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I’ve just completed the first stage of my research project, looking at student satisfaction/dissatisfaction with the online aspects of their experience as  students within our programme.  A summary of these results follows.  Please note that I haven’t spent much time in preparing it for reading.  It’s really just a summary of the data with a few reflections thrown in.


The first years are much more satisfied with the course than the second years.

  • First year:  100% very satisfied/ satisfied

  • Second year:  80% satisfied / 20% dissatisfied

  • Possible reasons

    • Second-time delivery is always considerably smoother than first-time delivery.  Second year material is often being developed just-in-time which can lead to a lack of clarity at times.

    • With the implementation of the OP IT Induction process this year, and with more integrated support from the learning centre, the first year students have experienced an increased level of support for IT skill development & academic skill development.

    • The first year of online delivery was not smooth sailing.  We had a huge learning curve, which combined with a lower level of funding that was anticipated, resulted in a lot of change, which the students found frustrating.  In 2009, this group seems particularly resistant to changes, and are fairly unforgiving of any perceived lacks in their course of study.

Level & quality of interaction with staff

First year – Mostly satisfied (6.3% dissatisfied)

Second year – 60% satisfied / 40% dissatisfied

The concerns in this area are largely based around delayed scheduling for the clinic and Bioscience classes which has impacted on some students who are working part-time. As a staff group, we’ve decided to finalise all scheduling before we finish up at the end of the year to minimise this type of effect.

Some of the other concerns raised are duplicated in the section on clarity of direction, and are discussed here.

Level and quality of interaction with other students

Generally the students seem happy with this.

Quality and frequency of feedback on your progress

Generally the students are fairly happy with this.

How often do you feel clear on what you need to do to progress in your course work?

First year & second year: 50% always/usually, 50% sometimes/not often

Even though I’ve worked to improve clarity of information structures and processes (being aware that this was a problem with last year’s cohort), clarity remains the area of most concern for both first and second year students.  Clearly clarity of direction is key in being an effective student.

Common themes are

  • Difficulty with assessments – locating the assessments, knowing assessment due dates, not receiving assessments soon enough

  • Some of the first year students would like more explaining of where everything is and how to get at it (information structures, and processes). A screen movie would be the best way to efficiently provide for this need.  We can then cover this material at the start of the course, and students who are struggling to understand can view the movie repeatedly if need be.

  • Elluminate class times have been scheduled generally (e.g. this time is set aside for elluminate sessions). It would be useful for part-time students to have specific classes scheduled on the timetable.

  • Some complaints of delayed communication from lecturers. It’s somewhat difficult for lecturers to be highly responsive when they work for Polytechnic part-time. I do what I can to improve responsiveness when it seems important, but there is probably not much more we can do about this complaint at present.

  • Some students have expressed a preference for a simpler structure (i.e. Blackboard), but for reasons previously discussed, this is not an option that we are entertaining at present.

  • No reports of problems with clarity of instructions from lecturers.

It seems that the structure which is in place is workable with a few improvements. Making better use of the course calender by embedding assessment dates and scheduling specific elluminate classes should be very helpful. Also providing first year students with a little more opportunity to become familiar with the structure of the learning environment in the early stages should pay dividends.

Support for computer use

Students were fairly happy with computer support in the following areas – use of a computer, email, elluminate, using Microsoft products, Internet searching & Other computer use.

Two areas where there were a considerable number of dissatisfied students were in support of Blackboard & use of Google docs.

Blackboard use
Year 1: 31.3% dissatisfied/very dissatisfied
Year 2:   No dissatisfaction

Use of google docs
Year 1:  31.3% dissatisfied/very dissatisfied
Year 2: 2 0% dissatisfied/very dissatisfied

Students seem to perceive that there is a lot of support available, but it’s better in some areas than others. Blackboard & Google docs could be supported better.  We planned to run a session on Google docs in our first practical block, but I decided not to because I believed that the students were getting overloaded.

