Engagement in professional online learning: a situative analysis of media professionals who did not make it.
There has been a growing interest in professional online learning in recent years as evidenced by enrolments increasing at the rate of 33% per year for online learning (Pethokoukis as cited in Bocchi, Eastman & Owens Swift, 2004). The growing interest by learners is reflected in a shift in delivery method by organisations from short course format to technology-mediated distance learning programs (Nocente & Kanuka, 2002). The general assumption is that professional learners will choose online courses because this form of study enables flexibility in terms of access, place, and time. Professional development courses offered online are expected to enable busy people to engage in further study while staying in full-time employment and meeting family commitments.
Although distance learning is no doubt enriched by increased interactions by way of online communication (Garrison & Anderson, 2003; Maor, 2003), the expectation that professional development courses offered online will be successful mainly by virtue of the flexible mode of study needs closer examination. The aims of the present study were to identify the challenges experienced by a group of professional learners who did not complete a course offered online, and to interpret the origin of these challenges within a situative, "person-in-context" perspective.
Research on university students' motivation and perceptions of barriers to enrol in online courses has highlighted the importance of personal commitment and readiness to study (Smith, 2003; Rossett & Schafer, 2003). Professionals are typically mature adults, working full-time, often with family commitments, and may or may not be competent and confident in the use of technology. Furthermore, many professionals expect the content of their study to have direct relevance, not only to their overall professional field, but also to their daily professional practice. The combination of busy lives, limited preparation for self-directed learning in a technological environment, and multiple, sometimes unrealistic expectations of what such courses may involve, presents major challenges for participants and their teachers. This combination may account for attrition rates ranging from 13.5% (Bocchi et al., 2004), to between 54% and 60% (Frith & Kee, 2003), and 75% for some online courses (Rossett & Schafer, 2003). According to Sun Microsystems' own research, only 25% of participants completed online self-study courses (Rossett & Schafer, 2003).
Another angle to explain the challenges experienced by participants is to consider the extent to which their social environment enables or inhibits their participation in such courses. Consistent with the person-in-context perspective stressed in the latest developments of socio-cognitive theory (De Corte, Greer, & Verschaffel, 1996; Pintrich, 2000; Volet, 2001, 2004), it is assumed that the barriers perceived by professional online learners reflect the complex social systems in which they are embedded. Furthermore, and consistent with socio-cultural theory, these social systems can be conceptualised as multiple communities of practices, which intersect to create affordances and constraints for full participation in the activities that are valued by the community. The situation is complicated when individuals belong to several overlapping communities of practice, because productive participation in one community may inhibit participation in another. In such cases, eliciting individuals' own interpretation of the situation appears essential in understanding their engagement or withdrawal. According to Smith (2003), it is the learner's construction of their interpretation in collaboration with others at their workplace, which is deemed to be important. The situative, person-in-context perspective combines elements from socio-cognitive and socio-cultural perspectives.
The existing literature on adult learners' engagement and experience in professional development courses offered online is scarce and mainly descriptive, even though online training in the workplace has been advocated since the early 1990s by governments, training authorities, and enterprises (Smith, Robertson, & Wakefield, 2002). In Australia, there is also recognition that flexible delivery can enhance learning in higher education and in the VET sector (EdNA VET Online, 2005). Similarly in the United Kingdom (Sadler-Smith, Down, & Lean, 2000) and the United States (Carter, 2004), a lot of training involves flexible delivery and the use of new technologies. Overall, theoretically grounded studies on professional online learning are still limited. The next section reviews some of the empirical work on the barriers to completing online courses in the workplace and in higher education, and the factors that may help retain participants in online courses.
BARRIERS TO COMPLETING ONLINE COURSES
The literature on barriers to completing online courses consists mainly of surveys eliciting participants' evaluation of courses and perceptions of inhibiting factors toward success. Three broad types of barriers are identified: (a) organisational lack of experience in developing online courses; (b) perceived insufficient instructional support and communication; and (c) insufficient computer literacy of participants. A few other factors such as time, cost, and computer access were also related to attrition rates.
Organisational Lack of Experience in Developing Online Courses
Evidence that organisational lack of experience or maturity in developing online courses acts as a barrier to the success of such courses is well documented in the literature (Berge, 2002; Bocchi et al., 2004; Hartley, Mills, & Cupitt, 2004; McKavanough, 1996; Smith, 2003; Weaver, 2002). Berge's extensive survey of 2,504 participants highlighted the magnitude of problems experienced by corporations at the early stages of implementing online programs in comparison to those who had been delivering courses for a number of years. A sub-set of 448 participants, who disclosed their workplace as a business or corporate organisation, rated their organisation on a variety of factors using a scale that ranged from no implementation of distance learning (and therefore a lack of maturity in delivery), to the institutionalisation of distance learning through policy, communication, and practice alignment with business objectives. The establishment of a distance learning identity alongside systematic assessment of distance learning events was an indicator of organisational maturity. As the delivery of online learning became more institutionalised that is, more mature, there was evidence that problems related to insufficient technical expertise and support receded, whereas problems with evaluation and effectiveness came to the forefront.
