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Flexible delivery for changing student demographics: The UTas experience

V. Carrington
M. Robertson
S. Dole
B. Schofield

University of Tasmania
Faced with the current realities of more students, increased pressure for outputs on a diminished resource budget, and a student population demanding flexible modes of delivery the traditional face-to-face teaching of lectures and tutorials have taken on new meaning. This paper reports on responses to these issues with pre-service Bachelor of Education students at the University of Tasmania. The student demographics of the population indicate that almost half are in part-time, or full-time work other than their study program, with a similar ratio of mature age to students direct from school (Abbott-Chapman, 1998). To accommodate these changes academic staff in three core curriculum units, Language and Literacy, Mathematics and Studies of Society and Environment (SOSE), have worked collaboratively to initiate changes in their teaching contexts that reveal the shifting cultural needs of students, and the institution. A shift to on-line teaching and learning has been a deliberate part of the conceptual and technological development of teaching (Caverly & McDonald 1998; Charp 1997). Feedback in the form of questionnaire surveys indicates that the students want and need alternate modes of delivery. They also want the traditional lectures and tutorials to be maintained. A need for 'human' contact for motivation was cited as one of the many reasons for maintaining the traditional formats. Interestingly, one third of students indicated they would like both the fixed class time and the on-line versions. The message seems to be one of viewing the on-line dimension as a back-up rather than the sole source of course delivery. The data provides a benchmark of thinking in 2000, which will become part of an ongoing enquiry to monitor the change process in future years. They also raise puzzles regarding pedagogical issues for learning.


Research tells us quite clearly that student demographic patterns are changing in response to rapidly shifting economic and sociocultural conditions. Here at the University of Tasmania, as elsewhere, this shift has seen increasing numbers of mature age students. This change has impacted particularly on enrolments in the School of Education. Additionally there is significant pressure on full-time students of all ages and across all faculties to manage substantial employment commitments in order to fund tertiary study (Abbott-Chapman, 1998). As a result students struggle against both time and locational constraints on their attendance and participation within traditional university frameworks. From the perspective of tertiary teachers, there is increasing pressure from larger class sizes and reducing resource pools. Seeking to investigate these issues, the research team has sought to provide alternatives to traditional modes of delivery that are tailored to the needs of our student population but which also maintain best practice standards of care and responsibility within the student-lecturer relationship. This paper reports on the issues that have arisen in the conceptual and technological development of our project. First, we describe the background context and some findings from earlier attempts to introduce on-line learning. These form an important part of project development as they provide formative feedback in the action learning approach that underpins our approach. Second, we refer to teaching output in semester 1, 2000 and the student evaluation of these changes. Third, we describe examples of assessment tasks involving the Internet. Finally, we offer some reflective comment on the information collected and the specific messages for University teaching in general and pre-service teacher education programs in particular. Hence, what we describe in this paper is work in progress along a continuum of cultural change in teaching and learning approaches for academic staff and students.

Background Context

Our overlapping responsibilities for three core units in the year two program of the Bachelor of Education degree at the University of Tasmania provided the context for the action research activity described in this paper. We shared an interest in achieving efficient, high quality teaching and learning outcomes that made effective use of the new technologies and provided flexibility in the delivery for learners. A University Teaching Development Grant (2000) related to flexible teaching delivery provided the funds to develop our interests. At the outset we were conscious of the need to involve students in all steps of the change process envisaged. Their feedback was, and continues to be, of paramount importance to the evaluation of the strategies and developments introduced to the teaching and learning process. The core units are Language and Literacy, Mathematics and SOSE. Reflecting the contextually varied needs of each unit and our particular interests we have monitored results on the effectiveness of a range of strategies. For coherence in this paper we have focussed on the on-line components of the project.


