Saturday, August 13, 2016

Changing Attitudes to On-line Learning

Lowe, Mestel and  Williams (2016) report on attitudes of staff and students to on-line mathematics and computing courses at the UK Open University.  What makes this study unusual and useful, is that it was conducted over five years, to see how attitudes have changed.
The researchers conclude that what has not changed is students  prefer face-to-face classes, if these available.  On-line tutorials are an acceptable alternative, but "... could be made more engaging and more interaction could be encouraged" and  better training for tutors is suggested. Text-chat has become less popular, as have webcams. The researchers suggest that Skype and Facetime have increased student expectations as to what is provided.
However, the researchers caution that live webinars "often becomes more of a one-way lecture". But students also wanted access to recording of live sessions. The recordings are obviously not interactive (until someone builds a time shifted learning system). 

The researchers recommend:
  1. "Distance-learning courses should include the use of eSessions to support students; however, they should be used as a supplement to, not as a replacement for, face-to-face sessions.
  2. Developers of virtual classrooms should include better support for the communication of mathematics and other symbolically-rich disciplines.
  3. Developers of virtual classrooms should better consider the needs of disabled users in future designs of their software.
  4. Future studies of this nature should consider the demographics and the backgrounds of students surveyed, including prior experiences of synchronous Internet communication tools.
  5. Where appropriate to the content, eSessions should be recorded, subject to obtaining the permission of all participants. In general such recordings should be kept for a maximum of 2 years. Participants should be given advanced notice of the possible uses to which the recordings might be put.
  6. For large student groups, it may be more effective to record shorter eSessions without students present rather than to record a live tutorial.
  7. Tutors leading eSessions should share best practice in the use of virtual classrooms."
Many of these are familiar from introductory courses on how to design e-learning. The use of live sessions to support courses is what distance education has been doing for a hundred years. The support of non-text disciplines, such as mathematics is still a work in progress. Disabled users should be considered in educational software design, not the least because this is the law, but regrettably are not.

Providing short pre-recorded studio sessions is a form of flipped classroom. The idea being the student watches the recording and then participates in live group work.

The background of students is an issue not just for researchers, but also for educational institutions, for both on-line and face-to-face courses. One approach has been to offer short, free or low cost, study preparation courses. One example is North Shore Community College's "Online Learning 101". Some Australian courses are: "Preparing for University Learning" (OUA), "Learning Online" (UTAS) and "Preparing for Success" (SCU).  However, do such courses better prepare students, or just filter out students before they can enroll in a full program? This would improve the institution's completion statistics, but not necessarly help the students.


Lowe, T., Mestel, B., & Williams, G. (2016). Perceptions of online tutorials for distance learning in mathematics and computing. Research In Learning Technology, 24. doi:

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