Some studies pointed to organisations' inaccurate estimations of costs and demand for online courses, and misunderstanding of the impact of such courses on the organisational culture. Bocchi et al., (2004) reported that rushing into offering MBA online courses without full estimation of costs and demand eventually led to a reduction of existing courses. Similarly, Weaver (2002)'s research documented "unfortunate mistakes" in the development of e-learning, and miscalculations of the needs for resources and expertise. Organisations without prior experience of online learning delivery appeared to be slow in embracing this form of learning, especially since learning is not deemed to be their core business (Hartley, Mills, & Cupitt, 2004). The cultural change that online learning can bring to an organisation should not be underestimated, and Berge (2002) argued that the capacity of an organisation to embrace technological change is a critical factor across "mature" and "less mature" organisations.
Organisation type, structure, size, and culture are also important considerations in the development of online learning courses. McKavanagh (1996)'s research revealed that online learning courses embedded in the work environment appeared to be more clearly conceptualised, more collaborative and more innovative in nature but also less supportive and less independent. Smith (2003) found that onsite courses for groups of 11-20 people had clearer learning objectives than those aimed at smaller or larger groups. In a study by Atack (2003), nurses identified barriers to completing a web-based course. The results highlighted "the managers' lack of awareness about the course, lack of policies to facilitate a role change in practice, and an insufficient number of nurses trying to bring about change" (p. 294). Overall, these findings are consistent with Berge (2002)'s claim that organisations need to set in place clear learning objectives, and be aware of professional learners' needs, including the development of a culture of online learning. As organisations mature, perceived barriers to learning online are expected to abate.
Perceived Insufficient Instructional Support and Communication
Perceived insufficient instructional support and communication with program facilitators or instructors, or between students appear to significantly affect students' perceptions of their online learning experiences. Results from studies with workplace learners (Cunningham, 1998; Brooker & Butler, 1997), university students in professional courses (Frith & Kee, 2003; Schmitt, Titler, Herr, & Ardery, 2004), and learners who worked in parallel to their study (Zhang, Sun, Wang, & Wu, 2003), converge to highlight the importance of social interactions and support for successful completion of online courses. In his extensive literature review, Smith (2003) pointed to the necessity, based on a social constructivist model of learning, of fostering productive interactions between learners and course providers.
Regular communication with instructors, and opportunities for interaction between students were important considerations for successful online programs in health professional groups. A study of 174 nurses' cognitive learning, satisfaction, and motivation to complete a six-week online nursing course (Frith & Kee, 2003) revealed that "internal only" communication methods (i.e., pages of instruction, animation of course concepts, and practice questions) were not as effective as mixed communication methods (i.e., the same internal communication method plus online communication among students, and between students and the instructor). Atack (2003)'s study of 54 nurses in an online course was similar. Although the amount of support required was greater in the initial stages of implementation, online and face-to-face dialogue with peers was reported as critical in preventing them from withdrawing from the course. In another study by Wilkinson, Forbes, Bloomfield, and Fincham Gee (2004), isolation was cited as a major drawback in the evaluation of four newly developed web-based modules for post-registration nurses.
According to Cunningham (1998), workplace learners typically preferred learning through interaction with other learners rather than learning alone. Similarly, Smith and Henry (2000) recommended that supportive online training include interactions among learners, and between learners and their instructors. Furthermore, Brooker and Butler (1997) revealed that workers who were studying, highly valued the social context, structured learning, and assistance from other more expert workers. Thus, workplace learning requires activities that encourage continuous participation and interaction. As argued by Smith (2003), the workplace provides "a fertile opportunity for learners to appropriate knowledge that connects theory to practice in a realistic and efficient way" (p. 53).
A sense of isolation can emerge when there is inadequate interaction either with other students or the instructor. A study of 112 Chinese university students enrolled in business management, law, foreign languages, or economics and who worked full-time was undertaken to assess new online education (Zhang et al., 2003). It revealed significant differences in participants' ratings of the course package (which included the means of delivering the course content, such as digital video broadcasting, online courseware, CD-ROMs, texts) and of the support for learners provided by the lecturer and the service provider (which included opportunities and tools for interactions with the institution, instructors, and peers). While the course package was highly rated by students, they were most dissatisfied with their instructors' support and reported feelings of isolation in their learning experience.
