker, or administrative officer) to support themselves and children, partners and other dependents. All were responsible for rent or mortgage payments and normal day to day living experiences. Some students had made a conscious decision to change career or job directions. Typically, these students were moving from careers such as police officer, army private, office worker, nurse, child care worker, teacher assistant, laboratory technician and IT officer. “Career changers” are an important source of teacher education students and their maturity is usually highly valued by employers.

Conversations with 23 students (rather than structured, formal interviews) while visiting them in their professional experience placements (in schools) and/or as part of regular (or face-to-face) phone discussions about progress or curriculum issues were also used to gauge perceptions and experiences of effective pedagogies and issues around combining study and work and family, and particularly experiences with on-line learning. Using data from the 84 student evaluations and the 23 conversations, five ‘composite’ student profiles were constructed that reflected the main ‘types’ of student situations and typical broad-brush views about “what works” and “what doesn’t”. Clearly these are not discrete student types. While each student had a range of distinct circumstances and characteristics that influenced their learning and perceptions of learning, they also shared some similar concerns and characteristics.

Student type-1

This student works full time as a fitness instructor. He is in his mid 30s, has a partner who works part-time and has two young children, one of whom has disability that requires extensive family support. He travels just over an hour each way to work and works variable hours. He lives 4000 km from the university and is studying teaching to gain long term career that harnesses his interest and expertise in working with sport and children and offers employment security for his family. He had previously commenced study at another university with an external studies option, but found poor staff-student communication an on-going problem. He lives within driving distance of four metropolitan universities.

This student has excellent ICT resources and skills, is resilient and resourceful and a confident communicator. He values the opportunity to work largely alone. He studies most nights between 10pm and midnight and on at least one day each weekend. He finds the Blackboard platform easy to use and generally effective. He hasn’t time to be part of “student discussions” and student affairs. He wants to “get on with the job (of study)” and get the course finished as quickly as possible.

He valued the opportunity to study on-line, to study across three teaching sessions per year (and hence spread the load and speed up course completion), to take additional subjects/units, to be visited by an academic while on his school placement and the on-going contact with academic staff, and particularly an academic mentor who knew him and understood his work and family situation.

He was not happy with the rigidity of the professional experience placements and their timing. When he completed his professional experience (teaching) placements he had to take leave without pay and this compromised mortgage repayments and family financial security). He felt there should have been an option to organise these more flexibly and spread them over longer time periods. He was also concerned about slow or no staff response to emails, and staff who tried to video whole class lectures and tutorials (that had been given to internal students) for external students. He would have liked staff to initiate more contact with him.

Student type-2

This student is a school leaver from a low income family. When she commenced the course she was living with her father and older brother in a rented unit, about 10 minutes drive from the university. Subsequently, her father moved away and left the girl and her brother in the rented house. As the father now has to pay rent in his new home and support a new partner and baby, the girl and her brother must earn enough to pay their accommodation and normal living expenses. The father cannot afford to support his daughter’s study or living expenses. The student works 15 to 20 hours per week in a local child care centre, and full-time in the semester break. She is eligible for CenterLink study support (a national government student subsidy scheme). Each week she must clear enough to pay her half of the rent ($250 per week), plus living expenses.

The student is enrolled on a full-time ‘internal’ basis but depending on work commitments takes the opportunity to study some subjects externally. Sometimes she shifts between internal and external study options within the one semester and/or subject and values the flexibility of moving seamlessly between internal and external study. Often these ‘arrangements’ are informal, rather than formal. All on-line course material is the same for internal and external students. She says she has the “best of both worlds” as she can meet with staff and fellow students on a face-to-face basis and access on-line study options as necessary. With the in-class assistance of academic staff and the support of fellow students, she finds the on-line course materials easy to access and navigate.

This student struggles with long in-school placements (3 to 10 weeks duration) as these generally prevent her earning income over the period, thus causing considerable financial stress. Her low income means she is not able to accumulate funds to tide her over the periods without work. She finds the additional costs of printing materials such as course outlines, readings and curriculum documents to be excessive. She is concerned about ambiguity in the wording and requirements of some assessment items, but this concern is not confined to on-line material. She reports she would have had to withdraw from the course if she could not study ‘externally’.

