The integration of interaction on distance-learning courses


Published on

Interactive media such as email and online conferencing are increasingly used to provide distance learners with opportunities for interaction. These media are not always integrated within courses to meet the needs and objectives of students, staff and institution. In some circumstances they impede learning. This study investigates how students on distance-education courses are affected by the use of interactive media and by the levels of interaction and integration built into the course design.

Data were collected from students on two distance-learning courses at the Open University, using asynchronous email communication over several days or weeks to carry out epistolary interviews. Other sources of data were the open-ended responses from a survey of Open University students which was administered by a related study of the integration of interaction, informally known as the Mellon Project.

My study provides an evidence-based analysis of some effects of the integration of interaction on distance-education courses. It contains grounded accounts of different types of interaction on such courses. These reveal the importance of face-to-face interaction for distance students, showing how they use their daily contacts to supply face-to-face course-related interaction, and how course designers can support these strategies. The accounts also reveal students’ problems with self-presentation when using conferencing software and their exaggerated sense of the negative characteristics of themselves and others online. These accounts challenge previous assumptions that computer-mediated communication commonly results in an idealisation of the other.

The data supports seven strategies for the effective integration of interaction in distance education. Course designers are recommended to incorporate students’ reasons for communication, recognise the role of interaction in motivating students, give students control over their learning, allow time for interaction, encourage students to find mentors, utilise the affordances of the media and create positive social presence.

This material, together with appendices, made up my dissertation for the Open University's U800 course.

Published in: Education
  • Be the first to comment

  • Be the first to like this

No Downloads
Total views
On SlideShare
From Embeds
Number of Embeds
Embeds 0
No embeds

No notes for slide

The integration of interaction on distance-learning courses

  1. 1. The integration of interaction on distance-learning courses page 1 of 53
  2. 2. Abstract Interactive media such as email and online conferencing are increasingly used to provide distance learners with opportunities for interaction. These media are not always integrated within courses to meet the needs and objectives of students, staff and institution. In some circumstances they impede learning. This study investigates how students on distance-education courses are affected by the use of interactive media and by the levels of interaction and integration built into the course design. Data were collected from students on two distance-learning courses at the British Open University, using asynchronous email communication over several days or weeks to carry out epistolary interviews. Other sources of data were the open-ended responses from a survey of Open University students which was administered by a related study of the integration of interaction, informally known as the Mellon Project. My study provides an evidence-based analysis of some effects of the integration of interaction on distance-education courses. It contains grounded accounts of different types of interaction on such courses. These reveal the importance of face-to-face interaction for distance students, showing how they use their daily contacts to supply face-to-face course-related interaction, and how course designers can support these strategies. The accounts also reveal students’ problems with self-presentation when using conferencing software and their exaggerated sense of the negative characteristics of themselves and others online. These accounts challenge previous assumptions that computer-mediated communication commonly results in an idealisation of the other. The data supports seven strategies for the effective integration of interaction in distance education. Course designers are recommended to incorporate students’ reasons for communication, recognise the role of interaction in motivating students, give students control over their learning, allow time for interaction, encourage students to find mentors, utilise the affordances of the media and create positive social presence. page 2 of 53
  3. 3. Contents Chapter 1: Aims and objectives 5 Introduction 5 Dissertation structure 6 Chapter 2: Literature review 8 Interactive media 9 Effects of interaction 10 Interaction, learning and teaching 13 Integration 14 Evaluating integration 15 Conclusion 16 Chapter 3: Choice of research design and methods 17 Case studies 17 Epistolary interviews 19 Supplementary data 21 Ethics 21 Chapter 4: Collecting and analysing the data 23 Epistolary interviews: sampling 23 Epistolary interviews: method 24 Course Experience Survey 26 Course material 27 Data analysis 27 Chapter 5: Interpreting the data 29 Levels of interaction 29 Levels of integration 30 Students’ perceptions of interactive media 32 Students’ perceptions of interaction 32 Accounts of interaction: face to face 34 Accounts of interaction: FirstClass 34 page 3 of 53
  4. 4. Accounts of interaction: problems with FirstClass 35 Accounts of interaction: time, place and community 38 Accounts of interaction: student initiated 39 Integration of interaction 41 Integration of interaction: B300 41 Integration of interaction: E124 43 Chapter 6: Findings 46 Incorporate students’ reasons for communication 46 Recognise the role of interaction in motivating students 46 Give students control over their learning 47 Allow time for interaction 47 Encourage students to find mentors 47 Utilise the affordances of the media 47 Create positive social presence 48 Strengths and limitations of this research 48 Future research 49 Conculsion 49 Bibliography 51 Appendices 1-5 (not published on Knowledge Network) page 4 of 53
  5. 5. Chapter 1: Aims and objectives Introduction Educational establishments worldwide are making increasing use of interactive media such as email and online conferencing in the design of courses. These media are employed in a variety of ways which have been shown to affect outcomes for students. Some courses take advantage of increased storage capacity or the capacity to link to information-rich resources, while others employ the media’s interactive potential. Unfortunately, these uses of interactive media are not necessarily integrated with the needs and objectives of course, students, staff or institution. These design variations affect how the media are used, how students learn and study; they also affect institutions’ infrastructure and the roles of instructors and other staff. The research presented here begins by examining what is meant by interaction, integration and interactive media, and why it is useful to study these in the context of education. It then uses two case studies to investigate the research question: How are students on distance-education courses affected by the use of interactive media and by the levels of interaction and integration built into the course design? This research is part of a larger study, known as the Mellon Project. This study, funded by the Teaching and Technology Program of the Andrew Mellon Foundation, is investigating the impact of interaction and integration in computer-mediated teaching in higher education. To do this it draws upon student surveys, interviews with course team staff and analysis of pre-existing data relating to student retention, assignment submission and credit achievement. As this primarily quantitative data only provides evidence of some aspects of students’ experience, case studies are being used to reveal more about the impact of interaction and integration on students and on their perceptions of their learning experience. The studies presented here are two of these. Working within a pre-existing research project has many advantages. Research parameters had been identified, much of the relevant literature had been located, the concepts of interaction and interactivity in computer-mediated learning environments page 5 of 53
  6. 6. had been studied (Godwin, 2005) and substantial amounts of quantitative data were available for secondary analysis. However, there are also disadvantages. The courses chosen for study had to be selected from a limited range, and differed in many ways other than their integration of interaction. The Mellon Project neglected face-to-face interaction, which my study found to be very important. While my study examined the use of interactive media, the Mellon Project’s research design focused on computer- mediated interaction. The aims and design of my research are necessarily related to those proposed in Mary Thorpe’s research design for the Mellon Project (Appendix 1). They focus on one aspect of that research – students’ subjective experience of interaction and integration. The aims of my research are: • To investigate students’ perceptions of interaction on two distance-education courses. • To investigate students’ perceptions of the use of interactive media on these courses. • To investigate levels of interaction and integration on these courses. A review of the literature suggests that students’ perceptions of the quality of courses are not greatly influenced by the degree to which interaction is included in the course, nor by the use of interactive media. Instead, perceptions of course quality are influenced by the degree to which interaction has been integrated into the course design. My research tests these hypotheses, and has the following objectives: • To produce grounded accounts of different types of interaction on distance- education courses. • To produce an evidence-based analysis of some effects of the integration of interaction on distance-education courses. • To provide evidence to support the Mellon Project’s recommendations about effective strategies for the use of computer-based teaching in distance-education courses. Dissertation structure Chapter 2 presents an overview of relevant literature and defines key terms. Chapter 3 describes the choice of methods and of cases, the data collection methods employed for page 6 of 53
  7. 7. the research and the reasons for their use. Chapter 4 details how the data were collected and analysed and includes information about sampling and coding. Chapter 5 explains how the data were interpreted, with reference to the literature examined earlier and the research aims and objectives. Finally, Chapter 6 summarises the research findings and their implications. page 7 of 53
  8. 8. Chapter 2: Literature review The terminology used to refer to computer-related media is various and inconsistent. ICT or C&IT, information and communication technology, IT, learning technology and new technology are often used interchangeably. The research design for the Mellon Project shifted between ICT, IT and computer-mediated technologies. Earle (2002) discussed the term ‘instructional technology’, noting that it ‘encompasses the broader processes of teaching and learning [but] the prevailing public perspective incorporates instructional technology as a synonym for computer technology’ (p6). He identified this as a problem which had led to a focus on hardware at the expense of effective pedagogy. While ‘technology’ emphasises the hardware, ‘information technology’ foregrounds potential for information storage and access. Sims et al. (2002) found that much online educational material merely reproduces printed materials and does not represent online learning, which they conceptualised as: an environment that integrates collaboration, communication and engaging content with specific group and independent learning activities and tasks. If content materials and learning activities are to be placed online, then significant levels of thought must be placed on the very nature of the medium and the underlying implications for teaching and learning. (p138) Thus they placed integrated interaction at the heart of online learning. Participants in the ESRC seminar series The implications of networked learning for higher education (2002) argued for an increased focus on interaction, stating that the educational task of higher education: is best achieved through a pedagogy based on constructionist views of knowledge which requires students to engage with ideas and develop skills and capabilities within a scholarly community where knowledge is actively constructed and framed as provisional, and where future learning through research is an aspiration. (p2) page 8 of 53