Understanding the importance of communication on student satisfaction and learning was further refined in a study of 390 students surveyed on 28 web-based class sections of their MBA program (Arbaugh, 2001). Immediacy behaviours--communication behaviours that reduce social and psychological distance between people, and which include online behaviours such as humour, encouragement of discussion and feedback, text-based discussion, emoticons and/or audio chips--were found to be significant predictors of their learning. Arbaugh argued that immediacy behaviours were more critical than technical acumen in predicting success in online courses. This is consistent with the importance given to combining pedagogy with technology (Maor, 2003) at a rate that is neither more nor less than the students can handle.
Participants' Insufficient Computer Literacy
Insufficient technical expertise and lack of preparedness have been repeatedly mentioned as barriers to successful online learning within the health profession (Atack, 2003; Wilkinson et al., 2004; Schmitt et al., 2004; Atack & Rankin, 2002; Curran-Smith & Best, 2004; Gwele, 2000; Steckler et al., 2001). The results of these studies overlap within findings of organisations' lack of experience and suggest that the culture of an organisation, and its receptivity to online learning, are closely related to the skill base of its workers.
A recent study by Schmitt et al. (2004) explored the barriers to online learning experienced by nurses who participated in a web-based, self-instructed, continuing education course. After two to three months of the online program in their hospital of employment, the nurse managers had reported that almost all the nurses involved were not completing the online program. It was found that only 3% of the nurses had decided to take the course on the Internet, the rest having opted for print material. One of the major reasons, according to the nurses, was their insufficient computer and Internet literacy, and general lack of confidence in using the technology. Most of them also mentioned lack of time available during work hours to complete the course, due to understaffing, not having access to the Internet at home, and too much time spent downloading images and tables of information required to complete the assignments.
Similar responses were gained from nurses participating in a web-based postgraduate diploma course (Atack & Rankin, 2002). Lack of computer skills, erroneous perceptions of course workload and inadequate preparation for web learning were responsible for the majority of withdrawals; 25% of the nurses never started the course and 16% withdrew without completing it. Other barriers included work-based learners (as opposed to home users) not having sufficient time and limited access to computers. None of those who completed the course had been able to find time to study during work hours.
Other Factors Impeding Success
The literature reports a few other factors that can act as barriers to professionals' successful online study for example, lack of time, cost, and unsuitability of online learning culture.
Time is repeatedly mentioned as a major reason for lack of course completion (Yukselturk & Inan, 2004; Gwele, 2000; Steckler at al., 2001). Schmitt et al., 2004 suggested that studying online at home was competing with other activities traditionally reserved for evenings and weekends, while studying online at work is not recognised as a valid activity. This is in spite of the rhetoric that online learning moves learners away from the constraints of time and location (Gallagher, 2001; Carter, 2004). Similarly, in a project with 40 trained maternal and child health professionals, Steckler et al., (2001) found that the most commonly reported difficulty was finding the time to complete the module requirements while also working full-time, even though time limitation had been taken into consideration when developing the course.
The issue of cost was also mentioned in a few studies. Yukselturk and Inan (2004) found affordability of an online course as third in order of difficulty, after lack of time and personal problems. Gorard, Selwyn, and Williams (2000)'s study with adult learners in the community also pointed to financial costs due to use of technology, lack of ownership of personal computers at home, and lack of access to digital technology. Their study also reported a mismatch between the characteristics of nonparticipants in post-compulsory education and training (typically low income, unskilled, unqualified, often from disadvantaged ethnic groups) and the culture of online learning (associated with young, male, middle class, and typically from society's dominant ethnic group).
Overall, the literature on barriers to online learning highlights the multiplicity of interacting factors that contribute to inhibiting the completion of online courses among professional learners. Regardless of whether such courses are designed and delivered by industry or universities, the barriers identified by participants are similar in nature and origin. These barriers appear to be generated within the overlapping social systems that individuals are an integral part of, and which facilitate or inhibit, successful participation in online learning.
FACTORS TO HELP RETAIN STUDENTS IN ONLINE PROGRAMS
A few studies examined the aspects of programs that can help retain students in online courses, in particular immediacy behaviours and social networks among students.
The importance of immediacy behaviours by the course facilitator on learners' satisfaction was highlighted in the work of Arbaugh (2001), described earlier. Interestingly, course satisfaction was not only related to immediacy behaviour and attitude toward the course software, but also to prior online teaching experience of the instructor. Arbaugh concluded that instructors' appropriate immediacy behaviours enhanced student learning and course satisfaction. Additionally, he argued that strong classroom skills of the facilitator may be more important than technological acumen, and that more experienced online instructors bring their successful classroom teaching experience to the online learning environment.
To our knowledge, hardly any research has focused on online professional development education for media professionals. Hoag et al., (2003)'s literature review on computers and pedagogy for journalism and mass communication found that computer networks have been used to "expand the learning community to include experts and industry professionals, although the most common usage appears to involve the creation of computer networks for student-to-student out of class discussion" (p. 400). A study by Aitken and Shedlesky (2002) reported on college students' satisfaction with the nature and flexibility of online discussions in communication courses. Their finding is consistent with other research on students' satisfaction with computer use in journalism and communication education (Althaus, 1997; Hoag & Baldwin, 2000; Smith, 1994).
