THE ROLE OF TECHNOLOGY IN SERVICING STUDENTS WITH CHANGING PRIORITIES
Christopher K Morgan
The University of Sydney, Orange, Australia
Students are increasingly spending less of their time on-campus and in classrooms and are turning to fulfil their study requirements through their use of information and communication technologies. From a curriculum perspective, this may appear to be an acceptable trend. For many students, however, achieving academic success requires more than this. A critical motivational element for them is to have a sense of being a valued member of a learning community. This paper uses a case study as it explores the need for educators to develop strategies that can build personal bridges with their changing students.
Tertiary students in formal award courses are generally spending less and less time in the classroom. The number of weeks in each semester has been shrinking and there are fewer classes scheduled for them in each week. While the educational administrators and the teachers are driving this, so are the students.
Administrators commonly have been seeking fewer timetabled sessions per student as they are under pressure to gain efficiencies and limit expenditure. They also need their staff to be freed up to undertake research and for other revenue generating activities such as commercial consultancies and conducting non-award short courses.
Many educators themselves have been responding to contemporary educational thinking and have been turning from being the ‘sage on the stage’ to being the ‘guide on the side’. Their role has become one of facilitating learner-centred activity rather than being the focus of a teacher-centred classroom. Their quest has been for their students to develop independent learning skills to enable them to become proficient lifelong learners. This has required a rethinking of how they structure and deliver their courses and in turn has led to more out-of-classroom activity for students and a reduction in face-to-face class contact time.
Students are also seeking less commitment to class schedules. A study by McInnis, James and Hartley (2000) supports the findings of Kuh (1999) and shows the amount of time students spend on campus has declined with more of their time devoted to paid work. McInnis (2001, p5) talks of the changing attitudes and circumstances of students and laments an increase in requests for special arrangements to meet the demands of their paid work. He reports that the amount of part-time work for many full-time students now more closely resembles the patterns of students typically enrolled part-time.
All this has led to teachers, students and administrators alike looking for new approaches to the educative process. It would seem very timely therefore that there has been rapid development in the use of information and communication technologies for educational purposes. Given the changing environment for administrators, teachers and students alike it is reasonable to assume that the utilisation in education of information and communication technologies will be increasingly employed.
From the student perspective, technology is a tool that can allow them to address their personal priorities by shaping their experience as a student to suit their own timetables. Technology can give them access to teaching and learning resources thereby reducing their need to be on-campus to do their study.
On first consideration, this might appear to be something to be applauded - the students are utilising technology to access their course-related materials from a more convenient location rather than coming to the campus and classrooms. They are making use of technology to replace classroom attendance; this allows them more time to engage in other activities such as paid work. By transferring unrestricted power to students to do this, however, may not turn out to be in their best interests. Experiences of institutions where they have employed liberal open learning practices such as allowing students to submit work anytime have been such as to recommend caution. These have found that the reality of providing unfettered freedom for the student has resulted in unacceptably low completion rates. If educators are to select and implement strategies to avoid such an outcome, its underlying causes need to be understood.
What then are the consequences associated with the provision of more flexible course delivery models? What do students miss as they increasingly look for course arrangements which embrace information technology to allow them to access teaching and learning resources without coming onto campus?
In order to understand the ramifications of these changes, much can be learned from experiences with students who are not required to come onto campus at all. Distance education providers have been well aware that a cost of social disengagement can be low completion rates and acknowledge that their students are at higher risk of non-completion. They generally seek to minimise any institutional barriers to persistence and put in place support processes with the intention of circumventing individual dispositional factors that may impede academic progress. A study into distance education student persistence reported by Morgan and Littlewood (1998) indicated that risk of non-completion was related to the relative importance to the student of their studies among other factors competing for their attention. It has to be recognised that with the changing patterns among those categorised as full-time on-campus students, this risk now increasingly applies to them as well.
