Blended Learning: One Small Step
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CSL & Education
|Number of departments||5||5|
|Number of respondents||178||161|
|Number of students involved||8,820||15,641|
Table 1: Study Sample
Figure 1: Percentage of use of online resources to support e-learning in the two faculties
Figure 1 reports the percentage of respondents and their use of various types of online opportunities. It shows that the most widely used resources, across both Faculties, are “directing students to useful URLs” and “directing students to library Internet resources”. The practice of placing study materials on servers and shared drives for on- campus use is fairly prevalent in MMU Cheshire. Many respondents across several departments in both Faculty groups suggested that they either do not use or do not find useful the provision of a WebCT site, or a non-WebCT based site. Some use is being made of WebCT for formative assessment, however, there is little interest in using WebCT for summative assessment. Few reported using WebCT for communication between staff and students.
When asked to indicate online resources which they believe would enhance their teaching, respondents expressed most interest in being able to provide online “handouts and materials that are currently provided on paper, material that is currently not delivered on paper, self-testing exercises for students, and materials that are currently provided on the student common drive”. Other items of interest suggested for inclusion were “online collaborative learning exercises, audio and video clips online and opportunities for students to showcase their work online”. The one thing they all seem to be less sure about is “web- based formal assessment”.
Figure 2: Current use of, and knowledge about WebCT (percentage of respondents) across departments
WebCT is currently, the preferred course management system for e-learning that is supported by the University. Figure 2 shows current knowledge among respondents about WebCT for each Department in the two Faculties. It reveals the presence of a great deal of awareness in all departments about the presence of WebCT as a course delivery platform for e-learning. In some Departments such as Law, there are many who have heard of it but claim to have little practical knowledge. Many have received some training in the past and many have heard of it. Notably, every respondent from the department of Environment and Leisure Studies is using WebCT. The survey revealed plenty of interest in the Faculties (across all departments) in getting to know how to use WebCT. Many of the respondents reported interest in a “basic introduction to WebCT”, and “how to set up and administer a WebCT site”.
Figure 3: Barriers to web-based provision (percentage of respondents) across departments
Figure 3 shows that the most heavily loaded factors that are seen as barriers to faculty engagement with Web-based learning are those which are at the top of the list of items that were presented to them in this question. These include “the lack of time to develop materials”, "lack of knowledge and understanding of WebCT”, “lack of technical support”, “concern about their own IT skills”, “concern about student ability to use WebCT”, and “concern about accessibility for students”.
This paper examines trends in faculty members’ use of e-learning technologies (especially WebCT), and their perceptions of e-learning in general, at a large metropolitan University in the United Kingdom (i.e., Manchester Metropolitan University). It is based on a survey of e-learning practices in two of the faculties at the University. While e-learning has been identified as a priority within each Faculty Learning and Teaching Plan at the University, this survey revealed a rather poor uptake of e-learning in two faculty groups (MMU Cheshire and the Faculty of Community Studies, Law and Education). However, the practices, concerns, and issues regarding e-learning, and reform in teaching and learning more generally, in these Faculties, are not out of the ordinary and are similar to those found in other comparable organizations (Newton, 2003). The reasons given for the lack of such inertia and interest in e-learning, are also commonly known and familiar. In the main, these are related to a lack of a clear and singular message emanating from senior management down to middle managers and through to staff regarding the implications and rewards for their engagement in e-learning and innovative teaching and learning practices more generally.
According to this survey, commonly used online practices in support of teaching and learning comprised directing students to useful URLs (i.e., web addresses), and directing students to library Internet resources. It is rather alarming to note that very few of the respondents in the survey wanted to use these resources in the future. Large numbers of respondents said that they do not use these resources currently, or do not find them useful. It would have been useful to ask respondents (the survey did not seek this information), why they might have felt that directing students to useful URLs and Internet resources was not a very good idea.
In MMU Cheshire, placing student study materials on shared drives for access by on-campus students is clearly more prominent. It is very likely that this practice at MMU Cheshire is a result of the availability of shared server facilities in the faculty. It can be argued that this is an important service that allows teachers and departments to give students ready access to essential study materials without them having to come to lectures to receive such materials. However, placing study materials on shared drives, in itself, does not comprise a particularly novel teaching and learning innovation. Indeed, several of the respondents suggested feeling somewhat uncomfortable about placing materials online for fear of alienating their students by passing printing costs onto them. They were also concerned about declining lecture attendance when student study material is placed online.
Another statistic of some concern regarding use of online resources is the large numbers of respondents across several departments suggesting that they either do not use or do not find useful the provision of a WebCT site, or a non-WebCT based site. It is important to probe a little deeper into the reasons for these observations. If faculty members are positively disposed towards making available study materials online via shared drives, then what are their objections to hosting a WebCT or even a non-WebCT site for their course when such websites will not only allow them to place students study materials online but do much more in support of their teaching and student learning? To what extent is this related to faculty members’ concerns about the skills that are necessary to build and maintain such sites? The vast majority of the respondents in this survey claimed to have no more than very basic technical skills and are concerned about the availability of technical support in this venture. Many also expressed concerns about their students’ ability to cope with WebCT.
WebCT is currently the preferred course management system that is supported by the University. This survey found that large numbers of respondents, except for those from Environment and Leisure Studies, do not currently use WebCT, although the majority have heard of it and many have received some training in it. Moreover, those who do use WebCT, mostly use it for putting their handouts and slides online. Further exploration into the reasons for these practices would be most useful in aligning resources and planning further WebCT related activities for staff.