One of the major advantages of online learning is the cognitive, motivational, and social support that learners can provide to each other during group collaborative learning activities. Such activities directly address the problem of isolation, which is well documented in the literature on distance education. However, whether online learning is suitable for professional, workplace learners also depends on the quality of design and delivery. Smith (2000, 2001) found evidence that workplace learners have a tendency to prefer proximal guidance to independent learning. To be successful, online learning activities for professionals need to be designed around their specific circumstances and expectations, and according to Salmon (2002), require highly skilled e-moderators to encourage discussions, information exchange, and knowledge construction.
Overall, this review of the literature highlights the range of barriers experienced by adult learners in tertiary and professional development courses and what may assist retaining students in online learning. The next section discusses the conceptual usefulness of a situated perspective to better understand the origin of these barriers.
UNDERSTANDING PROFESSIONAL ONLINE LEARNING EXPERIENCES: A SITUATIVE, PERSON-IN-CONTEXT PERSPECTIVE
The person-in-context perspective has become the dominant educational psychology position for the study of learning and motivation over the last decade (Pintrich, 2000; Volet, 2004). This perspective recognises the influence of environmental dimensions on the development of cognitions and motivation, and claims that this influence is mediated by the mental baggage that individuals bring to the situation and the "experiential interface" (Volet, 2001), and by their situation-specific appraisals (Boekaerts, 1999; De Corte et al., 1996). Consistent with the mediating role of individuals' cognitions, research methodologies have relied on self-reports gathered in questionnaires and interviews, to capture the subjective meaning that individuals give to their experience in context. By stressing the importance of researching and understanding individuals' cognitions and motivation as socially situated, this approach recognises their socially constructed nature (Salomon & Perkins, 1998; Turner & Meyer, 2000).
Recognising the importance of contextual dimensions to understand individual cognitions and motivation can be further enriched by incorporating some concepts from socio-cultural theory. Socio-cultural theory has stressed the view that learners are an integral part of the social systems, or communities of practice, in which they are embedded (Greeno, 1998; Hickey, 2003; McCaslin, 2004). Within this perspective, it is argued that research should therefore focus on unveiling the dynamics of engaged participation in meaningful social activities. Participants' ongoing interactions and use of tools and artifacts in their daily social environments are assumed to provide affordances or constraints for each other's participation.
Consistent with the integrated position of other researchers (Billett, 1998; Anderson, Greeno, Reder, & Simon, 2000; Turner, 2001), concepts from both perspectives were combined to provide a more comprehensive framework for the study. On the one hand, examining subjective accounts and perceptions recognises that the behaviours of individuals are mediated by subjective appraisals of individual-context influences (the socio-cognitive perspective). On the other hand, analysing and interpreting those perceptions in the context of the salient, influential environments in which participants are embedded acknowledges the affordances and constraints that those environments provide to participant individuals (the situated, socio-cultural perspective).
In the present study, it was assumed that professional learners' online learning experience takes place at the intersection of three overlapping environments; (a) the work, (b) the home, and (c) online study environments, each having personal, social, physical, and temporal dimensions. It was further assumed that the dynamic interactions of these multidimensional environments create affordances and constraints for learners' full, marginal or peripheral participation (Hickey, 2003), and eventual withdrawal from their online study.
Participants and Context of Study
Participants were 30 media professionals enrolled in a fully online professional development course as part of a new graduate award in media management, who did not complete that course. The new award had been developed to fill a gap in the market in relation to training for media personnel who aspired to management roles within the broadcasting industry (Phillips, 2005). All participants worked full-time. Some were broadcast managers in large corporations, and others training coordinators of community radio or producers of radio programs. Depending on their particular jobs, some worked always at the same office, while others were involved in extended periods of fieldwork. Fourteen (14) participants were located in Australia (AU), 11 in South Africa (SA), and 5 in Singapore (SI). The nature of their work did not differ significantly across locations.
Cohorts from two courses were combined for the purpose of this study, because both courses were designed specifically for this professional group, were of the same level of difficulty, and were part of the same qualification in media management. One course offered e-lectures and the other included an audio-documentary as an alternative to lectures. The audio-documentary "Birth of a Station" was available by way of the website and in CD format. It was expected to provide a user-friendly introduction to the theory by illustrating real-world practice. Overall, the online learning experience of participants was similar across courses, except for some specific references to course-related technology. These are made explicit in the results section.