Student type-3

This student is a woman in her mid twenties whose partner is in the Defence Forces. This couple expects to spend 18 months to 2 years in each posting. She studies externally so that she can work part-time (30 hours per week) to contribute to the family finances and so that she can continue studying when the family gets another posting away from a university.

She is IT savvy, has excellent on-line access and values the opportunity to continue her studies as she moves from place to place. She enjoys the on-line interaction with other students, including using a Facebook site the students set up for themselves to discuss study and other issues outside the university monitored environment.

She participates in a range of interactive, on-line learning experiences, feels confident about initiating contact with staff as necessary, and says that the personal contact and support is “what has got her through”. She says her experiences with staff were varied and that some staff were not responsive to the realities of her work and mobility situation. While she was able to “work around” onerous in-school placement requirements that should have required her take leave without pay for 10 weeks to complete her in-school professional experience, she urged the university to be more explicitly ‘flexible” and “understanding” to support students to complete in-school placements and continue to work.

Student type-4

This student is teaching English in an international school/college in Laos. She is an Australian citizen and seeking a formal teaching qualification to use when she returns to Australia. After working “in marketing” for several years she has been travelling and teaching English. She now wants to be eligible for teacher registration in Australia.

Clearly, because of her location she is only able to enrol in a fully on-line distance education program. Her main challenges have been gaining reliable access to the internet and talking to lecturers by phone. Lecturers are not permitted to install SKYPE on university computers, so if she wants to phone a lecturer she must first make a time to talk when the lecturer has access to a home computer, internet and SKYPE.

Generally, this student has found the on-line materials and teaching approaches straightforward, but expressed some concern about the excessive length of time (over a week) some lecturers have taken to respond to her email requests. She has valued the opportunity to interact on-line with other students in discussion activities. She is not interested in ‘watching a video’ of a lecturer giving a lecture as she says this offers no opportunity to engage her. She is concerned about the lack of flexibility around completing professional experience placements as her employer has made her take Leave Without Pay for the duration of the placements. This, she said, placed her employer in a difficult position because the school was unable to find another English teacher. It also compromised her ability to meet on-going financial commitments during the time without pay. She was concerned about on-going problems accessing text books as distributors were reluctant to send them to Laos.

Student type-5

This student lived in a remote community and was unable to work due to suitable employment options. She had three young children who attended preschool and school during school hours. She lacked initial confidence in using the on-line learning platform and required additional support to get underway. As she was not in paid employment, she had, perhaps, more time to devote to study than employed students and more time to interact with other students and staff. She was keen to participate in on-line discussions and to “meet up” with other students, albeit on-line. She participated in a face-to-face study group near her home and attended on-campus “intensives” (week long workshops) when these were available. Once she had overcome initial difficulties in navigating the on-line learning platform she found it easy to use and was eager to interact with others. This student required considerable mentoring from staff and on-going support from and interaction with fellow students. She had a tendency to email staff up to several times a day and make several phone calls each week seeking support and clarification. She valued SKYPE meetings (where available) and other phone conversations and one to one or small group ‘face-to-face’ meetings or individual communications with academic staff.

Review of these profiles plus data from student conversations and responses to course evaluation surveys, highlight the enabling factors that contributed to university level study success for a small group of teacher education students who studied ‘externally’ by on-line distance education. Overwhelmingly, students found the study materials relatively easy to use once they became familiar with the Blackboard platform; they valued a blend of on-line pedagogy and “face-to-face” interaction (albeit at a distance) to support course access, progression and completion.

First, students valued the opportunity to access a higher education course that would otherwise have been impossible. Most indicated that they selected an off-campus degree precisely because it was available on-line and they could study from home in their own time and at their own pace. In most cases they could not have participated in a teacher education program had they been required to enrol as internal (on-campus) students. In some cases, a student could possibly have studied internally, for a time, but course progression would have been slow due to competing responsibilities and especially inability to attend all classes because of significant family and work commitments. Some students said they would have had to abandon study when the family moved due to work commitments. It is not easy to “transfer” between courses and universities. Generally, students must go through an onerous process of reapplying for University admission. Should they be accepted into another program they must then try to match completed subjects with equivalent units in a new course.

