You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘student_retention’ category.

Those who follow this blog will know that I’m big on providing students with scaffolding for the academic and computer literacy requirements of their educational programmes.  I’ve been thinking more about this recently, and have come up with the following vision of where I’d like to move towards.  I’m not sure if it’s achieveable because it relies on some other parties within the polytechnic making changes to the way they do things, but I’m just putting it out there.


Either during the first week of course or ideally before this I’d like our students to be assessed for their computer literacy level and academic skills.  The community learning centres are the logical party to perform the computer literacy assessment, and the learning centre would be the logical party to implement the academic assessment.  In my ideal world, I’d like the learning centre to be completely integrated with the community learning centres (and possibly foundation studies) so that our academic and computer support services were distributed throughout Otago.

Developing academic skills & computer literacy

There are a range of ways in which students can develop academic skills and computer literacy.  Our students are currently able to access to online self-directed learning modules, learning centre support for academic skills (both workshops & tutoring), and the support of staff in the community learning centres in their academic development.

I’d like to see more flexibility in the computer support offered by the community learning centres.  My understanding of the current learning model is that it’s based on workbooks which the student works through one step at a time.  The workbooks are fairly comprehensive, and it’s fine for courses which can afford the time that it takes for their students to work through the books, but the credit value of the courses is unfortunately not able to be reasonably incorporated within our programmes.  Could the supports be made more generic and modular so that they were able to support the students in the tasks associated with their course of study rather than directing them to work through exercises whose point is only the development of computer literacy?  This would alleviate the problem to a large degree.  It would also be handy if the CLCs had their learning resources online, offered online support to enrolled students, and supported commonly used online services such as Google documents.  (I don’t ask for much do I?)

Support for the development of literacy

Ideally, students should be assigned a peer-tutor (2nd year?) to support them in their academic study skill development.  This would be organised through the learning centre.

I’ve been thinking about computer-support of students, and the most effective way that I can think of providing this support is to organise a pool of peer-tutors which draws from all programmes involved in elearning.  This pool of tutors would have a centralised communcation channel (probably a google group).  Any students needing help would post to the group, and hopefully receive a fairly rapid response (this is after all what you need when you have a computer-related issue).  Because computer-support needs will peak and trough from programme to programme, this distributed support should act to smooth the peaks and troughs of demand.

Baseline competency

Every programme has a (usually implicit) level of baseline academic study skills and often computer literacy which is required to engage with and be successful in the programme.  It may be advisable to reassess the students at the completion of the study skills programme to determine if they have reached this minimum level.  This may be done through the CLCs and the learning centre again, or evidence may be provided through the use of e-portfolios.  If they haven’t, then clearly the student would need further support.

Integration of academic and computer-related study skill

There’s some fairly good evidence showing that study skills programmes are not particularly effective unless they’re integrated with the main course of study (Wingate, 2006).  So academic staff throughout the programme should make efforts to encourage the use of these study skills.  One way of doing this is to initially remind students on a weekly basis of the study skills techniques that they could be utilising, then to gradually reduce the frequency of these reminders as the skills (hopefully) become second nature.

How would this work for your programme?


Wingate, U. (2006). Doing away with ‘study skills’. Teaching in Higher Education, 11, 457-469.


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 the past two weeks, I’ve talked with 5/18 of my full-time students about them reducing their workload from full-time to part-time.

Why is this? The course shouldn’t be more intensive that what we’ve run previously. There are a few reasons I can think of that could be factors.

  1. Self management – The new context of the course puts more of the responsibility of learning onto the students. We’re expecting them to be able to work from home, establish boundaries, and motivate themselves. For some students the direct supervision of being in the classroom might be easier.
  2. The computer context may be stretching students more than expected. I know for at least a couple of students, this has been a major contributing factor to workload.
  3. Bioscience is being taught & assessed in a completely different way than it has been previously
  4. Expectations – even though I stressed to almost every student that they should expect the course to be full-time, many students seem to have heard what they wanted to hear, and have come into the course expecting to be able to put 15-20 hours into it a week.  This expectation seems to be related to the flexible nature of the course, or previous experience with tertiary study.
  5. Something else to do with blended delivery???

But at the moment, I’m a bit in the dark. I’ve just talked with the most recent student who’s talked about reducing workload, and he says he’s been putting in 20-25 hrs per week, so this sounds like a lack of self-management.

More investigation is obviously required.

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).

There always seem to be some problems with students not able to login and access polytech computer services at the start of the year.

