Analysis (Part II)
This page was written by Alastair Reynolds
The second part of this analysis will examine issues arising in the course within the context of Allen's last three functions of a manager; developing people, communicating and measurement and analysis.
Since the course being studied was intended to encourage the professional development of teachers, developing people was central to the aims of the tutors, both during the preparation of the task and in the tutoring of the course.
One issue which arose was the relevance of the task (see Appendix A). The task was intended to encourage discussion about techniques which proved effective when teaching with information technology, followed by reflection on aspects of participants’ own practice with IT. Both the case studies written for the task were taken from a secondary school context, partly because both the authors work in secondary schools, and partly because they anticipated that the majority of the participants would also be in a secondary context. The group turned out to have a much wider variety of backgrounds from primary schools to further education colleges and even staff training in the National Health Service.
Garrison (1989) points out the need for adult learners to be able to integrate learning and living, and Knowles Theory of Andragogy (Kearsley, 1996) indicates that adults learn most effectively when the topic being covered is of immediate value. This explains why some of the students found the task irrelevant or unhelpful, and were unwilling to discuss the case studies. A knock-on effect was that some students did not then reflect on their own experiences, a part of the task which they could have completed regardless of their background.
The evidence collected suggested that some participants felt that they had not been developed at all during the course, but that others felt they had developed significantly. A possible cause of this was the diverse range of expectations students had when starting. Some said they had expected to be taught techniques of how to teach with IT, and others said they had expected the course to be much more academic, focussing mainly on the educational theory involved. Some also said that they expected the course to have much more structure, with regular tasks to complete and hand in, like some other distance learning courses. It was interesting to note that the students who had the most specific expectations tended to be most disappointed; those that came into the course prepared to try a different style of learning seemed to gain the most.
Hiltz (1995a) accepts that not every student will work well in a ‘virtual classroom’ context. Imel (1995) discusses how inclusive learning environments can be created where the students’ contexts and experiences are an important part of the learning process, and where reflection is a key to developing the learner. She also points out that this alters the ‘power relationship’ in the classroom, placing more emphasis on the students as peer tutors, and taking away power from the teacher. This effect can be unsettling to those who are comfortable with a more traditional style of learning. One student made the interesting point that she felt the course had encouraged self-analysis and reflection, but that some people had been unwilling to participate because this can feel like quite a negative process.
Garrison (1989) states that the effectiveness of distance education is linked very closely to the form and nature of the communication which occurs. Kearsley (1997) notes that interaction amongst participants is the most important factor in successful on-line learning environments. Since discussion (mainly through an on-line forum) was the primary way in which any of the students on this course could develop, it is useful to look at the extent to which students participated.
Some students did not contribute at all, and most of these dropped out in the early part of the course. There were various reasons for this including lack of time.
A small group did not take part in the on-line discussion at all, but communicated between each other by e-mail. These students were concerned that the discussion was too ‘trivial’ and did not have enough academic depth. From later questioning it appears that they still gained new knowledge during the course, but not from the tasks set or resources provided. One other student who had participated throughout the course commented that the way to make a discussion more academic would be to respond with more academic messages rather than opting not to take part at all.
Some students made very occasional contributions, and continued to read the discussion throughout. These ‘lurkers’ cited various reasons for not posting regularly, including lack of time, lack of access to facilities, lack of confidence with system and guilt over not having contributed. They tended to feel that they had learnt from the course but not as effectively as they might have.
A final group made regular contributions to the discussion throughout the course. These students tended to be pleased with their own development during the course.
Clearly there is a need to consider why there was such a wide range of levels of participation. It is worth noting that traditional classrooms also have a situation where some pupils are always keen to participate whereas others hardly ever contribute. This is not as significant a problem in the traditional classroom, because the teacher is still communicating (one-way) with the pupils. In the on-line classroom the tutor has no way of discerning whether or not the students are ‘listening’. More importantly, in the on-line discussion all the students form an essential part of the teaching and learning process - participants cannot draw on the experiences and knowledge of others if those ‘others’ are not taking part. Jonassen et al (1988) describe how a learning community must have common learning goals, and how the members of that community must work with each other to achieve those goals. It is possible that the participants in this course had different goals. One of the more active students felt that some people on the course had not shown enough commitment to the whole group.
Some of the communication issues raised by students related to the on-line environment. Some felt that the asynchronous nature made discussion more difficult, which interestingly contradicts Kerka’s (1996) assertion that students find asynchronous communication more convenient when they have busy lives to work around. Students said that the discussion could feel very ‘one-way’ if no-one responded to your messages, but also commented that it was very easy to read a message but put off responding until later. The tutors had encouraged the students to reply to any message where they felt they had something to say, regardless of how large or small. Despite this, some students reported that they had felt under pressure to write long messages, and had refrained from posting if they were only thinking of writing a couple of lines.
One of the most significant problems was that some students didn’t appreciate the fundamental role of the discussion in the teaching and learning process. Bracewell et al (1998) explain that the expectation to participate must be made absolutely clear to the students since participation is central to the course.
Measurement and analysis can take a number of forms in an on-line course. Kearsley (1997) suggests that regular assignments are one way of encouraging participation while also providing information to tutors about student progress. Regular tasks were set in this course but the expected outcomes were all discussion-based; where students didn’t take part in the discussion it was difficult to monitor their progress. Some students said they would have preferred ‘submittable’ tasks because it would have forced them to do the work. Some students confessed they had felt no compunction to take part in the discussion even though it formed part of the taught course.
One way of assessing the students progress and providing feedback is through responding to students’ messages. The tutors in this course began by responding to most of the messages posted, but were concerned about appearing over-dominant and stopped responding to as many. A secondary issue was that non-participation by several students led to the tutors losing some of their motivation to respond. As part of the ‘social role’ of a discussion moderator, Mason (1991) identifies the importance of providing feedback on student comments. Kearsley (1997) suggests that unless students are given feedback, they will eventually stop posting. Of course, it is impossible to give feedback to those students who don’t participate to begin with.
As part of the research for this assignment, the tutors asked students to complete a questionnaire before and after Activity B (See Appendix A). These questionnaires were sent out three weeks and five weeks after the face-to-face session respectively. The first questionnaire proved useful in gauging the effectiveness of the course so far because students raised several issues in their responses. The tutors did not respond to all the issues raised, in part because they saw the responses as evidence for this assignment rather than information to help improve the tutoring process. Abdous et al (1988) encourage the use of critical feedback on the teaching in a ‘reflective colleague’ (peer tutor) relationship, and it seems that tutors should also give students adequate opportunity to offer feedback on the effectiveness of the tutoring in the course, to develop better practice.
There are a number of ways in which the course did not meet the expectations of both tutors and students. Some of the students developed a greater understanding of the ideas covered by the course while others gained little more than technical skills. The tutors were disappointed that not everyone had taken part in the tasks set, and that students had not learnt as much as they had hoped. The level of communication varied significantly between students, because of different levels of confidence, commitment and clarity over what was required of them. For some students the course did not provide any clear assessment of their progress, whereas others benefited from interactive discussion where they could give and receive feedback on how they and other participants were progressing.
It is worth remembering that in every learning situation there are some students who develop more than others; those who do communicate and those who don't; those who would happily tutor each other and those who would prefer merely to be taught and assessed.
If I was tutoring this course again I would certainly alter some of my approaches. From this part of the analysis of this case study I would suggest the following guidance for tutors:
At this point you may wish to view the Analysis (Part I).
Otherwise you will probably want to move on to the Joint Conclusions page.
You may also return to the Contents page.