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Teaching external students


The University of South Australia has a considerable history and reputation as a provider of distance education. In recent times, the University has moved towards what it calls flexible learning and in many instances the terms distance and flexible are used (sometimes wrongly) interchangeably. Flexible learning is used to include a range of approaches which promote responsiveness to the educational needs of particular students and to the wider community. These include delivery in various modes (for example, self-paced learning and traditional distance education), at a range of places (for example in industrial contexts) and the use of particular educational practices (for example, bridging programs and the recognition of prior learning). Distance education is focused on flexibility in the delivery mode and the term is used only in relation to whole courses where the primary form of delivery does not include face-to-face encounters. The focus in this guide is on assisting staff to support students who are studying through distance education once the teaching and learning materials are in place.


The interrelated distance education systems

Distance education comprises three interrelated systems: course materials development, student support and administration.

There is significant overlap between the systems. In this booklet the focus is on the student support system but, as can be seen from the diagram, the boundaries between student support and both other systems are very blurred.

diagram showing three interrelated systems

In distance education, efficient administration systems are absolutely essential because without these the total system collapses: students are not enrolled, materials are not developed to meet deadlines, materials are not dispatched, assignments are not processed and student inquiries are not dealt with in efficient and effective ways. With this in mind the booklet includes consideration of administrative support.

In a similar way, the development of study materials needs to take into account the kinds of support students need in relation to the subject matter. This occurs at the design stage when the materials are being conceptualised and the learning experiences determined.

Many staff, however, find themselves teaching courses using materials which others have designed and over which they have had little or no control.


The distance student support network

The first point to make is that distance students have access to the same support services as internal students although in some cases the way these are available to them is different. You need to be aware of what these services are and the University staff available for providing them so that you can refer students when you believe they would benefit.

The following diagram summarises the kinds of support available and which parts of the University provide the services.

diagram showing the kinds of support available and which parts of the University provide them


Materials 'package'

Learning packages consist of a range of resources - usually print-based but often also including audio and videotapes and in some cases multimedia, broadcast television and radio, and web based products. The purpose of the package is to provide the content base of the course. In addition to the content base provided through the package of materials, opportunities for interaction - between a student and the lecturer, and among the students as a group - need to be provided. The following diagram identifies a number of individual and group-based experiences which can be used to support distance students.


Supporting distance learning

Deciding the kind of support you will provide is determined by your experience of teaching similar students in the same or a similar field. For example:

diagram showing a range of possible individual and group approaches

The above diagram identifies a range of possible individual and group approaches which you may wish to explore. We will now consider in some detail two particularly useful ways of dealing with these issues: responding to assignments and audioconferencing.


Responding to assignments

Assignments have a dual focus: they are (usually) ways for academics to make judgements about the extent to which students have met the objectives of a course, and they also provide a very valuable way of supporting student learning. Providing appropriate feedback on assignments is an aspect of your teaching responsibilities. When students undertake an assignment, they are engaging individually with the course as provided through the learning materials and usually have very little opportunity to test their understandings with others. New students are often particularly concerned to understand their personal performance in relation to the rest of the class. The feedback you provide is, therefore, a critical aspect of students monitoring their own performance with a view to improvement.

Turnaround time

In order for the feedback to be used by the student in an optimal way to improve their performance, students need to receive it in time to take account of your comments for the next assignment or exam. Without this, distance students are at a particular disadvantage because they often lack other channels of communication available to internal students. If you aim at a three week turnaround time (the time the student sends their assignment to the time they receive it back again), you should have about two weeks to mark the work.

The feedback you provide should do a number of things:

Personal dimensions

One of the major issues for students in distance contexts is that they usually operate in highly individualistic ways. Contact with you through assignment feedback is, therefore, a significant point of student/lecturer interaction with the potential for great impact. In most cases, students take their study seriously and expect that your response to their assignments will acknowledge their effort and ideas. Their feelings of self confidence and personal competence are often (perhaps unreasonably) wrapped up in their assignment performance, particularly the first assignment in the first course of a program. How you deal with student assignments, particularly when they are not up to the standard required, is a major issue. It is important to make some kind of personal connection with students and to keep in mind their particular response to the course being studied.

