Can we improve online completion rates in VET

So as most of you are probably aware we are seeing evidence of very low completion rates for online learning programs in the VET sector in this country.  Indications early in 2015 were that those students studying in online only mode had completion rates of around 7%, as opposed to around 40% for those students which undertook classroom or workplace based training where there was shall we say face to face components of the training.  It is now being suggested that in reality online completion rates may be as low as 2% for a significantly worrying number of providers, with even strong providers having great difficulty reaching a completion rate of even 20% which is half that of general completion rates.

This situation raises a couple of questions for me;

  • Is online learning suitable for VET programs,
  • How do VET completion rates stack up against other online completion rates,
  • Why are rates so low, and
  • What can we do, if anything, to raise completion rates to a more acceptable level.

Before I go on I am going to put my heart on my sleeve and say that I am not a great believer in, in particular, online only programs in the VET sector.  Does this mean that I think that online learning has no place in VET, no.  What it means is that this is a competency based system, we all know that, and I have concerns that both for students and for assessors in online only courses proving that competency in a way that meets the required standards, while possible is I think far more difficult than in other environments.  I think that online learning in the context of VET qualifications may be useful when it comes to developing and assessing the knowledge components of a unit of competency, but where I have issues with it is in the development and assessment of the actual performance components, where more and more even in areas like community services we are seeing assessment criteria which say thing like ‘has provided information to 3 different clients accessing the service.’ How does one evidence and assess that through an online learning environment in any way which might simulate a real work environment.

Additionally (and it is important to note that this is anecdotal) it seems that at least a significant proportion of VET students who enter into online only training do not actually have a good idea of what they are signing up to do, the amount of work they will be required to undertake and the difficulty associated with working independently of other students and the other advantages of classroom based learning environments.  I have seen first hand a large number of students start as online students only to come back in a very short time frame and indicated that while they are happy to do the assessments online, they want to come to class, as they are having difficulties engaging with the materials and the assessments without that environment.

The next question is then how do the completion rates for VET courses compare with other online only programs.  If we look at MOOC’s in a higher education setting for example we see that completion rates seem to sit at around 7% which is it comparable, however we need to be careful with this figure because there is something interesting going on here.  The completion rate of 7% relates to MOOC’s where there course is provided at no charge to the participant and the participant receives only a statement of attendance.  There appears to be mounting evidence that when even a small fee is charged by the provider, ostensibly to provide the participant with a certified certificate of successful completion, that there is a significant increase in completion rates for those who choose to pay the fee.  Now given that VET students are paying quite a large fee for the privilege of completing their Nationally Accredited Training online one would think that therefore, if we look at the MOOC experience that there would be a fairly solid completion rate, but this seems not to be the case.

This then leads on to the next question, why are completion rates so low in the VET sector.  Firstly I think that if we relate this to the payment issue, unlike those paying to undertake MOOC’s, what would seem to be a significant number of VET participants have been sold the course on the ‘Study now, Pay later’ premise so that they do not feel like they have any financial commitment in the programs so if they don’t finish it, it doesn’t matter.  This is of course not the case with VET FEE HELP debts incurring on census date rather than on completion, so even if they do not complete the course  they still incur the debt.  While I think the issue of financial commitment to undertaking the course certainly has an impact on students mindsets in relation to completion, it is certainly not the only issue.  In addition there are certainly a range of other factors including;

  1. Lack of real learning support,
  2. Badly designed content (Often the content is very similar to in class content just provided in an online environment),
  3. Low digital literacy levels in students,
  4. Inappropriate courses for students (Students being enrolled in a Diploma when they would be better served by a Certificate level program),
  5. Complexity of both the learning material and the assessment tasks, and
  6. The need for significant time to be spent engaged with the online environment.

There are probably more, but these are I think some of the significant issues.

So what, if anything, can be done to improve the completion rates for online learning. One thing that may have an impact is better designed, shorter content.  It is well documented that the best results from online learning come when students engage for short periods of time with material that is interesting and engaging.  Reading pages and pages of text, watching a series of videos or listening to long audio files, in order to be able to complete assessment activities is never, (and this has been shown to be the case) going to be successful.  The best E-learning around is short, targeted and subject specific.  The problem that exists then would seem to be how to we create best practice e-learning in the VET sector, where there is often a significant amount of information a students needs to engage with and understand in order to be able to complete assessment tasks.

