A two year evaluation has been completed of the flexible learning systems in place at the Tea Tree Gully Campus of the Torrens Valley Institute of Vocational Education. This research has focussed on the impact off flexible learning systems on students, staff and management including the student adaptation and reaction to the learning environment. The findings are being published by the National Council of Vocational Education Research (NCVER) under the title of 'Following the Yellow Brick Road'. The paper discusses the paradigm and methodologies employed and gives an overview of the findings, as well as identifying areas for further research. The aim of the study was to explore the educational philosophy of 'openness' at Tea Tree Gully Campus and thereby help to identify and overcome barriers to this philosophy.
The Tea Tree Gully Campus, along with the Joondalup Campus of the North Metropolitan College of TAFE in Western Australia. have embraced flexible delivery across all the vocational program areas. Both campuses have recently been jointly evaluated with the aim of examining the patterns of capital investment required by alternative delivery strategies.
In addition both campuses have recently been separately evaluated as to the effectiveness of the innovative teaching and learning methodologies.
The research team comprising Dr Ernst Hintz, Principal Researcher, and Judi Pattinson and Dianne Thiele, Co-Researchers, all employed at the University of South Australia, was commissioned by the National Council of Vocational Educational Research (NCVER) to evaluate the impact of the flexible learning methodologies on the students and teaching and non-teaching staff of the Tea Tree Gully Campus It was a two year longitudinal study commencing in July of 1992. A total of 198 interviews were conducted and 696 questionnaires received from both students and staff during the study.
The aim of the study was to explore the educational philosophy of 'openness' at Tea Tree Gully Campus and thereby help to identify and overcome barriers to this philosophy, be they geographical, personal or institutional The areas of 'openness' which the research team considered were the use of new and different educational methods, the provision of appropriate courses of study with efficient and cost effective delivery, the focus on student centred learning and self directed learning materials, and the integration of technology into adult learning practices The study also considered further factors such as student support mechanisms and the adoption of a 'flatter management' system
Paul  a noted author and academic in the area of open learning, comments that much attention and literature abounds on the need to produce more autonomous, independent, self directed learners, but to date there is little substantive evidence that learners are more so than at the point of entry. The Tea Tree Gully Campus evaluation aimed to provide some evidence that the flexible learning environment at the Tea Tree Gully Campus allowed students to have some control over their learning including the development of key competencies.
The research team interviewed the inaugural group of students (Student Group 1) in the new flexible learning program at Tea Tree Gully Campus. The information from these interviews informed the design of questionnaires which this student group completed. The same procedures was used for the next group of students (Student Group 2) to be enrolled the following year. Follow up interviews and questionnaires were given to each of these two groups. The research team followed the same procedure for the Tea Tree Gully Campus teaching and non-teaching staff. The qualitative data was rendered with Likert Scale to facilitate analysis. Three interim reports provided to a committee comprised of the Research Team, a representative from NCVER, an independent educational representative and the Tea Tree Gully Campus administration provided ongoing feedback and positive critique. Additional feedback was received directly from students and staff alike on numerous occasions in which they and the researchers interacted over the course of the study.
The Tea Tree Gully Campus study in evaluating the implementation of flexible learning systems looked at the 'learning milieu' - including the constraints (administrative, architectural and financial) on the organisation of teaching on the campus; the flexible learning assumptions held by each program area; individual facilitator characteristics; and learner perspectives and preoccupations.
The evaluation noted that this implementation of flexible learning systems also produced a further range of secondary effects, some of which were far removed from this innovative learning approach but were ultimately derived from it. More details on this are provided within the NCVER publication of findings.
The researchers first concerned themselves thoroughly with the day to day reality of the setting/ s without attempting to manipulate or control. They began by gathering information about the Campus, by attending staff forums, by informally chatting with students and staff and by 'getting the feel' of things. Once interviews commenced they then systematically reduced the breadth of their inquiry to give more concentrated attention to the emerging issues. This can be referred to as 'progressive focusing' which permitted unique and unpredicted phenomena to be given due weight and reduces the problem of data overload and accumulation of a mass of unanalysed material.
Three distinct types of evaluation study have been identified by MacDonald - bureaucratic, autocratic and democratic and it is considered that the democratic approach was particularly relevant to the Tea Tree Gully Campus evaluation due to the 'multiple realities of different interest groups involved in the issue'. All interest groups within the two year longitudinal study were kept informed of the findings (ie reactions to flexible learning) as the evaluation progressed - the learners, the teachers (facilitators), the non-teaching support staff, administration staff and the management (directorate), as well as the funding body with representatives of the last two groups sitting on an Advisory Group along with the researchers. This Advisory Group was informed of all findings, controversial or otherwise and a summary was distributed to all stakeholders. The identity of all interviewees was confidential with the information kept by the researchers only The researchers made conscious attempts to keep the names of each staff member who volunteered to be interviewed confidential but this was not always effective and on the most part the staff did not appear concerned about anonymity However the researchers decided that there was a need to tread carefully when reporting on the controversial issues
In addition it was considered by the researchers that to be truly democratic a representative of all stakeholders, including learners and facilitators should have been included on the Advisory Group The researchers also considered that they were justified in including controversial issues raised during interviews within questionnaires in order to respond to the needs and interest of all stakeholders
The researchers conducted individual face to face in depth interviews with students on campus and as a result of these interviews which 'signposted' issues that needed to be raised further, questionnaires were also distributed to the entire student population. Apart from the formative evaluation aspects of the first year of using flexible learning systems, the Tea Tree Gully Campus study was also concerned with other issues. However it cannot be said to have truly provided a holistic picture of how students were going about study. The Tea Tree Gully study was concerned with how the learners were adapting to the flexible learning systems - it did not venture into a truly holistic study of the learner (eg there was no study of the learner's social and personal framework, nor much study of motivation and orientation to study). This can be defended as it was not part of the brief of the evaluation project, however it would make an interesting and very pertinent follow up study which would contribute to developing theories of student learning.
