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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

Despite my efforts to make the course interface as simple as possible, I’m getting feedback that students are finding it difficult to find their way around, and get all of the information that they need.  A couple have mentioned that they would prefer something a bit more like Blackboard.  😉

I’m not quite sure what to do about this.  I’m going to run a tutorial with some of the students who are having difficulty sometime in the next couple of weeks, and that should clarify exactly what the issues are (as it seems like it should be straightforward enough to me).

I’ve just finished reading through a research article which investigates the effectiveness of online learning in the SUNY (State University of New York) learning network (Shea, Fredericksen, Pickett, Pelz, Swan, 2001). The interesting thing about this research is that in contrast to other reports that I’ve read (1,2) they find that student retention is not significantly different in their F2F classes & their online classes, and that their students are at least as satisified if not more in their online classes. In response to the statement “Overall I was very satisfied with this online course” 39% of the students agreed strongly, Another 40% agreed, 6% disagreed & 5% disagreed strongly.

So what about the SUNY learning network programmes might be different?

In the SUNY learning network, courses are designed based on principles of social constructivism where learning is seen as an outcome of socialisation. Accordingly there is a strong focus on the use of discussion forums and student-teacher interaction. The authors believe that the level of interaction contributes to the development of “knowledge building communities”.

In addition the responsibility for course development is laid at the feet of the teaching staff, and they are provided with support in the area of instructional design. It is thought that this results in quality and coherence due to the fact that the teacher of the course knows the material better than anyone else.

I’m not sure how different this is from the other reports that I’ve read. Social constructivism definately seems to be the dominant pedagogical model used in online learning, but I’m not sure how long this has been the case. However it seems likely that the student satisfaction & retention characteristic of these courses are at least partially due to a combination of the factors discussed above.

Key Findings of the Research

  • Very strong correlation found between student satisfaction and perceived learning
  • Both high satisfaction & reported learning are highly correlated with
    • Prompt, high quality feedback from the instructor
    • Clear expecations of how to proceed in the course successfully
    • A high level of interaction with classmates
    • Satisfaction with computer support
    • Simplified course structure (fewer modules/pages)

    Those who experienced problems due to technical difficulties were most likely to report the lowest levels of learning & satisfaction.

  • Computer skill prior to taking part in an online course was not correlated with learning & satisfaction

These last two points are interesting. Another study (Pillay, Irving, Tones, 2007) found that computer self-efficacy was correlated with learning & satisfaction. At first glance the finding of Pillay et al. seems to be supported by the first point, and contradicted by the second point. Perhaps a high level of interaction mediates computer difficulties as students are able to gain support from their peers and/or teaching staff? Another possibility is that the course has computer literacy supports embedded within the courses or accessible by students who are enrolled in the courses (although there is no discussion of this in the article).

One other point of interest is that in their literature review, the authors found that many studies showed that collaborative learning was not effective in an online context. It’s worth noting that the study discussed here was completed in 2001. Articles in the literature review would mostly have been completed before this date, and there have been many developments in online learning since this time. It would be interesting to see some more contemporary research on this topic.


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

Shea, P., Fredericksen, E., Pickett, A., Pelz, W., & Swan, K. (2001). Measures of Learning Effectiveness in the SUNY Learning Network. In J. Bourne, & J. Moore (Eds.), Online Education – Volume 2 – Learning Effectiveness, Faculty Satisfaction and Cost Effectiveness – Proceedings of the 2000 Summer Workshop on Asynchronous Learning Networks. Massachusetts, USA: Sloan Centre for Online Education.

I’ve also made a start setting up the course structure on WikiEducator.

The plan is to model the structure on the information in our recently developed programme document.  This will be a section of WikiEducator that is specific to our course.
I also intend to start a project aimed at building a library of massage education resources in collaboration with other massage education providers.  I’ve started a page for this, and I plan to bring the subject up at a meeting of massage education providers that I will be chairing in several weeks, then I intend to pass the word on to some of my networks in Australia & the US.

The OP specific course structure will link to relevant resources within the library.  I imagine that initially most of the work in developing educational resources will come from OP, but over time I hope that there we will have input from many other providers.

After some discussion with Leigh yesterday, and some experimentation with different platforms, I’ve decided to go with Pageflakes as the course hub.

Pageflakes allows you to amalgamate feeds or other widgets within a single page fairly easily, then publish this to the web. Here’s a link to the page that I’ve set up for the 1st year of the massage therapy programme (main cohort).

I’ve set up a blog in blogger for each of the courses within the first semester of the programme, and this page has a feed for each of them. The idea here is that the Anatomy 1 lecturer only needs to look after the Anatomy 1 blog.