Low digital literacy and inappropriate course choice go somewhat hand in hand and relate to large extent to the way in which students are recruited and inducted into their course of study.  to complete a course of study completely online requires a set of skills that are lacking in a lot of students.  I am not just talking about computer skills here either, there are a range of study skills which people who have studied previously pick up and are able to utilise when faced with undertaking independent online learning.  These are skills that are often lacking in a lot of potential students and in particular those who have either never studied or not studied for a substantial period of time.

This is of course where good support comes in.  Things like synchronous facilitator led online workshops, where online work is treated as a group activity in a similar way to normal face to face learning have a clear effect on student engagement, as do things like regular contact between students and trainers, which should be more than just a weekly phone call asking them how they are going, a simple easy way for students to chat with each other, exchange ideas and begin to feel like a cohort rather than individuals studying alone.  There are lots and lots of great things that can be easily done to improve the support around online learning, but it seems that at least some providers just are not doing this, they are just signing people up, giving them their log in details and ringing them every now and again to ask them how they are going, which is in my opinion not real support anyway.

As I said earlier, while I see place for online learning in the VET sector, online only programs are at least in my opinion not the way to go for the vast majority of students, at least not unless providers are willing to put in a lot more time and effort than they currently are.


anyway that’s just my opinion.

Educating VET consumers.

Myself and others, including Minister Birmingham in his recent speech at the VELG conference in Adelaide, spoke about the lack of consumer education in the VET marketplace, particularly in comparison to the high level of education around the University Sector.  There is a wealth of information available to potential university students, including ranking tables, information about how funding works, transitions from high school and a range of other things which informs consumers about their choices when they are shopping for a degree.  This information has been available for well, as long as I can remember and has molded degree consumers into a generally well-informed group.

If we compare this to the level of education that potential students have around the VET sector, well we only need to look at any number of recent stories in the mainstream media to see that the VET sector has a fairly poorly educated consumer group and for the most part it is our own fault as a sector.  Funding options vary from state to state, as do eligibility requirements and co-contribution levels and the like.  In fact just this one part of the sector is so complicated that many VET professionals struggle to understand and apply all of the rules.  Add to this questions about what qualification is better to do, which in some areas is quite obvious, namely if you want to be a tradesman there is a definite path, but in others is well muddy to say the least.  Take for example community services training where consumers can struggle greatly with trying to determine what is the best option for them.

The data that we have and supply to consumers is also incredibly limited in terms of assisting them in choosing which provider to utilise in order to get the best outcomes.  Take for example someone wanting to do the new Diploma of Leadership and Management there are currently 405 providers of this qualification across Australia.  Now how without assistance is a consumer to have any real hope of determining who the best provider for what they want to achieve is.  This becomes even more difficult when we add brokers into the system, who might appear and may even present themselves as impartial advisors, but who in reality are simply commission based sales people, only recommending those organisations with whom they have a relationship.  A consumer has no way of making rational decisions about who is a high quality provider and who may not be.  The data which is available on places like myskills is of little or no real assistance at all, particularly now as there is no provider data available at all as we all wait for the TVA data to be released.  As I have said previously, even I struggle when someone asks me to recommend a provider in an area where I don’t personally know someone who delivers the training that the person wants and that is troubling.

This should not be the case and it is in fact ridiculous that consumers do not have access to the information that they need in order to make sure they are able to informed choices about their vocational training.  With such a lack of information, and such an uneducated consumer group, it is no wonder that less than honest providers and brokers are able to so easily entice people into programs that are extremely costly, have little or no employment outcomes and the students have little or no chance of actually completing.

Perhaps we do need some kind of easily distilled ranking system based on things like, length of time the provider has been operating, employment outcomes for students, completion rates, deviation from average qualification pricing levels and general student satisfaction.

Anyway that’s just my opinion.

