Science and Technology Education Center


Tel-Aviv University - School of Education



Knowledge Technology Laboratory

 

 

THE CONTRIBUTION OF AN ONLINE COURSE

TO STUDENT CENTERED LEARNING

 

 

Avigail Oren and Zvia Lotan

 

 

Research Report No. 61

1999

 

 

Tel-Aviv University

School of Education

Knowledge Technology Lab

Ramat-Aviv, Tel-Aviv, 69978

Israel

 

Submited for publication in WebNet Journal

[For internal teaching and research use at Tel-Aviv University]

 

[© by the journals or books publishers]

 



Abstract

Recently, the distance learning mode became Internet based, and as a consequence gains more popularity. Though it is a technological supported mode the pedagogical Questions form a main issue in research.

The main interest of this article lies with the question of student centered instruction as a strategy to improve higher education. Does the web enhances independent learning and how? What is the importance of the unique features of the web ó communication means - in this process and what is the significance of the course mode ó hybrid and extending a face to face course versus totally on line.

In this article we describe these two modes of a university course which was based on a holistic approach including information as well as various means of communication. Likewise, the research we conducted, findings, which cover the various components of the course and our conclusions, are presented.

Almost all the students in both courses were satisfied and find that they have gained knowledge and experience in course subjects. The usage of forums and chats, that are conceptually student centered, was more successful in the obligatory mode. Studentsí preference to be moderated shows the same trend. Though students were involved deeply in the course activities, findings indicate that Israeli students have to develop new habits of learning, initiating contact with experts on the base of learning needs, appreciate feedback of peers, be responsible for knowledge acquire and feel comfortable in a less structured environment. But, on the whole it seems that the on line mode of learning is more powerful to achieve these learning goals.


Introduction

The concept of distance learning has been applied for many years in higher education in various forms. Recently, this mode of learning became Internet based, and as a consequence gains more popularity. Likewise, the educational options and prospects offered by the Internet and the WWW environment are investigated and discussed in various research works. The fact that the Internet is a dynamic information and communication environment gives reason to consider its educational potential as a flexible mode of learning (Olsten, 1997).

Another trend in higher education development is the tendency to explore advanced pedagogical ideas in which the improvement of the academic instruction is related to student centered learning. These ideas are claimed not only by instructors but also by students who seem to shift from viewing education as acquiring knowledge and memorization to a constructive activity (Lanke, 1997).

Could the net supply a learning environment, which supports a new pedagogy in higher education? One way to explore this question is to find out how the Internet is used in online higher education courses. In a survey we conducted in this matter 70 higher education sites out of 400 educational sites were analyzed. The analysis revealed that 91% of the sites used individual instruction, none of them used collaborative activities almost 75% of the sites were only information pages. From the communication point of view 67% used E-mail, almost no discussion groups were offered and only 8.6% offered synchronous means (Miodusar, Nachmias, Oren, Lahav, 1999). It seems quite clear that the communicative features were not used in the appropriate way.

Another way to answer the question of web supporting a new pedagogy in higher education is discussed in this article. We looked for the benefits of different CMC instructional models for enhancing student centered learning; the web-extended face to face course and the on line course. In both models we used the holistic concept offering various communication facilities as well as information. Our main interest lies with the issue of learners taking full control of their learning. A process which is discussed in the literature (Odin, 1997).

In this article the course models will be described and some preliminary research results will be presented and discussed in order to understand the contribution of Internet based learning for enhancing student centered learning.

 

Some theoretical background

It is quite clear from the educational concepts covered by the literature that the Internet might serve as an educational environment while the pedagogical ideas it supports are still in question. The survey by Paulsen (1995) sums up the various instructional strategies that are known in the educational field. He proposes a classification of communication possibilities that reflects the pedagogical power of the net: person to information, person to person (help, apprenticeship etc.), person to many (lecture etc.) and many to many (debate, project etc). Communication options as the main pedagogical contribution of the net to distance learning are also acknowledge by Creed (1997). He emphasizes the extension they offer to class discourse, public and private. Fetterman (1998) uses a more global perspective view. He describes the educational possibilities offered through the net by classifying the educational environment into categories of information (pages) usage, communication means, and data handling emphasizing students activities involved such as processing, sharing and publishing. Apparently, it is clearÜthat the Internet is becoming a place hosting pedagogical environments.