Second, students liked the accessibility of the on-line environment and the finger-tip, anytime access to course content and materials. After some initial teething problems with technology access for some students, the system ‘going down’ from time to time, and some occasional ‘hiccups’, they found on-line learning worthwhile and efficient. Design and pedagogies of individual units/subject studied varied considerably. Some incorporated features such as live streaming of on-campus lectures, Podcasts, videos/uTube and various synchronous and asynchronous student discussion and interaction options. All provided access to a range of digital content including customised study materials and library materials, such as major data bases. Typically students reported that these features were useful, robust and efficient.

Overall, students were comfortable with the on-line study environments. Any concerns they had were not around the technical aspects of the delivery platforms and in-built pedagogies. Rather, they related to matters around their sense of self as a student, clarity of communication and materials and staff access and responsiveness. Most importantly, students indicated they wanted to be considered as individuals, not just a number. At the same time, most wanted to be part of a “community” of students or learners, or the university, although their conception of this “community” varied considerably. While being an active part of a “learning community” (Krause & Duchesne, 2000) is linked to course satisfaction levels and achievement outcomes, in this case the sense of what constituted “community” was multi-faceted and seemed to revolve around a matrix of feelings related to “being in touch” and “connected” at several levels- with the university, the course, with teaching, with staff and with fellow students. All students wanted reasonable contact with academic staff; some needed high levels of contact. All valued personal, on-going professional relationships with their lecturer, tutor or other university-based mentor. Overwhelmingly, all students said they wanted to talk to a “real person” regularly although this could be on the phone, in a video conference/SKYPE situation or in a remote site (close to home) “tutorial” or consultation situation. Students felt “supported”, “confident” and “included” when they had regular contact with a staff member. The concept of “regular” varied from once or twice a semester, per unit, to once or twice a week.

While all students wanted to study externally at their “own time” and “pace”, many also wanted to be part of a student group, often, although not articulated as such, part of a “community of learners”. Only about half, however, wanted to be part of a formally constructed, course-related “learning community”. Most wanted the opportunity to move in and out of a “group” as it suited them. Some lecturers’ tactics of giving a mark/grade for postings on discussion boards and participating in formal on-line discussions were considered “contrived” and viewed negatively.

Students’ comments about their study experiences indicated two main dimensions of distance or external learning experiences - pedagogical and technical and structural- that impacted on them and contributed to course satisfaction and progression. In essence though, the technical issues were more entwined with the overall structure of the course and the importance of clear communication and instructions, rather than issues intrinsic to the technological aspects of the on-line delivery platform. Overall, the technical aspects of the on-line environment were robust and worked well for students, most of the time, albeit after some initial ‘teething issues’. Analyses of students’ comments indicated the following pedagogical dimensions that enhanced learning.

Pedagogical dimensions that enhanced learning and course progression

Clearly presented, unambiguous instructional material

Easy to navigate on-line learning sites

Responsiveness of and ‘personal’ contact with academic staff (although not face-to-face interaction in the traditional on-campus sense)

A sense of connectedness with the ‘course’ and a clear understanding of the ‘big picture’ of the course (eg. Unit sequences, progression pathways)

Contact with fellow students, especially through informal, non-assessed groups

Opportunities for “intensive” unit/course workshops (non compulsory)

Just-in-time learning supports and feedback, including lecturer/tutor feedback

Ability to work ‘off-line’ and access materials in hard copy materials (Because students have multiple personal demands they frequently need to study while doing other things such commuting to work by train/bus and “watching” children play weekend sport)

On-going mentoring about course structure and progression issues and preferably with a single academic

Relevant computer skills training and on-going support (for some students)

Technical and structural dimensions that enhanced learning

High-speed and reliable internet access

Technological support such as a 24 hour help-desk

Curtailing additional costs such as printing and texts. For example, students indicated that as they saved the university money by not using on-campus resources including utilities, savings could off-set printing costs.

Ability to access all learning materials on-line, especially if located outside Australia (some international students had difficulty accessing prescribed text books as postal/courier services were problematic in some Asian and African countries)

Varied study and progression pathways including flexible options for professional (clinical) experience. (A major concern for most students was the lengthy time periods (from 5 to 12 weeks) required to complete in-school practical teaching assignments. Most indicated this caused considerable financial hardship and extreme personal and/or family stress. Most indicated these lengthy blocks should be broken down to make them fit better with work and family commitments).