The community learning centre environment may not be ideal for high need students who are suffering from the convergence of the need to improve their computer literacy & the demands of their study (“Staff in the clcs will help but not that willingly,only one thing at a time and you 3 have to wait 10mins for them to come over to you”).

Suggestions range from suggestions for more IT tutorials to a comment that “the polytechnic has excellent resources to ensure anyone can understand computer use- people just need to use them!”

We plan to initiate a peer tutoring programme next year using some of the second year students.  This  should help.

Confidence with computer use

First year: 20 % sometimes confident/not confident
Second year: 20% sometimes confident

In the first year group, it appears from the feedback of most of the class that the technical difficulty of the computer work is not too high. It seems to be well within the capabilities of most of the class.

The second years have a high level of confidence with the use of any computer applications used previously, but are lacking in confidence with blogging. In particular issues around privacy & sharing thoughts/work openly have been discussed. Some students believe that the poorer students will coast through on the work of the better students.

Computer self-efficacy has been shown to improve with exposure to computer use, and this finding does seem to be reflected in my data so far.   I plan to adopt a wait and see approach – I expect that these figures will change by the next survey date.

Ability to avoid distractions and concentrate on studies

First years: 64.3% always/usually | 35.7% sometimes/not often
Second years: 50% always/usually | 50% sometimes/not often

These percentages are fairly high, and they may be considered a problem, but it would be interesting to compare these results to similar results from other tertiary environments where students have a reasonable amount of flexibility (e.g university style lectures).

There were fairly consistent messages from both groups about the reasons for distractions – good weather, socialising, family commitments, noises in the environment, tv, conflict in the student group, a lack of interest in the subject. some people alluded to juggling study with other commitments (training/work/hobbies),

One student stated that it was distracting when people were talking/typing in elluminate when the teacher is talking. This is distracting, and does take some time to get used to, but there are benefits to having those two communication channels going.

Summary of the summary

It seems that the area that most needs development work is in clarity of student direction.  To achieve this I plan to

  • Embed assessment dates within the course calender
  • Schedule specific elluminate classes within the calender
  • Work on minimising delays in student-staff communication
  • Create a blog page which contains links to the main course areas for the second year students (i.e. something which they can access through Google reader which provides links to everything they need).  This has been requested specifically by the class reps.

Now it’s just a matter of finding some time to do this in the mayhem of my life!!

In recent years, much educational research has been done based on the principles of cognitive load theory and other cognitive learning theories (Clark & Meyer, 2004).  This work has provided an empirical base for the design of online learning experiences which Clark and Meyer have applied in their development of a set of principles of e-learning design (2004).  These principles are summarised in Fig 3 on the following page.

It has been demonstrated that designing learning experiences based on these principles improves educational outcomes for students (Clark & Meyer, 2004), however much of Clark and Meyer’s work has focussed on incorporating multi-media within the design of learning experiences.  While the use of rich multi-media environments clearly has more potential to engage students, and improve learning (Clark & Meyer, 2004), there are some issues with the provision of an optimal multi-media environment for learning. These issues relate primarily to financial resources and accessibility.

Unfortunately the process of creating multi-media resources is expensive relative to the creation of text-based resources (Rumble, 2001), and the financial resources available to educational institutions are often limited.   This may be less of a factor in the future.  There is a move towards the use and re-use of open-educational resources (OER) within the education industry, and as multi-media learning resources become more available the development costs of producing a media-rich educational programme will decrease.  At present in the massage therapy field there are few educational institutions involved in the creation of OERs, although development in this area has begun (Massage Therapy Educational Resources, 2008).

There are also issues of accessibility.  Multi-media resources such as video and audio contain much more data than text-based resources.  This can lead to frustration on the part of a computer user who has a slower internet connection.   Ideally online learning resources should provide the user with the option of either text and images, or multi-media.