 

Researchers are curious about various questions related to the on-line learning process, which take place within these learning environments.

For instance the issues of learning achievements in online course and students attitudes towards such a course. Schutte (1996) dealt with these questions and explored a virtual course versus a traditional course at California State University, Northridge. His findings revealed that students who learned in a web-based course got higher scores than students who took the traditional course. Likewise, these students found the learning process to be more flexible and invested more time in learning than the students who learned in the traditional way do.

Not less important is the issue of the time instructors invests while monitoring an online course. Findings of a research in this issue (SchWeber, 1998), indicate that the web faculty spent 3.5 more hours per week teaching online then the time spent in teaching a traditional course. It appears that the main difference is the amount of time spent by instructors in the process of contact with students, which was twice than the time spent with the students participating in traditional courses.

Another question is the significance of the communication facilities - synchronous and asynchronous in the learning process as conveying the information richness offered by the network.

Irani (1998) explored the information richness offered by various media, while focusing on the relation between the usage of media types for different types of assignments. It was found that students scored tasks, which had been part of face to face instructional strategy, high. Likewise, synchronous facilities (video conferencing and chats) were ranked quite high for all types of tasks. These findings indicate the importance of the synchronous element in a distance learning environment.

Another point of view presents Doherty (1998) describing online learning from the learner control perspective. In this perspective he points out the importance of asynchronous learning facilities quoting the findings of Drexel University (1995). Apparently, students who used ALN indicated that they had more access to the instructor, more communication with peers and felt that they had gained knowledge in the online environment.

Not less important is the interest of the academic community in the optimal ratio between face to face and online interactions. Research findings indicate that students prefer hybrid courses. Apparently there are certain parts of a course that need the face to face communication, while others will be benefited more through distance learning.

In this perspective the conclusions of the Committee for higher education online learning the University of Haifa, might be considered. It is argued that online distance learning is an appropriate way to teach introductory courses were information is important, or courses were collaborative activities demand a continuity of students interactions after face to face lessons (Solomon, 1998).

 

The course model

A course dealing with the prospects of virtual environments for education was designed. This course served as part of the research described in this article. We assumed that students might be benefited through ìlearning by doingî being themselves part of an educational virtual environment.

In designing the course model we had in mind issues and research findings described above and considered the importance of the communication facilities as presented by Paulsen (1995). Likewise, we found the integrative model as discussed by Mason (1998), or as it is called the holistic model to be most suitable for our pedagogical framework. This model is based on the integration of all the elements involved in online learning: information and communication and pedagogy as described by Nachmias et al (1999).

In order to explore the special contribution of the network for student centered learning and instruction we offered two modes of a course dealing with the same subject: an online course and a hybrid course extending the face to face lessons with net based activities.

The structure of the course was designed as follows:

 

 

Course content materials were written especially for the on-line version, and structured according to the sequence of the lessons presented in the hybrid course. We wanted to enable each student to look in depth in the issues discussed according to her/his abilities, therefore we used the hypertext method through three types of links: links which enable navigation inside the specific subject, links between course subjects and links to information embedded in other sites.

Each subject was accompanied with activities presented through a timetable. Some activities demanded collaborative learning and some of them were individual exercises. Students were asked to deliver the assignments by hand (hybrid course), or through mail (online course). In both courses assignments were related to fixed dates.

