Learners’ Participation, Retention and Success in e-learning

The Ministry of Education have just released an annotated bibliography providing an overview of the literature on tertiary Learners' Participation, Retention and Success in e-learning. The bibliography includes a large selection of research literature which consisted of both published research from journals, books and the internet and ‘grey’ literature that included project reports, unpublished theses and dissertations and reports commissioned by government agencies.

This is timely and welcome addition to the evidence base for e-learning, and much of while the context is tertiary education, there are principles identified that could just as easily apply to e-learning activity in the school sector and elsewhere. 

Key findings of the annotated bibliography are (italicised thoughts my own):

  • Teaching practices and pedagogies, institutional support and student characteristics and attitudes are all critical in tertiary learners’ retention and success in e-learning.  Of particular importance are appropriate teacher-student interactions.  Courses need to be designed to incorporate e-learning’s strengths.  This includes selecting appropriate technology and ensuring that e-learning is linked to assessments and authentic learning experiences.

The importance of pedagogy, support and student characteristics has long been identified in the distance education literature, and is no surprise that it emerges again here in the context of e-learning. Arguably the same applies to face-to-face contexts. The key issue is how we work to ensure practices in each area are effective and explicitly addressed in our programme planning and teaching.  It's good to see the emphasis on selecting appropriate technology, which can only be done where there is a in-depth understanding of the pedagogical principles being pursued and applied. I've run numerous workshops with this focus, and inevitably what appears to be a straight forward exercise becomes more involved as participants work to identify the affordances of various technologies and then match these to pedagogical practices (which are often not well-defined either).

  • For best results, institutions need to provide ‘user-friendly’ systems, processes and appropriate pastoral and technical support.  Students also need motivation, self-direction and independence as well as having prior experience in e-learning.  Students with positive attitudes towards technology tend to do better in e-learning than learners with negative attitudes towards technology.  

This strikes at the heart of the whole concept of a 'learner-centred' approach. So many of our institutional systems and processes have been designed primarily to meet the needs of the institution, not the learner, and so conspire to alienate learners. face-to-face systems are no better, but at least in a face-to-face campus situation learners are able to 'fit the mould' more easily by asking peers or simply 'following the crowd'. When the comforts of physical proximity are taken away, the anxiety of students is increased, and so our systems for support and guidance need to be robust and designed with them in mind. Ask anyone who has completed their degree by distance recently!

  • E-learning provides additional flexibility to traditional delivery by allowing students to study at a time, place and pace of their choosing.  E-learning can also reduce isolation by better connecting learners to their peers, teachers and institutions – especially for learners studying part-time or through distance education.

Increasingly we're seeing the light dawn on teachers and institutions that e-learning is not a binary option – that a blended approach is really what we need to seek to achieve so that learners can participate in their learning across a the whole continuum of experience, from completely at a distance (and online) to face-to-face. The e-learning categories introduced by the TEC in NZ a decade ago were a step in the right direction in acknowledging this. In the compulsory sector schools are increasingly looking to use LMSs as a means of making learning materials available to students outside of scheduled classroom time, and to provide ongoing support and feedback by using the forums and other features. The other key point in this conclusion is that the online environment is not only about connecting students with the organisation, but also with other students. The explosion of participation in social networking sites provides the best evidence of how effective the online environment can be for engaging students with one another – our task as educators is to find how we can harness that for good in an education context.

  • E-learning can provide greater access to a wider range of resources and experts than is available through traditional delivery.  The fact that all students can equally access these experts and resources is of benefit to non-mainstream learner groups e.g. disabled students.  

This conclusion is a bit of a no-brainer really. We've seen this sort of thing happening regularly in school classrooms across the country for some years. The main obstacle is breaking down the mental models of some teaches who see themselves as being the font of all knowledge, and responsible for the 'quality control' of everything their students are exposed to. 

  • The evidence supporting younger learners being more successful than their older peers in e-learning is inconclusive.  While some studies support the assertion that younger learners are more effective in e-learning, others do not.

Interesting to see this conclusion here – I'm sure there will be some sort of research that evidences the fact that under-grad students draw a lot of their enthusiasm and energy from being 'on-campus' and part of the physcially-proximate network – linked to understandings about maturity and hormones perhaps – but where the focus is actually on 'learning something' my observation is that age is no barrier. Again, in the schooling sector, learners right down to primary school are demonstrating their competence in using the online environment to access and participate in authentic learning experiences. Perhaps there's also an age-ist slant here that assumes older learners (like myself) may be less likely to participate in e-learning approaches. Again, I'm not so sure the argument hangs on age so much as motivation for learning.

The bibliography is available from http://www.educationcounts.govt.nz/publications/ict/learners-participation,-retention-and-success-in-e-learning-an-annotated-bibliography. The bibliography will be of interest to researchers and practitioners in the field as a valuable point of reference!

This will also be of interest to all those attending the upcoming Distance Education Association of NZ (DEANZ) conference in Wellington, 11-13 April. Still time to register!

One thought on “Learners’ Participation, Retention and Success in e-learning

  1. The ministry's bibliography seems to reflect the main tenets of transactional distance theory, and how to minimize students' perceptions of that distance online educators must address the quality of their dialgue with students, the medium through which that dialogue takes places, the structure of the learning environment and curriculum, and the level of self-directedness that students have.

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