These limitations mean that online educational resources for massage therapy must initially be largely text-based.  Text-based media is not ideal for an audience with a predominant kinaesthetic learning preference, however this issue can be moderated by educational design.  Theoretical material should be interspersed with exercises which require the student to apply their learning to a pseudo-real-world context such as case-based learning.  Students may be directed from their online environment to engage in real-world activities such as interviewing massage therapists who are already practising.  There are already some quality online learning resources available in the anatomy, physiology and pathology areas.  As the pool of open education massage therapy educational resources develops, educators can begin to develop the rich clinical simulations and interactive media which will ultimately be more appealing to kinaesthetic students

The online learning environment should be designed to facilitate communication both between the instructor(s) and the students, and between the students themselves.  There are many platforms to support communication in the online learning environment including email, email groups, voice-over-internet-protocols services (such as MSN messenger, and Skype), social networking platforms (such as Facebook and Bebo), web-conferencing services (such as elluminate, and dimdim), blogs, and discussion boards to name some of the more commonly used services.  Choosing the mix of communication channels that are to be used in the programme is the first element of design, but choosing strategies and processes to facilitate communication is also important.  Gilly Salmon’s 5-stage model (2004) is a useful guide to facilitation of communication in online study

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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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A review of the literature relevant to student satisfaction and achievement in online education has identified five areas which are important to consider.

  • Instructional pedagogy
  • Quality of instruction
  • Interaction and communication
  • The online learning environment
  • Individual learner qualities.

The dominant educational philosophy associated with online education is social constructivism (Kanuka, Anderson, 1998), however it is not clear if this is the optimal pedagogical model for online or blended delivery.  In a study of MBA programmes, Benbunan-Fich and Arbaugh found that if the educational process involved either group collaboration or knowledge construction, learning outcomes were improved (2005).  When constructivism and knowledge transmission (objectivism) were considered independently of other factors students who were involved in constructivist learning perceived that their learning was less than those who are taught with an objectivist method when in fact their actual learning was greater (Benbunan-Fich & Arbaugh, 2005).  When collaborative approaches were combined with individual learning approaches, the students learning was greatest when collaborative approaches were used, which was consistent with their perceptions (Benbunan-Fich & Arbaugh, 2005). However the same authors found that the gains made with constructivist learning and collaborative learning were not additive.  There was no significant difference in achievement between courses which used either constructivist approaches, collaborative approaches or a combination of the two.  Given that student’s perceived learning was maximised when knowledge transmission & group-oriented approaches were combined (Arbaugh & Benbunan-Fich, 2006), and that this combination of pedagogical themes was one of the combinations that optimised student achievement, these research findings suggest that the combination of knowledge transmission and collaborative learning is the logical pedagogical model to use in the design of online courses.

Factors which have been found to be significant relating to the quality of instruction are clear expectations of coursework requirements (Comm and Schmidt, 1988 as cited in Bryant, 2003) and how to proceed through the course (Shea et al., 2001), as well as receiving prompt, high quality feedback from the instructor (Shea et al., 2001).

Many authors have described the importance of  social contact and social processes in online learning (Laurillard, 1997 as cited in Caplan & Graham, 2008; Shea et al., 2001; Pillay et al., 2007).   According to Pillay, Irving and Tomes “social interaction within the [online learning environment] supports and motivates students to complete their work and seek out new learning experiences” (2007, p. 218).  Other authors have identified the level of interaction with classmates (Shea et al, 2001; Benbunan-Fich & Arbaugh, 2005) & and the instructor (Bryant, 2003) as key factors contributing to student satisfaction.  A high level of interaction has also been found to contribute to student achievement (Pillay, Irving, Tomes, 2007; Benbunan-Fich, Arbaugh, 2007).  Conversely dissatisfaction with the level of interaction with the learning community and/or the instructors has been found to contribute to poor outcomes for students (Pillay et al., 2007). Providing detailed feedback as close as possible to the performance of the assessed behaviour contributes to good outcomes for students (Shepard, 2000 as cited in Caplan & Graham, 2008).  This evidence provides strong support for the use of formative online tests that provide feedback on performance immediately following the test (Prensky, 2001 as cited in Caplan & Graham, 2008).  However this will generally not be all that is needed, as this type of testing is generally only able to provide feedback on the memorisation of individual units of knowledge rather than the complex integration of concepts which is important for higher level learning.  Regular, timely feedback from the learning facilitator will also therefore be necessary.

