In a 2019 research project investigating the study choices of management students, Dr Katrina Radford, Dr Harsha Sarvaiya, Dr CJ Wang and myself (Dr Heather Stewart) interviewed management students to understand study mode choices—online, face-to-face or mixed mode—in the Griffith Business School’s offerings of the Bachelor of Business program (including Open Universities Australia). Despite the recent urgency (due to COVID-19) for online learning and teaching, there was already a significant demand for higher education institutions to employ online strategies. In our research, we found that the perceptions of quality in the learning and student experiences varied based on the previous experience students had in that mode. For example, the students who had never studied online (mostly first year students) had misconceptions about online study which tainted their experiences, whereas those who had studied in both modes contended that their learning and experiences online were comparatively positive to those face-to-face experiences. However, these experiences depended upon the resources available such as reliable online platforms, quality of teaching including a lecturer who is passionate about the topic, and if the study-mode complemented their lifestyle. Those who studied only online were aware of differences including access to on-campus activities, yet due to location or lifestyle choices, online studies gave them an option that they would not have otherwise. Here we discuss our research relative to the massive online shift that has just occurred due to COVID-19.

The demand for online learning has been primarily a business case approach to attract a broader student cohort. Management students make up the largest group of students in Australia (24.5 per cent). The 17 management students interviewed represented a diverse cross section of online and face-to-face students (seven online and ten face-to-face), an even spread across first to final year, and eleven students studying full time, including two international students. After talking to these students who were all studying management courses within the Bachelor Business program, we found that their study mode choices were varied, but often based on assumptions. Whilst students who had studied in different modes demonstrated deeper reasoning for their choices based on their experiential understanding, those who had limited exposure to online study had predispositions to their ability and the resources available. An example of this was a first-year student assuming that lectures were only recorded in face-to-face therefore the only option they would have for contact with the lecturer would be once a week in an online session. In reality, these online sessions are recorded and, in addition to several other touchpoints with the lecturer, the online sessions were interactive and underpinned by pedagogical theory tailored to online teaching. The majority of students who had negative assumptions about online study were first year students. From the student perspective, the quality of their education had implicit value however, students explicitly put value on positive and negative aspects of social interaction (distraction versus interaction), physical (location), and what we termed the ‘what’s in it for me’ (WFM), which was outcome based e.g. career development and job prospects.

Interestingly, with many university courses racing to online modes to account for the social distancing enforcements of COVID-19 and subsequent campus closures, there is considerable interest in how students and faculty are coping. A recent Harvard Business Review article looked at how students were reacting to this rapid shift to online study. Similar to our findings, they found that student perceptions on their outcomes were largely influenced on their past experiences. For example, those students who were hesitant about online had taken courses with no live interaction and pre-loaded online content only. These assumptions and perceptions of students emphasise the need for academics to ensure quality when moving to online in either a planned incremental way or in the current state of urgency. As we found with the first-year students, the understanding of expectations is important and at times, students are hesitant due to poor experiences. Many face-to-face students enjoy the social interaction with their peers and the teaching team. With interactive online platforms such as Teams or Collaborate Ultra there is no reason for students who need the interaction with others to suffer. In fact, an online final year student in our study who lived remotely had formed a study group with other online students in first year. Despite a difference in their majors two of the students remained study buddies albeit 200kms apart.

Now that all students are studying remotely, there remains key elements that students in both our study, and the Harvard Business article talked about, in terms of coping mechanisms. The flexibility of online is an advantage however, the students highlighted the pros and cons of working from home where separation of study, work and family needs to be managed. There is always a need for skilful time management in university studies, yet the current situation means that students have faced a forced shift and change into how they can manage their time best. Online students from both our study and the Harvard Business article noted a need to treat studying as a task or work commitment with time allocated and balanced with other commitments, such as family and staying connected with others. The importance of routines and planning were given as examples in how to make a smooth transition to online study.

There are the predictable aspects of students’ study mode choices and the rapid shift to online study however this does not equate to a diminished student experience. As universities rapidly move to online learning and the fiscal pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic, the students’ experience and outcomes need to be heavily weighted in how we, as educators, support this situation. Sometimes less is more—especially when there are already feelings of being overwhelmed with change, information and the unforeseeable future for both the educators and the students. In tackling and optimising the online study experience, sharing coping mechanisms are more important than ever. After all, we are all in this together.


Dr Heather Stewart, Department of Business Strategy and Innovation.