Why income contingent loans are vital to Vocational Education and Training

There has been a lot of bad press over the pass few months about the problems with the VET FEE-Help system.  I myself have criticized the activities of some brokers and RTOs who have been at least in the opinion of a vast number of people using the system inappropriately and unethically.  However amidst all of these criticisms it is important to remember something.  The VET FEE Help system like FEE Help for Higher Education is a vital and necessary part of the how vocational education and training in this country should be delivered and paid for.

Now I know that there are going to be people out there who yell instantly that education is a right and that education should be free to whoever wants to undertake it, and to a large extent they are right, well at the very least about the first part of the proposition.  Everyone should have equality of access to education, they should be able equitably to access whatever training and education that they desire as part of their life goals.  The problem is of course that someone somewhere has to pay, be that the individual, organisations or the government, at some point there needs to be an accounting and the costs associated with the delivery of education need to be met.  Now it is also important to note that it doesn’t matter how this education is delivered, whether it be through publicly owned entities like TAFE or private, enterprise and not for profit providers, there is still a cost which needs to be met.  Now given that there is always going to be a cost somewhere in the system and given the amount of people in this country who wish to undertake post-secondary education, it seems at least to my mind difficult to suggest that on an ongoing basis we as a country could afford to fully fund the educational whims of everyone.  This in turn then of course means that we need to come up with a range of systems around how it is possible for us as a country to allow for equitable access to education for all those who wish to undertake it by simply ‘paying’ for such education, while at the same time, not damaging ourselves economically, severely limiting the choice students have to courses or providers or radically altering the quality of the outcomes produced by the system.

This is of course where income contingent loans have a vital part to play, in conjunction with direct government funding for courses and programs which are seen to be priorities.  Income contingent loans have been a vital part of the Higher Education landscape in Australia now for a significant period of time and have allow a wide range of people to enter and complete University programs to the highest levels, who would never have been able to undertake them had these loans not been available.  I myself would not have the degrees and the knowledge that I possess, nor it could be said the enjoyment of the life I now have, had it not been for my ability to study, a subject that interested, me through the assistance of an income contingent loan.  My degrees sit in an area  which would not ever make it onto a government priority funding list.  I studied Philosophy and Ethics and in particular professional ethics, research ethics and Bioethics, not subjects known for their ability to attract government funding for those people who wish to study them.  However because of income contingent loans I was able to study an area which I found stimulating and interesting and which has even if indirectly provided me with most of the roles I have had over my working career since I completed my studies.

Without income contingent loans, there would be a massive segment of Australian Society who would miss out on being able to access education and training.  It is simply the case that for most Australian’s coming up with a fee of even $5,000 to undertake a course of study would not be something they could do easily, or without going into debt in some other way, such as credit cards or the like.  Systems like VET FEE-Help allow equitable access to education.  They provide a way of reducing the stratification which occurs within society when education is only available to those with enough resources to be able to pay for them directly from their own pockets.

So the question then becomes does the value provided by programs like VET FEE-Help in terms of equity of access to education out-way the problems associated with them?  For me the answer is clearly yes, however this does not mean to say that we do not need to work as hard as we can to ensure that students, employers and the nations are getting the best possible outcomes from the system and that those organisation who seek simply to profit through inappropriate,  unethical and in some cases illegal behavior should not be stamped out by the full weight of the law.


Anyway that’s just my opinion.

Should the TAE qualification have prerequisites?

So as some of you know there has been a lengthy discussion around the new yet to be endorsed Certificate IV in Training and Assessment and one of the things that has come into my mind is around the reasons why people enroll into the qualification and what it is that they want to train after they gain the qualification.

I have over the years encountered a wide variety of people who when I have asked them the question ‘why do you want to do the TAE?’ have answered ‘I want to be a trainer’ which is I guess fair enough until they are asked what it is that they want to train or what skills they have that they want to pass on and they are unable to actually articulate what is it they want to train, they just want to be a trainer.  I have on some occasions where this has happened actually suggested to the person that perhaps we weren’t the best place for them and that another provider might be a better fit for them as we were really focused on what it was they wanted to train people in and working with that.

This all got me thinking, should there be prerequisites for entry into the Certificate IV in Training and Assessment and if we think so, what should they be?  So here is a swing at what it might look like;

  1. Hold a VET sector qualification or
  2. Hold a University level qualification and have substantial workplace experience (at least 3 years) in a relevant VET area, or
  3. Have substantial workplace experience (5+ years) in a relevant VET area.