  9. 9. Sims et al. and the ESRC seminar participants were clear that the technology’s potential to facilitate interaction should be stressed. ‘Information technology’ is thus inappropriate, as it focuses on the hardware’s uses as a delivery mechanism and resource base. More useful terminology focuses on potential for interaction. Interaction has been conceptualised in many ways (for an overview of these, see Godwin, 2005), but this study follows the Mellon Project in adopting Wagner’s definition (1994). He considered that ‘interactions are reciprocal events that require at least two objects and two actions. Interactions occur when these objects and events mutually influence one another’ (p8). This definition emphasises reciprocity and mutual influence, without restricting the types of interaction possible. Students may interact with instructors, other students, themselves or others. They may also interact with non- human categories such as course content, the interface or their environment. Interactive media Laurillard (2002) foregrounded the capabilities of the technology with the term ‘interactive media’: the presentational media that include hypertext, hypermedia, multimedia resources, Web-based resources and Internet-delivered television… The environment in which they are delivered, offering open access to any part of the material, in any sequence, lends them a degree of user-responsiveness that has earned these media the epithet “interactive”. (p107) The term is useful, but this definition omits certain key areas. First, it limits itself to presentational media, omitting the possibility of interacting with individuals rather than content. Second, it ignores the affordances of the print media. Books have always offered open access to their material in any sequence. Laurillard attempted clarification: ‘User control is fundamental to the “sit-forward” interactive media, and the user expects to be doing something every few seconds, in contrast with the “sit-back” narrative media of print and television’ (p110), but her distinction does not hold. Print media are all ‘sit-forward’ media: reading requires constant action. This leads to a third problem, the assumption that print media are not open to interactive change. This does not tally with Barthes’ (1977) influential view: ‘a text is page 9 of 53
  10. 10. not a line of words releasing a single “theological” meaning (the “message” of the Author-God) but a multidimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash’ (p146). In these terms, any text must be considered interactive, its sense and meaning changed by each reader, even as it changes the reader’s thoughts. If ‘interactive media’ is not to be too restricted or, conversely, to be a tautology, interactivity must require observable evidence of the mutual influence integral to interaction. Here, therefore, interactive media are defined as those which offer access to to any part of their material or to other individuals, in any sequence, and which normally produce observable change in response to a user’s actions. Researchers into interactive media have identified a number of potential benefits of interaction for students, summarised by Wu and Hiltz (2004) as: ‘convenience, place- independence, time-independence, and the potential for users to become part of a virtual community’ (p139). These have been the basis of much research, which has focused on different types of interaction, the social presence offered by interactive media, and the social networks that can be created. All these elements have been shown to relate to learning outcomes and student satisfaction. Effects of interaction Jung et al. (2002) studied the relationship of different types of interaction to learning achievement, satisfaction and participation in web-based instruction. They examined three types of online interaction: academic, collaborative and social. Academic interaction was defined as interaction with online resources and task-related interaction with an instructor, collaborative interaction involved working with fellow students, while social interaction included interpersonal encouragement or social integration. These forms of interaction were integrated within the course, and assignments were related to the course materials and learning objectives. Students in the collaborative group had the highest levels of satisfaction, although collaborative interaction did not relate to increased learning achievement as judged by assignment scores. Social interaction was found to relate to increased learning achievement, but not to learner satisfaction. Academic interaction was not found to enhance achievement, satisfaction or participation. page 10 of 53
  11. 11. Wu and Hiltz (2004) studied technology students who were required to take part in weekly online discussions linked to their course’s objectives. They identified features which increase motivation and enjoyment: opportunities to be involved in discussions at any time, the need to rephrase arguments and thus increase understanding, and the opportunity to work in a student-dominated study space. Their analysis indicated that online interaction relates to students’ perceived learning, and that students who report they are highly motivated by and enjoy online discussion are those who report they have learned the most, broadening their knowledge and developing their skills. The role of the tutor in promoting online interaction was seen as crucial to learning, motivation and enjoyment. LaPointe and Gunawardena (2004) found a strong correlation between self-reported peer interaction and self-reported learning outcomes. Their sample included participants from 30 web-based courses which differed widely in the amount of participation in online discussion required. Some assessed online work, others penalised non-completion. Students reported that sharing experiences and interpretations and encountering differences allowed them to clear confusion, gain understanding and learn more. Social presence is a feature of interaction that has been found to influence both academic achievement and learner satisfaction. Lombard & Ditton (1997) defined social presence as ‘the perceptual illusion of nonmediation’ (p9). The medium is ignored, either because it appears to be transparent, providing a window on events, or because it is perceived as a social entity. When using interactive media, people may feel that they are together in virtual space or that they are encountering real people, without being aware of the constraints of the online environment. They may talk to an animated character or swear at a program – treating it as a social entity. Joinson (2005) noted that ‘much of our self-perception and esteem comes by evaluating others’ reactions to our own behaviour’ (2005, p33). Bargh et al. (2002, p46) reported that encountering others on the Internet ‘fosters idealisation of the other in the absence of information to the contrary’. Thus, views of self and others online are not constructed in the same way as offline views, but rely on social presence. page 11 of 53
  12. 12. Students’ ability to interact online and their sense of being part of a course are related to their social presence. Some form of this is necessary before they can create a community of learners. Picciano (2002) found that student perception of social presence had a small inverse, but not statistically significant, relationship with students’ performance on a multiple-choice examination; while it had a strong positive and statistically significant relationship with performance on a written assignment. He struggled to relate this distinction to students’ sense of social presence, but did not consider that it could have been due to these forms of assessment producing different approaches to study. Yang and Tang (2003) identified three important types of online network: advising (sharing work-related resources), adversarial (involving negative exchanges) and friendship. Students central to advising networks performed better on course work, but not significantly better in examinations; being central to an adversarial network had a small but identifiable negative correlation with academic performance, and being central to a friendship network had no clear academic correlation. This research design incorporated an element missing from others, a negative aspect of interaction. Interactive media may promote constructive cooperation; they also provide opportunities for obstructing or opposing others. Salomon (2000) identified serious problems with the use of interactive media in education: a tendency to assimilate new technologies into existing instructional practices unthinkingly, a view of technology as an end in itself, and a focus on the medium rather than on how and why it is being used. He linked these problems to three assumptions: knowledge and information are identical, knowledge is gained by transmission and the role of computers in education is to help with this process. He went on to highlight differences between information and knowledge. Information is discrete, clear and can be transmitted without contextualisation. It can be seen as a series of facts, which may be transmitted, learned by rote and tested in multiple-choice questionnaires without any need for understanding. Knowledge, on the other hand, requires interaction because it is constructed in meaningfully connected networks. This construction of knowledge requires not only sharing and collaboration, but also ambiguity, conflict and uncertainty. Those who view education as information transfer page 12 of 53
  13. 13. will use interactive media for storage, drilling, testing and accessing information; those who seek conceptual change will seek to make use of their interactive qualities. Approaches to studying and conceptions of teaching and learning are thus relevant to the use of interactive media. Interaction, learning and teaching Richardson (in press) describes interview-based research which identified different approaches to studying in higher education: a deep approach, based upon understanding the meaning of course materials; a surface approach, based upon memorising the course materials for the purposes of assessment; and a strategic approach, based upon obtaining the highest grades. Even so, the same students could exhibit different approaches to studying in different situations. In general, the choice of one approach to studying rather than another appeared to depend upon the content, the context and the demands of particular tasks. (p3) Of these three, ‘deep approaches exemplify the type of learning that employers and teachers expect students to demonstrate’ (Ramsden, 1988, p20). These deep approaches to learning can be encouraged by the use of an appropriate approach by teachers. Trigwell et al. (1999) considered teachers’ reports of their approaches to teaching: an information transmission/teacher-focused approach which deals with information and skills but not with the relationship between them; or a conceptual change/student-focused approach in which students must construct their own knowledge. They found that: an information transmission/teacher-focused approach to teaching is strongly associated with surface and non-deep approaches to learning and that a conceptual change/student-focused approach to teaching is associated, but less strongly, with a non-surface approach to learning. (pp65-66) Courses which provide access to information but limited or no opportunities for interaction can be seen to support an information transmission/teacher-focused approach and thus serve a surface approach to learning well. Courses providing opportunities for interaction have the potential to support a conceptual change/student- focused approach and are thus more likely to result in a deep approach to learning. page 13 of 53
