Academic Exchange Quarterly     Winter    2004    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume  8, Issue 4

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Reflecting on Online Teaching and Learning

 

Sandra Kippen, La Trobe University, Bendigo, Victoria, Australia

Glenda Verrinder, La Trobe University, Bendigo, Victoria, Australia

Bernie Ward, La Trobe University, Bendigo, Victoria, Australia

 

Sandra Kippen , Glenda Verrinder and Bernie Ward are lecturers in Public Health in the School of Health and Environment.

 

Abstract   

The subject, Rural Health, was first offered in online mode, using WebCT and Dreamweaver, in 2001.  This paper reflects on the first three years of going fully online and refers to evaluations carried out during that period.   The evaluations used qualitative and quantitative methods in the form of interviews, a focus group and the regular Quality Assurance Student Subject Evaluation tool used at the university. 

 

Background

By 2001, Rural Health had been taught for some years at La Trobe University, Bendigo, in Victoria, Australia. It had, with constant evaluation and monitoring, developed real strengths in the theoretical and practical assessment of health issues for regional, rural and remote areas.  In the annual Quality Assurance (QA) subject evaluation students had consistently assessed it as relevant, informative, useful and appropriately taught.  In 2001 the subject was selected for online delivery, using WebCT and Dreamweaver, to enable access for rural and remote students unable to attend the physical university (Edwards and Nicoll, 2000).  

 

Evaluating Rural Health Online

The evaluation used qualitative and quantitative data.  Qualitative data consisted of three semi-structured interviews and a focus group with six students, students' online feedback, and answers to the questions “What was the best thing about this subject” and “How could this subject be improved?” on the QA tool used by the University for each year of the course.    The quantitative data came from students’ responses to twelve statements on a Likert-type scale on the QA tool and online tracking of the students’ use of the material.  All student data was used with the approval of the students involved.

This paper does not present the full results of the evaluation.  Rather, we reflect on our online teaching experience, using, where it is relevant, the data from the evaluation.

The Organization of the Online Subject

Rural Health Online is a core subject for Public Health and Pharmacy students, and an elective in Teaching, Social Work, Arts, Nursing, and Behavioural Science.  Being online, it is convenient for such courses, as it can fit into any timetable around core subjects and placements.  The course consists of ten modules, released weekly.   Each module contains a summary of the content and links to readings and relevant web pages, some quizzes, and points for discussion. 

Students are divided into groups of six to eight and participate in threaded discussions within their group for each module.  At the end of the week, one member summarises the findings for their group and posts them to the main bulletin board.  Thus, for every module, some ten to twelve summaries of the content are available for review.  Private contact with students is usually through email; a separate discussion board deals with technical issues and other functions of WebCT such as the tracking facilities and the calendar are also used.

Reflections

Facilitating Student Learning

In teaching Rural Health in the traditional mode, we had developed effective strategies to facilitate deep learning,  characterised by approaching a task for its own sake so that an optimum amount of understanding is obtained” (Evans & Abbot, 1998, p.17). The challenge now was to achieve similar results for Rural Health Online.  We knew that students who experience “active and long-term engagement with learning tasks” and who have the opportunity “to exercise responsible choice in the method and content of study” (Ramsden, 1992, p.81), have a better chance of deep learning.  We believed that online learning offered potential for encouraging these aspects (Williams, 2001).  Firstly, part of engagement is the reading done by students, and in this subject, students commented that they read more and worked harder than for any other course.

In other subjects you look at the reading but you don’t read the whole list.  You pick and choose, but with Rural Health I found I was reading everything… because I found this one more interesting.

The above must be qualified with a reminder that online students do not attend physical lectures and tutorials and most students admitted that the time spent online per week was less than eight hours.  Nevertheless, it became clear that we needed to give direction about whether reading is essential or merely supplementary. In the view of the lecturer at the end of the first year:

I would say we give them too much access to information and the conscientious student may well be overloaded.  Students have told me that they have spent far more time on Rural Health than anything else.

Secondly, the flexibility of the subject allowed students to work within their own timeframe.  For most this was seen as a huge advantage; for a few it posed time management problems, the solution of which became part of their learning experience.

I think I got better at time management after doing this subject.  Having a week between the lecture and the next [posting] didn’t leave too much time, but usually we responded by Wednesday and by Sunday everyone had their opinions up.  I think it gave us a feeling of being more in control.