Interview Questions and Procedures
Semi-structured interviews were conducted over the telephone. The interviews started with respondents' spontaneous accounts of their online learning experience. Their initial expectations regarding content and delivery, as well as, the nature of their participation in online discussions, the role played by their workplace and their reasons for not completing the course were elicited. Respondents were also asked to reflect on what may have helped their participation and completion, and on the suitability of online learning for professionals in the broadcasting industry. Notes were made of participants' responses with key words and phrases recorded verbatim. The interviews lasted from 15 to 45 minutes. Immediately after the interviews, all notes were transcribed to ensure accurate recording of participants' responses.
The first stage of data analysis organised learners' perceptions of barriers to completing the course into categories of challenges, using the online literature as a benchmark. Some of these categories overlapped with one another, highlighting the interactive and complex nature of those challenges. The second stage of data analysis, inspired by a person-in-context perspective, considered the situatedness of the challenges. It examined how barriers to completion were created through individual participation in competing and often constraining dynamic and interactive environments. Each report of a barrier to completion was examined in relation to the specific environments in which that barrier was experienced, and in terms of cross-environment personal, organisational or physical aspects.
The types of challenges perceived by respondents as having contributed to their withdrawal are presented first, followed by a person-in-context analysis of the origin of these challenges.
Challenges Perceived by Respondents as Having Contributed to Withdrawal
The challenges, or barriers to completion, reported by the 30 respondents were consistent with the literature and were divided into three main categories: (a) workplace and organisational features; (b) personal characteristics and circumstances; and (c) instructional aspects, each of them including a technology component. In the workplace category, lack of time to study during work hours emerged overwhelmingly as the main challenge (21, 70% of respondents), followed by lack of organisational support (10, 33%), and restricted computer access (7, 23%). Challenges related to personal characteristics and circumstances were spread across several dimensions, including a preference for verbal over written modes of learning (9, 30%), insufficient computer literacy (7, 23%), access to technology (5, 17%), and family commitments (5, 17%). Challenges related to instructional aspects were dominated by concerns about the quality of the online medium, whether e-lectures or audio-documentary material (20, 67%). This was followed by perceived insufficient support and feedback from the tutor (15, 50%), and deadlines to complete assignments (6, 20%).
The issue of interactions with fellow participants for online group activities highlighted the complexity of the issue. The first course included a mandatory requirement for online group activities, and 8 out of the 21 respondents (38%) found this a barrier to successful completion. In contrast, the second course did not include any such requirement, and yet five out of the nine respondents (55%) declared that the absence of online group activities was a barrier to successful completion. Another difference across the two courses was lack of professional relevance. This was identified as a major barrier by 14 of the 21 participants in the first, more academically oriented course (66%), but nobody mentioned lack of professional relevance as an issue in the second course that included the "Birth of a Station" documentary.
A Person-in-Context Perspective to Understanding the Origin of Challenges
The person-in-context analysis examined how the challenges reported by respondents were generated at the intersection of three environments, work, home, and online study. Each of these environments included personal (e.g., preferred learning style, family priorities), organisational (e.g., work or home responsibilities), social (e.g., family, colleague or tutor support), and physical (e.g., access to technology, quality of technology) aspects, which could operate across all three environments.
The findings are presented in three parts: (a) constraints to participation in the work environment; (b) competing pressures at the intersection of the work and home environments; and (c) multi-dimensional inhibiting experiences in the study online environment.
Constraints to Participation in the Work Environment
As expected, and consistent with the literature on professional online learning, most respondents situated their study online experience in the context of a hectic and not fully study-supportive work environment. Based on their accounts, it seemed that to be successful in the work environment alone that is, without any study, was already a challenge. Carving a study environment within the work environment created major hurdles for most respondents. A main impediment to successful completion was the intensity of the work, which did not afford sufficient time to study and complete course requirements.
Radio is rushed, busy, intense ... it's hard to block off time for study ... it would be good if we had dedicated blocks of time where we had to be online. (AU3) I work Thursday to Monday so Tuesday and Wednesdays are my weekend ... so trying to go into work on Tuesday and Wednesday to study was difficult ... if I'm there people don't realise it's my weekend and there's interruptions. (AU7) Work unpredictable hours--hard to organise myself in terms of completing the workload ... high workload--10 to 12 hour days--do not allow time to do much else. (AU22) Don't have support staff to support me with workload, have to fulfil three roles at a time; have no time to even have a look at what is being sent. (SA15)
The nature of the work generated additional technological hurdles for some respondents. Those who had to undertake fieldwork in remote locations as part of their job experienced problems of access to computing facilities. Being away from the office for extended periods was perceived as a major impediment to study. "Nature of the industry that we do field work ... online discussions difficult because of work" (SA3). "If I were office based, it would be easier to create time and space for the unit" (SA2).
For some respondents, lack of access to computers during fieldwork had a significant impact on their decision to withdraw from the course. "I dropped off in the third week because I had to go into the field in the northern part of [name] where there is no access to Internet technology" (SA2).
