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Cherie Diaz, OpenLearning

Cherie Diaz has been the managing director, Australia at online learning platform OpenLearning since 2018. She spoke to The PIE about her journey with OpenLearning, the company’s partnership with UNSW Global in delivering the Transition Program Online, and her outlook on the future scenario on the other side of Covid-19.


"Students undertake the program at home in their own time zone, enabling them to develop peer networks, university readiness, and save four months of living expenses"

The PIE: As someone who has extensive experience in the education sector, how would you rate your stint thus far as Managing Director, Australia at OpenLearning, over the last three years?

Cherie Diaz: It’s definitely been an interesting journey and one that is always evolving. That’s what I really love about the education sector. Reflecting on the last three years, it’s been a diverse experience. During my time at OpenLearning we’ve transitioned from start-up, have listed on the Australian stock exchange, and are now in scale-up mode.

One of the things that I love about OpenLearning is that I get to use my experience in education. And having been a high school teacher, a corporate trainer, and running vocational and higher education colleges, to helping our education partners achieve what they are trying to do from a strategy perspective, expanding their understanding of what is possible, and how OpenLearning can assist them, is really wonderful. It’s a very satisfying role and a great team to work with.

The PIE: What was the main motivation behind starting the Training Program Online, that you are partnering with UNSW Global for?

CD: OpenLearning started working with UNSW Global in March last year when we assisted in redesigning the Foundation English and University English Entry Courses for an online-first delivery model.

Based on the high level of student and teacher satisfaction of the courses, both partners saw a unique opportunity to reimagine the delivery model for the UNSW Transition Program, which has run for more than 15 years in a face-to-face setting. The program is a market leader, in the sense that it’s a first of its kind. The partnership between OpenLearning and UNSW Global sought to look at the opportunity for this program, long term, rather it just being a Covid fix.

“TPO is for students who have just missed out on their academic requirements for their preferred degree program”

The program was designed so it not only meets the need of delivering the program to international students offshore in the current context of border restrictions, but also in a way that it meets a couple of other needs. Firstly, students undertake the program at home in their own time zone, enabling them to develop peer networks, university readiness, and save four months of living expenses. Secondly, the recent partnerships with other universities that will recognise the graduates of the TPO opens up the potential locations and undergraduate programs on offer for students.

The PIE: In your experience, are students who were not able to get into top tier universities of their choice, getting more weightage in their applications after they have completed the TPO?

CD: The entrance requirements for this program are quite high. It’s for students who have just missed out on their academic requirements for their preferred degree program.

The graduate outcomes of the program are as high as 90% for students then proceeding onto either university for an undergraduate or a diploma program that is recognised for first year of a university program itself.

The PIE: How has the module changed from an in-person one being delivered by UNSW previously, to the online one now being offered through OpenLearning?

CD: The first distinct approach we have built into the delivery is that we have taken a whole of program view, in the student experience, in the form of student lifecycle mapping.

The courses themselves very much leverage the amazing academic work and rigour of the face-to-face program as it was developed and delivered by UNSW Global. However, we have added to that. One is OpenLearning’s strength as a learning platform, as well as our philosophy of social constructivism as a learning experience.

The course material and activities are all available through the online platform. There are no text books. It’s all enabled through the one learning experience. Students are supported not just by their study coach, teachers and student support staff, but they are actually in there, learning together, and co-constructing and sharing information along the way.

One of the unique features is the daily stand-up. Each day in a small group of about five students, the cohort start their day catching up, supported by their study coach, who helps them prioritise what they are working on, as there is a mix of synchronous and asynchronous activities. The stand-ups and delivery model of the program also help students develop skill sets required to be honed pre-university. Things like time management, prioritisation of tasks, research skills, teamwork, communication skills, project management, negotiation, and so on.

The other piece is that the activities are designed for divergent learning experiences. Students are asked to undertake research and bring back to the cohort, their ideas and experiences into the learning process. They also get personalised coaching and feedback.

“Instead of exams, we have implemented high stakes interviews”

We have also made the assessment process a really integrated approach throughout. Students have weekly tasks and get weekly feedback on their progress.

Another big change is that instead of exams, we have implemented high stakes interviews. At the end of the program, students take part in an interview where they showcase how they have met the learning outcomes and engage in a conversation demonstrating their application of knowledge and learning.

There are five streams – Actuarial Studies, Commerce, Design & Architecture, Life Sciences, and Physical Science – which are aligned with the student’s undergraduate preference.

The PIE:  Can you describe the experience with the first batch, which started earlier in the year?

CD: I am proud to say that the first cohort graduated in July and 87% of the students received an offer at UNSW. It was heartwarming to see that the engagement and interactions of students even exceeded our expectations.

The current cohort is also continuing to impress us with their commitment to their studies and how quickly they have adapted to the social constructivist learning and portfolio-based assessment approach, which is really amazing. Our third cohort starts on September 6.

The PIE: Is the partnership now looking at enhancing its target markets from which students are drawn, beyond mainly China and India? 

CD: If I take a step back; one of the benefits of delivering this program online and the partnership, is that we’ve taken a program that was traditionally run three times a year, face to face, and been able to increase the frequency. So, in 2021, there are four intakes, in 2022 there are five intakes. Each year moving forward, there will be five to six intakes running.

We have already seen an increase in the markets of students that are enrolling in this program. Yes, there are students from China, but we also have students from India, Philippines, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, UAE, and Africa. We are definitely seeing a broadening of market reach globally.

“Partnering up with other universities to recognise the program, enables students to have a choice on what country they study in”

With our partnerships in the UK and New Zealand partners, I would expect that they would continue to broaden the appeal of the program for students looking to study not only in Australia, but other partner countries as well.

The PIE: With UK and New Zealand now coming into the picture, are horizons further broadened for students? 

CD: Yes, for us it’s about enabling students with choice. The transition program makes the students feel confident to start their undergraduate programs. And, the partnering up with other universities to recognise the program, enables students to have a choice on what country they study in.

There are different reasons why international students study in different countries. For those students who are looking for international education to be a path to immigrating to their study destination country, the program definitely opens up those options for consideration for them.

The PIE: How are you planning for the next couple of years, on the other side of Covid-19?

CD: If we look at the TPO, there is continuing scope for growth with this program. Not just with the number of intakes and the number of students that we are able to support, but also in terms of universities that recognise the graduates of the program.

For OpenLearning as a business, we are continuing to invest a lot of time and effort in aiming to be more accessible for education providers. Our pricing is enabling private higher education and vocational providers to be able to deliver engaging online learning in a scalable and cost-effective way. We are also seeing continued adoption and use of the OpenCreds Micro-credential Framework.

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