  14. 14. Scouller (1996, 1998) studied the influence of assessment method on students’ learning approaches, comparing the assignment essay with the short-answer question and the multiple-choice question examination. She found that preparation for multiple-choice or for short-answer questions was more likely to involve a surface approach to learning, whereas preparing for an essay was more likely to involve a deep approach. She concluded that, to encourage analytical and critical thought, assessment methods should ‘firstly, encourage the development of such abilities; and secondly, provide students with the opportunity to demonstrate that they have developed these higher order abilities’ (1998, p469). While interaction is important, it is not sufficient to add opportunities and capabilities for interaction to existing courses. Burt (2001) reported on nearly 26,000 students who had completed distance-education courses at the Open University in Britain. At least 10% of those who had used email or computer conferencing as part of their course rated these ‘not at all helpful’. LaPointe and Gunawardena (2004) carried out research using online questionnaires and found that more surface learning than deep learning occurs in computer-mediated communication, and that many educators have incorporated interaction into online courses without understanding its nature, thus impeding the learning process by imposing an extra cognitive load. Kirkwood and Price (2005) looked at students’ attitudes to and experience of ICT, bringing together research involving around 80,000 respondents. They found that technology can enable new forms of learning and teaching to take place, but cannot ensure that this happens. ‘It is not technologies, but educational purposes and pedagogy, that must provide the lead, with students understanding not only how to work with ICTs, but why it is of benefit for them to do so’ (p257). It is therefore important to investigate whether interaction has been integrated within course pedagogy. Integration Earle (2002) studied the integration of instructional technology into education: Integration (from the Latin integrare, to make whole) includes a sense of completeness or wholeness and incorporates the need to overcome artificial separations by bringing together all essential elements in the teaching and page 14 of 53
  15. 15. learning process – including technology (as one of the elements, not the sole element)… the focus of integration is on pedagogy – effective practices for teaching and learning. (p10) He identified factors essential for integration: leadership, solid educational objectives, professional development, adequate technology resources, time and evaluation. To these can be added a clear vision of an integration strategy, which Mize and Gibbons (2000) found to be necessary when researching effective integration in K-12 schools. Laurillard (2002) identified considerations related to students’ needs and capabilities. The design of learning materials should begin with a definition of learning objectives and an analysis of student needs. Use of interactive media should be clearly justified in terms of improving the quality of education. Clearly defined objectives are needed for good design, development and assessment. The relationship of learning material with the course objectives must be clear, and any pre-requisite skills must be possessed by students or developed as part of the course. Interactive work should be built on, followed through and assessed. Assessment is key to integration. Scouller (1996, 1998) showed the importance of assessment method to students’ approaches to learning. Jelfs and Colbourn (2002) suggested it may be ‘unclear to “strategic” or “surface apathetic” learners what benefits are to be accrued from an unmonitored appraisal of learning material’ (p50). If assessment is to reflect course pedagogy, aims and objectives, then it should reflect changes produced by the use of interactive media. Laurillard (2002) pointed to interactive media’s ability to offer ‘individualised, private, formative feedback, which helps to build [students’] understanding of the internal relations between theory and practice’ (p127). Evaluating integration Gunn (1999) looked at ways of identifying whether successful integration has been achieved, and proposed the situated evaluation of computer-assisted learning (SECAL) framework. This begins with a detailed description of learning objectives, how these are to be achieved and how they will be assessed. The framework takes into account perceived relevance to learning goals, assessments and other course elements. Her case page 15 of 53
  16. 16. study identified many benefits of the integration of interactive media, including an overall improvement in standards, expectations and quality of learning outcomes. Sims et al. (2002) proposed the evaluation of courses during their design in order to achieve successful integration. They took into account learner/interface interaction, which led to practical considerations: are the terminology and design clear, the interactive medium accessible, and the navigation easy? Can users personalise their environment and do they feel secure within it? Are administration, faculty and students clear why an interactive medium is being used, and do they have an investment in or an interest in its being used successfully? Constructive learning can best be encouraged if the media actively encourage communities of learners, if learners can collaborate in constructing and extending the knowledge base, if they can control the learning process and link activities to their own learning requirements, and if they can structure their environment to meet their own needs and preferences. Conclusion Interactive media can benefit students in many ways, supporting them in the construction of knowledge. However, their interactive potential is often overlooked in favour of their ability to offer access to information. When interaction is employed it has been found to have positive effects on learning outcomes, but it can also lead to technical problems, information overload and extra work. Interactive media do not automatically encourage students to employ deep approaches to studying and teachers to employ student-centred approaches to teaching. These results are most likely to be achieved when interaction is integrated with pedagogy. page 16 of 53
  17. 17. Chapter 3: Choice of research design and methods The literature suggests that students are likely to benefit in many ways when interaction is integrated with course pedagogy. The Mellon Project provided a framework for investigating whether this is the case. It allowed this research to be set in a wider context and it also provided survey data which supplemented the qualitative data gathered for my research. Case studies The modernist approach to case study detailed by Yin (1984) aims for objectivity, validity and reliability. The Mellon Project, being primarily quantitative, employs this approach, which was therefore used here in order to be consistent with the project. A post-structuralist approach, seeking understanding and demanding reflexivity, was considered and could have worked well with the chosen qualitative research method, but such an approach would not have produced the generalisable conclusions required by the research objectives. Yin (1984) advises that case studies should proceed using a formal protocol, ‘a major tactic in increasing the reliability of case study research’ (p64). Mellon case study research: a protocol setting out the design principles for case study selection, data collection, analysis and reporting (Appendix 2) was developed by the project’s lead investigators. At its centre are the premises that interaction and integration are dimensions of courses which are critical in terms of their impact on student experience; and that different results in terms of impact relate to the degree to which a course offers both interaction and integration of that interaction. The course is taken as the unit of analysis, as student perceptions of any element of the course will be shaped by their view of the course as a whole. Courses at the British Open University were studied. As this is a distance-learning institution, it was thought that interaction using interactive media could be contrasted with low levels of interaction on other courses, highlighting differences more clearly than would be possible at an institution that uses face-to-face methods. In addition, the university’s detailed statistical records facilitated the Mellon Project’s quantitative comparisons. However, the university’s status as a distance-learning institution may page 17 of 53
  18. 18. mean that the findings of the study are not generalisable. The students are studying part time, are generally mature students and often have fewer qualifications than students at other institutions, so may not be a representative group. The Mellon Project assigned Open University courses from entry level (level 1) to advanced (level 3) a score of 1 for each relevant technology used and an additional score of 1 for any form of conferencing. This produced a range from 0–14, with a median value of 5, for each of the courses in presentation to students in 2003/4. Scores of 7 and above were deemed to have potentially high interaction and those scoring 5 and below to have potentially low interaction. Long-term (60-point) courses were selected in preference to more limited (30-point) courses where possible. Researchers examined course materials and assessed the degree of integration of interactive media. Following this analysis, 36 courses were placed within a matrix (Figure 3.1, below). High interaction Low interaction High integration Cell 1 Cell 3 Low integration Cell 2 Cell 4 Figure 3.1: Two-way matrix of dimensions of computer-based teaching Due to time constraints, my research focuses on two courses, one drawn from cell 1 (high interaction/high integration) and one drawn from cell 4 (low interaction/low integration). Other courses were being studied by other researchers, so these two were selected to produce theoretical replication, which was predicted to be clearest in these categories. The chosen courses were B300: Business behaviour in a changing world, a 12-month, 60-point, level 3 course from the high/high category; and E124: Supporting children’s learning in the Early Years, a nine-month, 30-point, level-one course from the low/low category. B300 is a business course which recruited 328 students for its 2004/5 presentation, of whom 57% were women. At least 44% already had some higher-education qualification and 89% were continuing students, so the majority had experience of study at university level. Most had the option of attending face-to-face tutorials, but 10% were based outside the UK and therefore did not have access to these. B300 is a compulsory page 18 of 53
