A couple of days ago I was directed to Pillay, Irving, and Tones article (2007) that compares different diagnostic tools which are used to assess students readiness for online learning. Their literature review triggered my own thinking regarding our proposed course.

In their literature review they found that students are often less satisfied by online learning environments than classroom environments. If this is true, it is likely to contribute to the higher rate of attrition that is often reported in online learning.

If we can determine which factors lead to satisfaction and achievement, and also attrition and non-achievement, we may be able to better accomodate the needs of online learners in our programme. I’m also interested in whether it’s possible to develop/incubate the qualities and skills that help students to succeed online.

According to Pillay, Irving and Tones the following factors contribute to good outcomes for students

  • Social interaction
  • Computer Literacy
  • Computer self-effiacy (or the perception of the learner that they can be an effective computer user)
  • Positive online learner qualities

They also found that the following factors contribute to poor outcomes for online learners

  • A predetermined pace of learning
  • Poorly designed or poorly functioning learner experiences
  • Dissatisfaction (which may be related to a low level of computer self-effiacy, or a low level of interaction with the learning community and/or instructors)
  • Negative online learner qualities

Social Interaction 

social interaction within the OLE supports and motivates students to complete their work and seek out new learning experiences. (Pillay, Irving, Tones, 2007)

Study Skills Programme 

I’ve already discussed how we plan to incorporate a computer literacy and study skills programme into the first semester of our massage therapy programme.  According to Pillay, Tones and Irving students who had completed computer literacy courses before engaging in online study were observed experiencing less anxiety and frustration than those who had not.  They also found that computer self-effiacy is enhanced by the development of technical computer skills.  A low level of computer self-effiacy is related to feelings of anxiety when required to use computer applications.  This anxiety leads users to interpret events more negatively than non-anxious users and therefore contributes to dissatisfaction.

Presumably, our study-skills and computer literacy module should increase the computer literacy and self-effiacy of our students.  In principle this should reduce any frustration, anxiety and therefore dissatisfaction that is felt by our students.  Our students will also be receiving many massages as part of their training, and the anxiety-reducing effects of massage are well documented, so this should also contribute to dissatisfaction minimisation.  A lower rate of dissatisfaction should contribute to a lower attrition rate.

The research also indicates a number of learner qualities which are related to learner success and satisfaction online.  Our study skills programme should aim to cultivate these in our learners.

The ability to select appropriate study aids, effective time management and the ability to concentrate on the learning process despite any distraction that may occur are learner qualities that contribute to academic achievement in the online context.  Distractions are legion in the flexible learning environment, and may range from the lour of the beach on a sunny day to the TV, children, partner, friends and family and many many more.

The learner qualities which are predictive of student dropout are the lack of ability to select the main ideas from educational experiences or articles, an attitude that the material studied was irrelevant to the student’s educational pathway and a lack of ability to resist distractions from the learning process.

In accordance with these findings, our study skills course should begin with an initial screening to determine areas of learner weakness and strength.  The course should be structured so that learners should not have to complete training in any area which they are already competent.  Within the course we should help the students to gain an understanding of both traditional study skills and the learner qualities which are important to online success.  Motivation to concentrate despite distractions will probably be the most challenging, but I can see that strategies in relation to time-management could work.

Regarding learner qualities that contribute to attrition the ability to select the main ideas in a piece of writing is something that is commonly covered in study skills courses.  I believe that if we concentrate on stressing the links between current study and future study that we should be able to avoid the trap of demotivating students because they think what they’re studying is irrelevant.

I’ve noticed this happening with Anatomy & Physiology this year.  When the students start studying Bioscience they need someone to make it clear that this is the foundation of their understanding of Pathology which is necessary for safe treatment, and that without a good understanding of Physiology they will not be able to adequately understand the effects of the massage strokes which they will apply to their clients.  Likewise anatomy needs to be related to both assessment techniques and clinical massage.  It’s very important that we do make this clear because

Prior research suggests that expecatations, perceived usefulness and perceived ease of use of online learning materials are more influential than either computer self-effiacy or technical skills in determining online learning technology use.  (Pillay, Irving, Tones, 2007)

Pre-determined Pace
In the literature review one of the factors which is found to contribute to poor student outcomes are when the course forces students to learn at a predetermined pace.  Our course will have a fairly well-defined structure.  Students will need to begin each module at around the same time and will need to complete assessment tasks at similar times, so there will be a certain degree of pre-determination.  However we should be able to structure activities to have an open-ended component so that faster learners can still remain motivated.  One way of doing this would be to have a set of activities and assessment tasks that are required for course completion, and to have a set of extension activities that sit on top of these.

Poor design / Dysfunctional technology

One of the factors which is strongly related to student dissatisfaction is learning activities that do not work.  The implication here is that it’s important to plan learning activities effectively, and to test any learning activities or web-based applications before they are provided to students. This is much more important than it is in the classroom environment.  In the classroom you may notice on the day that some of the activities you have planned are not appropriate for the current level of understanding and engagement that the class have, and as a result you may change your lesson plan to suit.  This is much more difficult online for several reasons.  The lack of body-language (and tone in text-based communication), make it more difficult to be “in touch” with the class.  Also the increased emphasis on assynchronous learning and communication mean that often you need to post the activity, and wait to see what happens.  It seems clear that regular communication with your class is necessary so that you can quickly determine if there are any problems, and arrange for them to be fixed.

In my opinion, online learning experiences are similar in many ways to software applications particularly if they involve multi-media elements.  I wonder if a software development model might be more appropriate than traditional classroom-based learning design models?

Reference

Pillay H., Irving K., Tones M. (2007). Validation of the diagnostic tool for assessing Tertiary students’ readiness for online learning. Higher Education Research & Development, 26:2, 217 – 234

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