Open Universities Australia’s Director of Student Success and Support, Cathy Stone, has “huge admiration” for the organisation’s students.
Some have never completed high school, others have not studied for years and others are newcomers to the digital world.
Most of them also have full-time or part-time jobs and there are many juggling family needs with their studying.
Yet they are all prepared to make the sacrifices and commitment needed to further their education, and in most cases, increase their career potential.
“We want to support them as much as we can,” Dr Stone said. “So we have a range of services to help them succeed along the different stages of their learning journey.”
Dr Stone said all students, including school leavers, mature-age students or returning students, first-generation tertiary students or students who needed to refresh their academic skills, were offered a number of preparatory units.
These include a 10-week Preparing for University Learning unit, a self-paced 26-week Preparing for e-Learning unit, an intensive three-week Preparing for University Learning unit and a six-week Preparing for Academic Writing unit.
“There is no pass or fail as such and the academic writing unit is done in parallel with the essays the students are already doing. So it’s not giving them more work – it’s just giving them feedback on construction and writing, not content.”
Dr Stone said once enrolled, students were offered a tutorial support online system called Smarthinking which offered four hours of free support for every unit they were taking on.
“It’s brilliant,” she said. “Students can log on to the system at any time, post questions to tutors and submit essays and writing for feedback on structure and the way it flows.
“We do find that when students use that system they do better than those who don’t. It improves their grades and their chance of passing. We encourage them to link up as soon as possible.”
A study involving OUA students used Smarthinking found they were twice as likely to pass their first units. Their chances of getting a distinction or high distinction also doubled.
Dr Stone said OUA also provided a career website, which was well used by students.
“There is information on careers, on how to write a resume, or a cover letter, which all have quite high usage. Many of our students specifically study to improve their career opportunities.”
There is also a student success hub being piloted which sees coaches calling students who they believe might be having difficulty coping with their workloads or units.
“We might hear from our providers that a student hasn’t logged in for a week, or it might be students who have taken on units that are particularly challenging, or completing three or four units at a time – which is a huge load.
“And the coaches call and ask ‘how are you going’ and they might spend half an hour going through the learning management system or just helping someone upload that first assignment.
“It is such a challenge if you have never studied online before – and we have found that there is a great deal of success with students if they are contacted – they are half as likely to withdraw.”
Dr Stone said one of the most recent initiatives of her department was partnering with libraries, so far only in New South Wales and Victoria, as places to go for face-to-face help with things like finding websites or sourcing information.
“It started with the NSW State Library and we have had a really good uptake with other libraries,'' she said. Fourteen libraries are currently involved.
“These days libraries are very technology-based and while staff are not going to help with content or assignments they can help with information.
“Some are even holding weekly face-to-face sessions with OUA students. It’s a real confidence builder for students and we are delighted at the enthusiasm of libraries which are getting involved.”
Dr Stone said there were a number of scholarships also available, including 30 funded by shareholders for refugee students living on the Thailand/Burma border.
She said she was always impressed with the commitment of students to their study – whatever their background or situation.
“All of us have great admiration for our students,” Dr Stone.
“Some of them have parents who never went to tertiary education and are first generation. And our statistics show most of them have children, and are holding down jobs.
“We want to do all we can for them. It’s a challenge, because we can never say this group is the same as this group, but we want them all to succeed.”
* This article was written by an independent journalist as part of a commercial agreement with Open Universities Australia.