While the scope of this project (23 participants) is significantly smaller than my taboo language project (110 participants), the first survey session certainly yielded some interesting and significant results, paricularly in the ‘open-ended’ responses, and thus for all intents and purposes (with regard to what I want to do with the data and for whom) I consider it a success.
The first survey session asked students basic questions about their learning preferences with regard to taking hybrid courses. Topics ranged from group work (with mixed groups of F2F and Distance Education (DE) students), to time commitments, performance, instruction method, sense of community in the classroom, class discussions (both in-class and those facilitated by the online discussion board), and so forth.
Students were presented with a statement, e.g. “Taking a hybrid course as a DE student is more of a time commitment than taking a hybrid course as a F2F student”, and then asked to check the corresponding box –Strongly Agree (SA), Agree (A), Undecided (Un), Disagree (D), Strongly Disagree (SD) — to indicate their feelings. After each category of ‘questions’, participants were provided with a space to elaborate, of which they were encouraged to do during the survey prompt and in the instructions.
Participants included eighteen females and five males (including three, female non-traditional students), which is likely a fairly representative female-to-male ratio of the technical communication/PCDM program. After going over the results, some interesting patterns have begun to emerge, of which I will use to revise my second survey instrument and ultimately craft the interview questions.
Below I list and briefly discuss some of the emergent themes from the student responses, and then begin to pose potential questions that I will incorporate into the second survey session and interviews.
MAIN THEME: Preference for Taking Hybrid Courses as Face-to-Face (F2F) Students
Contrary to An & Frick’s (2006) and Sitter et al’s (2009) findings that students preferred whichever method (F2F or DE) proved to be the quickest and most convenient (“speed and convenience”) in the given classroom atmosphere, participants indicated that they prefer (65%) taking hybrid courses as a F2F student as opposed to as a DE student. Considering that 48% of particpants indicated they they take courses in both delivery methods (and another 9% say they are currently enrolled solely as a DE student), I found this to be rather interesting.
It seems that limited offering of tech comm/PCDM courses is the main reason for this apparent contradiction in their responses, with 65% indicating that they needed to take a course as a DE student due to scheduling conflicts. Of course, what this also points to is that, despite scheduling conflicts, students are still in fact able to take these courses and thus continue to make progress toward earning their degree. However, given the nature of some of their open-ended responses at the end of this section of questions, it seems as though many of them struggle with their DE experiences.
Students reported “a feeling of discontent”, that it was “more difficult to keep up with classes” (a repeating sentiment), that “the didn’t get as much out of the class” or “just did the homework and didn’t really learn any of the material” and that they felt “out of the loop” or “disconnected from the other students” in taking a hybrid course as a DE student, and so forth (to be discussed in more detail below).
Interestingly (but not really surprising), all three of the non-traditional students indicated that they preferred taking hybrid courses as a DE student, citing reasons that related to the “freedom that [such courses] allowed” and the do-it-anywhere/any time concept of the delivery method. This of course makes sense given the “other stuff” that these non-traditional students cited in their responses.
Sub-Themes: Why Do Students Prefer F2F delivery (and what can be done to improve DE delivery)
Clearly, what we need to find out from here is exactly WHY students feel this way and IN WHAT WAY might their experience as a DE student be improved. The above theme is the major finding of this first survey session, and thus below I will list the sub-themes (the reasons why) that emerged primarily as a result of the open-ended questions.
1. Communication with the Instructor
One of the recurring themes that came up in participants’ open-ended responses was that they did not feel as though some of their instructors were very good at communicating with them, especially with regard to ‘turn around time’ in their email responses.
This is consistent with Koh and Mill’s (2009) and particularly Van den Berg’s (2009) findings that DE students expect their instructors to serve as a ‘facilitator’ in four meaningful ways (1) academic (2) social (3) managerial, and (4) technical, and that, no matter in which of these four roles, that instructors need to “provide prompt and meaningful feedback”.
In discussing why one of my male participants said that he prefers taking courses as a F2F student, he said that “he needs that direct communication with [his] instructor” otherwise “he doesn’t really know what is going on” and tends to “get confused” and “overwhelmed” when an instructor won’t get back to him promptly via email.