On the right side of the page is a sustainability feed based on my tags. I only need to tag a page with sustainability & it will show up here.

This page took me about 30 mins – 1 hour to set up (including setting up the blogs, and creating a gmail account) . I’m not including the time that I took playing around & figuring out how pageflakes works (perhaps 2 hours).

This page is designed for full-time students, but the beauty of it is that I can fairly easily set up a page for a part-time student stream. If I go through the same process I can set up a page that only has feeds from whichever courses the student(s) is(are) enrolled in.

Once a student is enrolled in the course all I need to do is to send them an email with a link to the course hub that is relevant to them.

I’m pretty stoked with this solution :-). The look is not ideal at present, but I can upload my own banner, so I plan to talk with marketing about this soon.

I’ve been considering how we structure assessment from time to time through this development process. I quite like some aspects of competency-based assessment, but don’t think it motivates students to excel. So after consultation with Diane Begg (head of school), Robyn Hogan (academic quality), Irene Hundleby and Karole Hogarth (academic staff) I’ve come up with a model that I think maintains the best parts of competency based assessment, while also encouraging engagement.

Practical assessment

Formative competency-based assessment in the earlier part of each course feeding into a summative integrative assessment.  Competency for summative assessment = 80%.

Theoretical assessment

Summative assessment of individual modules.  Competency for these assessments = 80%.  An integration paper at the end of each programme brings together all strands of their learning.  Total marks are aggregated into a weighted overall theoretical mark.

Competency and Excellence

If students do not attain competency (80%), they are allowed to resubmit / resit their assessment once.  Any student who attains competency on resubmission is given a mark of 80%.

Students must complete all components of the course to gain the qualification.  A students final mark will be a weighted aggregate of their theoretical & practical assessments, and this final mark will be what decides the assignment of distinctions or merits.

I completed a flowchart of programme structure, and programme sequencing yesterday. Here it is.

Programme Sequencing

Over the past six months I’ve been gaining familiarity with blogs, email groups, wikis, elluminate, discussion boards, Blackboard, Google talk,, bloglines, rss feeds, and other web-services.  All very interesting, but how do they relate to this project of blended delivery of course content.

I sat down last night & started getting my head around this issue, then this morning had a meeting with Leigh Blackall to get some more clarity around what options are actually possible & workable.

The model that came out of this process follows….
(Please note that this is a draft, and has not progressed through consultation with staff at this stage)

The long-term intention is to create open-source content and activities.  These will most likely be stored on   The main barrier is that we use copyrighted images in our teaching.  We will undergo a process of sourcing open images, but in the meantime we need a means of locking down the content to prevent unauthorised access.  Blackboard will be the medium that is used in the short-term with this end.

Each course will have it’s own blog.   Lecturers will post weekly/daily updates/guidance/activities to their course blog, and these postings will feed into a meta-blog (supaglue (spelling?) or some similar engine).

Each programme will have an email group set up & this will be the primary communication medium.  I have some issues with email groups.  I find that when a photo is placed next a text message I feel more of a sense of connection with the writer of the message, and feel that this is important for community building.  Google groups do not have this functionality.  Also the informal structure of email groups (relative to discussion groups) means that threads of conversation are not so clear, and discussion topics quickly fall out of the discussion space if they occurred say a week ago or more.  However given these issues, email groups still remain the best medium for communication within an online group that I have seen.  Leigh suggested that one way to ensure that students did not miss important threads of conversation was to regularly summarise important threads & post them on the course blog.  Hopefully Google moves to add in the functionality that I would like at some point in the near future.

The purpose of Blackboard will be as a storage place for copyrighted course material in the near future.  To improve the student’s ease of experience, postings made to course blogs should be mirrored in the announcements tab with links made to relevant activities/materials.

I also see us using elluminate for regular web conferences, and social software such as

As the content is moved to an open format it can be converted to wiki-format.  I mentioned that I was not very enthusiastic about the prospect of typing all of my word documents into the wiki format (complete with esoteric indicators of formating, etc.), and Leigh suggested that I consider eXe.  I’ll look into it.

I’ve just been trawling through the programme documents of other programmes at Polytech to see if anyone has developed units that we can use in our new programme.