Affirm good aspects

When marking assignments it is very easy to be focused on the negative aspects—what the student missed, rather than what they achieved. Though the focus of the feedback needs to be on ways for the student to improve, this needs to be done in the context of the positive progress made. It is a good idea to begin your feedback with the aspects of the assignment that you think the student handled well and then to proceed to those that need improvement.

Diagnose difficulties

When students have not achieved the intentions of an assignment it is important that the problems be diagnosed and discussed in ways that are relevant to the student. This involves more than the judgement that they have not achieved the appropriate outcomes; it requires a comprehensive account of the ways that they have not met the criteria. Some academic staff provide checklists of the marking criteria so that students can see their own performance in relation to the expected performance.

Encourage students to improve

Though there is a strong element of judgement in your diagnosis, it is important to keep the focus of the feedback on how the student can improve in future assignments. The feedback you provide may involve content-based issues or be related to writing style or critical analysis. It is important to be explicit, providing a degree of detail which is relevant to the topic and achievable for the student. You may find it useful to refer students on to other staff of the University, particularly the study advisers who can make arrangements to either see the student if they are local or to contact them by phone, fax or email.

Model better ways of completing the task

One way of providing explicit feedback is to model the answers so that students are in no doubt about what you require. It is useful to provide generic models as part of the instructions of an assignment (for example, essays, reports), and specific models after an assignment has been marked. These may be complete documents or small parts of your feedback where you focus on particular aspects or issues.

Suggest and encourage a greater depth of scholarship through building on ideas that the student has raised

One of the issues for good students is that they are often looking to follow interests or build on their new understandings. Though many students will be driven by extrinsic concerns such as marks, some students will develop genuine and lasting interests in your subject area. Providing other resources and avenues that they might follow suggests to the students that you are interested in engaging in the wider scholastic issues and feeding their interest and enthusiasm.

Justify the grade given

If you have addressed the issues above it is likely that the student will have a good indication of why they received the grade they did. It is not enough that you make a fair and just judgement; students must also see that the judgement is fair and just if they are to have any motivation to improve.

Providing good feedback to students can be very time consuming. Students often need the same advice and so it is quite reasonable to use the same paragraphs on more than one occasion while still keeping the tone personal and the issues quite specific.



The second approach to supporting students is audioconferencing. Though this topic is dealt with in detail in the Learning and Teaching Unit publication Teaching and learning: audioconferencing, we will discuss it in a limited way here because of its potential to support students. If you intend to use audioconferencing you should obtain a copy of the audioconferencing booklet from the Learning and Teaching Unit which has specific directions about how to set up the conference and tips on how to use them effectively to facilitate student learning.

Audioconferencing (sometimes referred to as teleconferencing) is the linking of groups or individuals in two or more places using the telephone. It is a particularly useful technology because of its ready availability and the immediacy of the medium. It provides ways for students and lecturers to engage in discussion of content, to monitor progress and evaluate the learning materials, to resolve difficulties related to unexpected events such as the unavailability of resources and to clarify issues about assessment.

Informing students about the audioconference

In most instances, participating in an audioconference will be an optional learning experience for students. Though you may strongly encourage them to participate, their various circumstances and personal preferences may mean that they either choose not to or are unable to be involved.

The most appropriate way of instigating an audioconference is to inform students in writing of your intention to offer the sessions and to invite them to take part. You need to provide students with particular kinds of information which enable them to anticipate what is expected and what they can hope to gain from participating. The key is to be explicit. You should include:

Whichever way you set up an audioconference you will need to create lists of the students participating.

Students are often apprehensive about audioconferences and so providing them with some general information about the process may be useful. With this in mind, the Learning and Teaching Unit has prepared a brochure entitled Audioconferencing at the University of South Australia: a guide for students which outlines the issues from a student point of view. Copies of this brochure are available from the Learning and Teaching Unit for distribution to students of the University of South Australia.

Pedagogical aspects of audioconferencing

Audioconferencing, like all educational technology, is a means to an end. It is essential that you understand the strengths and limitations of the technology and that you develop some expertise in using it to achieve particular educational outcomes.

Strengths and limitations of the technology

The most significant difference between audioconferencing and face-to-face tutorials is the absence of non-verbal cues in the lecturer-student and the student-student interaction. Good teaching is dependent on good communication and when some of the significant channels of communication are missing, you need to use strategies which provide you with alternative ways of gaining this important information. In addition, you may find some learning processes are not very productive at all. For example, audioconferencing is not effective if one person speaks for significant lengths of time, particularly if it is concerned with densely constructed information. It is far better to send written information and then to spend the time together discussing particular issues. The immediacy and spontaneity of the technology facilitates dealing with highly particularised responses to specific content issues.

