|Australasian Journal of Educational Technology
2009, 25(2), 221-234.
Stepping through the orientation looking glass: A staged approach for postgraduate students
Charles Darwin University
Mary Jane Mahony, Tim Lever
The University of Sydney
University of Technology, Sydney
Postgraduate coursework is now delivered to a largely mature age study population, in what may be an unfamiliar mix of online and distance learning to many students. This paper reports on a novel approach to student orientation in this new environment. Orientation is conceptualised as a process of transition between the domain of everyday life and the domain of academic study over a period of time commencing prior to enrolment and continuing into formal studies. A schema addressing three dimensions (interpersonal, technical and reflective) was constructed and operationalised as a staged orientation plan (GettingOnTrack). Students are able to move through the three stages participating in activities which align with their needs before, during and after enrolment. This builds on critical concerns reported in earlier literature, highlighting the need for an extended time line and authentic learning tasks in a risk free environment.
... our experience of postgraduates is that often if they don't get support early on in their enrolment for difficulties they are having, the problems are more likely to get worse ... (Rout, 2007)The work reported here is a response to this challenge, undertaken within a 'design research' framework where the design is not an end in itself but a tool for investigating and clarifying the underlying design issues requirements (Sandoval, 2004). The design work reported here is certainly not intended as a fully developed 'solution' for the student orientation problem and it would indeed be naive to do so, given the limitations of current knowledge in this area. The aim is rather one of laying ground for future design work through a more focused and explicit formulation of the critical educational design problems to be overcome in delivering effective student orientation services. In this paper we review the literature on student orientation to this new environment and outline a new conceptualisation of orientation for postgraduate coursework students, with a particular focus on two elements: time (as timeline, not as quantity available) and activity structure. We then outline the design of a specific orientation package informed by our theorising, GettingOnTrack, and briefly report initial results of its implementation with students.
Relevant research literature (Levy, 2006; Motteram & Forrester, 2005; Price, Richardson & Jelfs, 2007), substantial local anecdote and our own earlier research (Wozniak, Mahony, Pizzica & Koulias, 2007) all also indicate orientation is required both as a pre-semester activity and as support embedded within the semester. Both must provide opportunities for learners to experiment with the technology with guided learning activities in a safe supported environment and to make mistakes, as Salmon advised in her early work (Salmon, 1998). Orientation activities reported in the literature on online learning, however, indicate only narrow responses to the need for an extended orientation time line.
Levy (2006) provides the most rigorous analysis of the support required for learners engaged in what she terms 'networked learning'. She used an action research project to unpack the key elements of learning to learn in a networked environment and identified four processes required for successful student engagement. Students required an orientation to the features of the learning space, ability to communicate either asynchronously or synchronously, opportunities to develop social networks with other participants and self management skills to cope with information overload and time constraints. She also noted considerable variation in learner readiness with the skills to participate in networked learning environments, indicating that addressing this was best supported by providing a non-linear, looser structure to orientation activities. She presents a framework for supporting networked learning that 'reflects the assumption that initial induction, while important, will not be sufficient to support the developmental process, for newcomers to networked learning' (p. 238). This is further supported by the work of Moule (2007), who whilst critiquing the limitations of using Salmon's 5 stage model for learning outside the constructivist model, noted the need for ongoing support for students throughout their online learning experience. Students will continue to require access to support materials beyond any initial orientation period. The conclusion must be that 'orientation' should not be a point in time but a continuum of support, a timeframe extended before and after the commencement of studies.
Furthermore, postgraduate study frequently requires students to work collaboratively online, necessitating the development of new approaches to learning and more sophisticated time management. Researchers examining student engagement with online communication tools suggest that students may need instruction in how to engage more actively in online learning communities (Geer, 2003; Meyer, 2004; Price, et al., 2007). Structuring activities with meaningful peer interaction is known to enhance learning and improve completion rates (Anderson, Annand & Wark, 2005). Apart from the work of Levy noted above, however, there are few reports of orientation to online learning which address these more sophisticated, generic learning skills, and provide opportunities for practising these skills in a environment not focused on the content of formal study.