The courses used various communication means - synchronous and asynchronous - bearing in mind that each communication type might have a different contribution to the learning process. In the online course used the asynchronous technology and the ICQ technology as means of introduction. ICQ remained a facility for students to contact each other whenever they wanted. Likewise, forums were a main part of the learning process, each one of them lasting one week for both courses. Sending messages and comments toÜsome forums was obligatory and was defined as assignment. In such forums students were asked to send at least one message and two comments. Three moderated chats were held through the course in order to discuss the course subjects. Students could use the chat in a free mode also for social interactions.

 

Research procedure

Two parallel courses were defined as part of the regular learning system at the university. One course was based on the concept of using the net as an extension to face-to face lectures and the other was offered as an on line course. Students were assigned to a course according to their preference. Students of the online course had a preliminary face to face meeting in which they got an overview lecture and experienced the communication tool s of the system. The hybrid course students had 4 lessons in the regular time of the course before changing to online mode. All along the hybrid course used face to face regular lessons 50% of the course time.

 

Course population

17 students participated in the on line course most of them were teachers in high school and/college. 9 students participated in the hybrid course as part of their studies for master degree. Each course was given through one semester. All participants had experience in Internet usage as an information environment but not as a communication environment.

Data accumulation

Data was accumulated through formal courses evaluation questionnaire, personal questionnaire, and interviews with some participants, forumsí messages. Chatsí logs of three online students were analyzed in order to look in depth through the on line learning process.

 

Preliminary Findings

 

General students attitude

Almost all the students in both courses were satisfied with the course and find that they have gained knowledge and experience in course subjects. In a formal university evaluation the hybrid course was scored 6.5 out of 7 by the students and the online course was ranked 4.5 out of 5 by the participants.

 

Information usage

Information was presented in a sequence of topics as defined in the course syllabus.

Almost half of the students participating in the online course browsed through the information offered according to their interest and not according to the topicsíí sequence presented. Some students printed out all the material in advance and read it as a textbook in the beginning of the course. Most of the students who participated in the hybrid course did not use the information on the net until they were asked to relate to this information in the forumsÆ Likewise, the hybrid course students kept the sequence of the course lessons in accessing course material. From forum messages it was apparent that most of the students used the links to other articles which were added to the written course material.

 

Assignments

As far as the assignments were concerned, we observed two different patterns in delivery. Though in both courses a fixed date was announced for assignmentsí delivery most of the hybrid course students hand over the assignment in the fixed date, while online studentsí assignments were spread before and after the fixed date. Hybrid course students that handed over the assignments in the fixed date did it directly face to face to the instructor. The others used Email to deliver the assignment after the fixed date. None of them delivered the assignment before the fixed date, while so behaved some of the online students.

Online students expected immediate feedback. They wanted the instructor to comment in details and immediately. The hybrid course students did not criticize the instructor on this matter. Apparently the net is viewed as an immediate mean of communication while in face to face courses students are accustomed to the university evaluation routine which allows more time for evaluation and feedback.

In assignments that were given as a collaborative work the usage of Email, ICQ and phone was in the same rate and by online students and no preference of one mean was revealed.

Hybrid course students used basically face to face meetings but from time to time used the net for contact.

 

Communication

Email

Email was used as a mean for student-instructor contact (help, assignments etc.) and student-student contact.

As far as the contact with the instructor is concerned most online studentís initiatives to use Email dealt with technological problems. Few of them asked by mail additional explanations of the assignments. As a whole these students expected the instructor to initiate the contact and the few who made a contact through mail expected immediate responses. The hybrid course students used the Email rarely. Some of them explained that they preferred to contact the instructor via Email than via ICQ feeling inconvenience in making a synchronous contact and bothering the lecturer in his free time. They had no problem to ask the lecturer questions after the lecture in a face to face situation. As far as student - student contact it was rarely used and most of the time for assignments fulfillment.

Forums

While analyzing the messages sent to the forums it was clear that most of the students in both courses participated as demanded. Only few of them wrote more than one message and more than two comments and these were students of the online course.