Course-based issues

What you do in an audioconference is specific to your field and the kinds of learning experiences appropriate within that field. These issues relate to the way your field of study constructs learning situations such as experiments, debates, critique, understanding text based resources, and so on. You need to determine within your field of study, the potential for and justification in using audioconferencing.

Within a particular course, audioconferences need to have highly specified objectives. These will be based on your knowledge of the subject matter and the students in your course. The determining issues here are founded on your experience as a teacher of the particular course to a specific cohort of students. For example, if you know that students generally have difficulty with understanding certain aspects of the course, or they find it difficult to write in the ways specified by the field, and you know it is helpful for students to 'talk through' the issues then you can plan to address these in an audioconference.

Not only do you need to have a good reason for having an audioconference, students need to recognise the importance of it. Students (especially the experienced ones) are very astute about the potential gain for the time and effort involved. Remember, some of them will need to make special arrangements such as the care of their children or to take the call in another location. The focus of the audioconference needs to be something which they recognise instantly as worthwhile. One way of assuring this is to focus on known points of need such as the assessment. You need to determine the specific purposes of each audioconference. These should have as a focus the learning needs of the student.

During the study period there will be optimum times to address the particular needs you have identified. It is essential that you time the audioconferences so that they provide maximum benefit to students. For example, we know that the time just before assignments are due is critical in the life of students, particularly those studying at a distance. Providing some peer contact and lecturer support at these times is generally very beneficial and welcomed by students. However, if it is too early students won't have done enough work to capitalise on the opportunity; if it is too late they won't have time to integrate the ideas from the audioconference into the assessment. Ideally, if a piece of assessment is due on a Monday, audioconferences could be run the previous week, giving students the weekend to make any final adjustments.

You need to determine the optimum time to offer audioconferences to achieve the purposes you have identified.

Finally, because not all students will be able to attend, there are equity issues surrounding the offering of audioconferences. The core content of the course needs to be provided by the learning package and audioconferencing should be seen as supporting this primary delivery form. Where students in the audioconference raise issues which may be of more general concern, you may find it necessary to write to all students outlining the issues raised and providing the relevant information. You need to determine how you will cater for the students who do not take part to ensure equity.

Indicators of good practice

Fundamental to good practice in audioconferencing are the teaching and learning issues discussed above. Once the appropriateness of the technology for particular educational purposes is established, there is a firm base from which to proceed in developing the techniques for using the technology. With experience, the technology becomes transparent and the participants are able to focus on the substantive content issues.

As with all teaching/learning situations there is an implied theoretical position. The position taken here is one of learner centredness—that is, audioconferences are opportunities for students to learn rather than opportunities for lecturers to teach. Of course the two are not mutually exclusive activities(!) but it is a matter of emphasis which will be reflected in the way you structure the time together. In taking this view, audioconferencing will be focused on dealing with the particularised responses of students (rather than a 'lecture' type situation), and the group context of the session will be seen as an important aspect of the learning experience (rather than a way of efficiently dealing with a number of students who have similar 'problems'). With these perspectives in mind the following indicators of good practice have been identified.

It is more likely that they will talk to each other about issues during the substantive content parts of the session if they have already established links within the group.

The implication here is that there is an exchange of ideas and information, listening and talking from all participants which results in more democratic kinds of student/lecturer relationships.


Virtual classroom

Virtual Classroom is powered by Adobe Connect, a Web conferencing technology that provides an online environment, accessed from learnonline course sites, in which student and teachers can collaborate in real time. Audio, video, images and a range of interactive tools can be used to replicate a face to face classroom interaction. Interactive tools include:

Virtual Classroom help resource.


Further resources



Supporting students is a fundamental aspect of teaching. It involves responding to individual students in ways which enhance their learning opportunities and preferences. In distance education contexts it is particularly important because students usually lack informal peer group forms of academic support and, therefore, place particular emphasis on the more formal opportunities such as that provided through assignment feedback. Audioconferencing and virtual classrooms have potential to create valuable learning opportunities particularly through the immediacy of the technology in promoting student/student and student/lecturer interaction.

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