Staff Accessibility and Online Engagement With First-Year Students: An Autoethnographic Reflection

Staff Accessibility and Online Engagement With First-Year Students: An Autoethnographic Reflection

Andrew Kelly (Edith Cowan University, Perth, Australia)
Copyright: © 2020 |Pages: 13
DOI: 10.4018/IJOPCD.2020010104


Studying online is becoming an increasingly attractive option to prospective students worldwide, yet external completion rates tend to be considerably lower than those enrolled on campus. Through an autoethnographic critical reflection process of teaching 27 first-year online students at a regional Australian university, this article considers methods for increasing accessibility and student engagement as well as managing personal challenges supporting online students from non-traditional backgrounds. Among seven key implications for practice, this article argues the need for genuine and open-ended interaction with online students at the early stages of a semester. It also recommends that teaching staff consciously recognize the limitations of providing academic support to non-traditional students. Based on these practices, this article confirms the benefits of critical reflection in higher education settings and the broader impact it can have on pedagogic approaches to tertiary teaching and learning.
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Online students are making up an increasing portion of total higher education enrolments worldwide, due at least in part to this study mode offering greater flexibility around family, employment and living commitments. However, online completion rates tend to be considerably lower than those enrolled on-campus or in a blended delivery mode. For online students, many recent studies cite student difficulties with finding an appropriate work-life-study balance, feelings of isolation, and understanding academic culture in an online environment as key reasons for withdrawal (Cochran et al., 2014; Davidson, 2017; Merrill, 2015; Sutton, 2014). These developments have been especially concerning in the Australian higher education sector, with a recent 2018 federal report urging universities to give greater support to online students because the respective attrition rate is approximately double that of the rate for internal and multimodal students (Department of Education and Training, 2018). This report followed on from a previous government study that emphasised the role university educators must play in supporting low socioeconomic status students; a cohort that is highly represented in online enrolments due to the flexibility it offers around work and family situations. The report stressed the need for university teaching staff to engage regularly and ensure that students can access support easily. It also highlighted the importance of becoming a reflective practitioner (Devlin, Kift, Nelson, Smith & McKay, 2012).

University educators cannot control the individual circumstances in students’ lives that impact their respective ability to study successfully online, yet support can be offered if staff are accessible and engage regularly with online students. Teacher presence plays a key role in keeping students motivated and building a sense of belonging in an online tertiary environment. One method for continually developing these capabilities is for teaching staff to reflect critically on experiences and perceptions of online study and adjust practices accordingly (O’Shea, Stone and Delahunty, 2015; Stone, 2017). To this end, critical reflection must become a greater focal point for the development of university teaching staff, especially when teaching diverse learners that are studying at university for the first time. Assessments with a focus on critical reflection are used widely across experience based learning units1, yet there is still contestation over what reflective practice actually constitutes, how critical reflection skills can be developed, and the overarching importance of reflecting critically in a tertiary teaching environment (Harvey, Coulson & McMaugh, 2016; Merierdirk, 2016).

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