All students were generally happy with the features of the on-line learning tools and could use them effectively, although they devoted differing amounts of time to developing proficiency. From time to time they became frustrated with passing problems or inconveniences with the technology, but across the board they were satisfied with the technical features of the delivery platforms.

The most challenging issues for most students lay in working out the best mode of communicating with lecturers (and sometimes each other), but once this was settled they valued this communication and considered it essential to their learning. Each student highlighted the importance of interacting with academic staff as the key to a successful study experience. Where this was not available or difficult to access they seemed to struggle to progress satisfactorily, both emotionally and academically. Obviously, student need for academic contact and support varied from person to person, but all wanted some direct contact- preferably a phone call (or equivalent on-line contact), and at the very least personal emails. Clearly, on-line learning changes some aspects of the student-teacher relationship and the fact that most external students may never meet their tutors’ impacts on the ways the relationships are established and nurtured.

While there is little research on the nature of the student/teacher relationship in higher education, especially in distance/external teaching contexts, De Fazio, Gilding and Zorzenon (2000) say that effective academic support requires “a people or strong pastoral element” as well as complex mix of subject knowledge, language and study skills expertise. As indicated in this review of students’ perceptions of their external study experiences, these “people elements” were instrumental in supporting effective learning. Specifically, most students wanted to interact with others, and they wanted staff to take a collaborative, explorative and mentoring role in their learning. While lecturers must devise and organise content, they must also look at “scaffolding elements” that can personalise the learning experience for remote learners.

Concluding comments

The quest to broaden opportunities for participation in higher education requires both targeted recruitment strategies, including partnerships with schools and communities in disadvantaged areas together with new approaches to university access and teaching that recognise the demographic realities of the groups of students universities are hoping to attract. Importantly, for students who must work to support themselves and their families, degree programs that allow them to study off-campus, at least in part, are important. The learning and communications technologies currently available and widely used in distance (external) studies programs enable effective, off-campus study.

A major problem for potential higher education students from low socio-economic backgrounds is physical access to university campuses due to the competing day to day priorities of work and family. Generally, universities that already enrol large numbers of students from low socio-economic backgrounds recognise students’ complex lives and competing home, family and work and study priorities and make accommodations for these by offering flexibility in course study opportunities and structures. Encouraging students from low income backgrounds to enrol and complete degrees in a timely manner means recognising that most will need to engage in substantial paid work and/or in family-related duties such as supporting children and other family members and providing flexible study options to accommodate this.

Evidence from this and previous analyses of enrolment and progression trends and issues for students from low socio-economic groups studying at university indicates the complex effects of social and economic disadvantage that require special recognition and responsiveness. As stressed earlier, students are often dealing with day to day care of children and homes and/or family members with debilitating and chronic illness, plus working paid shifts, plus attending university. Many have limited access to personal transport making commuting to university campuses a continuing challenge. Rural and remote students may live hundreds of kilometres from a university campus so their travel and accommodation requirements are especially complex (Elliott & Keenan, 2009; Elliott & Slee, 2009). Clearly, these physical access issues compound a complex matrix of disadvantage to mitigate enrolment in higher education, especially traditional on-campus study.

If students from disadvantaged backgrounds are to access higher education programs they must be confident they can enrol in and complete degrees in a reasonable time and be assured that they can study and work and/or manage family responsibilities simultaneously. Use of digital learning technologies in higher education teaching makes delivery of responsive, flexible learning options a reality. On-line learning platforms that provide students with 24/7 access to learning materials and, potentially, to personalised learning support facilitate university access. Improving access to higher education and then creating engaging, motivating and compelling learning environments is a major challenge for providers in the next decade. Flexible learning options using digital technologies can expand study choices for students and subsequent study experiences, progression and outcomes. Off-campus, flexible learning options have the potential to include and engage students with multiple and complex needs that typically prevent access to traditional university programs.

Analyses of external study students’ perceptions of their learning in this review highlighted both the variability in their circumstances and the similarities in their educational aspirations, learning goals and learning needs. Importantly, the opportunity to study off-campus and on-line enabled university access, that was otherwise denied because of personal circumstances. Students found the technical process of on-line learning relatively straightforward, but they stressed that it was the interaction with academic staff, and with fellow students, that kept them ‘on track’ and ‘motivated’. This interaction was paramount in facilitating learning and complementing and enriching their on-line learning experiences. It was this personalised staff support that they most valued in their learning journeys.


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