We meet the same cohort of approximately 200 students respectively in the core curriculum units of Language and Literacy, Mathematics and Studies of Society and Environment. Although the group demographics differ slightly the variation in age within the groups is striking. The numbers under 20 years of age are in the 40-45 percent range, between 20-30 years of age are in the 30-38 percent range and those over 25 years of age represent 25-28 percent of the total enrolments. As well, nearly 40 percent have permanent residences outside the daily travel limits from the campus and the gender imbalance is quite marked with approximately 85 percent females in each unit. Taken together these variables are important to our monitoring process.

Part 1. The 1999 beginning

In 1999 faced with the realities described some individual changes were introduced. These provide useful background information for planning in 2000.

1. Email tutorial tasks in Language/Literacy Units

The purpose of these tasks, based within the core language/literacy units of the Bachelor of Education programme, was to: Unexpectedly, what was viewed by the lecturer as a simple and straight-forward email response task soon became the source of great angst. This was not linked to the nature of the response called for by the task itself but rather by the requirement that the piece of work be emailed to the lecturer. The development by IT staff of an automated response allowed students to have the security of a submission date and time. Initially, this was not set up and students reported feeling insecure about whether or not their assignment had successfully reached the lecturer. The result of this was anxiety and repeated emailing of the same text. Some students emailed their assignment up to four separate times and then rang/visited the lecturer to find out if it had arrived. Given the small percentage of overall marks allocated to this one particular task (5 percent) relative to the levels of anxiety observed, it seemed that the act of faith in the technology implicit in sending a piece of assessable work into the ether was very tenuous.

Course evaluations indicate their appreciation of the flexibility of choosing when/where to complete work within the larger time frame, however, this was, for many, overshadowed by the initial anxiety caused when having to trust an email programme to deliver as assessable item. This feedback was important for reviewing the process and setting in place remedial procedures in 2000. Furthermore, the on-line task signalled to students an intention to make wider use of the Internet in teaching. In the language and literacy unit these changes will be introduced in Semester 2, 2000.

2. Web based program information for SOSE

The Web was used as an organiser for classes in 1999. Lecture themes and tutorial times and content were available along with relevant notices. Some of the lectures were linked to the main Web site but this was 'patchy'.

Student feedback showed support for the organisational chart provided on the Web and also an appreciation of the many visual-pictorial images that form part of the SOSE content. This seemed to provide added interest to the lecture and make more accessible globally based information.

3. Server files

In all units scanned reference material and lecture notes were (and still are) 'posted' on the faculty server. This practice has a longer history and is a recognised part of the course delivery. Although not evaluated at the time our hunch was that these materials were the principal reference source for students in all three curriculum areas.

Unlike the Web based materials there were few problems with access and there was ease of printing copies of selected items.

The Year 2000

With the experience of 1999 behind us we have approached 2000 with more ambition and the funds from our Teaching Development Grant to employ technical support for the on-line developments. In this section we describe progress to date in the Mathematics and SOSE units. The Language and Literacy unit meets in Semester 2 and will be added to the final report. Hence, while this latter experience is missing from this paper it is important to note that we three lecturers involved meet regularly as a team to support developments in all three areas. Below are described the outcomes of Web based lectures in SOSE and Mathematics units as well as two examples of assessment activities in the respective disciplines - all with the same cohort of students.

Web based versus face-to-face lectures in SOSE and Mathematics units

SOSE: Following the introductory attempts at Web-based delivery in 1999 students enrolled in 2000 were offered the alternative of accessing teaching materials off the Web with supplementary readings and communications on the Faculty fileserver. Because face-to-face lectures and tutorials remain the mainstay of the teaching and students are encouraged to attend both. The Web materials are taken directly from these sources. Powerpoint presentations are linked in with a movie of the lecture so that those students accessing these materials remotely (from the Intranet) receive the identical content. Tutorial materials are linked to the site and along with the powerpoint presentations are also copied to the fileserver. This step was a response to students' need to print copies which they found difficult from the Web.