There was a sense that the workplace environment had failed to recognise their study as an integral part of professional development on the job, despite formal organisational encouragement for them to enrol. Being given some time to study during work hours was perceived as essential for successful completion. One respondent recognised, however, that this would have financial implications for the organisation. "It would be good to be given more time ... we're in a difficult position ... our broadcasting company is on a difficult budget ... this has impact on staffing and the deal is that you do it on your own time" (AU2).
A number of respondents discussed the issue of lack of support for professional development within their organisation. They thought that employers could assist professional learning by nominating a senior colleague as a mentor, "someone who can instigate discussion" (AU3), and guide, "be guided through the discipline ... understand what it is all about" (AU5). An alternative suggestion was to have local online teachers, "someone [you] could refer to, like a mentor ... a person [you] could contact and who can confirm that you are on the right track, or able to provide some guidance" (SI14). The general idea was that local experts or industry professionals are best placed to promote and support employees' active engagement in professional online learning.
Lack of support in the workplace meant that technological and personal constraints were not addressed. For a number of respondents, access to required technology for online learning had been a problem. "I couldn't access them [audio files of lectures] at work as the [name of organisation] didn't support the software" (AU7).
Lack of experience with the Internet further contributed to the challenge. "I was struggling so much electronically" (SA5). "Fairly new to this ... don't have much guidance ... feeling my way in the dark ... new to university online study ... not sure of what they have on the website ... not sure how to post discussions" (SI2).
While mature age learners' lack of experience with technology is well documented in the literature, this finding among media professionals was somewhat unexpected since the media industry tends to be associated with the use of high-level technology. Overall, the lack of technological support in the workplace was perceived as a significant impediment to successful completion of a professional online development course.
Overall, there was evidence that major constraints to participation were created within the busy broadcasting work environment, and that these involved organisational, professional, technological and personal aspects.
Competing Pressures at the Intersection of Work and Home Environments
A number of respondents indicated that the challenges toward successful study experienced in the work environment were amplified by their personal family commitments. Personal and professional demands were perceived as already competing for their time, leaving hardly any space for study. The combination of huge workloads and personal responsibilities soon became incompatible with the high intensity time required for the completion of some of the assignments, and left them no choice but to withdraw.
In [name] local radio there are usually two programmers per station ... there's a freeze on positions ... my colleague resigned ... I have been managing six stations on my own ... I got ill close to the major assignment ... we have a baby due in a few weeks. It was disappointing to withdraw because I had a great idea for the project ... I'd gathered information for the first assignment but then I had to withdraw. (AU2) Had a huge workload. Doing a national project in [name]. Dealing with people in the project in different time zones. Had family responsibilities. Did not have time to commit and meet with people in different time zones. Just too complicated. (AU23) I didn't have time ... during our survey period ... we had promotions ... no time to pursue it further ... my kids had exams and I had to spend more time with them helping them prepare ... quite stressful ... I had office work ... no time. (SI2)
Similar to work, access to technology also could be a problem in the home environment. For some, the technology was not available altogether, "I don't have Internet access at home" (AU2), and while for others it was an issue of priority use of the home computer. "My home computer is already in high demand. Removing my daughter from it while she was studying ... in order for me to do my own study didn't seem fair" (AU6).
Overall, the combination of stressful work and home demands, whether for time or for computer access, generated major challenges. As responsible professionals and parents at the same time, those competing demands contributed significantly to their decision to withdraw.
Multi-Dimensional Inhibiting Experiences in the Online Study Environment
It is well established that the role of the teacher does not decrease in the online learning environment. Sustained participation requires constant feedback and support. It is expected to be particularly important for professional learners for whom efficiency is critical, and who are focused on achieving outcomes for their professional practice rather than on socialising with peers.
To achieve outcomes, many respondents would have liked more input and feedback from their tutor. They argued that "it was at a minimal level" (AU2) and that "more individual attention would have been appreciated" (SA2). Others would have preferred the feedback to be more immediate and of better quality. "I wasn't sure if I was on the right track and had no feedback to help me know" (AU4). "The quality of feedback offered no insight into how I could improve or why the course facilitator disagreed with my contribution" (AU3).
While such experiences would not be unique to professional online learners, they appeared exacerbated by the competing demands experienced at the intersection of work and home environments, and by technological and personal dimensions.
The technological problems experienced by respondents in this online course were perceived by many of them as overwhelming. These were further exacerbated by workplace constraints, personal limitations, and limited computer access across environments. While technological hassles are widely reported in the online learning literature with undergraduate students, it becomes a major problem when busy professional and mature learners are involved, because they often have time limitations for sorting out such problems. Yet, as previously reported, two thirds of the respondents in these courses experienced difficulties with the quality of the online medium. Problems with logging on and accessing material revealed severe frustration.