The 'bare bones' of the orientation learning space can be distilled more or less directly from the collection of issues canvassed in the literature discussed above. The three main dimensions (see Figure 1) to emerge are those of technology, interpersonal relationships and reflection (self knowledge and direction). These are located in the context of the domains of life, study and the time in which they take place. The domain of life was particularly important for the cohort of students that this resource supported and will be detailed further in the next section. Time provides a continuous core around which the others revolve, clarifying the shape of the orientation learning space. The orientation learning space is a time based 'space' rather than normal walled premises. The space is a linear continuum defined by a starting point, finishing point and milestones to be reached in between, but not by having any particular location. Beyond this conclusion, understanding how the various elements combine around the temporal core is an unstructured process requiring some imaginative guesswork.
Figure 1: Through the looking glass: the transitional learning space of student orientation
Three essential features of the construct in Figure 1 are:
This is the framework which underpinned the development of the staged orientation approach, the GettingOnTrack student orientation package, whose features, strengths, and limitations are outlined in the remainder of this paper.
In the initial stages the student audience was limited to postgraduate allied health professionals in one faculty. Later, common interests in addressing the orientation challenge led to an expanded audience including, by the time GettingOnTrack was launched, a wide spectrum of health professionals commencing postgraduate study (e.g. physicians, nurses, occupational therapists, sexual health counsellors, and others) in ten programs delivered in three of the five faculties concerned with human health.
Student characteristics scoped in the design phase not surprisingly demonstrated the diverse needs of student cohorts in health science courses, where the majority of postgraduate students are studying part time whilst employed. Here, maintenance of professional standards whilst working in increasingly demanding and complex work environments commonly requires these mature age professionals to undertake further study to provide adequate patient safety and care. The population's characteristics range along a continuum, from students who are highly experienced in the online environment (or believe they are), to students substantially lacking in experience and/or confidence. Both groups are potentially at risk of stumbling in their substantive studies, the former through their assumptions that they know what is expected; the latter as much through their lack of confidence as through lack of skills and/or experience.
This was in line with the reports by Levy (2006), noting considerable individual differences in learners speed and ease of use of the different components of a networked learning environment, by Moule (2007) who showed that postgraduate health care students lack confidence and are fearful of technology despite being experienced computer users in their work environment, and in a large Australian study of nurses confirming that high workloads, lack of technical assistance and poor access to training and support were barriers to greater use of information technologies within their disciplinary environment (Hegney et al, 2007).
Whilst there has been considerable discourse regarding the assessment of students' readiness for online learning at many levels, from first year students to postgraduate students (Erlich et al., 2005, Shih et al., 2006, & Pillay et al., 2007), conclusions indicate that satisfaction with online learning and completion of study requires students to have a range of capacities prior to engagement with online learning materials; most notably technical skills, self confidence with computers, self management skills, and comfort with online communication. Pillay recommends that without online coaching to provide students with the necessary skills to negotiate online learning environments, students will not complete their study or encourage other students take up the challenge.
Figure 2: The GettingOnTrack suite
Each of the three stages of GettingOnTrack is described below in relation to the overall conceptual framework, highlighting the learning design dimensions that describe the focus, activity base and underpinning learning supports.
The learning design is activity based, where the prospective student engages with a series of reflective choices in place of the more traditional, information led approaches. The design builds on the simple technical concept of the interactive checklist to create an encompassing array of real life study choices. A simple surface question: 'Are you ready for postgraduate online study or not?' draws the prospective student into the reflective maze beneath which there is scaffolded initiation into the real life technical challenges of online learning. What might be considered as imperfections of system usability (for example, say, the potential for browser incompatibility) are harnessed as pedagogical triggers developing not only technical skills and confidence but also broader self reliance in dealing with a learning environment in constant change. For example, as Figure 3 illustrates, the three activities assist prospective students to enter a process of reflection about their readiness for online learning, while at the same time trying out aspects of the technology needed for studying online.
Figure 3: The open access web interface for GetReal
Table 1 shows the relationship between these activities and supporting information for the learner. Finally, a strong social dimension is introduced through a study-life balance activity, designed for sharing between student and others liable to be affected by their study choice. It is a 'family friendly' learning resource.
This open, self access website is designed to address the needs of prospective students with an external inquiry perspective through these features:
|Reflective dimension||Technology survival challenge
Study/life balancing act
Life zoneHelp zone
Where nextSite map
GetReal is located at http://www3.fhs.usyd.edu.au/getreal/. For more detail about its design, see Lever, Mahony & Wozniak (2007).