Why these prerequisites?  Well that is simple under the standards you need to be able to show (small c remember) vocational competencies at, at least the level you want to train and without holding the qualification or having workplace experience that is going to be difficult in my opinion at least.

Now I can hear some people saying, but what about those people who don’t want to train VET sector qualification?  My first question  is well why are these people even considering the TAE qualification? I know the answer mostly has to do with the fact that most employers now set the qualification as a requirement for L&D people even if they aren’t delivering accredited training, but why that is, is a whole other story.  So let’s just put that aside for a moment.  The TAE in its current form is designed for people who are going to be delivering VET qualifications, all of the units on assessment and validation should at the very least be a giveaway.   If you are not going to be assessing then perhaps a course more focused on delivery and design (there are plenty out there) or one of the skills sets might be a much better option.  My second question is then the same as my earlier when, what are they going to train and again if they can’t articulate what it is they want to train, or don’t have substantial experience in an area, then I find it really difficult to see why you want to undertake the program.

Anyway that’s my opinion.

University vs VET Completions and VET FEE Help!

So I have been looking at a lot of the Government data on completion rates at Australian Universities, on the back of the release of the report on the likelihood of people finishing a government funded VET course.   For me looking at the two sets of data (even though to be fair there is certainly some apple v oranges issues) makes for some interesting reading.  Now it is often suggested that University completion rates are quite high (80-90%) but what is interesting is that that is based on a time frame of 9 years, or in some other cases it is the percentage of students who re-enrolled in the next year which is more of a retention rate than a completion rate, however when we look at the 4 year average it comes down to about 45%.

Now if we compare the completion rates of funded VET courses which sit at between 35 and 45%, with the four-year degree completion rates we see that while overall the VET sector is a little lower, when dealing with the under 25 years of age cohort we see quite similar completion rates.  It is only as the years roll on that we see the degree completion rates outstrip the VET completion rates.  Of course as we don’t have the Total VET activity data yet to look at are just looking at the government-funded portion this picture may change somewhat with different data.

The other issue of course is that VET programs don’t go for 4-9 years. They have a length of between 6-24 months in general (apart from apprenticeships), so it seems like it might be really trying to compare apples and oranges.  However what if we look at first year attrition rates at university and perhaps compare them to something like subject load pass rate, with both of these rates sitting at around 80+% they seem to be fairly similar.

So what is it that I am trying to say here.  Well I guess the first thing is that we need to be careful particularly when we are thinking about the implications of VET FEE-Help in trying to compare University and Vocational studies, which seems then to give us this issue if needing to find out what we think an acceptable completion rate for vocational courses, and in particular those with income contingent loans attached to them is.  The second thing is what is a good completion rate and how do we judge it.  As I said elsewhere I recently looked at our completion figures over the last 7 years and found that over that time we averaged a qualification completion rate of around 75%, this grew to about 93% when unit completer’s (those students who never intended to complete a full qualification, they simply wanted a skill set or single unit) were factored in.  Now I am the first to admit that figure is comparatively quite high and has quite a lot to do with a range of factors including student recruitment, enrollment numbers and cohort makeup, our scope and the structure of both our training and our organisation.  At the other end of the scale I am aware though of some VET FEE-Help only providers (in particular those who deliver a substantial proportions of online only training) who have completion rates which are close to or below 10%.  I also know of a  number of enterprise RTO’s who have completion rates of 98-99% primarily due to the way in which they handle enrollments.

What should we be aiming for then and what should be happy with in terms of completion rates for VFH courses.  Would we be happy if the completion rate sat at around 35% but we aimed to try to raise that to say 45%, which puts our target at around where funded training and 4 year completion rates for the University are?  Are we aiming to low there?  Or is it better to aim at that level rather than to aim at say 70% in the full knowledge that most of the providers in the market place whether public or private are simply never going to meet that mark.