Respondents suggested that WebCT ought to be regarded as a support for teaching and learning, not necessarily as a replacement for student contact and real-time student-lecturer as well as student-student interaction. This is a legitimate concern and it points to the need to consider the teaching and learning functions of the institution in a holistic way, as opposed to what might be fashionable at the time.
A good deal of use is being made of WebCT for formative assessment, for instance in the Humanities and the Social Sciences. That is encouraging and ought to be reinforced and showcased. There was very little interest in using WebCT for summative assessment. It would be worth investigating this further with a view to adopting some University-wide approach to allay any fears there might be about security.
Very few academics reported using WebCT for communication between staff and students, which is surprising when that facility is considered as one of the key strengths of online learning technologies (see Salmon (2000). What could be the reasons for this? The reason that they readily suggest is lack of time to develop these skills, much like the reason they suggest as a barrier to enhancing and improving their teaching practices with web-based provision. While it might be argued that teaching academics have been allocated preparation time as part of their normal time allocation for teaching, these are nevertheless, legitimate concerns for faculty members in comparable institutions. Time and resources have to be made available if any serious uptake of e-learning is envisaged (Lockwood, 2001). Meaningful ways of addressing these are with targeted faculty development activities that focus attention on strategies for designing and moderating online discussions (See Robinson, 2001, King, 2001, MacLachlan-Smith and Gunn, 2001). And indeed there is much to learn and a lot known about online education. See for instance the work on this subject being carried out by Salmon (2000; 2002) http://www.atimod.com/e-moderating/. Failure to approach this sort of staff support systematically is sure to lead to a great deal of poor practice, which will result into increased student and staff frustration all around. This could lead to large numbers of academics withdrawing from such innovative practices altogether (Oliver and McLoughlin, 2001).
There is some concern (ascertained from open-ended responses), that students prefer printed notes as opposed to materials on the web because of the costs of printing these out. This too is a legitimate concern that needs to be addressed, and in fairness to the students. Remarks that student lecture attendance tends to decline when their material is placed online, probably says a lot more about the need for that lecture than student tendencies. There is no disagreeing than a good lecture can be a very powerful instructional strategy just as a poor lecture can be a demoralizing event for both, the students and the teacher. Study materials that can be placed online or handed out in print form, should be provided in that form and the time that is taken up in presenting the material verbatim could be more wisely spent in engaging students with that material.
Some of the comments such as “the development of debating and presentation skills are only possible in a classroom”, and that “this subject is not suited for web-based delivery” begins to make one wonder about the real reasons for not considering the opportunities that e-learning technologies might be able to afford. Central to this is the issue of teacher’s perceptions, and perspectives about teaching and the subject matter content. Desirable changes in these directions require a great deal of effort over time (see Wicker & Boyd, 2003). Obvious possibilities include showcasing the work of the innovators in order to demonstrate what is possible as well as encourage and reward their efforts more publicly.
Serious attention needs to given to incentives and motivations for adopting online learning. Besides the political, social and economic imperatives for reforming our learning and teaching practices, we need to be very clear about the educational imperatives for adopting e-learning. The reasons for any such engagement have to be educationally driven. These educational reasons for the use of e-learning ought to be made very clear to all, most importantly to the academic staff and the students. The issue with this is not at all about whether e-learning is better than face-to-face teaching or vice versa, but what combination of teaching strategies are going to best meet the needs of your current and future student intake, and the demands of the workplace in which they will be hopefully employed. That is most surely, an educational concern.
In sum, the adoption of any particular educational delivery system needs to be approached systematically and systemically. We should think back to what the reasons were for bringing students and faculty together in a campus-based lecture and tutorial environment, and consider carefully, if that model of teaching and learning is still appropriate. Can these approaches to learning and teaching continue to be supported as they were in the initial stages of their adoption? If not, then what kind of educational model and accompanying infrastructure support is necessary for teaching and learning in contemporary higher educational settings? These are useful questions to ask.
It seems like that this question had pre-empted the responses by the way it was presented to faculty members. Or perhaps the question rather accurately reflects the mood of academics about using technology in their teaching? The most heavily loaded factors that are identified by faculty members as barriers to their engagement with e-learning are those, which were at the top of the list of items that were presented to them in this question. These are “lack of time to develop materials”, “lack of knowledge and understanding of WebCT”, “lack of technical support”, “concern about their own IT skills”, “concern about student ability to use WebCT”, and “concern about accessibility for students”.
I wonder, if these would be the reasons they would identify, if they were not offered these choices. What might be revealed by a grounded analysis of such things like the perceptions of academics towards teaching and learning in higher education, their engagement with e-learning, and their perceptions of existing course management systems? This kind of research would be useful to carryout.
Nevertheless, many of the concerns identified by faculty members in this survey are also found in other similar organizations and all of these comprise real and serious issues, and which need a comprehensive institutional response. See for instance Bower (2001), and McKenzie, Mims, Bennett, & Waugh (2000).
At the heart of this response will have to be a consideration of the form and function of the teaching and learning transaction that an organization can, and needs to be able to support. Invariably, this will comprise consideration of numerous stakeholders and a very complex set of issues. As far as academic staff members are concerned, the issues that would need attention are rewards, workloads, support and training to venture into new directions (Latchem & Lockwood, 1998). In most instances, the longstanding existing reward and infrastructure support systems governing academic life and work will not suffice. And a partial approach will not do either, as it will lead to conflicting messages. A comprehensive institutional response and sponsorship is essential if sustainable reform is to be achieved in teaching and learning.
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