This year the Polytech decided to make the move to Windows Live as the new student email system at the last minute,  and this added an extra login, and more problems.

Then down the track, issues with our internet connection led to still more computer issues.

All of this contributes to a fairly rough ride for the affected students, and given that it’s known that frustration with dysfunctional computer technology is one of the biggest contributors to student frustration and poor retention rates (McQuillan, 2007),  I’m seriously considering being more independent of OP’s servers and technology platforms next year.

If I didn’t bother getting students to start using their Windows Live account, but instead allowed them to use the email address that they were already using then we would lose one technology hurdle and a whole lot of running around for me.   I’d lose Windows Spaces in the process (no big loss).  The students have to download MSN messenger themselves for it to be useful as part of the package, so I might as well get them to download skype which is my prefered messaging programme anyway.

If I take this approach, I’d only be dependent on the polytech servers for Elluminate and Blackboard (which we plan to gradually move away from anyway).

It seems to me that this would reduce complications from the students perspective, and reduce the amount of time that I have to spend on fire-fighting at the start of the course which will be good for my mental health.  🙂

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 just been browsing an article discussing Web 2.0 and Education 2.0.

A bit heavy for a lunchtime read, so I haven’t travelled to the article’s depths, but it has triggered some thoughts.  The articles describes a transition in educational philosophy that is driven by the growth in Web 2.0 functionality (leading to social collaboration potential).   In reading the article, I remembered the query made by a colleague recently – What do you do when students don’t want to learn in this manner?

I don’t think I’ve seen anyone really exploring this question.  In much online literature social constructivism, facilitation, and collaborative learning are assumed as the implicit methodology of online education.   Are they necessarily the best strategies for student learning, or are they just the hot trend in education at present?

I don’t really believe the second suggestion here.  It does make sense to me to utilise the collaborative potential of web 2.0 in the appropriate setting, but I’m not convinced that any of these attributes are optimal in all situations.  It’s my experience that constructivist learning scenarios work well in some cases, but I wouldn’t teach all of my subjects and classes in that way.  Sometimes it works for me to act purely as a facilitator of student discussions, at other times it works for me to be more directive and assume the traditional teacher’s role.  Sometimes collaborative learning is great, but some students may learn better as individuals.

What about student expectations?  I think we need to be aware that some students may not be used to the self-directed collaborative learning environment, and we need to have some strategies for dealing with this phenomena.  In a classroom it’s a lot easier to see if a student is not comfortable with a particular style of lesson, and issues can often be eased by the facilitator explaining the rationale for the exercise.  How do we see this online?

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?


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

I’ve been working on the programme document this morning, and realised that I hadn’t mentioned at all my investigations into the phenomena which is the title of this posting.

This blog is intended to document the process of development of the massage therapy programme including any consultation relating to the development process. The reason that the info below hasn’t made it into my blog yet is that the discussion occured through an email group. Funnily enough, we’ve been having a conversation in a course I’m taking part in currently – Facilitating E-learning communities on the downsides of using too many communication channels. 🙂

I wish that I could give you a link to the discussion stream, but unfortunately the email-group is not open access, so I’ll need to copy & paste the relevant bits. There’s quite a bit of text here, but there are some interesting points. I think it’s worth persisting with.

David McQuillan

I’ve just been talking with Judy Magee, a lecturer here at Otago
Polytechnic who coordinates a foundation course in Bioscience. This
is the first year that they have taught Bioscience online. She said
that while there was no real difference in outcomes of the students that
participated through to the final examination, there was a significant
drop-off in student numbers getting to this point
. Of the 50 (or so) students that were
participating at the start of the course the numbers dropped to 34.
This is much more than the drop-off rate in previous courses which
were taught in the class-room setting. She is going to investigate to
see if she can find out any contributing factors – I’ll let you know.

I’m aware that this has been a problem for online education in the
past. What are generally thought to be the causes of this drop-off?


I’m really familiar with the course you are referring to having helped
to design it and write most of the course material. I’m sure there
are several reasons that have contributed to the drop-out. Perhaps
the most obvious is that foundation level students often do not have
well-developed learning skills or self-management skills (you have to
be fairly organised and self-directed), they may have difficulty
asking for help and some older students have few, if any computer
skills, so basically they may not be very well prepared for online or
learning, and its easy for them to become demotivated when they feel
lost and overwhelmed. Of course this can be helped with preassessment
of skills and making sure the students have realistic expectations
about what is involved, maybe a taster so they see what’s involved
before committing themselves, and offering lots of support at the
start, but I think there will still be some people that are simply not
ready for it or will always prefer a more traditional method.