The study was concerned with the success or otherwise of an innovative way of learning - flexible learning systems and the evaluators considered that the evaluation could have applied Taylor et al's orientation to study concept as well as the concept of motivation. For example all four types of orientation were identified in the study - vocational, academic, personal and social - both intrinsic and extrinsic - but this theoretical framework was not emphasised. However it is considered that it forms an important part of the qualitative analysis, especially as the students' study patterns would have been influenced by what they wanted to gain from their course. The Tea Tree Gully evaluation addressed students' motivation to flexible learning systems (in contrast to a more traditional learning environment) via in depth interviews and questionnaires, and a distinction between orientation to study and motivation to the delivery system (noting that there could be a link between them) would have been relevant.
The study made conscious attempts to have representation from all types of stakeholders and this was largely the case, however it is conceded that there was some disproportionate representation (including full time versus part time, gender and age categories and program areas).
Applicable to this LETA94 conference is the notion that not only can technology provide the learning resources necessary for flexible learning but also can play a part in monitoring students' reactions to flexible learning. Research done in England has suggested that as an indicator of potential learner problems, monitoring of study time might be a useful measure to adopt for those institutions running flexible learning programs. This British study showed that time spent on coursework appeared to correlate with tutorial needs, study organisation, difficulty in understanding course content and language and with preference for conventional study formats. The Student Management and Record Tracking (SMART) system being employed by Tea Tree Gully could be utilised to monitor the time spent by students on each module or subject and used as an indicator of their degree of success.
The British findings also support the findings of the evaluation of Tea Tree Gully Campus that younger students entering open learning programs may need study methods counselling and additional tutorial support. This is further supported by Hiola and Moss who identified that less experienced, less qualified learners tend to rely heavily on tutorial provision in open learning. In addition the recent findings of an Open Learning Institution in England is that "the 16-18 age groups need their resource based learning time to be more 'directed'. How this is done is a controversial issue as it can involve facilitators/study skills supervisors as opposed to lecturers, or a mixture of the two."
A flat management structure with self managing program teams was implemented after one year of operation of the Tea Tree Gully Campus. This innovative approach to management was seen to complement the flexible approach to student learning, reflecting a commitment to a consultative and participative approach to decision making. The researchers surveyed the staff after several months of implementation and were able to highlight concerns. It is considered that it would be appropriate to undertake a further evaluation of the management structure, especially with the amalgamation with Gilles Plains Campus which has employed a more hierarchal organisational structure.
There is some evidence to suggest that the evaluation supports Kranj's findings that the success of the learners depends on whether or not they had a choice in the way they studied. Many of the inaugural as well as second year commencing students were not aware of the open environment when they started and this has connotations for counsellors, student support services and orientation programs.
This study has also illustrated that a lot of students do not cope effectively with the demands of independence, time management and self direction posed by open learning and one of the responsibilities of educational institutions is to make learners fully aware of the challenges they will face. This can be done by way of effective orientation sessions but as pointed out by Paul more also needs to be done in the development of self confidence of the learners. There are implications for registry, student services, training of course tutors. design of courses and for student information and orientation services.
As also noted by Temple when discussing the problems of the learner centred approach, this 'role revolution' is no less demanding for the teacher who finds him/herself displaced from the central position. Tea Tree Gully is already addressing these concerns, for example by way of its self management policy, whereby it is considered that 'only the committed can produce commitment in others'.
This evaluation has taken into account that flexible learning delivery is a developmental process. In light of this process the effectiveness of the implementation by the Tea Tree Gully Campus is to be commended.
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|Contact author: Dianne Thiele, Project Consultant, Open Learning Technology Corporation, Science Park, Laffer Drive, Bedford Park, South Australia 5042. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Ph: + 61 8 402 2207; Fax: +61 8 2017810
Please cite as: Pattinson, J. and Thiele, D. (1994). Evaluation of flexible learning systems at Tea Tree Gully Campus of Torrens Valley Institute of Vocational Education. In J. Steele and J. G. Hedberg (eds), Learning Environment Technology: Selected papers from LETA 94, 228-233. Canberra: AJET Publications. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/edtech94/mp/pattinson.html