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Preparing distance education Built Environment students for an academic program
BACKGROUND CQUniversity offers five Built Environment programs across three disciplines in Construction Management, Building Surveying and Building Design. The programs require between four and seven years of study. The programs are offered in distance education, command a high level of commitment and are considered extremely challenging. Attrition rates are high and are amplified by students entering the programs to achieve goals such as gaining a promotion rather than an interest in the program itself. Therefore, there is a definite need to engage and prepare commencing first year students to ensure they have the motivation and skills necessary to continue. PURPOSE To determine 1) if introducing a program specific on-line course equips students with the necessary skills to successfully complete an academic program in the Built Environment exclusively through distance study, and 2) whether the introduction of a scaffolded learning environment creates an online presence that improves student retention and overall student academic outcomes. DESIGN/METHOD Term 1 students were surveyed in week 6 and at completion. The survey gathered information of students’ prior knowledge and skills with relation to academic achievement and skill, industry knowledge and communication ability. As all students were studying by distance, they were also questioned on the usefulness of additional study resources, virtual classrooms and support supplied with the course previously not part of the Built Environment programs. As engagement was considered critical to students not feeling isolated, students were also questioned with regards to promptness of feedback. RESULTS The study found a reduction in students’ apprehension when studying in distance mode, specifically with regards to resources. Students felt more confident in tackling other courses within their programs and feedback was considered beneficial to their studies, especially as the majority was provided within one week. The study further found that online virtual classrooms stimulate student interaction with other students as well as with staff. The shortcomings in the provision of information in a rudimentary course profile with relation to assessment requirements were highlighted. It was found that students focus on assessment requirements rather than assimilating course resource material. Additionally, the use of online forums do not adequately convey important course related information to full-time employed students in a distance program at a regional university. CONCLUSIONS It was concluded that a foundation course with supported frameworks, containing formative assessment, regular and prompt feedback and continuous availability of academic support, encourages commencing students’ engagement in resource material and course content. Although similar studies conducted in engineering, mathematics and the social sciences have delivered similar results, they were not exclusively instigated to arrest attrition in a distance education program. Course scaffolding and support also increased student confidence which in turn benefited academic progression in their program.