Logging on was a pain ... it wasn't clear ... I was getting emails before I logged on and I wasn't sure who they were from ... it was quite confusing ... I went to the website and tried to log on ... I got the emails but couldn't read them ... couldn't open or read any of them. (AU5) There was no facility to say how to do it ... no way of saving on the page ... it was frustrating ... I kept losing what I had written ... so I ended up writing in word and then cutting and pasting to send it off ... it was frustrating. (AU7)
The poor quality of the audio files led to further anger.
I couldn't hear the lectures! The audio files used to deliver the lecture were ridiculously bad quality. I had to strain my ears to hear what the lecturer was saying, even when the volume was on full. (AU7) I have a very good system at home with surround sound speakers ... it was not very clear ... listening was quite troublesome. (SI2) We had the farce of having videos played to the lecture theatre, but online we could only hear the audio as it was played through the lecture theatre speakers. (AU10)
Some respondents said they were "fed up with the amount of time spent fighting with the technology" (AU9), "which left [them] behind schedule" (SA5). One respondent was particularly critical of the poor quality of the audio material, especially "when you are aiming this pilot [course] at radio professionals" (AU1).
Overall, there was little doubt that the technological hassles added significantly to the professional and personal stress experienced in the work and home environments. For professional learners, and media professionals in particular, having to grapple with inadequate audio material for their online study was a particularly exasperating experience. While the technological problems may be attributed to a combination of unfortunate circumstances, for this group of professional online learners, it meant frustration and a drastic decline in their motivation to pursue their study.
A number of respondents noted the limited peer engagement in the online discussions. Some thought that, being radio people, audio communication would have been an important additional element for successful learning. "Personal contact would make a great difference ... the written conversation can't compare with the spoken word ... being a radio person, I rely heavily on sound and the way people speak." (AU2) "The only disadvantage with online learning is that you don't talk to the others." (SA2)
The small amount of online communication between participants, combined with perceived insufficient guidance as to what would constitute quality contributions in the online discussions, were considered detrimental to their sustained participation.
I participated until the others stopped responding ... no new discussions were posted ... so I gave up and focused my time on the readings and the assignment. I think the postings are a good idea but perhaps there needs to be some information about the quality of discussions ... some just write a sentence saying what they liked but not why and not offering any constructive feedback. (AU4)
Such comments reflect the limited attempt by the teacher to create a community of learners. Some respondents attributed their limited engagement in the online discussions to the nature of the work in the media profession. "Our busy workloads, individual locations and time zones, were not so generous. Therefore, very little or no interaction was conducted on each assignment" (AU3).
Overall, these comments suggest that the provision of a fully online professional development course without any audio communication may not be the preferred learning style of media professionals.
In any case, skills for successful participation in online learning may need to be developed. Some participants recognised that they were not used to, nor confident enough to engage in, collaborative learning with peers. "I valued the input of the professors more than the input of the other students" (S11). "I didn't offer anyone feedback ... I didn't have the courage ... I guess I don't have enough confidence with my own learning to comment on anyone else's" (AU7).
These comments stress the need for more teacher modelling and scaffolding in the online learning environment. The literature also highlights the significance of fostering a sense of social presence among participants in order to enhance their motivation, engagement, and participation in online discussions (Volet & Wosnitza, 2004). As the courses in this study included professionals from different countries, it is possible that their interactions were somehow inhibited by lack of familiarity with the other subgroups of peers, despite overall common professional interests.
Finally, and for only one of the courses, constraints in the study online environment were related to a perceived limited professional relevance of the course to everyday practice. While respondents in the unit that included the "Birth of a Station" audio-documentary were very satisfied with professional relevance, respondents in the more academically oriented course expressed disappointment. They thought that the course had too much focus on research and not enough practical information that would be useful for their day-to-day professional practice. "Relevance of content [is] far from what you are doing on a daily basis. What you are reading is not relevant to what you are doing on a daily basis" (SA12).
Another respondent claimed that the level did not match their level of expertise. "It didn't meet my needs as a media professional ... I found that it was pitched too low for my level of expertise. I am too busy to be bothered going over concepts that I am already very familiar with" (AU10).
Some students, however, found "the content really relevant ... I could use the content almost immediately at work" (AU7), or "useful for [their] own training courses and clients" (SA3). One student who withdrew early in the course volunteered that he still had the unit reader on his desk and would "read it in his spare time" (SI1).
These comments illustrate how the provision of professional development courses, even within a single profession, presents challenges in terms of perceived relevance to participants who have varied backgrounds, hold different positions within the organisation, and are working in diverse work circumstances.