 

Analysis of the online course forums

 

Main

Subject

 

Obligatory

Participation

 

No. of

participants

 

No. of

messages

 

No. of

comments

 

No. of

Sub-subjects

 

No.of

levels

 

To become

acquainted

 

yes

 

16

 

15

 

4

 

2

 

1

 

The power

Of the Web

 

no

 

13

 

6

 

22

 

5

 

3

 

Discussion

groups

 

yes

 

16

 

14

 

32

 

6

 

4

 

applications

 

yes

 

15

 

10

 

33

 

8

 

2-3

 

Role of

moderator

 

no

 

10

 

7

 

6

 

1

 

1

 

chats

 

no

 

13

 

12

 

4

 

2

 

1

 

ThePalace

 

no

 

13

 

11

 

4

 

2

 

1-2

 

 

Analysis of the hybrid course forums

 

Main

Subject

 

Obligatory

participation

 

No. of

participants

 

No. of

messages

 

No. of

comments

 

No. of

Sub-subjects

 

No.of

levels

 

Discussion

groups

 

yes

 

9

 

10

 

36

 

6

 

2-5

 

applications

 

yes

 

9

 

5

 

5

 

4

 

1-2

 

Role of

moderator

 

no

 

4

 

3

 

3

 

1

 

2

 

chats

 

no

 

9

 

6

 

33

 

6

 

4-5

 

It is quite clear that the most discussed forums were those which were considered obligatory as assignments. They had not only more massages and comments, but almost 3 times more comment than messages, when the demand was only for 2 comments. Likewise, in these forums the main subjects was split to more sub-subjects and comments went deeper in the discussion than in the other forums. These findings are more apparent in the online group than in the hybrid one. It seems that in the hybrid course students could discuss things in class, while for the online group the net was the only place for discussion.

 

Synchronous means

Some problems impaired the usage of the synchronous means. It took quite a long time till all the students downloaded the ICQ program and exchanged the numbers. But once it was arranged students began using it as a mean of communication between each other. ICQ was used by online students more than by the hybrid ones. Sum of them said that they got new friends and will continue the ICQ relations though the course is finished. At the hybrid course 6 students out of 9 mentioned the importance of ICQ in their collaborative activities.

Two subjects were discussed with the online course students (In the hybrid course chats were not activated because of technical problems). Students were divided into groups of 5-6 as we thought that efficient moderation demands small groups. It was found that most of the students went a cognitive process from information exchange to conclusion messages and presentation of implementation possibilities. As a social environment most of the remarks advanced the discussion such as: hi everybody, I am happy that I am here, thank you for... donít worry about... that's what is nice about... Only few were personal remarks that are common in a social chat environment and might distract the discussion. These remarks were used only in the sessionsí beginning and after their endÜwere announced.

A sum up online conference was held only with the participants of the online course. Most of them asked for a face to face meetings for two reasons:

The online conference came out to be insufficient as an epilog. One student remarked: So, that is all, we just close the computer and the course is finished?

 

 

Social atmosphere

From the messages and comment titles used by students in the forums a development of asocial atmosphere could be detected. It should be noted that the students in the on line course did not know each other and the forums were held from the beginning. In the first forum of acquaintance only two students out of 16 show interest in another student and commented to her message, in the second forum 3 out of 15 students mentioned the names of students they commented to. In the forth forum 4 out of 16 students used personal related comments in the title of their comment such as: I have learned from your message, a terrific idea, a fascinating idea, well done, etc. In the fifth and the sixth forums some talked directly to the others: what is your opinion? Is there no place to? I changed my mind...

In the group that took the hybrid course the social atmosphere was backed up by face to face lessons. In the first forum 4 students out of 9 used the names of the students they commented to and 3 comments were titled: I agree with you, an agreement, in relation to yourÖwhich shows a personal attitude. It should be noted that this forum took place after some face to face lessons.

 

A magnifying glass

In order to examine the question of the importance of students types in the online learning process we looked in depth into the mode of interaction used by three students who participated in the on line course.

Student no. 1 - Teaches literature for 20 years and has also management functions in her school.