How to choose a good RTO/Training provider

I wrote a piece about this subject a long while ago and the problems associated with people who don’t know a lot about the learning industry trying to find a provider that is going to give them the outcomes they want.  Recently the QLD Minister for Skills and training, talked about people needing to scrutinize providers before they started training, particularly VET-FEE help funded training.  She mentioned things like making sure they were registered, making sure you knew who, that is which company, was actually doing the training, was it RTO or someone else, shopping around to look for value for money and other things like that.  This all got me thinking again about how people can choose a good, high quality provider who is going to be able to meet their needs.  Now some might be quick to suggest that if you want quality you should just go to TAFE, but as we all know the TAFE system is not the answer for everyone and not there are plenty of non-public providers that will give a student, the same if not better outcomes than they would get from a public provider.

So then how do you choose?  As we know you can’t just trust the fact that a provider is approved by a regulator, it seems obvious that this is a necessary but not sufficient condition to ensure that a provider is going to be a quality one.  Price is not an indicator of quality either, there are providers at both ends of the price spectrum who produce quality outcomes for students.  Simply because you are paying more does not mean you are getting better quality, particularly when a significant number of providers are actually using the same or very similar resources for their training and assessment.  What about things like testimonials?  I have always been very wary of these unless I am actually able to talk to the person who has given the testimonial myself and even then they are a bit like references, you are never going to use someone who is going to give you a bad wrap anyway, so you are not actually getting a balanced view.

As a lot of you know I have a background in enterprise level L&D, and I also have a number of community services providers who often ask me to help out with choosing a provider for one of their clients, where the client wants to do something we don’t offer, or the we are not going to be able to meet the clients needs even if we do offer it.  So how do I choose providers from the ocean of choices out there and the numerous phone calls and emails I get each week.  The first thing is that in all honesty I don’t, because if I don’t know you for a start I am just probably not going to use you.  I as I have said before have a list, it’s not written down, its in my head and when someone asks me who I would recommend, I simply pull the name from the list that I think best suits their need.  Now to be fair, that is not going to work for the vast majority of people, I have been in this game for a while now and I know that good from the bad and who is good with certain client groups and in certain market segments and who isn’t, but most people don’t have the time or the need to develop this knowledge.  So what about an education broker, they would be able to help wouldn’t they, they would know the good from the bad.  (Ok that was tongue in cheek and you can keep reading after you have stopped laughing)

But here is a real question, is it really that hard to figure out who the good providers are and what are the key things people should be looking for.  I think the first thing is something that is not even related to the quality of the provider, it is related to why the person wants to study in the first place.  Here is the thing, if you signed up for a course just because you got a phone call or talked to someone in a shopping center and because you really didn’t have anything better to do, then may I suggest you actually spend a little bit more time thinking about what it is you actually want particularly in terms of outcomes.

Speaking of outcomes, that is the first thing I would want to know.  Not this how many people have competed outcome, which is useful in certain circumstances and may tell us something, but for me what is more important, particularly if you are someone looking for employment is just that how many people go on to get jobs as a result of the course and what sort of employment is out there for people with the qualification you are thinking of doing.  What is the point if doing a Diploma of counselling for example, if there is no job outcome at the end, or as I have argued before, if you would have been better doing a Cert III or IV and being funded to complete it.  A good provider will work with you to help you get the qualification you want not just sell you what they have on their scope.

It does also pay to look at the over all completion rates, although as those of us in the industry understand there can, given the length to complete a qualification and other time frames related to  some courses and the kind of business a provider is involved in can have an effect on the level of completions in any given year, so ask something like, what is your average completion rate over the last 5 years.  This will give you a much better picture of how many students actually finish their course than just a yearly snapshot.  But what if they haven’t been around for 5 years you might ask, well then I would want to know why they became an RTO, what bought them to the industry.  I have been amazed over the years the number of times I have asked representatives of providers, senior staff and even CEO’s that question and really not received an answer that filled my with confidence.  You are also not going to fill me with confidence if I look at your website and I see that all you are offering are VET FEE-help courses and nothing else, no certificate III, IV or lower programs, just VET-FEE Help diploma’s and above.

Ask to talk to the person who will be delivering the training if you can, or a previous student, or someone they have worked with so you can have a conversation with them about what the provider is like, and they should be willing to let you do this before you enroll in anything.  And that right there is a big one, if whoever is signing you up is not willing to let you ask questions or provide answers or if they are a broker, are not willing to tell you who the provider is and let you talk to them, until you have signed on the dotted line so to speak, run, and run away fast.

