Teaching and Learning Forum 2000 [ Proceedings Contents ]

Disadvantaged segments in sales and marketing externally offered units: The influence of being flexible on student success

Mark Allan Patton
School of Marketing
Curtin University of Technology
    Often academics measure the "quality" of a unit offered by the rigour or amount of time a student must commit to studying and to the meeting strict timetables as deadlines. While this is debatable for the traditional full time university student, for extension students, the obsessive adherence to arbitrary policies can prevent our most disadvantaged segments from benefiting from the educational experience. In Australia, the majority of students studying externally fall into one of three segments: 1) low skilled middle aged women wanting to re-enter the work force or long term unemployed males 2) international students who have had to return home due to financial pressures and 3) low level business executives who do not have time to attend traditional university offerings but who want to upgrade their skills and professional credentials. While the distance mode has proven to be an excellent springboard for all three student segments in improving their lives, the segments have also proven to have serious difficulties in meeting the traditional inflexible academic policies.

    Sadly, most universities that offer external studies can be policy driven and often do not allow students flexibility with assignment deadlines. By circumventing traditional academic policies and showing maximum flexibility and understanding to non-traditional students, course providers can bring high risk students long term results in their business careers.

    This paper looks at a case study which compares the completion results of marketing and non-marketing business units offered for students in an external studies mode. The case study involves a project with approximately four hundred students.

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Educational units offered in the distance mode provide a unique opportunity for teachers and institutions to reach the truly disadvantaged student population. As a part of his academic responsibilities, the author of this paper is involved in offering skill based sales units through Open Learning and Distance Learning modes of delivery to students throughout Australia and Asia. Internal studies have found that most students taking the units fall into one of four segments: 1) low skilled middle aged women wanting to re-enter the work force or long term unemployed males; 2) people living in rural or remote areas; 3) low level business executives who do not have time to attend traditional university offerings but want to upgrade their skills and professional credentials; and 4) international students who have had to return home due to financial pressures (Patton, 1999). While the external mode has proven to be an excellent entree for all four student segments in improving their career opportunities, the groups have also had serious difficulties in meeting the traditional inflexible academic policies.

Literature and concept review

The role of distance education in reaching the disadvantaged segment of population

Many would argue that the principle goal of any educational program is to improve quality of people's lives by teaching them necessary skills for obtaining better (or sometimes entry level) employment opportunities. Distance and Open Learning education models definitely play an important role by providing access for education to the traditionally disadvantaged segments. Distance and Open Learning models of delivery have been committed to helping those who were unable to attend traditional schools, colleges and universities. In Australia, the distance and Open Learning models have been involved in teaching people who live in remote and rural areas, low skilled middle aged women wanting to re-enter the work force, long term unemployed and those who want to upgrade their skills, most of whom cannot afford to study at university for financial reasons and have to work full time on their current job to support themselves and their families (Freeman, 1997).

Typically, students undertake further studies, by the external mode, in order to move up in his career. Due to the demanding job and/or family responsibilities Distance Education mode of studying through the Open Learning was the logical choice. It is truly a great chance for many people throughout the region to improve their qualifications and as a result, improve their lives.

It is necessary to note that presently Australia's involvement in providing Distance Education on a transnational scale has become even more significant. Due to the economic crisis in Asia, particularly South East Asia, many transnational students were pressured to return home because of the financial difficulties. More students choose to study through the Distance Education, which provides them with an excellent opportunity to complete their degrees without having to leave their home country and spend extra thousands of dollars on their living expenses overseas. For example, in the study period 1 of 1999 approximately 690 students were enrolled in a number of subjects through the Distance and Open Learning Services (DOLS) at Curtin University, with about 7 % of students residing overseas. In business subjects this figure was higher, where overseas students accounted for over 17 % of the total number of students in study period one, and 27 % in study period two. In 1997 the number of international students varied between 6 % and 14 % out of the total number of students enrolled in business courses (Pim, 1999).

The importance of distance educational offerings, internationally, in equipping the South East Asian region with the skills to overcome their current economic problems was highlighted in a presentation by Sahala Siahaan, vice president of a large Indonesian industrial group. Mr Siahaan indicated that many organisations in the region had too dramatically reduced staff levels to ease financial burdens and the remaining employees were unable to cope with their new "thinking applied" business requirements. The local educational options were not equipped to teach applied business skills. Overseas (Western) educational techniques would be required but the only option viable would be the distance education mode. The opportunities are very large for the organisations willing to be flexible and take up the challenge (Siahaan, 1999).

Difficulties facing disadvantaged students in distance education

Research indicated that the percentage of dropouts from the Distance Education units was significantly higher than from the traditional universities (up to 25 % in Distance Education comparing to 8% in traditional models). Among the reasons cited for dropouts were difficulties at home or work, health problems, clashing deadlines, and distance. Some students indicated that they had troubles receiving the study material on time, which prevented them meeting study deadlines. Some of these issues are traditionally considered serious enough to give students extensions, while others are not. It is very important, however, to show maximum flexibility and understanding to non-traditional students (Pim, 1999).