  19. 19. element of the BA (Hons) in Business Studies, and 79% of students were working towards this qualification. The education course E124 recruited 1,301 students for its 2005 presentation, of whom 98% were women. Although 20% had some higher-education qualification, 37% had one A-level or less. Three quarters of the students had begun studying with the Open University in 2004 or 2005, so they had limited experience of university education. Most had the option of attending face-to-face tutorials or day schools; just 4% did not have access to these because they were based outside the UK. E124 is a compulsory part of the Foundation degree in the Early Years and of the Certificate in Early Years Practice, both of which are aimed at people currently working within an Early Years setting, and 95% of students were working towards one of these qualifications. Epistolary interviews The case studies focus on student perceptions of interaction and the use of interactive media, and relate these to levels of integration. Considerable quantitative data relating to these courses was already available for secondary analysis, so a qualitative approach was selected to supplement this data and to provide some of the qualitative data required for the Mellon Project. The main research method was interviewing, which offered flexibility and the potential to investigate motives and feelings, seek new viewpoints, clarify responses and follow up ideas. Face-to-face interviewing would have placed geographic restrictions on the sample and would not have provided data on students living abroad or in remote areas of Britain. Telephone interviews would have limited the time available for interview and were could have proved difficult to arrange with mature students already juggling study, jobs and family. To allow extended, in- depth interviews and include geographically widespread respondents, epistolary interviewing was employed. Epistolary interviewing is a new research method in which interviews are carried out using email. Interviews are asynchronous and may continue for weeks. The method allows both interviewer and respondent to select suitable interview times, provides time to consider questions and responses, allows an extensive geographical reach and eliminates the need for transcription. The epistolary nature of the interview means that, as in a sequence of written letters, a relationship between the correspondents can be page 19 of 53
  20. 20. established and developed over time. Joinson (2005) reports ‘there is considerable evidence that within a research setting, people… disclose more about themselves online compared to in offline equivalents, and that much of that disclosure is more candid’ (p25). In addition, the method allows the researcher to conduct a number of interviews simultaneously, so data from one interview can be tested in or used to develop other interviews. The method has some disadvantages. The need for computer skills and access could produce a biased sample, but all Open University students are required to have email access. Some researchers (Bampton and Cowton, 2002) have reported technical problems, but the Open University computer system is robust and regularly backed up. The method reduces spontaneity, which is compensated for by carefully considered responses. There are also several ethical issues, addressed below. Interviews were planned so the differences between talk and text would enhance rather than limit the data. The epistolary interview is a developing form and may use the conventions of face-to-face interviews, telephone interviews, email communication or a combination of these, depending on the situation. The interviewer therefore set the pattern for the formality of the interview, ensuring that the online format was used to organise and facilitate talk rather than to constrain it. The length, aims and format of the interview, the need for spontaneous or researched responses, and whether reference could be made to external material such as attachments were all established at the outset. An interview protocol was drawn up, piloted and adopted (Appendix 3). Disclosure was built into the interviews because ‘within an interaction, one person’s intimacies tend to be reciprocated in terms of level and type by the communication partner’ (Joinson, 2005, p27). Disclosure allowed the researcher to develop the epistolary nature of the interview, building up a conversation and relationship over time, which would not have been possible with a synchronous e-interview. As epistolary interviewing is a new technique, the advantages of using disclosure are not clear-cut. Joinson also reported that ‘any design that increases the “socialness” of an encounter may also lead to increases in impression management motives as well’ (p29). However, the interviews were not intended to discuss particularly sensitive issues, so any tendency to impression management was judged unimportant. page 20 of 53
  21. 21. Supplementary data Interview data were supplemented by information from course materials and pre- existing Mellon Project data collected using the Course Experience Survey (Appendix 4). This survey combined two validated research instruments, the Course Experience Questionnaire (CEQ) and the Revised Approach to Studying Inventory (RASI), with open-ended questions relating to Open University courses and their provision of computer-based media. Responses from E124 and B300 students to the open-ended questions on the Course Experience Survey were coded and analysed alongside data from the epistolary interviews to provide data from a larger sample. In addition, some of the quantitative data gathered by other Mellon Project researchers was subjected to secondary analysis for this study. Ethics Epistolary interviewing raises a number of ethical issues. Data protection is important, and all data collected was stored on a password-protected hard drive. The pilot study included digital certification, which allowed the encryption of messages and confirmed the sender’s identity. However, this was found to confuse respondents, so it was not used during interviews. All respondents were notified of the purpose of the research, that participation was voluntary, that it would not affect their standing with the university, and that they were free to withdraw at any time. The address of a website containing this information was provided on all emails. Respondents’ privacy was protected by the use of pseudonyms. As King (1996) notes: ‘Even when they are given clearly presented guidelines, it is unlikely that interviewees will have been in a similar situation before’ (p177). This is particularly the case for epistolary interviews, which could become indistinguishable in the respondent’s view from other online exchanges. Emails from the researcher were therefore formally laid out using a consistent style which always contained a numbered question, a title which drew attention to the research, and full contact details. The data collected was not expected to be particularly personal or sensitive. In the event, some respondents took the opportunity to reflect on their career, on their page 21 of 53
  22. 22. relationships with others and on friendship. One B300 student was clear how she had used the interviews: ‘I’ve really enjoyed having a proper think about my OU experience and your framework has provided an excellent platform to prompt this.’ Such reflections were responded to, but always clearly within the framework of the research interview. Working within the Mellon Project also raised ethical issues, as the project was still underway and results had not been published. It was necessary to check that data sources and other people’s analysis were always acknowledged and referenced. This was particularly the case with Appendices 1, 2 and 4, all of which were the work of other Mellon Project researchers. This research conformed to the Open University’s Code of Good Practice in Research (2003). As it involved research on students, a research proposal was submitted to the university’s Student Research Project panel, and approval was given on 20 June 2005. page 22 of 53
  23. 23. Chapter 4: Collecting and analysing the data Data for this research were collected from three main sources: epistolary interviews, pre-existing data from the Course Experience Survey (CES) 2004 administered by other Mellon Project researchers, and the complete course materials for E124 and B300, which include printed material, CDs, videos, audio cassette and web pages. Analysis was carried out using the grounded-theory approach outlined by Strauss (1987). This required analysis to take place alongside data collection, driving the collection of further data and the generation of theory. Epistolary interviews: sampling Interviews with ten students were planned: five from E124 and five from B300. A random sample of 25 students from the current presentation of each of these courses was obtained from the Open University Survey Office, which created a sample containing only students who were available for surveying under the Open University’s rules. Students in the sample were contacted by email over a period of three weeks, until 10 interviews were underway. Due to delayed responses, 12 interviews were carried out in all; six for each course. There were marked differences in the response rates for each course. Eighteen B300 students were contacted. Of these, seven responded, and six interviews were completed. The first response came within 10 minutes of the initial email being sent. In all, interview responses from B300 amounted to almost 8,000 words. In contrast, responses from E124 students were slow. The original sample did not produce sufficient responses, and a further random sample of 25 was needed. In total, 40 students were contacted, resulting in six interviews, one of which was broken off by the student at question 7. Total interview responses from E124 students came to around 4,500 words. There was therefore substantially less E124 data available. One explanation was that E124 students had less experience of course-related interaction, but analysis showed that was not the case. E124 students, all Early Years practitioners, may have had less access to and familiarity with email than the business students, who were more likely to use email at work. However, all students in the samples had both a personal email address and a student email address, and replies timed from 7am to 11pm suggested page 23 of 53
  24. 24. access to email both at work and outside. Another possibility was that students with fewer educational qualifications were less willing to take part in typed interviews. This explanation was supported by the mistakes and lack of fluency in many E124 responses. Epistolary interviews: method Students who responded positively to the initial contact email were emailed more details of the interview and the first question. Questions followed the interview protocol (Appendix 3) and were phrased to be relevant regardless of students’ level of interaction on their course. This provided a degree of standardisation within an informal interview framework, ensuring the main questions were always phrased in the same way and asked in the same order; and increased reliability by ensuring consistency between respondents and courses. Each emailed question included contact details for the researcher, including a web address. This website included a brief summary of the project, information about epistolary interviewing, the ten interview questions from the interview protocol, frequently asked questions and information about the Mellon Project, including the option of downloading the research design. The site also included a biography and photograph of the researcher. Each email from the researcher contained personal disclosure (see Panel 4.1). Respondents varied in their reaction to disclosure. Some took the opportunity to develop a wide-ranging conversation, others responded only to the formal questions, often omitting either a salutation or a sign-off. Alison’s [all respondents’ names given here are pseudonyms] responses (Panel 4.2), with their limited word count, uncorrected mistakes and use of lower case only, resembled the text messages she used for interaction on her course. page 24 of 53