In what is the most frustrated response, one student writes that she feels that in most DE courses she gets “zero feedback from the professors…[and that she] may as well read a book about the subject and forget about spending [her] money on a class if the professor is unwilling to participate – after all, they are supposed to be the instructor.” Clearly, she is having troubles adjusting.
2. Understanding Course Objectives
Again, one of the repeating frustrations of taking courses as a DE student came to light through the open-ended responses. It seems that many students often find that they are confused with regard to what is expected of them in a given class, or with a given assignment.
One student said that “it’s easier for [her] to stay up-to-date on all of the important information and material when she’s physically in the classroom,” another said that “assignments aren’t always clearly defined over the ECHO captures, and since I’m not in class to ask questions — or hear the questions that other students might ask — I usually don’t know what is going on and have to email my professor, and some times I might not hear back from [my profesor] for a day or two, or even longer!”
This finding is also consistent with other related research in the field. Song, Singleton, Hill and Koh (2004), Van den Berg (2009), and Cleeton and Cleeton (2009) all found that ‘understanding course material’ was one of the major barriers of learning for distance education courses.
Clearly this is also an issue of mis- or poor communication, although I feel that there are other ways to combat this issue, which I will discuss in the ‘questions to ask’ section below.
3. Sense of Community and the Difficulties of Group Work
Despite the actual responses to the survey questions more or less coming out 50/50 with regard to whether or not students felt a part of the class community and how they felt about DE students working in primarily F2F groups, the open-ended responses tended to show otherwise.
One student said that she “felt disconnected when [she] took online courses and [also] really dislikes being in a F2F class with online students… because we don’t know anything about them, and rarely interact with them in a real way,” and another said that he feels that “DE students are not equal members in the class because they cannot take part in conversations that are had in class.” A third student, talking about a specific group experience, said the following;
“I consistently asked for a job and to be updated on what was going on in our group but never was. I discussed this with the teacher several times but nothing within the group changed. It got to a point where I felt I was annoying my teammates; however, I didn’t want my grade to suffer. For me, it is very difficult being the only online group member.”
There are about ten other responses that express this same feeling of disconnection and lack of community.
Koh and Hill (2009) also found that “it was generally agreed that establishing familiarity with group members” was amongst students biggest concerns in taking courses as a DE student, while Cleeton and Cleeton (2007), Palmer and Holt (2009), Sitter et al (2009), Van den Berg (2009), among others, found similar results.
Questions to Ask
Based on this first survey session I think that it’s going to be important to revise the second surveys to include more room for students to express their real thoughts through incorporating more open-ended and short response questions.
Such questions easily gave me my best data in this first survey session, and with the right type of direction, could truly get to the heart of what I want to know about students’ conceptions of digital learning and digital learning technologies. These responses will also give me a better opportunity to create meaningful questions for the interviews (at the end of April) and also single out those students who I feel have better insight into the issue at hand.
While I do have a few specific ‘rating questions’ (SA, A, Un, D, SD) that I’d like to keep in the second survey, particularly those that address student’s conceptions of specific technologies and how they are employed by their instructors and used by the students themselves, e.g. questions about ‘in what circumstances and to what extent do they view ECHO captures’; preferences for ‘how course documents and other content is organized in D2L”, and so on), my main focus is going to in trying to learn more about the thoughts expressed through the prompts generated from the themes above.
Having taken many hybrid courses as both a DE and a F2F student, I feel that students would benefit and some of these problems would be reduced if there were some sort of ‘department wide protocol’ for how to teach a hybrid course for both groups of students. Certainly such a protocol would not prescribe a method of teaching, but rather would provide a framework for instructors on how to organize content, facilitate discussion boards, group work and student responses, and in general better meet some of the dominate and repeating concerns of the students. This type of ‘collaborative organizational model’ would make life easier for the DE student, as well as for the professor who would have fewer frustrated students on his or her hands.
I am quite content with how the first survey session panned out, and I look forward to rolling out the second survey, which I plan to do before the end of March.