In the course you are talking about, not only are the students new to
it but so are the teachers, with no experience as online teachers or
students themselves. So that has perhaps been an added difficulty as
the teachers have also been on a steep learning curve themselves.

Leigh Blackall

Veronique, I think you are dead right to point out the differences between
novice and expert learners, and Dave is touching on a troubling and
important issue for online learning generally.

When I was working in Australia, the NSW Department of Education (NSWDET)
started allocating funds based on course completion rates. Ring any bells
TEC? Unfortunately these rates were reported in percentages. Where as a
course prior to being online would attract 20 or so students and see 15
through, the online version would attract 100 students and see 30 through.
Comparing these two instances in terms of percentages instantly makes the
online course look like a failure, but it needed to be reported that the
online completion rate was a 100% increase on the face to face course…
I’ll try and track down the paper that pointed out this flaw in the NSW DET
reporting standards.. it was back in 1999 or 2000.. long before I was using bookmarks 😉

I did find this brief article from

In some cases, online students do not have the incentives and pressures of
classroom-based students; they can become lazy and unfocused. I had several
students who quietly dropped out of one of my online classes and later
contacted me to ask for an extension. Online drop-outs are more difficult
for an instructor to notice than in a classroom situation where daily
attendance and participation indicate a student’s involvement.

Educause is full of very good articles (this one being pretty so so),
especially in the 2005/2006 era. Well worth a browse.

I’m not entirely sure why, but I think it was Veronique’s point about novice
and expert learners that makes me want to point out Jay Cross’ Big Picture
of Informal Learning <>.. I
wonder if it will spark some reflective thinking in us about “setting people
up for failure” in online course developments…


I was interested in the various comments on motivation to stay in
contact on distance programmes. We have no great problem with this in
the post graduate programme in the OT school. However, classes are
smaller (e. from 8-15) and students are supported with
teleconferences. They are well motivated generally speaking but most
do miss the face to face aspect and I noticed in the last feedback
that they woudl like to be in touch with others who work in similar
area of practice. This means deliberatley setting a task to ensure
this happens – it seems to give them permission to contact one another
(by email and by phone as well I notice)

Bronwyn Hegarty

hey david
this is an excellent question. My immediate answer as I know the course
involved – is that the students had an expectation that they were coming
on-campus to study in class f2f. there was an initial two weeks on-campus
everyday, then they were studying off-campus and working through self-paced
materials. For some self-directed learning is a skill to be learned. I don’t
believe there were any online facilitated activities. someone may correct me
here if i have got it wrong.

I believe there is a bit of a myth running around in some circles that when
something goes online you can just leave people to it. Lots of students do
respond better to having a facilitator/teacher presence online and there are
many studies to show that this helps reduce attrition rates in online
classes. There is also another side to the debate that moderation also know
as facilitation of online activities does not always make any difference as
it depends on the student group. so that is why it is so important to get to
know your learners…as you know.

Of course there are other factors such as learning styles, computer
competency, academic level. etc.

Here are some references re views for and against having a
teacher/facilitator presence.
“Learner-paced learning facilitates learner independence and autonomy.”
(Holmberg and Keegan, 1989).

” ..two way communication, where significant and frequent interaction
between instructor and learner and among learners is the essential, enabling
learning feature.” (Garrison, 1989).

“If you add the interaction on as an afterthought to the course, then you
are missing the whole point of the interaction. Right from the beginning we
analyse tasks, determining if they are best accomplished alone, in small
groups or whatever. Then we ask, ‘how are we going to make this happen?’
“(Anderson et al, 2005).

AND this one I particularly like:
Organised discussion groups may not be the solution . “Emerging Internet
based technologies create opportunities for new types of learning
communities that allow learners around the globe to study at their own pace,
yet engage in meaningful interactions with others – in essence, allowing
them “to have their cake and eat it, too.” (Anderson et al, 2005).

– The search for learning community in learner paced distance
education: Or, ‘Having your cake and eating it, too!’
<>by Terry Anderson,
David Annand and Norine Wark – Australasian Journal of Educational
Technology 2005, 21(2), 222-241. AJET 21. An excellent article about online

Which statements do people agree with or not?

