Bridges to study: how to create a successful online foundation course

Online access courses can enable more students who don’t come to higher education directly from high school to smoothly enter university. Here are tips for designing an effective online university foundation programme


Flinders University
18 Aug 2022
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Personalised learning in higher education: laying the foundations
Image depicting a student sitting on top of a pile of books while working on a computer

Online teaching often meets resistance, particularly when the student cohort is as diverse and unique as those in university bridging courses. We all know that the Covid-19 pandemic utterly disrupted the higher education system, but the forced opportunity it offered was to challenge our own thinking about bridging courses in the online space. This shift has yielded very positive results for our students.

Sometimes referred to as foundation, access or enabling programmes, bridging courses offer students who have not come straight from school to university a chance to gain the confidence and skills to undertake undergraduate studies.

Doubts about online bridging courses

Redesigning a bridging course that best prepares students for today’s higher education environment requires a disruption of our traditional ideas about these students.

Some academics working in bridging courses cynically see online bridging courses as simply cost-effective attempts to increase student numbers. Others identify, perhaps correctly at times, that these online options are just face-to-face programmes that have been “dumped” online, without any intentional design. Some take the long-held view that bridging students require a traditional on-campus experience to familiarise themselves with the academic world.

Why are these views held in relation to bridging students? Well, many reasons.

  • Students in these courses are not only unfamiliar with a university environment, but many have had unsuccessful prior educational experiences.
  • Students are more likely to fit into one (or several) equity groups.
  • These courses have traditionally high attrition rates, which generally climb even higher when they are offered online.

Providing space for students’ successful transition to university

Student success cannot be left to chance or, more problematically, to privilege. Applying a transition pedagogy, more often discussed in relation to the first-year space, to foundation students is key.

What helps students make a successful transition? Applying Alf Lizzio’s five senses of success framework, adapted for the specific cohort, is a great place to start, and here we focus on three of these key senses:

  • Build a sense of purpose, through explicit activities, which allows students to reflect on why they have started their learning journey and where they hope to go with it.
  • Build a sense of belonging, through as high a level of engagement as possible, which allows students to connect to the university environment, their peers, their teachers or, simply, to a new (and unfamiliar) identity of “student”.
  • Build a sense of resourcefulness. We should expect bridging students to start undergraduate degrees with the level of academic ability similar to that of other commencing students. Sometimes, enabling programmes can try to be rigorous in a zealous attempt to showcase a formal academic view, yet traditional student intakes are never exposed to such rigour before starting university. Academic literacies develop over time, but if we focus on developing resourceful students, they will learn how and where to ask for support and they will be more likely to succeed.

But how to build these senses in foundation students? This is where the principles of transition pedagogy, particularly engagement, need to be applied.

Genuine flipped classroom approach

A diverse cohort of students requires an approach that embraces their diversity, understanding that not all students learn the same way. This is a benefit of a genuine flipped classroom approach and can be achieved by providing a range of learning activities. These might include:

  • short interactive videos for content delivery, which also allow for checks of understanding
  • discussion forums with sufficient teacher presence to both affirm students positively and challenge them to think more deeply or critically
  • a range of question sets
  • readings and multimedia-rich content, which allow for branching scenarios.

Simple tools, such as H5P, enable these activities to have a level of interactivity that was much harder to achieve in even the very recent past. Having this range of independent learning activities gives students flexibility in terms of time and choice. For a bridging course cohort, this approach provides students with an opportunity to reflect on how they best learn.

Synchronous activity-based learning

For some students, the synchronous learning activities (online tutorials, seminars, workshops) remain the point of primary learning. For many, learning live with a teacher and peers is crucial. The greater the focus on collaborative and discussion- or activity-based synchronous learning, the richer the learning experience. Achieving this relies, in part, on the quality of the learning activities students have completed outside the classroom. If they are interactive and engaging, students will attend the synchronous sessions ready to go. Pre-classroom preparation and engagement allow for the time with students in the (virtual) room to be as valuable as possible.

Once everyone comes together in the (virtual) room, offering a range of activities will help engage with the diversity of learners. In a traditional on-campus tutorial, engagement or participation is measured by how often or how well a student speaks up in class. In a virtual room, we need to shift our thinking when it comes to participation. Yes, students could raise their hands and speak up through a camera and microphone, and we can just maintain our engagement metric. However, there are many ways to participate online, and a focus on a working microphone can be very limiting for students. Design can incorporate:

  • using the chat function
  • running polls or quizzes
  • enabling the whiteboard
  • collaborating in shared documents
  • creating breakout groups (but not over-relying on them).

With a range of activities available, all students can find a form of engagement and communication that suits them. Once comfortable, students are more likely to learn.

For us, an intentional design, with our diverse and vulnerable cohort in mind, has busted long-held myths about online bridging courses. It has also resulted in substantially higher levels of student success. One size does not fit all in relation to learning, and the online space provides both flexibility and choice for bridging students, who may be the ones to need it most.

Jane Habner is a teaching specialist and co-ordinator of the Flinders Foundation Studies Program in the Student Learning Support Service; Pablo Munguia is an associate professor and the dean of education in the College of Education, Psychology and Social Work; both are at Flinders University.

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