Maths: The mathematics unit for 2000 was a combination of lecture and practical hands-on tutorial activities related to lecture content, presented in traditional mode. Of the 13 lectures, 4 were video-taped by technical support staff and made available on the Web. Several reasons contributed to this choice of mode for lecture 'capture', primarily relating to the lecturer and her (1) pedagogical beliefs, (2) technological expertise, and (3) accrued preparation time credits. Lecture delivery in this unit was predominantly a combination of slides including video clips, intermingled with demonstrations with audience participation. Capturing the lecture on video was regarded by the lecturer as the most viable option for reasons listed above, and also the best means to encapsulate the essence of the lecture. Supporting documentation was available to students and this included lecture notes and summary, and tutorial notes and activity descriptions. These were available to students from several sources: the server, the Student Association, and the Web.

In both units capturing the lectures was technical-support intensive. It required video-taping the lecture in its entirety, compressing, editing, and then uploading to the Web. In SOSE this resulted in a movie that could be viewed simultaneously with the powerpoint slides. In Maths the result was a talking head on screen with no visual images of slides and limited views of audience participation in particular activities due to camera positioning.

Evaluation: To gain feedback on the preferred modes of delivery a survey questionnaire was developed asking students to identify the sources used, their preferences and comment where appropriate. Using SPSS data files the responses have been analysed. Perhaps, not surprisingly the data for both programs show an overwhelming preference for face-to-face teaching (90+ percent) and use of the Web and/or fileserver materials for back-up. At the same time in terms of age statistically significant differences were recorded for preference for lecture notes on the server for the SOSE unit (F= 4.198, p<.002) and in the Mathematics unit for Web access to lectures (F=3.717, p<.003) and server access to tutorials (F=2.536, p<.032). There were no statistically significant gender differences for SOSE. Statistically significant gender differences occurred for the Mathematics unit in terms of preferences for face-to-face lectures (F=3.295, p<.004), Web based lectures (F=5.043, p<.008) and Web based tutorial notes (F=3.844, p<.024). Exploring these differences and seeking a better understanding of the issues for different ages and gender will form part of our ongoing enquiry in the next teaching phase.

In all, and despite some differences in flexibility of material presentation, survey results for SOSE and Mathematics were surprisingly similar. In Table 1 students percentage rating of usefulness of various materials in these 2 units are presented.

Table 1: Student rating of usefulness of materials presented by percentage

Face-to-face lectures9596
Practical tutorial activities8697
Lecture notes7493
Tutorial notes5787
Web movies2817

Over 70 percent of students in both SOSE and Mathematics rated the face-to-face lectures, practical hands-on tutorials and lecture notes as useful to very useful. Interestingly, 17 percent of students in the mathematics group found the Web movies useful despite the lecturer's disappointment in their final quality.

Table 2 provides a summary of the means by which students retrieved the SOSE and mathematics lecture and tutorial notes.

Table 2: Means by which students accessed lecture and tutorial notes for units by percentage

Student Association721 t

Table 2 indicates that most students retrieved materials from the Server, but for SOSE, over 50 percent retrieved material from the Web. The differences in students accessing of the Web in both units can be interpreted in light of the fact that the SOSE Website which began in 1999 was further developed than the Mathematics site.

From a list of a variety of modes for presentation of unit materials, including face-to-face lectures and tutorials, lectures on the Web, tutorial activities and notes on Web, over 90 percent of students in both groups responded that face-to-face lectures and tutorials were their preferred means of accessing unit materials. Approximately 80 percent of students also responding that they would prefer to access lecture and tutorial notes from the Server, and approximately 65 percent of students responding that they would like to have access to these materials on the Web. When asked if they would attend the live weekly lectures if they were also available on the Web, approximately 70 percent of students responded in the affirmative, with 12 percent of students responding that they probably would not for both units. On the questionnaire, students were asked to give their opinion as to their preferred mode of material access for lectures and tutorials if given the choice of face-to-face lectures, watching lectures on the Web, or a combination. These data are presented in Table 3.

