Learning and Teaching in Action: Open Issue

Group of students at a computer

 

Are your students ready to study in an online or blended learning environment?

Nicola Greaves

In May 2006 ‘Guidelines for the Development and Delivery of On-Line Learning’ were produced by the e-Quality Working Group chaired by Bill Johnston from the Faculty of Humanities, Law and Social Science. To complement these it was decided that a set of generic ‘how to study online’ materials should be developed to be made available across the university.

Studying online requires adaptation of traditional ways of learning and students may be unaware of the academic protocols expected of them. Students are still required to produce work to the same academic rigour and still require course help and advice as well as assistance with their general readiness for online learning. This has been the subject of a Fellowship in Academic Practice, conducted over the last twelve months.

The ‘how to study online’ materials have been transformed into the ‘Studying online: resources to get you connected’ website. This article aims to introduce this website and the work that will be taking place over the coming year to evaluate and further develop the resource.

Supporting online students

The importance of supporting students studying online cannot be understated.

‘No industry would have a reasonable chance of surviving if newcomers, under training, were simply given the necessary tools, without any instructions on how to use them’ (Raaheim, Wankowski and Radford, 1991, p.47).

A solid support structure is required and this comes, not only from the university, but also a student’s family, friends and work colleagues.

Tait (2000) identifies three categories of student support:

  1. Cognitive – Supporting and developing learning through course materials and learning resources for individual students.
  2. Affective – Providing an environment which supports students, creates commitment and enhances self esteem.
  3. Systemic – Establishing administrative processes and information management systems which are effective, transparent and overall student friendly.

The aim of the website has been to meet the second of these categories, ‘Affective’, providing students with a supportive environment, scaffolding their learning and instilling in them the confidence to study online effectively. Providing this support structure will ensure that learning online with MMU is a positive learning experience.

According to Salmon (1998, p.5) support for students needs to be purposeful and planned, covering not only the software skills required but also the necessary skills to operate successfully and productively in the new online environment. Students who feel supported and secure in a safe environment are more likely to be motivated to contribute and to take the risks involved in this new learning environment.

Developing the resource

Decisions on the look and feel of the resource evolved from discussions with colleagues and by reviewing some of the literature on supporting distance learning students.

The eBenchmarking project (*)student and staff questionnaires also provided valuable information about the support that students felt they needed and that staff thought was provided. Conclusions drawn from these questionnaires included:

  • A majority of staff felt that there was no departmental support for students using e-learning tools (e.g. training, web tutorials, personal advice and help). (Indicator: Academic staff survey)
  • 32.1% of student respondents claimed that one of the barriers to learning online was lack of support from tutors whilst 88% reported no barriers to learning online from the Information Systems Helpdesk. 73.9% reported no barriers to learning online due to the performance of the University network or Internet access. (Indicator: Student survey)
  • Most staff felt that difficulties arose in using ICT in courses because of the different levels of computer skills of the students. (Indicator: Academic staff survey)
  • 29.9% of student respondents claimed that they received support in developing study skills to help them to learn online (e.g. time management, evaluating electronic resources, reading skills, communications skills, academic writing) but another 49.5% said they would like to but didn’t. (e-Learning Benchmarking at MMU; 2007).

A sitemap for the resource is shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Site map for the resource

diagram of sitemap

After considering various options it was decided that a website would provide a solid basis for the large amount of information required initially. As a result ‘Studying online: resources to get you connected’ was born with an initial overall aim of providing a one stop shop to access all of the excellent materials that have been developed over the years here at MMU plus others specifically developed for the site. As the site continues to evolve it is hoped that different technologies and further interactive features will also be embedded.

One of the initial deliberations when creating the website was whether to develop the materials for students studying totally online, students following a blended learning approach or materials for all. Considering only a very small number of MMU courses are delivered totally online it was decided that the materials should cover a wider audience with those students studying in a blended learning environment included. This proved to be quite difficult as the problems experienced by students studying totally online are different to those who are having face-to-face as well as online experiences. It is hoped that students will dip in and out, using the materials of most relevance to them.

Translated into an online environment the homepage of the resource is presented in Figure 2.

Figure 2: Studying Online homepage

screenshot of homepage

From the Homepage, students can access all of the available materials including:

  • ‘Are you ready to study online’? quizzes
  • Course help and advice
  • Technology support
  • Virtual library
  • Study skills support

‘Are you ready to study online’? quizzes

Ensuring that students are ready to study online before they embark on an online course is crucial for retention. Considering the research and evaluation of student needs it is evident that successful online learning goes beyond the requirement for good IT skills. Of course, sound technological skills are important as problems in this area will hamper learning. However, other barriers were also identified from initial research findings, examples of which are listed in Figure 3.