  25. 25. Hi Carol, Yup, the heatwave has spread to Milton Keynes, and I’m wishing I was at the open-air pool instead of in the office. Walked the kids to school this morning and they were getting slower.. and slower... and s.l.o.w.e.r.... I heard from my friend at King’s Cross yesterday, and he was on the afternoon shift so missed the worst of it, although he said they were treating casualties on the station, and there was loads of disruption. Great answer to question three - that level of detail is really useful to me. It’s good that your manager is interested in your study and that you get to use it and apply it. Most of my courses at the moment are in research techniques and come in useful while I’m doing my research - but sometimes it’s hard to make the bridge between theory and real life. I think you’ve covered lots of the answer to Question 4 in previous answers, so I’m including Question 5 as well. Question 4: Having interacted with other people while doing B300: Business behaviour in a changing world, in what ways have you found that helpful? Question 5: What has put you off interacting with other people while on B300: Business behaviour in a changing world? Regards Rebecca ========================================= Rebecca Ferguson MA Institute of Educational Technology GC128, Open University Walton Hall, Milton Keynes MK7 6AA Tel 01908 659256 Panel 4.1: Personal disclosure in email its helpful to discuss assignments and different theories and ways which help children to learn and thrive, and be given different ideas on activititys to do with the children. i have spoke to others using first class and also through personal emails and text messages. Panel 4.2: Text-message style page 25 of 53
  26. 26. Course Experience Survey The Mellon Project investigated several areas relating to interaction, including students’ perceptions of course quality, their satisfaction with the courses and the course materials, their opinions on assessment, workload, goals and standards. To collect relevant data, the Course Experience Survey (CES) was administered in 2004 to a sample of students on each of the 36 courses in the research matrix. Students who responded were on 2004 or 2003/4 course presentations. Secondary analysis was carried out on this pre-existing data, gathered by other researchers. CES sample sizes depended on how a course had been rated for integration and interaction. For E124, 113 questionnaires were sent out and 62 returned, a response rate of 55%. For B300, 159 questionnaires were sent out and 65 returned, a response rate of 41%. This response pattern differed from that of my epistolary interviews, which had a greater take up from B300 students than from E124 students. However, when answering the three open-ended questions on the CES, B300 students again wrote more, 4,700 words, compared to 2,500 written by E124 students. This may have reflected the fact that B300 students were more dissatisfied or it may, again, show that E124 students were less confident about expressing themselves in writing. Secondary analysis of the quantitative data from the CES revealed an unforeseen difference between E124 and B300. E124 had the highest student satisfaction levels of the 36 courses studied, while B300 ranked only 33rd of 36 for satisfaction. This rating was reflected in the responses to open-ended questions, in which B300 students made twice as many suggestions for improvements. The CES contained 92 questions, most designed for quantitative analysis. For my study, responses to the only three open-ended questions were coded: 38 Does the course include the opportunity to engage in on-line conferencing email? YES/NO a: If so, what, if any, positive contributions did conferencing and/or email make to your study? b: If so, what, if any, negative contributions did conferencing and/or email make to your study? page 26 of 53
  27. 27. 39 Does the course include the opportunity to use software, CDROMs and/or the Internet? YES/NO a: If so, what, if any, positive contributions did these make to your study? b: If so, what, if any, negative contributions did these make to your study? Do you have any other comments on this course or studying with the Open University in general, or about this questionnaire? Students did not necessarily respond to any or all of these questions; some omitted even the YES/NO element. Other students gave responses of up to 450 words. Course material A third source of data was the course material for B300 and E124. The Mellon Project originally used this data to assign courses to quadrants of the integration/interaction matrix (Figure 3.1). It was re-examined here to check the original classification of the two courses and to clarify students’ comments about the courses. It also provided evidence of the extent to which interaction had been integrated within the courses. Data analysis Analysis of the data was carried out using the grounded-theory approach proposed by Strauss (1987). Here, theory ‘is discovered and formulated developmentally in close conjunction with intensive analysis of data’ (p23). Data collection, analysis and generation of theory are inextricably linked when using this method – they do not follow each other sequentially. Theoretical memos are generated during the analysis and they, in turn, become part of the data to be analysed. Coding begins with open coding, when codes are generated from the data. This generates questions, tentative hypotheses and a search for more data. Open coding is followed by axial coding. Old and new data is analysed in terms of the original coding categories, revealing relationships between these and producing more questions and hypotheses. Finally, the core category is identified, the main category to which much or most of the data relate. ‘The goal of grounded theory is to generate a theory that accounts for a pattern of behaviour which is relevant and problematic for those involved. The generation of theory occurs around a core category’ (Strauss, 1987, p34). page 27 of 53
  28. 28. Open coding of the data, using the software package NVivo, began when the first epistolary interview had been completed. Although the interviews were based around ten standard questions, the epistolary nature of the interviews and the conversational style adopted meant that questions and issues raised by the coding could feed into the data collection. Coding categories suggested by the literature review were only included if they arose from the data. Thus ‘building knowledge’, ‘information gathering’ and ‘different perspectives’ were included while ‘social presence’ was omitted in favour of ‘empathy’, ‘bonding’, ‘hate’ and ‘problems: people’. Some categories were completely new and necessitated a return to the literature. Once open coding of the first three interviews had been carried out, axial coding began. Subsequent interviews were coded using the original codes, and also generated further coding categories which, in turn, led to a reconsideration of earlier data. Theoretical memos were stored online in a password-protected research blog. These memos were read and reread, influencing data collection and coding. The original literature review was treated as a long theoretical memo and reconsidered in the light of the data. It became clear that the link between interaction and interactive media was not inevitable, and the original research question was therefore revised. Seventy-nine coding categories were generated by open and axial coding. Responses to the open-ended questions from the CES were then coded into these categories, and two new categories were created. The coding was then divided by course, to highlight differences between the two courses. For the complete list of coding categories, see Appendix 5. It became clear that the core coding category was ‘reasons for communication’, and that virtually every other coding category related to this one. The data was then re-examined to relate this category to the research objectives. page 28 of 53
  29. 29. Chapter 5: Interpreting the data This chapter investigates levels of interaction and integration on two distance-education courses, and students’ perceptions of interaction and of the use of interactive media on these courses in order to fulfill the three aims of this research. It also relates the data analysis to the research objectives: to produce grounded accounts of different types of interaction on distance-education courses, to produce an evidence-based analysis of some effects of the integration of interaction on distance-education courses and to provide evidence to support the Mellon Project’s recommendations about effective strategies for the use of computer-based teaching in higher-education courses. The first two of these objectives are met here, the third is covered in Chapter 6. Levels of interaction Data analysis was shaped by the research question: ‘How are students on distance- education courses affected by the use of interactive media and by the levels of interaction and integration built into the course design?’ It was therefore necessary to pay particular attention to evidence relating to interaction and integration on the courses. A key consideration was whether they had initially been rated correctly by the Mellon Project. The Mellon Project’s core research question, ‘What is the impact of degree of interactivity and degree of integration in the design of computer-based teaching?’ led to a focus on ‘computer-based elements including conferencing, email, tools, CD/DVD resources, web-based resources and software’ (Appendix 2, p8). Courses rated high for interaction used a variety of these resources. Three problems arose from this categorisation. First, not all computer-based media promote interaction. Second, most Open University courses include some face-to-face interaction, whether at tutorials, day schools or (more rarely) summer school. Telephone tutorials are also widely used and, while the telephone is an interactive medium, its use predates computers. Finally, some courses require extensive face-to-face interaction with people outside the course, such as workmates or clients. These problems did not affect the ‘high interaction’ classification of B300, which not only incorporated face-to-face tutorials and telephone conversations but also included a page 29 of 53
  30. 30. range of computer-based resources. However, when face-to-face interaction was taken into account, it became evident that E124 was a highly interactive course, including face-to-face tutorials, a day school and guided interaction with people in the work environment. The data showed students interacting in a variety of ways. Those promoted by the course materials are shown in Table 5.1. B300 E124 Face-to-face tutorials Face-to-face tutorials Telephone contact with staff Telephone contact with staff Telephone contact with students Telephone contact with students Online conferencing using FirstClass Online conferencing using FirstClass Email contact with staff Email contact with staff Web-based resources Web-based resources Day school Face-to-face contact at work Table 5.1: Forms of interaction on B300 and E124 B300 therefore retained its high rating for interaction, but E124’s levels of interaction were clearly high rather than low. Levels of integration A brief look at B300’s extensive course materials suggested that interaction had been integrated successfully. Closer examination showed that this was not the case. There were two main data sources: the course file and the three study guides. The course objectives in the course file related to interaction: ‘you will be able to demonstrate… effective use of information and communication technologies… collaborating with others and working in a team to achieve a common goal’. However, the study guides focused on learning outcomes and none of those related to interaction with other people. The course file stated that ‘computer conferencing forms an integral and important part of course work’. However, the course work in the study guides largely ignored this possibility. For example, students were asked to ‘imagine you are trying to explain the gist of Zimmerman’s chapter to a group of friends or colleagues.’ There was no suggestion that students attempt such explanations using interactive media. page 30 of 53