Table 3: Students' preference for delivery of unit materials by percentage

LecturesAttend all lectures in live format6070
Watch all lectures on the Web30.7
Combination of above two modes3628
TutorialsParticipate in all tutorials5858 t
Complete activities in own time74
Combination of above two modes3538 p

Open-ended comments regarding each question were categorised for meaning into five major themes each with sub-themes. These were: positive face-to-face mode; negative face-to-face mode; positive Web mode, negative Web mode and teaching and learning. Covering scattered responses other categories were: travel; time; flexibility; timetabling; self-discipline; technical, and staff access. From an overview perspective one of the consistencies in these comments was a preference for 'live' interaction and the disciplining effect that time-specific content has on self-regulatory behaviour.

The data suggest that students like the option of alternative modes of delivery but want this in addition to the traditional teaching mode. However, some move is noted in the use of the Web based mode. We take this as a sign that the process will take time and that students and lecturers will make the shift in their behaviours when they are ready. These survey data provide us with a benchmark to monitor our progress with these students in the final two years of their course as well as the changes in the preferences of successive groups.

E-mail and Web-site Assessment in SOSE

Part of the cultural shift to Internet based activity is recognised as user confidence. Conscious of the diverse backgrounds of students and their potentially diverse experience and competence with the Internet, we see part of our role as being to encourage these relevant life skills. To signal the importance of the Internet for their futures as students and teachers an email assignment was set within the SOSE and Language/Literacy units, and a Web-site search in the mathematics unit. These required the normal research activity and all the conventions associated with traditional academic writing.

(a) E-mail Assessment in SOSE - a management learning exercise

A further aim of the learning related to this assignment and the overall management of the unit was for students to recognise that e-mail is the best means of fairly immediate access to lecturers and part-time casual tutoring staff. To encourage this behaviour a dedicated e-mail address was established and students receive automatic acknowledgement of their message. This action was in response to the 1999 experience in the Language and Literacy unit described earlier. The result was an almost problem free period. The email acknowledgment seemed to minimise the anxiety regarding receipt of assignment.

Assessment of this assignment has been via a direct reply with annotated comments in the message along with a customised version of a template including the assessment criteria and award. From a management perspective the assignment has been a refreshingly 'clean' process devoid of mountains of paper, with a simple checking procedure for 'lost' or 'missing' work and filing of marks in an open spreadsheet window on the desktop. The time efficiencies for staff are considerable and the verdict from students is extremely positive.

Evaluation: Although no hard data exist currently, the staff perception is that this has encouraged students to seek answers to problems via e-mail where the reply can be quite relaxed and friendly as well as informative. All are winners and especially the lecturer who now can expect a considered piece of writing rather than the lengthy face-to-face conversation that generally comes with knocks on the door.

Accessing Web-sites for mathematics assignments

For this assignment students were provided with an educational Web-site that contained full text versions of articles pertaining to mathematics education. The task required students to browse the articles, select one that interested them and provide an academic critique in terms of its value in teaching and learning mathematics.

The aim of the task was not only to broaden students' knowledge of issues in mathematics education but also to direct students to access Web-based material for research purposes. All students managed to complete the assignment, therefore all students successfully accessed the Web. Students were required to write a brief reflection upon this activity and this served as a means through which to evaluate attainment of the aim of the task.

When analysed for meaning the responses were grouped into four major categories. Some illustrative comments follow.

Cultural sea-change

From a pedagogical perspective our data are noteworthy for several important reasons. First, in all the examplars cited students reported initial anxiety being replaced by a sense of achievement and wonderment at their success with the new technologies. For some, these inevitable new windows of learning were a discovery. Without the impetus of the technology based teaching and assessment strategies used in our programs such skills are likely to have been further delayed thus denying access for the students from these powerful and flexible forms of knowing. Second, and related to the increased usage of computer equipment we were conscious of the access and equity issues, although this concern seems tempered somewhat by the knowledge that there are computer labs in the faculty and these are available twenty-four hours daily. Third, the data revealed some gender and age-related differences that need further exploration. We predict that these findings are likely to be complex with issues related to outside employment, other responsibilities, type and kinds of information technology competency, attitudes towards change and many other variables that could cross age and gender boundaries.