In a conventional distance education environment, students are particularly reliant on their own intrinsic motivation to achieve progress. Similarly, as on-campus students spend less time attending the campus they encounter fewer circumstantial prompts to attend to their studies. Increasingly they become removed from the on-campus climate of being a member of a cohesive group of students moving through their course as a cohort. Their opportunities for social engagement with their fellow students diminish as they spend less of their time on-campus and on their studies.
Technology can be used astutely to achieve social engagement for those who do not otherwise have it. The following instance shows the dramatic effect that this can have. A small project was implemented among students at a distance in a financial management unit of study at the Orange campus of the University of Sydney in a deliberate attempt to improve the quality of their learning experience through building a greater sense of community and affiliation. The strategic use of the WebCT platform that had become available offered the lecturer the opportunity to interact with students in an ongoing manner. The lecturer viewed this as an opportunity to provide the factors necessary for high quality support for distance learners as cited by Cowan (1994); viz timely prompting, encouragement and facilitative interventions.
The regular distance presentation utilising printed study materials was supplemented by the use of the WebCT platform. While this supplementation was made available to all students only a minority was able or chose to make, use of it. In the first year 11 of the 51 enrolling students participated, in the second 15 of the 59, and in the third 19 of the 60.
The lecturer regularly sent group messages throughout the semester when the unit was on offer and generated at least one such message each week. These messages frequently were focussed on facilitating the achievement of the learning objectives associated with the technical area of study. In addition other more personal types of messages were sent. The nature of these varied and included matters such as requests of students to respond with details of their study progress, general items of news around the campus and in the life of the lecturer, notification when the lecturer would be away from the office and difficult to contact, and progressive assessment performance details over the whole unit so that individuals could monitor their own performance against the total enrolment. The tone of all messages was conversational and students were encouraged to send their own group messages.
Each time students responded to a group message or else initiated one themselves, the lecturer sent them an individual encouraging response to ensure they registered, that their contribution was received and appreciated. When students did not reply, having been requested to do so in a group message, then these students would be followed up by email on an individual basis until they did reply. Additionally, the lecturer initiated enquiry messages to individual students when they were later than expected in submitting their assessment items or when he had not heard from them for a while. He would also send personalised messages of encouragement to students who had done particularly well or particularly poorly with their assessable work.
Other facilities available through the WebCT platform were utilised such as asynchronous forum discussions whereby challenge questions were posed, synchronous chat sessions, models and links. The thrust of the project however was to have frequent, regular, personalised interactions between the lecturer and the student. Some management features were:
The lecturer assigning this task sufficient priority to enable the checking of the site at least twice each day. Rapid response was regarded as a quality issue in this project;
Monitoring of visits to the site to enable identification of students who had not been in contact for some time. These would be sent a personalised message by the lecturer either enquiring about some aspect of their study progress or following up on a previous interaction.
The outcome from building this affiliation and providing ongoing personal contact was startling and is summarised in the following table.
Total students enrolled
Web supported students
Over the three year period of this study 89% of those who were in the web supported group completed the unit while only 63% of those who did not participate in this support process remained in the unit of study.
Making the connections personal
Major advantages do arise from completing a course on-campus as part of a cohort of peers. The development of an understanding of what it is to be a student and the feeling of belonging to the educational institution provide foundations for academic success. Opportunities abound for the student to benefit from serendipitous interaction with fellow students and staff. These social contacts both in and out of the classroom build cooperative attributes such as sharing and reciprocity. Engagement with others in the same course constantly differentiates and prioritises study obligations out from other interests and responsibilities. Those with less well-developed organisational skills or personal motivation towards their studies can be pulled along by their peers in a slipstreaming effect.
Few would disagree when Donnan (2001) points out that some students have more dependant and social learning styles which are better met by interpersonal, on-campus classroom settings. There may be many reasons why learners tend to prefer a classroom experience over an online one but undoubtedly one reason is the opportunity to engage readily with the tutor and fellow students. Indeed Palloff and Pratt (1999, p11) have argued that for many students it is probably just as important for educators to meet the learner’s need for social connection as it is to meet their content-oriented goals.