The nature of the online learning environment appears to be a significant factor in student satisfaction, learning and achievement.  Researchers within the SUNY learning network found that having a simplified online interface contributed to student satisfaction (Shea et al., 2001).  According to the principles of cognitive load theory this should reduce cognitive load, and result in improved learning (Paas, Renkl, Sweller, 2003). Cognitive load theory provides a useful, well researched model for the design of online learning experiences (Paas, Renkl,  Sweller, 2004; Clark & Mayer, 2004). An online learning environment can be designed in accordance with cognitive learning processes (Clark & Mayer, 2004), and the degree to which design is tied into cognitive learning processes is predictive of student achievement (Pillay et al., 2007; Clark & Mayer, 2004).  Dysfunctional learning activities have been found to contribute significantly to dissatisfaction (Pillay, Irving, Tomes, 2007) and poor educational outcomes for students (Pillay et al., 2007; Clark & Mayer, 2004).  Online learning activities may be dysfunctional due to poor design, a lack of testing, or technology failures.  Instructional design and testing is more important in an asynchronous learning environment when compared to a classroom because of the lack of feedback.  In a classroom environment you are often able to dynamically mould the classroom experience based on your perceptions of how the learning activities are working (or not working) with your group of students.  In an asynchronous learning environment the activities that you have designed are more static.  This is yet more support for the inclusion of technologies which facilitate communication and feedback.  Technology failures are also a significant contributor to dysfunctional learning experiences.  Strategies for managing this type of technology risk include having a plan A and a plan B, having a back-up communication channel (including VOIP, audioconferencing, email-group, a point of contact such as a facilitator’s cell-phone, facilitator having everyone’s phone numbers), ensuring that the learning facilitator is able to contact the server administrators in the case of server failure (McQuillan, 2007).  If a real-time educational experience such as web-conferencing is planned, having two or more facilitators may be advisable so that one person is free to concentrate on resolution of any technology problems while another facilitator can concentrate on facilitating the educational experience (McQuillan, 2007).  Students can have their own technical computer difficulties which can act as a barrier to their learning (Shea et al., 2001).  Pillay et al. found that students who had a course with a flexible rate of learning achieved more highly than those in courses which were relatively more static (2007).

Qualities of the individual learner have also been found to be related to student achievement.  According to Clark and Mayer (2004) online students need to have metacognitive skills.  These are the ability to set learning goals, to determine how to reach their goals, and to make adjustments where necessary. Students with poor metacognitive skills need more direction whereas students with good metacognitive skills tend to be more self-sufficient learners. This skill-set has been described elsewhere (Connor, 2004) as the qualities of a “self-directed learner”. While computer literacy prior to taking part in an online course has been found by some authors to be uncorrelated with satisfaction and learning (Shea et al., 2001), this presumably depends on a combination of the level of technical ability required to negotiate the online learning environment, the computer support which is available to students, and individual students self-efficacy with respect to computers.  Pillay, Irving and Tomes found that students with a low level of computer self-efficacy were more inclined to feel 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 (2007).  The same authors found that computer self-efficacy is enhanced by the development of computer skills suggesting that educators involved in online study should consider the incorporation of computer literacy training within or associated with their programmes.  Other researchers have found the level of satisfaction with the level of computer support to be predictive of satisfaction with online learning as a whole (Shea et al, 2001).  Pillay et al, found that  computer literacy and computer self-efficacy were positively correlated with educational outcomes for students (2007).  While computer skill is not necessary for participants in online courses, computer self-efficacy  and computer supports are.

To be effective in this aim of improving student satisfaction and achievement, it is important to have an understanding of the key factors which are thought to be associated with these outcomes.