The process of cultural change to embrace the new information literacies with our teaching and in the study habits of our students is in its beginnings. From our various forms of feedback data we know that students appreciate our efforts to make materials accessible in a variety of ways. We also know that our students fall into a variety of categories as users of technology and Web based learning. And, we know that the efforts to achieve these multi-media formats are costly of time, infrastructure and IT support. Against these reservations there is the feeling that 'it will get better' as we the lecturing staff build our confidence, and students are 'trained' into these more flexible ways of operating. To this end the data presented in this paper provide us with an important benchmark against which future and ongoing changes can be measured.

In the bigger picture of a globalised society the information age is seemingly non-negotiable. For increasing numbers of educators in the postindustrial world there is an urgent need to come to terms with the scope and potential of new information technologies. The educational clientele to whom we cater is also rapidly changing, as evidenced by the Joan Abbott Chapman report and others like it. Identity, location, space and time are all concepts that have been increasingly destabilized in recent times. Our role as educators is to address the implications of these changes for our own practice and for the new generation of teachers currently in training with us.

A cultural seachange is required on the part of students, academic staff and funding bodies within the university. The available research clearly suggests that the less experienced and the wary tend to use on-line texts in the same ways that they use traditional print. That is, they print it out (Hart 1995; Jones 1996). This defeats the purpose of having information online. However, this is also linked directly to what Fraser (2000) refers to as the 'shovelware' phenomenon. Existing pedagogies and resources are simply shifted to the new medium, unchanged. It is only access to them that alters. While this is in line with requirements for increasingly flexible delivery of coursework materials, these resources have been originally designed around the human-to-human interface. They simply do not work very well on-line. They are designed to work when people interact face to face in lectures and tutorials. This has implications for us as educators. If we are to deliver quality instruction via the Web, we need to rethink both pedagogy and resources. This requires a cultural shift, and not a small one (although changes such as these can only occur in tiny stages). The same applies to the student population. As younger students are increasingly brought up in a Web-based environment they will bring with them the requisite skills and expectations. However, we must also continue to provide base level introductory skills courses for students and academic staff. Again, the emphasis must be on continued support at institutional level.

The experiences of these researchers suggests that cultural shift will take time and it will take patience and it will take ongoing commitment. The achievement of small successes along the way, for both academic staff and students, is of vital importance.


Abbott-Chapman, J. (1998). Support for Students' Studies. Hobart, University of Tasmania.

Caverly, D. & McDonald, L. (1998). Techtalk: Distance developmental education. Journal of Developmental Education, 21(3), 36-39.

Charp, S. (1997). Innovative Learning Environments Go Global. T H E Journal, 25(3, October), 4-5.

Fraser, A. B. (1999). Colleges should tap the pedagogical potential of the world-wide Web. Chronicle of Higher Education, 48, 8 August, p. B8. [viewed 12 Jul 2000, verified 24 Sep 2001]

Hart, G. (1995). Learning styles and hypertext: Exploring user attitudes. Proceedings ASCILITE'95, pp. 238-245. [verified 24 Sep 2001]

Jones, D. (1996). Solving some problems of university education: A case study. Proceedings AusWeb96, pp. 243-252. [verified 24 Sep 2001]

Contact details Dr Victoria Carrington, University of Tasmania
Phone (03) 63243258 Fax (03) 63243048 Email

Please cite as: Carrington, V., Robertson, M., Dole, S. and Schofield, B. (2001). Flexible delivery for changing student demographics: The UTas experience. In L. Richardson and J. Lidstone (Eds), Flexible Learning for a Flexible Society, 115-123. Proceedings of ASET-HERDSA 2000 Conference, Toowoomba, Qld, 2-5 July 2000. ASET and HERDSA.

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