Such social connections are missing with the conventional print-based distance education delivery model and perhaps this is reflected in relatively low persistence levels. However, as illustrated by the case study presented above, when that missing element can be inserted through a carefully monitored communication process using online technology, then the opportunity arises for considerable improved persistence levels being achieved. Such positive experiences may well lead some to change their preferred learning situation. For instance Merron (1998) has reported on unsolicited comments from students about a positive bulletin board experience rating it more conducive to learning than the traditional classroom setting in terms of allowing students to interact in an organised and logical manner.
That is not to say that online teaching automatically meets such a need. In fact, Zielinski (2000, p72) believes that the majority of web-based courses pay insufficient attention the need for the learner connectedness. The University of Illinois has produced a report (1999) where the necessity is emphasised for the tutor to make the effort to create and maintain the human touch of attentiveness to their online students. It argues that good learning is collaborative and social and reaches the conclusion that online teachers should develop the facilitation and e-moderating skills that promote heightened interaction.
It is easy to become enchanted with technological developments and forget the human factors associated with learning. More reliance will be placed on information and communication technologies in educational contexts as students continue to spend less time on-campus, so it is paramount that educators develop models for engaging students and creating effective collaborative learning environments. The social dimensions of learning must be addressed in association with curriculum issues.
Effective engagement by educators with out-of-sight students requires vigilance and skill. A personable approach coupled with an enthusiasm to build and facilitate a learning community goes a long way. To create and administer the kind of online support that achieves high completion rates can be demanding on the tutor's time. To effectively engage with students personally may involve collecting information on the student's personal backgrounds, interests, life experiences and current employment, then referring to this when giving performance feedback. It may involve being prepared to communicate with students in some form on perhaps a daily basis. It will almost certainly involve frequent viewing of class online submissions and commenting on common problems. Such management by the tutor together with providing prompt feedback on issues raised and on assignments submitted electronically should lead to students sensing they are being watched over and cared for, and build their sense of belonging and commitment.
The rewards associated with gaining more satisfied learners and higher persistence rates through heightened online engagement come at a price. It takes a commitment by the tutor to spend the time needed to connect with their absentee students by utilising the technological tools to build and maintain bridges with them. Committed educators able to invest their energies and skills to build these bridges with their students through their personal approach when using technology will make a difference. The rhetorical question is, ‘do academics have the time and energy to do this?’ It will be interesting to watch how academics respond to being asked to pay the price associated with meeting the needs of their students as they go less on-campus and more online.
Cowan, J. (1994). How can you assure quality in my support, as a distance learner? Open Learning, February, 59-62
Donnan, P (2001), ODLineTalk, email discussion forum of the Open and Distance Learning Association of Australia, 20 August.
Kuh, G (1999) How are we doing? Tracking the quality of the undergraduate experience from the 1960s to the present, Review of Higher Education, 22:2, pp 90-120, Winter
McInnis, C. (2001) Signs of disengagement: The changing undergraduate experience in Australian universities, Centre for the Study of Higher Education, University of Melbourne, available at www.cshe.unimelb.edu.au
McInnis, C., James, R. & Hartley, R. (2000) Trends in the first year experience. DETYA Higher Education Division, Canberra
Merron, JL (1998), Managing a web-based literature course for undergraduates, http://about.webct.com/library/index.html
Morgan, CK and Littlewood, J (1998), Missing Persons: The Case of the Disappearing Students. In Distance Education: Past, Present and Future, Cranston, B (ed), National Organisation for Distance Education Students, Central Queensland University Publishing Unit, North Rockhampton, pp149-153
Palloff, R & Pratt, K (1999), Building learning communities in cyberspace. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
University of Illinois Faculty Seminar (1999), Teaching at an internet distance: The pedagogy of online teaching and learning, http://www.vpaa.uillinois.edu/tid/report/tid_report.html
Zielinski, D. (2000), Can you keep learners online? Training, Vol 37, No. 3, pp65-72