  31. 31. B300 clearly integrated interaction with assessment. Two of the seven tutor-marked assignments (TMAs) which made up the assessed course work required use of conferencing. Around 30% of the marks for TMA03 were awarded for including ‘consideration beyond your own sphere of self-study to encompass the activity (or inactivity) of fellow-students in the group discussion (real and virtual) that have taken place’. Ten percent of the marks for TMA07 were allocated for reflecting on the experience of working in a collaborative research group. This TMA was due in week 45 of the 52-week course and, in the material for the six preceding weeks, there were three suggestions that students interact with others either at a tutorial or on an online conference. These were the only occasions when the study guides suggested interaction. B300 students had to gain at least 40% for both continuous assessment and examination to pass. A maximum of 7% of the continuous assessment and none of the exam related to interaction. Interaction was not needed to pass, instead the student role as ‘a self- reliant and independent learner’ was emphasised. B300 student Carol noted: ‘It becomes a tougher task if you’ve not accessed the conferences, and possibly a lower- scoring outcome, but I do think it would be possible to pass the TMA without it.’ In contrast, course materials show that interaction was recommended, supported, explained and assessed on E124. It formed part of the learning outcomes. Every TMA required interaction within the workplace. Advice on writing assignments recommended interaction: ‘When you have finished your outline… you may want to show it to someone else – perhaps a colleague who knows your work – or discuss it with your tutor. Sharing your ideas at this stage will help you clarify your thinking.’ Audio and videotapes were used to promote interaction, for example: ‘Are there any ideas you would like to share with colleagues or someone else who knows your work, as a result of listening to this?’ E124, like B300, included computer-based resources: a range of software applications, FirstClass conferencing, a website and online resources. Conferencing was introduced and explained at the start: ‘FirstClass will help you to feel part of the course by providing opportunities for you to exchange ideas and discuss different approaches with other students. You will also be able to talk via email with your tutor on a one-to-one basis. Often FirstClass is the quickest way of contacting your tutor or fellow students.’ page 31 of 53
  32. 32. Despite this initial positive approach, these computer-based resources were not integrated within the course, and many students reported that they had never used them or been aware of them. Examination of course material suggested that B300 should be rated high for interaction and low for integration, while E124 should be rated high in both categories. These revised ratings relate to all forms of interaction. The CES suggested low levels of integration of computer technology on both courses. When asked ‘Does the course include the opportunity to use software, CDROMS and/or the Internet?’ almost 10% of B300 respondents and almost 20% of E124 respondents answered ‘No’, despite the fact that all three were provided on both courses. Students’ perceptions of interactive media The interactive media used by students were not necessarily those recommended by the course materials. They reported using FirstClass, websites and email. Few mentioned writing or word processing, media so ubiquitous that they went unnoticed. Many reported phone conversations, and at least one E124 tutor group were texting each other. One B300 research group was meeting via Skype, which allowed users to make free phone calls using the Internet. Students felt that interactive media allowed them to structure conversations, organise work and research relevant, up-to-date information. Many reported using these media to supplement face-to-face tutorials, or as a poor substitute for them. What they reported getting from face-to-face interaction and not from interactive media were motivation, a broad overview, and chances to spark off each other and bounce ideas of each other. They reported no problems with phone use, but did report technical problems or problems with the interface when using course websites or conferences. Students’ perceptions of interaction Course materials were clear about the expected uses and benefits of interaction. B300 suggested discussing academic issues with student and staff, receiving administrative information, receiving details of information sources, contacting the course team, sharing thoughts and ideas, supporting revision and working together. E124’s suggestions included discussing ideas and feeling part of the course. Students were page 32 of 53
  33. 33. aware of these reasons for interaction but Table 5.2 (below), based on the 12 epistolary interviews and 127 CES responses, shows that other reasons for communicating were also important to them. No. of times Reason for communication mentioned 31 To share thoughts / views / discuss 30 To access tutors 19 To contact students / avoid isolation 19 To ask for / give / receive support 17 Assignments / Assessment 17 To access up-to-date information 15 To encounter different points of view 13 To work together 12 To make comparisons 10 To develop understanding / clarify ideas 10 To replace / enhance tutorials 6 Negative reasons: to moan / wade in / show off 6 To receive feedback 5 To chat 3 To solve problems 1 To develop communication skills Table 5.2: Reasons for communication cited by students Several positive reasons for interaction omitted from the course materials were mentioned by students. They wanted to contact others to avoid isolation. Yvonne wrote: ‘it makes it seem less like working in a bubble – where you have no contact with anyone’. Making comparisons was also important. This B300 student is typical: ‘online interaction enabled me to gauge my progress/understanding of topics against other students.’ Many students found it important to ask for, give and receive help, from tutors and their fellow students. An E124 student wrote that the online conference ‘enables me to ask questions at any time of day or night. You always get an answer.’ page 33 of 53
  34. 34. Accounts of interaction: face to face Although E124 and B300 were distance-education courses, they included opportunities for face-to-face communication at tutorials, day school and in the work environment. B300 student Alan wrote: ‘the issue of face to face meeting in this kind of distance learning is paramount in my view and I welcome any opportunity to meet fellow students/tutors in a classroom setting.’ Another B300 student wrote: ‘Contact with my tutor and other students I have met through tutorials has been extremely beneficial and kept me going when I may have otherwise given up.’ Comments about face-to-face contact were almost invariably positive, and when students suggested ways of improving their course, they often suggested increasing the face-to-face element. One E124 student wrote: ‘I would like more tutorials as I find talking to other students also helps’, while a B300 student considered: ‘it would be nice to have a summer school and work on a project together.’ Face-to-face tutorials were considered very important. Carol wrote that she found ‘interaction helpful in gaining an understanding of the course concepts. Mostly this happens at tutorials, where discussion is fast and our tutor is involved.’ Some people who had no access to these tutorials were indignant, as was this B300 student: ‘Sorry, but I find the sheer lack of tutorials very unmotivating!!! For students in C. Europe there are NO tutorials at all!!! This is totally unfair and does not give equal chances to all students.’ Online discussion was seen as supplementing and extending tutorials, but it came a poor second to face-to-face tutorials: ‘it is very positive in helping students, particularly those who cannot attend tutorials’ but it ‘does not replace tutorials’. Accounts of interaction: FirstClass B300 and E124 students differed in their interview accounts of asynchronous conferencing using FirstClass. B300 students mentioned many advantages. It provided helpful information, formed part of their coursework, allowed them to get feedback and pointers and provided different viewpoints. Some noted that it helped them to bond with or empathise with other students. They had used it to chat with friends, and had used email to invite other students to join in on the conference. As third-level students, they had favourable reports of past FirstClass use, noting a good support network, good rapport, staff enthusiasm and prompt tutor responses on other courses. page 34 of 53
  35. 35. B300 student Carol gave a clear account of successful use of FirstClass in the past: On previous courses (especially T171 and T205) there seemed to be a good online support network and rapport, where tutors and block consultants (and then other students) all conferenced like crazy to create a happy and slightly mad area where the shyer ones (me!) felt comfortable to join in the banter. If you get a chance to look in the FirstClass OUSA T171 Survivors conference, it’s still got that same comfortable and slightly mad atmosphere, and the people from that first T171 are still regular posters in there too. She added: ‘B300 is not like that at all.’ Other B300 students agreed. E124 students had very few positive things to say about FirstClass. Those interviewed said that conferencing made it easy to talk to students and tutors. Those surveyed added that the conference was interesting and made them feel a part of things. Their main comment, though, was that they did not use the conferencing facility. This was often explained in terms of time or technical knowledge, but there were also features of conferencing that they actively disliked, as did B300 students. These problems can be related to the work of Sims et al. (2002). Their criteria for successful integration took into account learner/interface interaction, asking whether the terminology and design were clear, the interactive medium accessible, the navigation easy and the environment secure. Judged in these terms, the data showed E124 and B300 clearly failing to integrate conferencing successfully. Accounts of interaction: problems with FirstClass The first problem was with the technology. Some students were limited by lack of technical expertise. Jackie expressed this clearly: I do feel the course designers assume most students are competent computer users. I can only speak from my own limited computer experience and that’s a bit lacking. The thought of online conference meetings fills me with dread and all the online ‘stuff’ that came with the course material I handed over to my son to install !!!! A few others had encountered technical problems: ‘Just one big problem’, ‘Not always able to access Internet’ and ‘Only got connect to be disconnected twice!!’ page 35 of 53