The person-in-context perspective (Pintrich, 2000; Volet, 2001, 2004) was useful to reveal the situated nature of the online learning experience of a small group of media professionals who did not complete their study. The major challenges reported by the group, were located at the dynamic intersection of three critical overlapping environments, the work, the home, and the study environments. Each of these environments included personal, social, physical, and temporal dimensions, which interacted dynamically to create major constraints for productive engagement and successful study completion. Overall, the situative analysis raised three major educational issues for the development of professional online learning: the importance of recognising professional study as an integral part of work; the significance of congruence between online study features and professional learners' characteristics; and, the need for course developers to further enhance their technological and pedagogical capacity in the area of professional online learning.
The results of this study stress the importance, for course developers, the industry and organisations employing participants, of treating professional study as an integral part of work. This position is consistent with other research (Berge, 2002: Hoag et al., 2003; Smith, 2003) that documented reasons for the high attrition rates of professional online courses. To maximise the chance of successful completion, there needs to be a close collaboration between course developing and delivering agents (e.g., a university, a training provider), the target industry (e.g., professional associations or groups), and whenever possible, the organisations in which participants are employed. An important issue with online programs for professionals is to ensure that the content be perceived as professionally relevant by all participants themselves. Professional relevance can, however, vary from courses with general relevance to the professional field and the industry (e.g., high level conceptual development, breadth of knowledge), to courses with direct relevance to participants' unique jobs and daily professional practice.
Most participants in the present study preferred study material that was directly relevant to their daily professional practice, although some participants valued the opportunity to broaden their professional knowledge. These findings highlight the need for making the learning objectives of each course very explicit. Close collaboration between the industry and course developers is invaluable in that regard, as illustrated in the present study with regard to the well-received audio-documentary "Birth of a Station." Overall, significant and sustained interactions between the industry partner and the professional development online provider cannot be underestimated, as they are essential to establish professional relevance and the precise place of a course within the industry.
Treating professional online learning as an integral part of work also calls for organisations to take responsibility in facilitating their employees' engagement in professional online learning. On the grounds that organisations benefit from their employees' professional development, they should provide some tangible support such as study time and technological assistance for professional online study during work hours. Other incentives to make the work environment more conducive to professional development could involve the availability of a mentor or expert advisor onsite, and whenever possible arrangements for occasional face-to-face or video conferencing. Creating a supportive professional development space within the work environment may be more efficient if a whole group of employees is involved, rather than individuals trying to study in isolation. The valuable support that professional learners from the same workplace environment can provide for each other was mentioned by Brooker and Butler (1997). This is consistent with other studies (Smith, 2001, 2003), which showed that solo learning was not a favoured mode of learning among professionals.
Another issue raised in the present study is the extent to which adult learners are sufficiently prepared and supported for flexible online learning. The first barrier to overcome is technological; success is dependent on technology working smoothly and users having the personal resources (in terms of skills and computer facilities) to use it without major hassles. Addressing potential problems can be achieved by making explicit what skills and facilities are required to complete a particular course, by assessing prospective participants' computer literacy and by providing training sessions before the start of the program if necessary.
Another challenge relates to the relatively autonomous nature of online study. The extent to which professional learners possess the self-directed learning skills and confidence for successful online study has been discussed in the literature. Research with vocational learners revealed that this was not always the case (Warner, Christie, & Choy, 1998) and that independent learning may not be the preferred mode of study for professionals (Smith, 2000). Media professionals in our study expressed a preference for strong instructional guidance, which raises the issue of how flexible delivery can provide such support in the most efficient way. This finding is consistent with other research stressing the importance of the teacher's cognitive and social presence (Garrison & Anderson, 2003; Wilson & Stacey, 2004). As reported in the literature (Maor, 2003; Sims, 2003; Smith & Henry, 2000), online learning programs need to provide opportunities for interactions between learners. Technology is considered a powerful tool to facilitate the development of learning communities or communities of practice (Wenger, 1998). In the present study there was little evidence that the teacher created a community of learners, and this may have contributed to the students' lack of engagement.
Requiring participants to interact online, however, needs to be compatible with the demands of their work circumstances, and in the case of media professionals, fieldwork activities. As highlighted in the present study, professional online learners need to carve a space for online study within their busy work and home environments, and sometimes may need to negotiate future time and delay online study.
Finally, and as widely documented in the literature, developers of professional online learning courses need to further enhance their technological and pedagogical capacity to meet the unique needs of online learners. As discussed above and illustrated in this study, close collaboration with the target industry can go a long way in establishing professional relevance and encouraging organisations to provide adequate on the job support for their employees' professional online study. As the development of flexible online courses for professionals is gaining momentum, the nature of pedagogical practices that are best suited to meet the cognitive, motivational, social and professional needs of these learners will need further examination.
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This research was supported by a grant from the Australian Research Council
DORIT MAOR AND SIMONE VOLET
Murdoch University, Western Australia
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|Publication:||International Journal on E-Learning|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2007|
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