An increasing number of Macquarie units are being offered to external students. This is good news for students juggling work/family commitments. Or those who don’t live in Sydney, or even Australia.

There is, however, a learning curve in adapting your unit for online delivery. We know from numerous research studies (and experience!) that you can’t just take face-to-face content/activities and put them online. It simply does not work. You can’t fit a square peg in a round hole.

Which is probably why many studies report that online students are significantly less satisfied with their experience in both undergraduate and postgraduate courses than their face-to-face counterparts (see ,for example, Kozar & Lum, 2013; Summers, Waigandt, & Whittaker, 2005).

Before we jump to the conclusion that studying online is ‘second rate’ – consider this: students in a blended (some face-to-face and some online) environment have consistently been shown to have a higher sense of community, achievement and satisfaction than face-to-face only students (Lim, Kim, Chen & Ryder, 2008 or Rovai & Jordan, 2004).

WHAT?

What’s going on here? Here’s my take:

When faced with a prospect of teaching online, many educators start with technical questions, like ‘what’s the best way to display/arrange content?’, ‘how do we make/display videos?’, ‘how do we reduce the amount of text on the screen?’, etc. There is nothing wrong with these questions, but they seem to assume that not having a ‘teacher’ talk in front of the class is the biggest difference between ‘face-to-face’ and ‘online’ modes

As someone who did my Masters online, and who has since worked in distance education for more than 10 years, I will offer you my unsolicited opinion.

It’s not the TEACHER that online students miss the most. And it’s not the CONTENT. It’s OTHER STUDENTS.

Remember when you’d come to class as a student? You’d chat to other students before or after class, right? You’d see that you are not the only one who’s confused or is falling behind. You’d get reassured or you’d learn tips/tricks from other students. This ‘informal’ sharing would normalise the sense that it’s OK not to be perfect, or, on the other hand, it would give you a reality check that it’s time to get your act together. In the age of Googling, when content is only a search away, social interactions with other students are biggest thing that many online students miss out on.

So, before we get too preoccupied with delivering online content, let’s ask ourselves:

How are we going to ‘build in’ student-to-student interactions in our courses?

Here’s 3 ideas that might help.

Idea 1: ‘Student coffee breaks’ via web-conferencing

Encourage online students to connect via web-conferencing to talk about whatever they want. They can vent, share ideas or ask for help. Using web-conferencing matters. Online students have a higher satisfaction rate when they have peer-to-peer sessions via web-conferencing as opposed to audio-conferencing, or asynchronous chat/email (Kozar & Lum, 2015).

Suggested frequency: once a week.

Suggested duration: 20-30 mins

These ‘socialising’ sessions don’t have to be long. In fact, keeping them short (e.g. 20-30 mins) might increase the attendance.

Suggested day/time: As most external students work or have family commitments, these sessions can be planned for Sat morning or Wed evening (hours when ‘working’ students are likely to be available). Or it can be up to students to vote for the most convenient session time at the start of the course.

Teacher involvement:

Teachers can set up a Zoom meeting (MQ’s current web-conferencing system), post the details in iLearn, communicate what’s happening to students and discuss what these sessions are designed for. In other words, teachers need to be cheerleaders for these sessions, and promote them.  

Idea 2: ‘Staying on track’ groups

This is a more focused version of ‘student coffee breaks’, that can be run via web-conferencing (e.g. Zoom) as well. Rather than having a completely open-topic discussion, in this session, students set goals and talk about progress, challenges or hurdles. Unlike socialising sessions that can be run every week, the best frequency for ‘staying on track’ groups is probably once every 2 weeks.

An optimal number of people: 3-5.

Here’s an example of a ‘Staying on Track’ toolkit for external PhD students. It can be easily adapted for any off-campus students.

Idea 3: Peer feedback

Another way to increase student-to-student interaction is to create ample opportunities for peer review. For example, consider asking students to write blogs on various topics, and get other students to comment on them. You could also try using VoiceThead to provide feedback (written/audio or video), or use written or voice comments in Google Docs or Google Slides.

Now over to you!

Do you have any thoughts/ideas on how to improve interactions between online students?

Leave a comment below, or have a chat to me, and I’ll be happy to showcase them for the community.


Kozar, O., & Lum, J. (2013). Factors likely to impact the effectiveness of research writing groups for off-campus doctoral students. Journal of Academic Language and Learning, 7(2), 132-149.

Kozar, O & Lum, J (2015) Online doctoral writing groups: do facilitators or communication modes make a difference?, Quality in Higher Education, (21) pp. 38–51.

Lim, J., Kim, M., Chen, S. S., & Ryder, C. E. (2008). An Empirical Investigation of Student Achievement and Satisfaction in Different Learning Environments, Journal of Instructional Psychology, 35 (2), 113-119

Rovai, A.P. & Jordan, H.M. (2004): Blended Learning and Sense of Community: A comparative analysis with traditional and fully online graduate courses: The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 5(2), Available here. Date accessed: 15 May. 2018. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.19173/irrodl.v5i2.192.

Summers, J., Waigandt, A., & Whittaker, T. (2005). Comparison of student achievement and satisfaction in an online versus a traditional face-to-face statistics class. Innovative Higher Education, 29, 233-250.

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Posted by Olga Kozar

I'm a 'long-term' Mq girl. I did my PhD here and taught different courses, ranging from undergrad to PhD students. I then joined the Learning Innovation Hub, which I love. I'm passionate about good learning and teaching. Give me a shout if I can assist you in any way.

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