Whether a consumer is satisfied or dissatisfied with a service is related to a comparison of the expectations of what the clients feel the service provide should offer to their perceptions of what the service provider actually offers (Aldridge, Rowley, 1998). In the case of education if the student perceives that the educational experiences provided meet their expectations they will be satisfied. If the benefits of the service that are perceived by the student do not meet their expectations then they will be dissatisfied. In our aim to improve student satisfaction, it would seem important to consider the expectations of our students.

In recent years students (and parents) expectations of what they can expect from their studies has increased markedly (James, 2001; Tricker, 2008). Contemporary student expectations can be considered in three major categories – quality instruction, interaction and communication and the learning environment.

Expectations relating to the quality of instruction include an expectation that course content is aligned with real-world employment prospects (Tricker, 2008), that instructors are qualified at an appropriate level (Tricker, 2008), that adequate learning supports exist (Tricker, 2008), and that information provided to the students is accurate and clear. In particular students expect quality information relating to learning goals, courses, assessment procedures, complaint procedures, and transparency of assessment and grading practices (Ramsden, 1992 as cited in James, 2001; McInnis, 2001 as cited in James, 2001; Tricker, 2008).

With respect to interaction and communication, students expect honest, respectful two-way communication between them and the educational provider which includes consultation about the learning experience and demonstrates concern for their progress (Tricker, 2008; Ramsden, 1992 as cited in James, 2001).

The expectations of students with respect to the learning environment concern flexibility and choice in the range of subjects available, delivery modes and time spent on-campus, as well as access to cutting edge technology (McInnis, 2001 as cited in James, 2001; Tricker, 2008).

In a survey of academic staff in Australian universities the staff surveyed stated that they found that students expected to play a more passive role in their learning than in previous years (James & McInnis 2001 as cited in James, 2001).

Many of these expectations are aligned with best practice principles of higher education (Caplan & Graham, 2008), however the last finding is concerning. It’s also worth considering that while the above expectations are the average, individual students expectations of higher education are bound to vary.

There is some evidence to suggest that students typically have a very low level of understanding of what study in a particular area entails (James, Baldwin, McInnis 1999) as cited in James, 2001). This ignorance of subject material and course requirements is likely to lead to a gap between the student’s expectations and experience, and is a likely cause of dissatisfaction.

Given the fact that an educational experience is unlikely to exactly match the expectations of a new student, and that this is likely to lead to dissatisfaction in some areas, it has been suggested that educational institutions should take an active approach to managing and moulding student expectations (Tricker, 2008). There is evidence to suggest that an ongoing two-way dialogue between the provider and the consumer of the educational experience can act to shape student expectations to become more realistic (James, 2001).

While it is worthwhile knowing what the overall expectations of the student body are with respect to their educational experience, this set of expectations does not necessarily describe expectations for all student groups. The expectations of legal students are likely to be different from the expectations of students of massage therapy or mechanical engineering. Likewise the expectations of student cohorts are likely to change from year to year. For this reason, it may be advisable to measure the expectations of students from year to year, and across disciplines. The Template and the Quality Evaluation Student Template are instruments that have been found to measure expectations with a high level of accuracy, and the information provided from the use of these instruments has been found to be extremely useful in the management of student expectations and experience (Tricker, 2008).

>> PART TWO >>

In a search of research databases, the researcher was unable to find any research articles which dealt with massage therapy education and blended delivery. This study aims to produce the first results in this area.

Student satisfaction and achievement in an online learning context

It has been reported from many sources (Diaz, 2002; Smith & Ferguson, 2005) that the rate of attrition in online courses is greater than that of traditional face-to-face courses. Pillay, Irving and Tones (2007) found that students are often less satisfied by online learning environments than classroom environments. Interestingly, a study done with students in the State University of New York (SUNY) learning network found that the completion rates of their online courses were not significantly different from their face-to-face classes, and that their online students were at least as satisfied as their F2F students (Shea et al., 2001). Student satisfaction seems to be correlated with course completion rates.

