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The ‘people part’ of online learning: A holistic approach to supporting online students in an enabling, pre-undergraduate program

Wednesday 3 July: Conference day one, 2:00pm – 2:30pm parallel session



Room 6 – 303-B05 Sem



Dr Jenny Mcdougall
Central Queensland University, Australia



Online learning has had a pivotal role to play in broadening access to higher education, and yet little research has been done on its effectiveness in the enabling, or pre-undergraduate, space. Programs that provide an alternative pathway to university typically emphasise the ‘people part’ of learning, by offering considerable personal as well as academic support. Therefore, when the STEPS enabling program in Australia branched into online learning in 2007, there were concerns that its holistic philosophy would be compromised. Over ten years on, it seems timely to reflect on what we have learnt about the capacity of online learning to meet the needs of adult learners who are transitioning to university. The aim of this study is to compare, in an enabling program, the levels of support experienced by online students with those of on-campus students and to determine the aspects of support that best meet the needs of these online students. 

The study used a qualitative approach, drawing upon two sources of data: anonymous student evaluations for a compulsory, ‘study skills’ subject, and an online survey of students who had completed the same subject. The concept of ‘holistic’ learning, framed in humanistic terms, provided the conceptual lens for thematic analysis of the data. Significantly, the online students in this study were as satisfied with the levels of support they were given as the on-campus students. A key aspect of this was lecturer support, while contact with other students did not emerge as a significant factor. The majority of online students agreed that resources such as lecture recordings and short instructional videos personalised the learning experience. Findings suggest that a supportive online environment can be achieved, thus going some way to addressing the personal as well as academic needs of enabling students, and challenging negative stereotypes around the anonymity of online learning.


Key words

enabling education; access education; online learning; holistic learning; student support

This research examines the ways in which online learning has assisted in widening access to education, by exploring the intersection of enabling and online ‘spaces’

Enabling programs are viewed as an important pathway for students from disadvantaged backgrounds to gain access to university. These include: students of low Socio-Economic Status; students from remote/regional areas; Indigenous students; students with a disability; students from non-English speaking backgrounds; and women in non-traditional areas of learning. This study focuses on the STEPS enabling program, operating from a regional Australian university, and the experiences of an online cohort. 

The transition of STEPS to online mode reflects a growing trend for Australian universities, since online and distance learning have been an instrumental part of the movement to widen access and participation (Stone, 2017). ‘Online’ study, for our purposes here, describes an ‘off-campus’ experience that relies heavily on online technologies. Students in the program under review complete much of their learning via the online learning management system called Moodle. Therefore, this paper also explores the sub-theme of ‘technologies’.



Stone, C., O’Shea, S., May, J., Delahunty, J., & Partington, Z. (2016). Opportunity through online learning: Experiences of first-in-family students in online open-entry higher education. Australian Journal of Adult Learning, 56(2), 146–169.


Presentation topic

Tertiary – Access to Education

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