Publication Date



This briefing was prepared by Dr Hamish Coates, with assistance from Mr Stefan Nesteroff and Dr Daniel Edwards.


For much of the twentieth century it was conventional practice to distinguish between ‘on-campus’ and ‘external’ or ‘distance’ forms of higher education. This distinction has blurred both in theory and practice over the last few decades, with an increase in what may be referred to as ‘distributed’ forms of learning and higher education. In Australia and New Zealand today, very few students spend significant amounts of time on campus. According to results from the 2007 Australasian Survey of Student Engagement (AUSSE) around three-quarters (77%) report spending no more than 10 hours per week on campus outside of formal classes. Just under half (44%) report no participation in ‘extracurricular activities’ in the average week. This pattern is not specific to particular institutions or students but pertains to even the most ‘campus-focused’ forms of higher education. The traditional campus-based university may not have died or become outmoded, as portended in the late 1990s by some proponents of virtual or corporate universities. But along with growth of the system there has been a proliferation of different forms of educational provision and of approaches to learning. Yet institutional practices may not reflect how today’s students engage in university, or even the characteristics of contemporary learners. It is important to understand learners and the environments in which they learn to effectively manage their engagement in university education. Without doing so it is difficult to design effective support processes or to challenge students to succeed. This briefing reports insights on how students are engaging in various distributed forms of higher education. It first focuses on distinguishing specific groups of ‘distributed learners’. Between them, these learners account for around 52 per cent of the Australasian Survey of Student Engagement (AUSSE) sample, even though 83 per cent classify themselves as studying ‘full time’ and ‘campus based’. It then explores the characteristics of distributed learners’ engagement in university study.