Although all four categories of students outlined above have serious difficulties in meeting the traditional strict academic policies while doing their courses through the open learning and distance education modes, international students have additional specific set of problems, which put them under extra pressure. All students struggle to maintain the balance between their family, job or even other studies on the one hand, and meeting the requirements of the distance education units on the other. In addition, international distance or Open Learning students have issues such as being so far from the university provider of the course and different cultural settings. For example, in some cultures the issue of being precise with the deadlines is not important. Rote memory is the only educational skill called upon or in some instances, family connections are more important than academic achievement in the classroom.

Postal delivery time is another common problem. Often in distance education modes, situations arise where textbooks do not arrive on time, and as a result, students fall behind in their schedule, through no fault of their own. Being up to three weeks behind the schedule, students are not able to catch up with the pace of everybody else and finish the course on time. According to traditional rules, these students should be advised to withdraw from the unit and commence next available term, but is it the best way to go? As it will be demonstrated further, it is not always the best option (Pim, 1999).

Often, traditional universities are quite strict with their policies regarding assignment submissions, not considering or appreciating special situations of the distance education students. Most commonly, heavy workloads elsewhere, combined with language challenges and family or personal difficulties prevent students from completing their work on time. Many tutors or markers however, consider this as "a matter of bad planning" and do not make special concessions for those students. Deduction of marks is quite a common penalty for late submissions, and there are even cases when lecturers or tutors simply refused to accept late work if there was no prior arrangements made. All this puts students under unnecessary additional pressure, which can be easily avoided if tutors and unit providers showed maximum understanding and flexibility to non-traditional students. Instead of instilling a fear of studying into those who failed to meet their deadlines, flexibility can bring high risk students long term results in their business careers. After all, the goal of our educational system is not just to teach our student academic culture, our task in business education is first of all to give our students qualifications and other necessary skills that may be more important for their future employment in their respective professions.

Is it fair and is it worth it?

Some teachers and students feel that it is unfair to give extensions to some students while others worked so hard to do their assignments on time. Northcott and Thompson (1987), discuss this issue in more detail. However, it is important to note here that everyone must be given the same opportunity to request and receive an extension. Special considerations must be always made with regards to the disadvantaged students undertaking their studies in open and distance education mode. For example, it is necessary to keep in mind that many of our students are coming back to study after a long break in their education. In case of failure some of those students would be very discouraged. There is another group of people who would not be able to afford it, and yet another who "can't be bothered to do it all over again." Although distance education courses are relatively inexpensive, some students, especially those unemployed, find it hard to pay twice for the same course and as a result, they never come back. As a result, these students miss a chance to obtain the qualifications vital for their future employment. Extensions are essential for those students who would not go back to study if they were not given a second chance.

Being flexible with assignment deadlines is beneficial for both students and universities. Students who have difficulties meeting the deadlines have more chances to complete the course and obtain the qualifications necessary for employment. Universities, and tutors in particular, free themselves from doing more work next term by marking virtually the same assignments. Moreover, no additional costs for the university were imposed.

What about quality of education?

Among other factors, strict academic policies regarding the deadlines may affect quality of education. When under pressure from the external circumstances beyond their control, students tend to be selective with their readings and deal only with that part of the study material, which directly enables them to answer the questions. First of all, such practices often reduce quality of their assignments, even causing students to fail. Furthermore, although students may receive satisfactory marks for their assignments and pass the unit overall, it is very likely that at the end they will have gaps in their knowledge on the subject, since they were selective in their readings. Finally, it may cause students to develop poor study patterns, when they read only those materials, which are necessary to write assignments and pass the unit. The bottom line is that as a result of strict academic policies, students may learn how to meet their deadlines, but their training may not be satisfactory enough to enable them for a job or promotion.

On the other hand, students who are allowed to have more time to study and do their assignments produce better results and fewer students dropped out of the course or failed it. These students also have a better chance to develop lifelong healthy learning patterns, which enables them to move further in their career in the future.


To review the impact of lecturers being inflexible with external studies students, the records for eight lecturers with four hundred students in an Open Learning program run by Curtin University throughout the Australian and South East Asian region. Over a six month period in 1999, records were kept on pass-fail rates, dropout rates, withdrawal rates and the number of students who deferred during the term. Three categories of markers were taken Non-flexible, Semi-flexible, and Flexible, to classify different professorial approaches.

Specifically, Non-flexible tutors were defined as lecturers who accepted only medical certificates or other very serious circumstances as a valid reason for granting extensions. These tutors would penalise late submission, and if no request for extension were made prior to the due date, would not accept assignments all together. Semi-flexible markers are those who would give extensions easier, not only for medical reasons. They may or may not penalise late submissions. Flexible markers would generally grant extensions when requested by students even when the reason was bad planning. Part of their policy was to teach students to plan their work better next time, not simply deduct marks from their assignments.