When taking the course she was in a sabbatical. Participated in the forums in day hours, most of the time in the morning. Examination of her activity in the discussion group

Reveals that she interacted directly with the other participants in most of her comments (6 out of 8).

In three comments she used the name of the participant and in three other comments she addressed them like: "according to the URL you mentioned..." "your comment was quite right..." "your recommendation is very impressive..."

The analysis of her participation in two chats reveals that she used many direct interaction messages like addressing participants with the name appearing in the chat room, using expression like what do you think? You are right, could you be specific? From the cognitive point of view her most messages dealt with clarification of ideas and did not developed into evaluation of ideas.

Student no. 2 - teaches science with computers in college, Participated in the forums in the late evening hours (11 PM- 2 AM). . Examination of her activity in the discussion group

Reveals that out of 9 comments she interacted directly in four of them, The first time was in the fourth group and the interaction was with the moderator. Than in the following groups she began using direct expressions such as "when you say... according to your opinion is it... I agree with those who...". In the chats a cognitive development was detected. The students began with messages like tell me whatÖit is and how I use it to messages like did you repeat the experiment? Some conclusions about the topic and an analysis of the discussed topic should it be implemented in class. Analysis of her comments in chats revealed a development in the cognitive dimension. While in the beginning her messages were asking for information or giving information her messages developed into clarification, explanations and evaluation of ideas like: it was fun because... it was shallow as...for instance... etc.

Student no. 3 - Teaches biology for 15 years in high school and is involved in curriculum development. Participated in the forums in various hours of the day. Examination of her activity in the discussion groups reveals that she sent only 3 comments but 4 messages. In one comment she used the expressions "according to my opinion..." twice. In an interactive comment she used "I agree with those..." and "your idea seems to me fascinating..." No direct comments were used.

Analysis of her chat logs revealed a significant development. She experienced various cognitive steps. From informative message and comments (I was there... whenever I went into a chat room somebody talked with me...) to clarifying ideas (we are responsible for... we should think about...) than to explanations (now it is the opportunity to...) and to evaluations (may be if... there will be a benefit for... that is another possibility for... ask yourselves if...)

 

It is quite clear that students went over a learning process, each one in anther mode of intensity. The typology of students participating in forums and chats is an important question that should be researched also in quantitative methods. Findings in this issue are most important for developing models of forums and chats moderation.

 

Some summary notes

Students had a positive attitude towards the course, but there was a difference between the two groups. Online students felt that they gained significant knowledge about virtual learning environment being part of such an environment. For the hybrid students it was another academic course. They find the course to be interesting because of experiencing new technologies.

Findings about the way students used information indicate that an online environment creates a wide and dynamic knowledge space in which online students might be active without instructorís involvement. It was a less open space for hybrid course students who were navigated by the lectures given by the instructor being used to depend on these lectures.

 

As far as the course communication layer is concerned it seems that all the students mentioned the asynchronous and synchronous means of communication as the most powerful tools for learning. The usage of forums and chats indicate the success of the obligatory mode. Studentsí motivation to participate in forums was more extrinsic relating to course duties than intrinsic as a consequence of curiosity, personal involvement or responsibility. But, it is clear that when a subject is interesting enough students are more initiative in the forums. Moreover, in both courses students preferred moderated forums. Some students remarked that they needed more structured instruction than was given. One student complained that the instructor comments in the forum were presented as an equal message to peer messages and therefore had not an instructional value.ÜIt was clear that most of the students experienced and got an understanding of power that the communication means embedded in the course have. But on line course students were a little bit more initiative in creating social contact and more active in discussions. On the whole though students were involved deeply in the course activities findings indicate that Israeli students should develop new habits of learning, initiating contact with experts on the base of learning needs, appreciating feedback of peers® be responsible for knowledge acquire and feel comfortable in a less structured environment. It seems that the on line learning mode creates a learning environment which is is more powerful to reach these goals.


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