The online tracking information showed that hits ranged from 60 to 800 per student over the thirteen-week semester and at least one posting per student per week, with many students posting more.   The perception of the lecturer about student participation compared with participation in traditionally taught subjects was:

It’s about the same.  You always get that few who don’t turn up to class much. Maybe if it was face-to-face they would participate more. Maybe if they had to turn up where I had to see their face they may have.  But you always get that group who don’t participate.

Online subjects are not time and cost-efficient

This is not a new concept.  Experienced teachers have put the time required for preparation and teaching of one hour of an online subject at anything up to 200 hours (Edwards & Nicoll, 2000; Ng, 2000; Press & Washburn, 2001; Roach, 2001a).  In spite of this, the first year of teaching Rural Health Online was done by one of the authors, who was well experienced in teaching the subject face-to-face but had no experience of managing online technology and teaching.  She was allocated the same time as for teaching the subject in the past.   That she survived to tell the tale may be construed as something of a miracle. This was a case of institutional expectations not being supported by resources (Arnold, 1999).  For the subject to run again under these circumstances was out of the question and in its second year it was taken up by the other two instructors.  However, once again, neither had experience of online teaching and, although the technology support had improved, they both found that the subject took considerably more time than any of their other teaching.  One had taught the subject in its traditional mode in the past, but the other, who had not, found that her time was fully taken in managing the technology, and engagement with the content fell unsatisfactorily by the wayside (Bolliger, 2003).  By the third year all three of the authors, now somewhat more experienced in online teaching, were involved.  One prepared the subject, checking links and rewriting and updating material, whilst the other two managed the running of the subject.  This last semester was achieved with little stress, improved engagement with the students and the material, and satisfactory outcomes all round, but it required approximately three times the resources of a face-to-face subject to achieve this.

 

Incorporating warm bodies

Whilst students generally expressed appreciation for the content, accessibility and flexibility of the subject, they missed the face-to-face contact with the lecturer and other students.  In comparing with traditionally taught subjects, one student said, “You can go at your own pace.  And if you find something interesting you can go to the link and read up on it”. The student qualified this by adding, ‘It’s just that you can’t talk to anyone about it’. This wistful-sounding comment reflected other students' views about the lack of face-to-face contact.  Another talked about missing the stories of people from rural areas who had experiences to share:

I don’t have a rural background so I don’t know anything about living in the country. Bendigo’s rural to me because I lived in Melbourne so I missed out on hearing people’s stories. You can relate it back a lot when someone tells a story.

The lecturer agreed:

[with face-to-face teaching] You make the content live with real examples.  And there are country students with real examples and real knowledge about rural health and so they’ve reached a stage by third year where they can contextualise that against theory.  Sounding off against each other in class discussion can be really useful.

In response to this feedback, we now have three face-to-face meetings with students per semester.  The first is a 'get to know the technology and each other' meeting, where students are allocated to their groups and work with their group on learning to manage the program.  This is followed mid-semester by a workshop for the essay-writing component of the assessment. Finally, students meet in their groups at the end of semester to workshop examination questions and carry out an evaluation of the subject.  Attendance is not compulsory and comprehensive notes from the sessions are published on WebCT, but most of the students attend nevertheless.

Groupwork is good

In the first two years of the subject each of the student groups was made multidisciplinary.  This was an ideological approach on the grounds that rural health workers work in multidisciplinary teams.  Thus a group could have a mixture of Public Health, Teaching, Pharmacy, Social Work and Nursing Students.  In 2003, however, the students were asked how they would like the groups to be formed.  Overwhelmingly, they opted for single disciplinary groups, stating that they wanted to work with people with whom they had courses and interests in common.  We found that with this arrangement, group cohesion was attained more quickly and, in spite of the conflict with ideology, this has been a more successful way of allocating the groups. 

Students perceived a need to ‘know’ the other people involved in their group as a way of ensuring that everyone in the group did their share of the work.   From their perspective, it was easier to put pressure to participate fairly on peers with whom they were regularly in contact in other subjects.