The other thing for me has always been are they trying to sell me what they have to offer or are they actually listening to what I want and trying to solve that for me.  (Quick note here as I said above, if you don’t know what you want and you are signing up because someone approached you about it and offer you an ipad, don’t sign up, go a have a little think about what you actually want first).  So many providers (both public and non-public) just try to sell you what they have and don’t ask what it is you want to do and offer you solutions built around that.

How is the training going to be delivered is also a crucial concern and what kind of support is going to be given.  Now I am a fan of online learning, but here is the thing, we are seeing across the board woeful completion rates for completely online delivered training in some cases in the single digits.  One of the reasons for this is simple, sitting alone at home, trying to do hour after hour of online training, is well boring, difficult and hard to maintain motivation for, even with all of the webinars, phone calls, emails and other kinds of supports, particularly if you know it is going to go on for the next 18 months.  Also given that there are heaps of quality providers out there who offer face to face and blended options, why unless there is a significant impediment to sometimes attending class, choose to go with a completely online solution.  This also brings me to the other thing, I want to be able to go to your office and have a chat with you, I want connection and engagement, I don’t want to be just another phone call to a call center, where they look up a file.  I want to know that the person I am talking to  knows who I am and you should too.  Why choose a provider that is based in Brisbane or Sydney or Melbourne or where ever, when there is probably one almost just around the corner, where you will get the same training and not just be another number.  This of course doesn’t apply if what you want to study is a specialist qualification, but hell if you are looking to do a business qualification there is certainly a provider pretty close to you in most cases.

So how do you choose a good training provider, use common sense, search them out in the media, see if you can talk to a previous student or the trainer.  If it is a broker and not a provider you are talking to then find out who the provider is, say thanks and go away and research both them and the broker and don’t sign up in a shopping center or over the phone, no matter how many ipads you are offered.


Anyway that’s just my opinion.



Naming and Shaming, Risk Assessment and Contract management

So as we have seen throughout the media over the past week a number of RTOs have been allegedly caught with their fingers in the honey pot so to speak, with a number shut down, Victorian training contracts removed from others and yet others (publicly listed) with class action claims launched against them.  While I support all of this and think that it is good to see that those providers who are not playing by the rules, or in some cases it seems even playing the same game as the rest of us are being called to account, as I have said previously

It should never have come to this!

Now I know that there will be people out there (yes Senator Lee Rhiannon I am looking at you and others) who will no doubt claim that this is all because funding was taken away from TAFE and non-public providers were allowed into the sector etc.  However that is simply rubbish!  What caused this was not competition, it was not opening up the market place, it was a complete and utter failure of a number of state and federal governments to actually manage the funding contracts they had with providers properly.  

Others will of course try to blame the regulator ASQA or its Victorian or WA equivalent, but again I am going to call rubbish!  Now it is true that the regulators may have some burden to bear in this, perhaps their risk management or auditing regimes could have been better, but lets not forget something here.  It is not ASQA who chooses who gets to deliver government-funded training, it is the various state governments.  They contract providers to deliver, they pay the money and they are the ones that are responsible for managing the entire process and making sure that this sort of thing doesn’t happen.

Now don’t get me wrong I am not suggesting that the providers themselves are not responsible, should not be called to account and are not the reason this has happened.  If all providers did the right thing then there wouldn’t be this situation either.  That being said, particularly it seems if we look at Victoria, there has been a catastrophic failure on the part of the government departments to properly manage these contracts.  There shouldn’t be discussions about improving outcomes, transparency and accountability now, that should have all been done even before the contracts were ever handed out in the first place.  Did the department in Victoria not have any kind of robust monitoring and contract management processes around this, did they not look at the outcomes reports and various bits of data?

Sure it is good that this is getting cleaned up.  It is good that providers who have had their contracts removed are being punished, but maybe, just maybe the government could also think about naming and shaming the people who were in charge of the management of these contracts as well or at the very least actually making sure they are doing the jobs they are being paid to do.


Anyway that is just my opinion.

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