If the factors which predict satisfaction and achievement, and also attrition and non-achievement can be identified, the needs of online learners should be able to be more easily accommodated.

The SUNY learning network study identified a very strong correlation between student satisfaction and student perception of their learning (Shea et al., 2001), and other studies have shown the same relationship (Williams & Ceci, 1997). Perceived learning is not however the same as actual learning. Several studies have shown perceived learning and actual learning to be relatively uncorrelated (Ertmer & Stepich, 2004; Williams & Ceci, 1997; Benbunan-Fich & Arbaugh, 2005).

Some may question whether student perception of learning is an important thing to consider given the apparent gap between perceived and actual learning. However in this time of low educational margins, student attrition is a matter of strategic importance for any programme (especially in vocational learning where the number of students in each cohort may be as low as 15-20). It is less expensive to keep an existing customer than to recruit a new customer (Babin & Griffin, 1998; Oliver, 1993 as cited in Roskowski & Ricci, 2005). It is therefore advisable for an educational institution to focus on improving both student satisfaction, and student achievement.

Much of the research relevant to the research query considered here compares online learning with learning in a traditional face-to-face context. How does this relate to learning within a blended delivery context? Tang & Byrne (2007) found that students involved in blended delivery programmes were more satisfied by them than either purely online or purely face-to-face programmes. Interestingly, they also found that there were no significant differences in actual learning between the three delivery methods. This finding is supported by multiple studies comparing online and classroom-based learning (Bryant, 2003).


Research Aims

The research project has a number of related aims.

1. To review on an ongoing basis the experience (satisfaction vs. dissatisfaction) and achievement of students in the blended programme

2. To implement changes to improve student experience and achievement.

3.Is blended learning effective in massage education?



In recent years an increasing number of educational institutions have begun to offer their courses by online or blended delivery. Massage educators have been slow to adopt these contemporary approaches to learning, but there are now a number of educational institutions offering massage therapy education either purely online or with a blended style of delivery (Remedial massage, 2008; How can you, 2008). Within New Zealand a number of educational institutions are considering the exploration of educational options within this area (J. Morgan, personal communication June 14, 2008; B. Bernie, personal communication June 14, 2008; H. Lofthouse, personal communication June 29, 2008; T. Rodgers, personal communication June 14, 2008). Many massage education providers consider online and/or blended delivery education for massage therapy to be inferior to traditional class-room-based delivery models (P. Charlton, personal communication June 14, 2008; T. Rodgers, personal communication June 14,2008; A. Palmer, personal communication June 14, 2008).

The online environment is rapidly changing, and a course which aims to utilise the richness of contemporary online applications may often be involved in the use of a technology in a way which has not been documented previously. An experimental educational delivery style is therefore called for, where the teachers involved in online education trial the use of an online application with a group of students in a particular way, then assess how effective this educational experience has been. The integrated group of technologies which are used to deliver the course is described here as the online learning environment.

The Otago Polytechnic massage therapy programme has recently undergone the transition from a purely face-to-face delivery style to a blended delivery style. The programme’s delivery style is making use of contemporary online applications such as wikis, blogs, collaborative document editing, voice-over-internet-protocols (such as MSN messenger and skype). This is new ground for massage therapy education, and in many ways for education in general. The department feels that there is a need to monitor the student’s experience and achievement in this new context and to make changes to improve that experience over time.

Literature review

Regular readers of this blog will probably know that I keep saying that I’m going to be starting on a research project soon.  It is taking a bit longer than I originally anticipated to find the time, and move through all of the necessary stages to get it going.

I’m currently in the process of doing the literature review for my project, and moving toward ethics approval.  Hopefully I’ll get these completed in the next couple of weeks.

In the meantime, I thought that I’d post the components of the literature review that I’ve done to this blog.  Some of the material is based on my previous work, so reading it might give readers the feeling of deja-vou. I’d appreciate any feedback.