Something that’s really struck me is that that the level of Anatomy and Physiology that we teach in our Diploma of Massage Therapy is very high relative to other programme in the health group at Otago Polytechnic. In the current draft of the new two year programme we have 45 credits (450 hours) of Anatomy & Physiology, 30 credits (300 hours) of Musculo-skeletal Anatomy, and 8 credits (80 hours) of Pathology. If I compare that to the three year Bachelor of Nursing, they cover 33 credits (330 hours) of Bioscience, Anatomy & Pathology combined. The Bachelor of Midwifery has 32 credits (320 hours) of the same. Other departments (Occupational Therapy, Sports Institute programmes) have considerably less.

It’s worth noting that the reason we teach the level of A&P that we do is that the NZQA National Diploma of Therapeutic Massage that the last incarnation of our programme was modelled on had 44 credits of A&P, and 23 credits of Anatomy.  With the national diploma falling off the framework and the subsequent move in the industry towards a contemporary set of standards for massage education it’s a good time to reconsider if this level of Anatomy & Physiology is optimal for massage therapy programmes in New Zealand.

I was pondering this last night, and I thought I’d call my friend Nicholas Aitcheson. Nick is a physiotherapist who uses quite a bit of massage in his work, and has done some teaching for us on the subject of kinesiology. Nick said that a physiotherapist in New Zealand will currently study the following subjects relevant to A&P & Anatomy during their 4 year qualification.

1st year – 30 credits of Biochemistry, 30 credits of Biology
2nd year – 30 credits of Physiology, 30 credits of Anatomy
3rd year – 15 credits of Anatomy

This makes a total of

  • Physiology – 60 credits at Level 5 / 30 credits at Level 6
  • Anatomy – 30 credits at Level 6 / 15 credits at Level 7

With this as a benchmark, and with the emergence of massage degrees in New Zealand, the level of Anatomy & Physiology and Anatomy education that we teach as part of our qualification no longer seems excessive to me. It’s vital to the future of the massage industry that we reach parity with other healthcare providers if we are to integrate our profession into the mainstream health model.

Although maybe we should consider increasing our Pathology component????

With the last term mostly out of the way, my headspace is more free to concentrate on other important issues, and programme redevelopment is definately one of my top priorities.

Last Friday I had a meeting with Robyn Hogan from the Academic Quality Unit (AQU) to talk through some important issues from an academic quality perspective, then later in the day I met with some of our key staff members to discuss programme structure.  We’ve come out of the day with the overall programme structure decided on at least, and plenty of questions to follow up.

The Diploma of Therapeutic Massage (or Clinical Massage Therapy or Advanced Massage Therapy) programme will be 2 years in length.  The first year will be made up of two consecutive 6 month certificate programmes – the Certificate in Relaxation Massage and the Certificate in Stress Management and Spa Therapies.

 My original intention was to keep the programme in-line with other Polytech qualifications (ie. 1 year certificate, 2 year diploma), however most other institutes offer a certificate of relaxation massage over a six month period.  It seems reasonable to offer students of Otago Polytechnic similar options to what they can expect in other parts of New Zealand.  I believe that over time the massage industry will move to a 1 year certificate of relaxation massage, a 2 year diploma of therapeutic massage & a 3 year degree, however after consultating with other massage education providers it has become clear that the 6 month timeframe for the certificate of relaxation massage is not likely change in the near future. 

In the expansion of the programme, some of the areas that have been identified as being of key importance are stress management, body-mind, emotional release, spa therapies, customer service & soft-skills.  Both the stress management and the spa industries are expanding dramatically at the moment in New Zealand.  We see the 6 month certificate in Stress Management and Spa Therapies fulfilling needs in the marketplace that are currently unserved.  My next step with respect to this proposed 6 month certificate is consultation with the local spa industry to determine what they would like us to cover.  Investigation of the stress management industry will also be a priority.

The second year of the programme will provide the skills that the students need to work effectively with pain and injuries.  The expanded time-frame will allow more time to cover assessment techniques, to develop clinical reasoning, to consider professional practice, and to cover and integrate more advanced hands-on techniques than are currently covered in the programme.

The academic level of the Anatomy & Physiology covered in a diploma of massage therapy is very high considering the amount of time that is typically spent covering this material in New Zealand massage courses.  We intend to keep the level of the Anatomy & Physiology the same for the 2nd year of the programme, however A&P classes in the first year will build the foundation for this later study.  Currently the students are really thrown in the deep end, and we feel strongly that this addition will really strengthen the programme. 

With respect to delivery, key staff involved have been consulted, and we all agree that the blended model of block courses for practical learning combined with online-distance theoretical study makes a lot of sense.  This model allows much flexibility.  It facilitates distance learning and part-time study options which are currently unavailable.

So that’s the planned structure of the programme as it stands.  We now need to consider the structure of units within this qualification, and begin the somewhat daunting task of consultation with key stakeholders.