Gordon Robinson

To respond to Bron’s question below, a couple of phrases come to mind…

Successful online instructors realise that building a sense of ‘community’
in the online classroom is necessary for successful learning outcomes… The
development of community becomes a parallel stream to the content being
explored in on-line courses (Palloff & Pratt, 1999). Quoted by Woods and
Ebersole 2003 (

The key to successful on-line learning would appear to be the formation of
an effective on-line community working under the guidance of a skilled
facilitator. One of the principles of distributed learning is that the
‘knowing’ resides within the individuals. The whole point of the community
is being able to draw this knowledge out for all to share, analyse and build

Anderson et al appear to be referring to the emergence of the so called Web
2.0, which I hadn’t heard of until I (quietly) attended Leigh’s discussion
session at the recent eFest. The advance from 1.0, if I understood it
correctly, was the social networking aspect of the media technologies
available. Again this appears to depend on the formation of a community, in
whatever shape or form, of similarly interested individuals or groups.

Organised discussion groups may not be the answer? That may depend on the
situation surely. How would we feel right now about being bombarded by well
meaning (and other) contributors with all sorts of differing opinions,
thoughts, videos, podcasts etc.. Would we be able to wade through it all
then sort the wheat from the chaff? Would this be an effective community?
Organisation must surely have it’s place…or am I talking about censorship?

Leigh Blackall

An ex colleague and mentor of mine from Australia was able to dig some good
stuff up regarding Dave’s query about drop out rates:
G’day Leigh
> an interesting topic – and one that hasn’t been researched very well yet.
> The factors are much greater than a purely f2f versus online face-off…
> particularly when the online course is a new offering that is probably only
> a rework of the f2f material anyway – what online facilitation training have
> the lecturers had? What instructional design parameters were applied to the
> online offering? etc, etc
> One study that demonstrates some of the complexity of this issue is Diaz
> (2002) –
> – this study indicates that the demographics of the online and f2f groups
> often differ, that the online groups often perform better (supported by
> several other studies including Albritton (2006) –
> and
> that students who drop an online course are often making a mature/informed
> decision in terms of their overall needs, whereas students remaining in a
> f2f program may risk failure or a poor mark as a cost of continuing.
> Hope that this is of some help,
> Jock David McQuillan

My impression from talking with Judy was that there were some
facilitated activities which were run through the Bb discussion
boards, and that these were perhaps the primary way in which the
teachers attempted to build community. The facilitators/teachers
participated in these discussions.

There was quite a lot of participation in the discussion boards. One
forum had over 500 postings. Most of the discussion board activity
seemed to occur in the early stages of the course & was focussed
around getting to know other participants, and building interest in
the programme.

It’s worth mentioning that we only talked for 30 minutes, and that
these impressions may not be completely accurate.


An article on attrition rates in online maths courses gives an
interesting description of the problems facing students in this
subject area and I wondered if Bioscience may have some similar issues
(if maths is a significant part of the learning).

Article at

Smith, G. G. and Ferguson, D. (2005). Student attrition in mathematics
e-learning. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 21(3),

What caught my attention was the issue of communicating in online
forums using mathematical notation and how this can be difficult and
off-putting for learners.

Leigh Blackall

Hi Yvonne, I haven’t read the article yet but your comment above prompts me
to point to communication platforms like Moodle <> and
Wikieducator <> that have mathematical symbols
available in their edit bars.. I don’t know much about communicating with
such symbols, but do these cut the mustard? Or I have heard of teachers
using the white board features on various web conferencing platforms to
write these symbols…

Gordon Robinson


This is a subject close to my heart as a former maths teacher.

A significant issue, particularly for maths learners, that hasn’t been
mentioned in the article is that of self-confidence. So many students have
poor maths educations early on that can permanently affect their subsequent
learning. I discussed this in more depth on a previous course so will just
go over the key points here. Often early teachers are jacks of all trades,
no disrespect intended to them, however they often don’t understand the
maths themselves at higher levels and can impart this unwittingly to their
students. In this subject perhaps more than others, if the groundwork is
shaky then the rest of the learning is problematic. The good news is that
this can be turned around but often needs 1-1, f2f, where the individuals
can be mentored closely, coaxed and generally encouraged until they regain
enough confidence in their own ability to be independent learners again.
Nothing better for a maths teacher to hear the words “Is that all there is
to it?” or “Why did I have so much trouble with this before?”

So I guess the fundamental question here is, can this closeness be
replicated in the on-line environment? Can the teacher/facilitator-student
relationship be built up to the required level in cyberspace?