The initial entry into the group is important in setting the tone.  For unacquainted students, written introductions break the ice. Following modules can require personal information and opinions as part of discussion, allowing students further opportunities to get to know each other and the tutor.  For example, in the second module of Rural Health Online, students are asked to discuss a rural setting.  Those who are familiar with rural or remote areas, will often choose to write about their own experiences.  They can share digital photographs of themselves and the things they are discussing.  They covered many aspects of rural life, from the importance of bush poetry to the role of land-rights legislation in the health of Indigenous peoples. 

An important factor in lecturers' facilitation of student learning is interaction between lecturers and students (Goldsmith, 2001; Sander, Stevenson, King, & Coates, 2000).   All the authors felt that they did not engage with the groups as they would have wished.  We monitored group participation and read all the postings and participated in some groups some of the time, but were unable to participate in group discussion for every group with every module.  Our responses were often done jointly on the main board to all students, rather than the better choice of responding to each group individually for each module.  To improve this would require yet more time made available to lecturers and tutors and/or increased technological support.

Managing the technology

For the three years of the course, technological support has been available from the metropolitan campus whilst the lecturers have been based at the regional campus, 150 km away.  This has been satisfactory, but the ideal situation is to have a person with expertise readily available on the same campus, preferably in the same building.  We had some situations where the metropolitan support team was seeing a different view on their screen from the one we saw, which was different again from the student version, and phone calls and email became very confusing.

By the third year the level of support had improved dramatically, along with the expertise of the authors.  Student expertise had also improved.  In 2003, a majority of the students had already used WebCT, although this was the first fully online subject they had taken.  They used the bulletin board for technical problems promptly, and we found that if we did not respond for two or three days, other students would solve technical problems for us.

In 2001 evaluations, students and lecturer commented on the difficulties of managing technical online problems.  By 2003 only a very small number of technical issues arose as the expertise of lecturers and students improved dramatically. 

A few students had some difficulty gaining access to the subject from outside the university.  From the qualitative data it appears that this created more anxiety than the pressure of weekly requirements.  According to the lecturer:

…we put this subject online so that people could access it from somewhere other than the university, but in fact they have to find something with the capacity to run it… it depends on the server as well.  There are some servers that just don’t work well with our system.

A student using distant access described some of the problems:

I had to go to the computer at the public library and sometimes the computers were booked out or the server was down or something like that.  It made it a bit more stressful, but otherwise it was good.

The students indicated, however, that once the technical problems had been dealt with, anxiety about the subject greatly decreased and navigation became both easy and enjoyable.

Difficulty in managing the technology and issues of cheating (Roach, 2001b) led us to the decision to run the end-of-subject examination as a formal examination at a set time and place, with special convenient venues arranged for distant students.  Students approved this approach, pointing out that an online examination at a set time might disadvantage students who tended to get disconnected from their server or who could not type quickly and that it would be too easy to cheat.

Have Fun and Don't Panic

We admit it!  There have been some moments of panic.  There have been more moments of fun, however, increasingly so as we became more confident with the technology.  Humour in postings is the obvious way to have fun – jokes, discussing relevant humorous articles, websites or television shows.  (One such show featured a country town that wanted to build a giant 'dunny' (toilet) to attract the tourists).   Another fun thing to do is to give awards (either virtual or real).  Ours took the form of chocolate frogs, presented at the final face-to-face meeting, for the best, brightest, longest, most, funniest etc. postings for the subject.

 

Conclusion

We believe strongly that the principles of reflective teaching apply to online subjects as well as to others (Kippen, 2003).  The students' evaluations of Rural Health Online indicate that its interest and relevance, the online interaction and the freedom to choose where and when they carry out the work are major strengths of this subject.  Student engagement has been demonstrated through the quantity and quality of online postings and the amount of reading carried out.  This latter has caused us to ask whether the increased reading done by online students translates into more active engagement with the content, and whether this might not in turn pose the question,  "Does the online environment offer improved learning opportunities for the usually superficial learner?"  The question does not come within the scope of this paper, but invites further research.

Rural Health Online has successfully made the transition to the more widely accessible online mode. Some areas need improvement, particularly the level of student-teacher interaction.  Such improvement is dependent on the recognition that online subjects are not time or cost efficient when compared with traditional subjects and appropriate resources must be made available if they are to survive and develop.  The issue of access and technical problems for people living in rural and remote areas still needs to be addressed, but the promise of quality education through online teaching is still holding true.

References

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