  36. 36. The format of FirstClass also attracted criticism. Wendy worked for a major telecommunications provider and was very critical of the conferencing software: The main reason that puts me off is the way that First Class is something that you have to physically log into. This sounds a bit strange but when you work remotely, like I do, you spend most of your time communicating on email and using the company intranet and so to have to go to another place is annoying. I would like to see the messages that are for me coming to my email box. The on-screen organisation was also criticised: ‘You can’t guess what is useful or not without opening the message and reading it’ and ‘Please make this awful FirstClass more clearly arranged.’ Time was a problem for some students, although others reported conference limited time problems by speeding up information searches. One B300 student wrote: ‘Cannot always find the time to participate and tend to feel guilty if I can’t’ and another reported that ‘FirstClass is very time consuming to use. There is a lot of irrelevant / “chat” to sort through.’ Others resented the time it took to set FirstClass up on their computer and the time it took to log on. An additional problem was timetabling, particularly for B300 students, who were required to use the conference for two assignments: ‘Students had to log on at very different times and it is sometimes difficult to keep up to speed on discussions’ reported one, and another wrote ‘I’m usually also well behind, which means that everyone has moved on often I don’t get much response, as the conference focus has moved well past the bit I’m on.’ By far the biggest criticisms of FirstClass from students on both courses related to social presence, the feeling of being together in virtual space or of encountering real people online. Students were unhappy with their own online persona and they were deeply suspicious of other people on line. They expressed these opinions forcefully. E124 student, Yvonne, explained: The main method of communicating seems to be via the conferencing centre which I really dislike contributing to for the fear of looking stupid! I sometimes think that my questions / queries will look silly to other people. I also fear that my contributions are maybe incorrect or misleading and page 36 of 53
  37. 37. again I don’t want to look silly. It seems much easier to ask a question at a tutorial as the interaction is much more fluent. Students reported feeling shy and vulnerable, insecure about posting and worried about making mistakes or looking stupid. Some judged themselves lazy or inferior when compared to those online. These feelings of personal insecurity seemed to result from the perceived attitudes of others. As Joinson noted (2005), self-perception and esteem, or the lack of them, were based on evaluations of others’ reactions. Bargh et al. (2002) found that, in the absence of information to the contrary, Internet communication fosters idealisation of the other. This was the reverse of what students using FirstClass reported. B300 student Carol wrote: I find conferences a bit creepy. Personal emails are okay (even group emails are fine), and private chat is excellent, but I find conferences uncomfortable. I mentioned this to someone once and they looked at me sideways, so it might be just me. Perhaps it’s tied up with my strong need for privacy, but I dislike not knowing who is out there reading my postings. I know I am shy and I don’t like walking into large rooms of strangers, but this is a bit different. Conferences give me a real feeling of vulnerability that I’ve not experienced anywhere else. I don’t use open chat rooms for the same reason. I know conferences are technically closed, but you still never know who is there, and that’s the bit I don’t like. Carol thought ‘it might be just me’, but many students were equally wary of conferences. E124 student Jackie wrote, ‘the thought of online conference meetings fills me with dread’ and one B300 student considered that ‘ignorant and disrespect are the key words.’ As well as general unease with strangers, especially unresponsive strangers, on the conference, the opportunity for making comparisons also produced problems. One of students’ reasons for interacting was to compare themselves and their progress with those of other students. Some reported that this was positive and kept them on track. However, others, like Yvonne, were negative: At least you have been spared the E124 website!! Everyone on this course seems to be doing at least 2 other courses at the same time, whilst working full time, raising a family and doing volunteer work as well!! Perhaps I am page 37 of 53
  38. 38. Idle!! When they use the website it usually is because they want to know about the course they have chosen for next year or to tell everyone about the wonderful marks they got for their last TMA!! There, I sound like a bitter and twisted old lady --- I’m not really!! Students reported that others on the conference were unresponsive, unhelpful, undisciplined, off-putting, intimidating and critical, with a tendency to show off or to moan. These negative comments came from students on both courses, although E124 students were more likely to worry about other people, and B300 students were more likely to comment on their self image. Accounts of interaction: time, place and community Wu and Hiltz (2004) summarised the benefits of online interaction as place- independence, time-independence, convenience and the potential to become part of a virtual community. None of these was consistently available to students. Comments on place usually referred to tutorials being inaccessible: ‘I would like to be able to attend tutorials and have face to face contact with my tutor’, ‘I find it very difficult to attend the tutorials as they are a long way from my home, therefore I feel I’m missing out on a lot of things’ and ‘Some questions might be answered if tutorials would be held on continental Europe’. Very few were like the E124 student who identified place- independence as a benefit: ‘Using the internet to link to other students on course E124 has helped me to feel less isolated as I cannot get to tutorials due to the distance involved over 350 miles each way.’ They were more likely to see place as a problem: ‘not everyone has computer access at all times’. Few students reported time-independence as a benefit of interactive media on their course. Instead, they felt hampered by time constraints. This was particularly true for B300 students, who were supposed to be collaborating online for TMA07 at the time they were interviewed. They found this collaboration could hold them up and that there was a time delay between responses. Alan wrote: ‘I have found it personally difficult with the technology and the timing to link up with members of my team at the appropriate moment.’ E124 students, free to use interactive media as they wished, often did not find the time for it. This student’s comment is typical: ‘I know that conferencing is available but quite honestly have not had the time to try.’ page 38 of 53
  39. 39. B300 and E124 were also not successful in creating a virtual community online. Students felt out of place and suspicious in the FirstClass conference. Some reported the existence of more successful conferences. Carol (above) cited the T171 conference, to which she contributed long after completing the course, despite her general feeling that online conferences were ‘creepy’. She attributed the success of that conference to the tutors’ approach, to a good online support network and to rapport. She also differentiated between B300 conferences and, again, attributed differences to the tutors’ different approaches: The national B300 conference is slightly more active and I find the tutors there a bit more encouraging online. They respond to postings, make insightful comments and ask leading questions – all which help to prompt responses. I would post there rather than my tutor group if I wanted clarity on a particular course issue. B300 student Wendy found the same: ‘the conversation on FirstClass of my own class has not been very enlightening however the conversation in the other classes and the Tutorial content from the other class that has been posted on the website has been very helpful.’ Accounts of interaction: student initiated Wu and Hiltz (2004) identified the opportunity to work in a student-dominated study space as a source of motivation and enjoyment for students. Although students were numerically dominant in FirstClass, they did not feel in control of it as a study space. B300 students, in particular, felt they were compelled to use it rather than choosing to do so. However, seeing definite benefits to interaction and having many reasons for communication, they had set up their own study spaces. Several chose to use the telephone. Yvonne felt her course did not support interaction, but she stayed in touch with a student she had met the previous year: ‘Since then we have rung each other up, discussed our TMAs and got together to see if we can help each other.’ B300 student Alan wrote: ‘I contact my tutor by phone as I prefer talking rather than electronic communication.’ Phone conversations with tutors were very popular: ‘One on one support from my tutor is excellent and he never ever turns me away when I call.’ The telephone, of course, offers place- and time-independence, does not require time- consuming text input and is a synchronous medium. page 39 of 53
  40. 40. B300 student Alan was the only person to report using Skype, an interactive medium established in late 2003 to provide users with voice contact via the Internet. ‘On this course in our groups for TMA my group is using Skype to communicate vocally over the internet rather than using traditional texting conferencing. This is an excellent innovation and I would use this for other courses too.’ This is another example of students choosing synchronicity and voice contact over asynchronous text contact, even though, in this case, it involved locating, downloading and installing extra software. Students preferred form of interaction was face to face. Only limited amounts of this were available, so students sought out someone with whom they could discuss their studies. All but one of the 12 students interviewed identified people with whom they discussed the course, either face to face or by phone. These were most likely to be friends, colleagues or people encountered at work. E124 student Linda wrote, ‘I found discussing this course with work colleagues and friends the most helpful, they were able to help me relate the assignments to my job and gave alternative suggestions and their varied opinions help to widen my view.’ B300 student David felt that ‘bouncing ideas off my manager has helped because he has been able to relate some of the theories to our business, therefore making it easier to understand.’ E124 students referred positively to mentoring. Anderson and Shannon (1995) define this as ‘a nurturing process in which a more skilled or more experienced person, serving as a role model, teaches, sponsors, encourages, counsels and befriends a less skilled or les experienced person’ (p29). Mentors are commonly used in the training of UK teachers and support staff. Jackie outlined her experience when training as a specialised teaching assistant: ‘We were mentored throughout the course by a chosen member of staff and time was given over to meetings to discuss options for the course assignments and for our mentors to observe us completing tasks then to give us feedback’ and went on ‘I wonder why mentoring was not included somewhere in E124?’ In fact, although mentoring was not a part of B300 or E124, students appear to have created their own unofficial mentors. This was the role in which they placed their friends and colleagues, seeking someone who could act as a sounding board and provide support, ideas and guidance. page 40 of 53