The GetStarted login guide focuses entirely on the technical threshold stage. The guide provides succinct instructions for new students accessing the university's online learning environment, with referral to help resources in the GetReal site for cases where login fails. The aim is to ensure that all students who are genuinely technically ready for online learning spend as little time as possible dealing with its technicalities, while those students who are not ready are picked up without delay and referred to appropriate help.
|Technical dimension||Logging in|
Navigating around My eLearning sites
|Logging into USyd eLearning|
My eLearning sites
Inside My eLearning sites
Where to get help
Table 2 shows the relationship between these activities and supporting information for the learner. On the GettingOnTrack timeline, this stage is strongly commended to students at the time when access to the LMS is available to them (consideration of the vexing issue of timely access to enrolment dependent learning resources is outside the scope of this paper - see Wozniak, Mahony and Pizzica (in preparation) for discussion of this institutional constraint on student orientation).
|Module 1: Finding your way around||Link to Technology challenge in GetReal|
Feedback on self test
Link to life zone of GetReal
|Module 2: Communicating with others||Discussion activity moderated|
Student use monitored and individual encouragement provided by moderators to lurkers to post
|Module 3: Building collaborative groups||Discussion activity moderated|
Tips on how to construct knowledge in online groups
|Module 4: Getting your assignment done||Student use monitored and individual feedback provided on assignment submission|
Links to university resources for postgraduate students
|Module 5: Doing the right thing||Student comments about academic honesty|
Links to other university resources such as plagiarism policies, how to contribute to group work, academic writing skills
As students embark on the practice activities, they are provided with timely scaffolds to assist them to hurdle any technical barriers. More confident students can proceed quickly, using only the compact task description before challenging themselves to complete the activity. Students who do not feel as confident or familiar with the environment can use an embedded guide. The guide/s are provided as short, narrated slideshows for a generation of users who customarily use this type of media or who prefer the visual style, and as a downloadable PDF for a generation of users who expect a manual. While sequential completion of the modules is implied, it is not prescribed, allowing for student choice.
Figure 4: Design of a communication activity in Module 2 of GetLearning
The design of this orientation stage provides a closely scaffolded introduction to the University's online learning environment, while maximising learning opportunities with:
Both formative and summative evaluation was conducted on GettingOnTrack as a whole (during implementation in 2007) and on some of its parts during development and piloting (in 2006). The evaluation design throughout has been driven by stakeholders' views of utility. Reporting these in detail is out of scope of this paper. In brief, detailed analysis of the access patterns of 179 students engaging in the third component, GetLearning across six postgraduate health sciences courses, has provided evidence of the appropriateness of the educational design considerations as well as reinforced the need for students to have access not only at the commencement of their study but also as they progress through the semester (Wozniak, Mahony, Pizzica & Koulias, 2007). This supports the suggestion by Levy (2006) that learners will continue to discover resources to assist them to learn online, considerably later in the semester and well beyond the initial orientation period.
The design principles were affirmed by student feedback: the extended time line 'extra time at the start would have saved me hours later on' (from a student reviewing the resource who did not have prior access) and authentic learning tasks in a risk free environment: 'It works well because it is like a practice run to the real thing'. We are currently extending analysis to include a different implementation approach (moderated versus unmoderated support) with richer student evaluation data to more fully evaluate the impact of the GettingOnTrack initiative and the design research framework used for this study.
Informal feedback at the end of 2007 was that at least one coordinator was considering connecting GetLearning with her program through a participation assessment in 2008. Such an approach would highlight the value of GetLearning, increasing students' perception of its relevance to them; on the other hand, care would be needed to maintain students' view of it as a 'low risk' environment, that is, the opportunity to explore and make mistakes.
This work was supported in part by the University of Sydney's eLearning Strategic Initiative, under the auspices of the Pro Vice Chancellor (Learning & Teaching).
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|Authors: Helen Wozniak, Associate Professor, Manager Academic Development Team. Teaching and Learning Quality Group, Charles Darwin University, Darwin, NT 0909, Australia. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Tim Lever, Instructional Designer, Faculty of Engineering & Information Technology, The University of Sydney, NSW 2006, Australia. Email: email@example.com
Dr Mary Jane Mahony, Honorary Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Education & Social Work, The University of Sydney, NSW 2006, Australia. Email: MJ.Mahony@usyd.edu.au
Jenny Pizzica, Lecturer, Institute for Interactive Media and Learning, University of Technology Sydney, NSW 2007, Australia. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Please cite as: Wozniak, H., Mahony, M. J., Lever, T. & Pizzica, J. (2009). Stepping through the orientation looking glass: A staged approach for postgraduate students. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 25(2), 221-234. http://www.ascilite.org.au/ajet/ajet25/wozniak.html