Flexible markers also would not penalise students if extensions were not requested prior to the due date, and would encourage them to complete their course even when they fell behind. Results given to the students by each group of markers was analysed and compared during two terms. Unfortunately, the number of students who had a tutor who could be classified as semi-flexible was too small to draw any conclusions. One term this person was helping only four students, and only ten on the other.


Basically, the findings indicated that when the tutor or marker was flexible with the deadlines for assignment submission, more students complete their courses. Table A provides comparison of how many students passed the unit and how many did not.

The work indicated that more students completed their courses satisfactorily when they had a flexible tutor or marker. In discussions with lecturers, the reasons for the higher passing rates, to a large extent, was explained by the fact that delinquent students were encouraged to complete their units instead of deferring it even when they were heavily behind. Another reason was that late assignments were not penalised.

Table A

PassedFailed[1]WithdrewDNC[2] Deferred
Inflexible (1) 56.6%20.7%-18.9%3.8%
Inflexible (2) 38.2%26.4%5.9%23.5%6%
Semi-Flexible Numbers in groups were too small to consider (4 and 10 students respectively)
Flexible (1) 75%0%6.3%18.7%0%
Flexible (2) 72.9%0%5.5%21.6%0%
1. Including those who failed to submit their assignments on time.
2. Did Not Complete - a mark given to those students who did not submit all assignments. This includes those students who did not turn any assignments in, but did not withdrew from the course formally.

Interestingly, the number of students who did not complete the unit was high in both groups (around 20%). However, the similar incomplete rates could also be explained by the fact that this mark was given to those students who did not submit all their assignments, as well as to those who did not turn in any assignments at all, but did not withdraw from the course formally. In time, the completion rates for students would increase as delinquent assignments found their "way home" to the lecturer.

In the second term of 1999, it was observed that many students, who could not meet their deadlines in the first place, finished their studies if they were given extension. In one case, out of 75 students enrolled into the course, 64% completed all their studies by the due date, 9% did not complete the unit. The remaining 28% either changed their enrolment before the course started or shortly after, or withdrew from the course, or never turned any assignments in. Out of those 9% of students who did not complete the unit by the deadline, 86% completed their studies shortly after, when they were given a second chance. Tables B and C indicate two aspects of the case where the practice of giving students a second chance significantly changed the overall percentage of those who completed the unit successfully.

Table B

By the due dateShortly after the due date
Completed successfully 64%72%
Did not complete 9.3%1.33%
Withdrew/changed enrolment 26.7%26.7%

Table C

By the due dateShortly after the due date
Completed successfully 60.5%71%
Did not complete 15.5%5%
Withdraw/changed enrolment 24%24%

In many cases, 60 to 90 per cent of those students who did not complete all their assignments by the end of the term would do so shortly after. This is a very encouraging statistic, which indicates that there is another way of dealing with those people who are struggling to meet the deadlines. Given enough time and encouragement, they are able to complete their studies with good results.

While analysing data, another interesting observation was made. From the 'inflexible' category, it became obvious that more distance education students deferred their studies in the early stages of the study term, compared with those who were studying with flexible tutors. About 44% of the total number of students from the first category did not complete the unit altogether for reasons including withdrawal or tutors not accepting late assignments. In this case, half of the students that dropped out of the "strict" lecturers' classes early did not only drop out of this one unit, they totally stopped their education. It seems that this bad experience put them off furthering their education.


To a large extent, distance education and open learning modes of study were designed to offer maximum flexibility for the study needs of individual, particularly transnational education. It is important for education providers to show maximum flexibility and understanding to non-traditional students with regard to the assignment submission deadlines, which can bring high risk students long term results in their careers. Obviously, further work needs to be undertaken to determine the parameters of flexibility required and the extent of resistance which may occur if faculty are encouraged to ease what they may feel are their responsibilities and may involve quality issues.


Fraser, S., Deane, E., Doers and Thinkers: An Investigation... (Sydney: University of Western Sydney, 1998).

Freeman, R., Managing Open Systems: Open and Distance Learning Series (London: Kogan Page, 1997).

Lockwood, F. (ed.), Open and Distance Education Today (London: Routledge, 1995).

Northcott, P.H. and Thompson, D.J., Assignment turn-around time: What should be expected and how can it be achieved.

Patton, M., Excerpts from Open Learning communication files, Curtin University, (July, 1999).

Pim, J., Interview and private report by Open Learning Australia (July, 1999)

Scriven, B., 'Assignment Extensions', in ASPESA Papers No. 3 (1987)

Siahaan, S. (Ricky), Interview, Vice President, Parnaraya Holding Company, Jakarta, Indonesia, September, 1999.

Please cite as: Patton, M. A. (2000). Disadvantaged segments in sales and marketing externally offered units: The influence of being flexible on student success. In A. Herrmann and M.M. Kulski (Eds), Flexible Futures in Tertiary Teaching. Proceedings of the 9th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 2-4 February 2000. Perth: Curtin University of Technology. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2000/patton.html

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