Making meaning from evaluations of learners’ experiences of e–learning
This special issue has been edited, reviewed and authored by members of ELESIG (Experiences of E-Learning Special Interest Group), who are interested in investigating and evaluating learners’ experiences of e-learning. ELESIG was initially funded by the UK Higher Education Academy to establish a network of practitioners who are undertaking learner experience research and ultimately to build capacity in undertaking such research (ELESIG, 2008). Oxford Brookes was one of the three founder members of ELESIG, alongside Bradford and Greenwich Universities.
With technology and its role in society changing so fast, establishing ways of hearing the student voice is going to become ever more important. Anecdotally, we know that while some students are using technology in ways that help them study and learn, other students find technology to be an obstacle to their learning. Learner experience research aims to uncover the strategies and beliefs of learners who are using technology effectively, to develop usable models and to make evidence-informed recommendations for institutions.
However, there are challenges in eliciting and analysing learners’ strategies and beliefs. With technology being such an integrated part of learners’ lives, we need to take a holistic view of their technology use and yet also find ways of dealing with the enormous variations between individual experiences. This collection of articles shows how learner experience research is drawing on qualitative research methodologies to capture such personal experiences. Williams et al. draw on narrative inquiry in developing their nested narratives method, Dujardin reports a single case study as part of a virtual ethnography and Lyons and Thorpe use a diary interview approach. It is interesting to note how some researchers are using technology themselves, such as Williams et al.‘s visual maps and Lyons and Thorpe’s use of SMS texts to distribute daily diary prompts.
These tools provide ways for us to uncover how learners are making sense of their own learning in this technological age. Williams et al. emphasise this sense making, seeing ‘learning how to learn’ as a core function of higher education. Similarly, Dujardin observes and converses with a ‘fluent e-learner’ and notes how she uses the online discussions to make meaning of her learning. Lyons and Thorpe find that learners value the availability of online formative assessments in taking control of their own learning. Anagnostopoulou et al. also focus on this meta-cognition, examining how learners conceive of the learning process and the role of technology within it.
This collection of articles also shows how research can be used to inform institutional policy and practice. Here mixed-method research designs predominate. Some, such as Currant and Kennan, are evaluating the impact of specific institutional interventions-in this case online support materials for the transitional period prior to and early on in a course start. Anagnostopoulou et al. are also interested in this transitional period and have compared the experiences of students who withdraw early in a course life to those who continue in order to make recommendations to improve retention. Blundell and Chalk and Peacock and Murray both make suggestions about implementing e-portfolios; Blundell and Chalk recommend their use as a ‘way in’ to higher education for non-traditional entrants. Lyons and Thorpe use their learners’ experiences to understand what students want from the institutional Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) and are using student e-learning assistants to develop sites that are consistent across modules. Habib and Sønneland also focus on the VLE, advocating a theoretically informed approach to the design of courses within the VLE.
The articles in this special issue show how the field of learner experience research is adapting and developing the tools it needs and is starting to make meaning from the complex and, at times, contradictory results that are commonly found. It is this modeling and problematising the findings which takes us beyond relating the stories of the individual learners to be able to make recommendations with confidence. We have seen an emphasis on supporting learners to develop the meta-cognitive learning skills necessary to appropriate technology in ways that are beneficial. In the final article, reporting work undertaken here at Oxford Brookes, Benfield et al. highlight the potential role of context in explaining differences in patterns of technology use. They, and several of the other authors, conclude that institutions have a responsibility for shaping learner behaviour and recommend that we make explicit our rationale for using technology within the curriculum in order to help learners understand how to use it productively.
Rhona Sharpe (Oxford Brookes University) and Becka Currant (Bradford University), Guest Editors
Published: March 2009