Figure 3: Barriers to online study

Technology Learning styles
  • Access to technology off campus, sharing these resources with other members of the family
  • Comfort with technology
  • Reliability of technology
  • New technologies being developed for learning and a student's ability to access these
  • Ability to log on frequently
  • Software skills
  • Motivations for learning
  • Self awareness
  • Self discipline
  • Persistence
  • Flexibility
  • Remaining unfazed when things don't go as expected
  • Positive attitude
  • Independent learner
Study Skills Communication skills
  • Time management
  • Ability to read and digest large amounts of information
  • Ability to read from a computer screen
  • Working from written instructions
  • Writing skills
  • Willingness to develop these new skills
  • Building online relationships
  • Contributing to Internet discussions
  • Time to read and respond to discussion board postings
  • Publicly expressing views

 

These barriers formed the basis of the ‘Are you ready to study online?’ quizzes. Two quizzes have been developed: the first considers whether a student has the technological skills required to study online; the second looks at the personal and study skills required (Figure 4). Each quiz puts forward a number of statements for students to agree or disagree with. On submission of the quiz a personal support package (Figure 5) is provided for students to either explore immediately or save for future use.

Figure 4: Screenshot of the personal and study skills quiz

screenshot of quiz

Figure 5: Screenshot showing an example of the personalised package of support provided after completion of the personal and study skills quiz

screenshot of personalsed support

These quizzes attempt to personalise the resource to a particular student’s needs rather than requiring them to spend time locating resources within the website as a whole. They could be used by future distance learning students before embarking upon an online programme to ensure that it is the right path for them to take. They could also be used as part of the induction process for students following blended learning programmes.

Future work

Evaluation of the resource will take place over the coming year. This evaluation will take the form of:

  • Interviews with staff who originally expressed an interest in using the materials to find out if and how they are using them, how useful they found them and how they may be improved.
  • Focus groups with students to gather opinion on the materials, relevance, usefulness and the improvements that they would like to see.

There is obviously much support required and some of this support can only be provided by the department or a student’s personal support network (friends, family and colleagues). Students should be encouraged to develop these personal support structures in addition to the support provided to them by departments and the university. The online resource attempts to provide a starting point which can be further developed and expanded by departments to meet their own students’ particular needs.

It is hoped that future developments will include:

  • Collaboration with departments/faculties to provide links to additional resources that have been developed and used successfully with students.
  • Departments/faculties using the resources as a starting point to personalise support for their students.
  • Signposting to study skills materials currently being collated by Alicia Prowse (CeLT) and the Faculty Student Support Officers.
  • Signposting to Personal Development Planning materials for online students if these are not already provided by their home department.
  • The development and inclusion of interactive elements.
  • Using the materials with future students as well as current students, especially in assessing a student’s readiness for online learning.

The resource can be found using the following link:

http://www.celt.mmu.ac.uk/studying_online

Reference list

e-Learning Benchmarking at MMU (2007) A report of the Higher Education Academy Phase 1 e-Benchmarking Exercise using the ELTI methodology.

Raaheim, K., Wankowski, J. and Radford, J. (1991) Teaching, Counselling, Research. Buckingham:SRHE and OU Press.

Salmon, G. (1998) Student induction and study preparation online Open University [online], accessed 26 October 2006.

Tait, A. (2000). Planning Student Support for Open and Distance Learning. Open Learning, 15(3), 287 – 299.

Acknowledgements

The author would like to thank Lia Aston for the hard work that she has put into developing the website.

Notes

* The Higher Education Academy led the Benchmarking of e-Learning Exercise in collaboration with JISC during 2006/2007. The Benchmarking Exercise was developed in response to feedback from institutions about the need to understand more about their own, and the sector’s, progress in e-learning. The MMU e-Benchmarking exercise was used to identify our current position in terms of exploiting and embedding learning technologies in institutional processes and practices; current and potential challenges and drivers; future possibilities and a set of draft strategic goals for integration of e-learning into learning and teaching at MMU, especially focusing on pedagogic and curriculum issues. (e-Learning Benchmarking at MMU, 2007).

 

about the author

photo of Nicola Greaves

Nicola Greaves
Faculty of Humanities, Law and Social Science

e-mail: n.greaves@mmu.ac.uk
telephone: 0161 247 6178

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Summer 2008
ISSN 1477-1241