  41. 41. Integration of interaction Students on E124 and B300 interacted with other people mainly face to face, by the use of FirstClass conferencing or over the telephone. Two of these were mediated interactions, in that the student interacted with the interface as well as with another human. In the case of FirstClass, it was possible to interact only with the interface without being evident to other users. B300 course designers prioritised the integration of mediated interaction, while E124 course designers prioritised face-to-face contact. This is evident from their assessment strategies: two B300 assignments required mediated interaction and none mentioned face-to-face contact, while all assessed work for E124 required face-to-face contact and none mentioned mediated interaction. Integration of interaction: B300 One of B300’s six learning objectives was ‘collaborating with others and working in a team to achieve a common goal’. With students scattered across the UK and Europe, many unable to attend any of the six tutorials, it made sense to work towards this objective online. An initial online tutor group session built into discussion about the third assignment and then into group research for the final assignment. Students were assigned marks, although not many, for their description of and reflection on this online interaction. They were required to have the resources to support this interaction and, as this was a level three course, they could be expected to have sufficient familiarity with the conferencing software to interact without technical problems. If they did have difficulties, technical support was available by phone, and tutors ensured that all students were set up correctly and able to interact online. Laurillard’s (2002) criteria for integration – interactive work should be supported, built on, followed through and assessed – were therefore met. However, when criteria relating to interaction with the interface were considered, it became clear that integration was incomplete and that this strategy promoted only skills and information gathering. This integration strategy promoted a surface approach to learning. Students did not feel in control and became resentful rather than engaged. This was partly because students had only indirectly chosen to study B300 which, being a 60-point, third level course, involves a year of hard work. Most were working towards the BA (Hons) in Business Studies, of which B300 was a compulsory element. Zoe was page 41 of 53
  42. 42. typical when she reported, ‘B300 is a compulsory part of the BA (Honours) Business Studies degree, therefore I didn’t really have any choice.’ When it came to interacting, students clearly felt they were being pushed into it. David wrote: ‘I wouldn’t say that we are encouraged to interact, more we are forced by the TMAs.’ Wendy’s view was ‘my tutor pressurises me to use FC rather than encourages me.’ The data indicated that many were not clear about their learning objectives when using FirstClass. They suggested the purpose of their interaction was to ‘learn to select useful and correct information’, ‘learn how to search correctly on the Internet’ or ‘polish our computer skills’. When they identified benefits of collaborating online these usually related to developing a skill rather than constructing knowledge. TMA07 required students to work together on a research project and later to reflect on this experience. Wendy summarised the problems this created: I feel aggrieved that my mark is somewhat dependent on others. The group that I have been put in are particularly difficult to work with – they do not want to do calls or meet as other teams have done. In addition there is no structure around their research – I tried to organise them but it didn’t work but then when we are only using email that is understandable. Students complained that members of their group were lazy, undisciplined and uncommunicative and that they worked as individuals rather than group members. Instead of creating a learning community, this enforced interaction provoked resentment. Few students reported getting anything positive from the experience. They appear to have treated it as an information-gathering exercise rather than as an opportunity to build knowledge, share ideas or gain different perspectives. Many reported that being forced to collaborate had held them up, and forced them to work to the timetable of others in the group. Interaction therefore reduced the time available for consideration and reflection, focusing students on information gathering. Not surprisingly, CES data showed B300 ranked 32nd of the 36 courses studied for students’ use of a deep approach to learning and 3rd for use of a surface approach to learning. page 42 of 53
  43. 43. B300 thus failed to integrate interaction because students did not feel in control of the learning process, could not link activities to their own learning requirements and were not able to structure their environment to meet their own needs and preferences. Furthermore, the design of the interface was not always clear and many students felt insecure within the online environment. Interaction was judged a success in terms of the course when it resulted in an exchange of information or in an increase in skills. Carol saw conferencing as having two roles: ‘(a) gain experience in working collaboratively online, but – more importantly – (b) to provide a blob of evidence for analysis when applying the course’s decision-making concepts so we have something to contribute to the reflection part.’ She saw the reflection and analysis as processes to carry out alone; the interaction remained focused on skills and information. B300 paid little attention to many of the affordances of interactive media, but did encourage students to use information technology. Course materials asked students only twice to discuss activities using the conference, and just once to ‘compare your viewpoint with others through the conference and in your tutor group.’ These three activities were not assessed, and they occurred late in the course when a pattern of working individually had been established. After initial encouragement by tutors, students appear to have been left to organise themselves, without any clear idea of how they could use this opportunity other than to work together to find information. Integration of interaction: E124 The situation for E124 was very different. Interactive media were not well integrated into the course; 11% of CES respondents mistakenly believed that the course did not include the opportunity to engage in on-line conferencing, and at least 25% had never used the conference. It was offered as a facility but there was no pressure, and very little incentive for its use. When the study guide listed required resources these never included the conference. Therefore, when interaction is considered in terms of interactive or computer-based media, integration levels were extremely low. On the other hand, the course fully integrated face-to-face interaction. In doing so, it drew on the interactive resources of students’ friends and colleagues. Face-to-face interaction was so well integrated as to be almost invisible to students. Yvonne wrote: ‘On E124 there is no pressure to interact with ANYTHING / ANYONE page 43 of 53
  44. 44. else. If I didn’t attend a tutorial, log on to a conference, Speak to another soul, It would not affect the course.’ The assignments fitted so seamlessly with her life, that she did not regard the interaction as course related: ‘Probably the wrong thing to say but in the main I have based my TMAs on things we already do or try to do!!!’ All the assessed material on the course: the three TMAs and the final project, explicitly required workplace interaction. For example, TMA01 advised: ‘For this assignment you will need to plan for and support a child, or group of children, in a learning experience/activity in your setting, or to support children’s learning and understanding in an activity initiated by a child or group of children… You will need to reflect on the various ways in which you can support children’s learning and the various roles that you can adopt.’ Yet the students interviewed made very little of this interaction with children, they focused on interaction between adults. When asked with whom she had interacted, Jackie wrote: Apart from the tutorials I have not really invited other people to become involved in my studies. I have asked parents’ permission to use their child in my observations and reassured them that anything I write will not name any child and will be confidential. I have informed my line manager about the course I am studying. Despite this apparent lack of interaction, she went on, ‘I have found the TMAs’ content quite personal as I work in a 1-1 setting with children with Special needs.’ This unnoticed interaction was similar to the way in which interaction by writing was almost invisible within the interviews. Interactive work on E124 was supported, built on, followed through and assessed. In addition, students could control the learning process and link activities to their own environment. They felt secure, they could see the relevance of all assessed activities, and they had a strong interest in the success of these. This integration of face-to-face interaction is clearly suited to a vocational course. The evidence suggests that it would also have been suitable for B300. Wendy from B300 wrote: ‘Interactions with my customers have allowed me to gain my own real life case studies/examples’ and Zoe reported: ‘I’ve also used work colleagues when I’ve been researching an area and have found that the knowledge and experience they have has sometimes helped me page 44 of 53
  45. 45. understand something better or highlighted areas I hadn’t previously thought or known about.’ The course designers for E124 took advantage of facilities already available to students. The course was aimed at practitioners working in Early Years care and education settings with young children and their families. Most students were already part of a learning community, and often worked alongside several people who could play a mentoring role. Practical experience and support were almost always available, as were different perspectives and the opportunity to discuss and share ideas. Students were given the opportunity and the tools to construct their own knowledge, and there was a great deal of flexibility in the assessed activities. page 45 of 53
  46. 46. Chapter 6: Findings The final objective of this research was to provide evidence which would support the Mellon Project’s recommendations about effective strategies for the use of computer- based teaching in distance-education courses. This chapter summarises the interpreted data on interaction and integration in terms of a series of strategies which this research has suggested would be effective. It then looks at the strengths and limitations of this research, and at future research opportunities. Incorporate students’ reasons for communication Course materials gave a series of reasons for students to interact with others. Some were practical and administrative, some related to the collection of information and others related to the construction of knowledge within a learning community. Students had additional requirements which course designers should acknowledge. Students saw interactive media as a way of making them feel less isolated; this affordance of the media was very important to them. They wanted to chat, not necessarily on course- related issues, but also to have the ability to filter out the chat when working to a deadline. They wanted to compare progress with other students. They wanted to ask for help and to solve problems and also, occasionally, they wanted the opportunity for a good moan. They wanted someone to motivate them, especially at times when they were finding the work hard. Recognise the role of interaction in motivating students Motivation was seen to be an important aspect of interaction. Students were unlikely to report being motivated by the learning objectives of their course, particularly if it was a high-level course they were not studying by choice. Assessment motivated them to the extent that they would do what was required, but it was interaction with other students and, particularly, with tutors that motivated them to engage with the course. This role of tutors was particularly important to students and was seen as a major benefit of interaction. page 46 of 53