Vol. Two - Issue Four - Mar 2009

Published: March 2009

Editorial: Evaluating Learners’ Experiences of eLearning

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

From this issue:

Nested Narratives: Enabling Students To Make Sense of Their Learning

This article describes the development of a research method used to investigate how students make sense of their own learning in Foundation Degrees taught both online and on campus. This method uses ‘nested narratives’ to capture the students’ own voices (both literally and metaphorically), as they make sense of their learning experience and strategies, within the gestalt of their own stories. The main aim of the research is to provide rich empirical descriptions of what students regard as important as they become practitioners in their professional field. The process of story telling is itself also a learning process.

Posted in Research Paper

Elevator to communal scaffold?

This article analyses the use of a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) in a Norwegian institution of higher education, using the model of communal scaffolding. It compares the actual use of the VLE to support a Bachelor programme with the guidelines offered in the communal scaffolding literature. Interviews conducted with staff and students constitute the main data source. The analysis explores the extent to which the programme follows the communal scaffolding recommendations. Areas of improvement are identified in the communal scaffolding model and a new model is proposed, based on the original, but with additional elements emerging from the data.

Posted in Research Paper

Learners’ initial expectations and experiences of ePortfolios

This paper discusses the findings of a pilot study that explored learners’ preliminary expectations and experiences of using an ePortfolio. ePortfolios have the potential to support learning and personal development due to the multiple roles they can play in the learning environment; however, student engagement has been varied. A mixed-method approach assisted in developing a rich picture of learner experience and use, and findings suggest that tutor and learner need support to understand the complexity of the tool. Furthermore, data protection and alumni access need to be addressed at an institutional level before appropriate resources are committed to implementation.

Posted in Research Notes

Student learning technology use: preferences for study and contact

This paper reports some of the results from a mixed-method research project to evaluate learners’ experiences of e-learning at Oxford Brookes University. Here we present the analysis of responses to a survey completed by 1,180 full-time undergraduate students. The survey aimed to elicit patterns and preferences in technology use by this group. It was found that students prefer to study at home, many using their own laptops to get online. Once online, students most frequently engaged in activities related to accessing and reading online learning materials. Students used a wide variety of communication tools to contact friends and peers but a narrower range to contact tutors, with a preference for e-mail. The implications of the findings are discussed in relation to the provision of learning spaces and technology on campus and the impact of institutions and courses in influencing how and where undergraduates study.

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Developing a successful academic identity for ‘non-traditional’ students

During the Autumn semester of 2007–08, pilot research in the use of electronic portfolios was carried out across nine modules, at all levels from first year to Masters, and in six different departments. The pilot that was most successful, in the sense of generating most student activity, was on the Foundation Degree in Community Sports Coaching (Cricket). What was noticeable about these students was that, although they were ‘non-traditional’ students (e.g., non-standard entry qualifications, first in family to go to university, etc.) they very quickly adapted to the electronic portfolio. They seemed to see it as a showcase for their prior sporting and other achievements, and then as a repository for evidence of further sporting and academic achievement as the course progressed. Anecdotal evidence from the students themselves is presented in support of this view. In addition, the students could also be considered ‘digital natives’ with some previous experience using social networking websites such as YouTube for similar purposes. Finally, as members of minority ethnic cultures, the students also presented a positive self-identity, for example choosing well-known black cricketers for their learning object exercise. The evidence in the pilot appears to show that the use of the electronic portfolio to present prior achievement in this way also encouraged these students to upload evidence of academic achievement during that first semester. This was not apparent in the other pilot modules involving students with more ‘traditional’ academic backgrounds. It may indicate that compiling an electronic portfolio of prior achievement is an effective ‘way in’ to HE for students who may otherwise struggle with traditional approaches to learning and teaching. Finally, we provide evidence that underlines recent work on students’ use of Web 2.0 services to create a personal learning environment or distributed ePortfolio.

Posted in Research Notes

Investigating student experiences of e-learning using the Diary Interview Approach

This paper outlines the methods used to explore student experiences of e-learning at Sheffield Hallam University. Placing e-learning in the context of the holistic learning experience, the diary interview approach (Zimmerman and Wieder, 1977) was employed in order to collect rich personalised accounts of our students’ experiences. Whilst the study highlighted that each student has differing experiences, here we will discuss the common experiences and what has been done at an institutional level to address issues emerging from the study.

Posted in Research Notes

Conversations with an e-learner

This case study was part of a larger ethnography, which focussed on learners’ experiences of an online Master’s module in research design. In-depth interviews were conducted via instant messaging with one mature e-learner over five months. These sought to capture her perspective in order to gain a finer appreciation of what it means to be a member of an online learning culture. The study confirms the need to structure online courses so that students can develop early in their studies appropriate online social skills. It highlights the value of having a ‘key informant’ willing to engage in reflective conversations with tutors, to understand participation patterns and help foster an online learning community.

Posted in Research Paper

Evaluating Systematic Transition to Higher Education

This research note outlines progress made on a twelve-month Higher Education Academy (HEA) funded e-learning research project. The focus of the project is on evaluating systematic transition to Higher Education. Pre-entry work has been undertaken at both Bournemouth and Bradford Universities in order to better understand the student experience and provide appropriate support measures to enhance initial transition into University. Our work has been beneficial in providing insights into the student experience of transition by providing rich data for analysis of the student experience of e-learning (during transition and induction in particular) and on how students feel about starting University, and their initial support needs. This paper discusses our project aims, methods and preliminary findings in order to understand more about student needs and what student hopes and concerns are when thinking about arriving at University.

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An exploration of perceptions of learning and e-learning

This paper discusses the relationships that first-year students have with learning and with technology. Due to the lack of previous work linking e-learning with student retention, differences between ‘withdrawers’ and ‘persisters’ were explored. Data were collected using interviews and questionnaires and analysed using thematic analysis. Evidence of a deficit approach to e-learning appears to manifest itself in both groups and technologies that promote social interaction were primarily reserved for personal use rather than within an institutional context. Recommendations from this research include the need to learn how technologies promoting social interaction are used and incorporate lessons learnt into the design of e-learning experiences.

Posted in Research Paper

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