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Student perceptions of Web-based learning.

Abstract

This study investigates the students' attitudes towards the e-learning environment and its effects on the teaching and learning process. We note a general positive attitude towards the online learning environment although there was no significant difference in student results. However, the current e-learning environment does not really cater for individual preferences of students.

Introduction

The Information Technology (IT) sector is a rapidly expanding business in Mauritius and the Government is investing massively to make it become the third pillar of the Mauritian economy. In this endeavour of making Mauritius a cyber-island, emphasis is laid on life-long education and training to keep up with the technological pace at which the global economies are moving. With the limited capacity of students accommodation at the University of Mauritius and the need for highly skilled man-power to sustain the development of the country, the Virtual Centre for Innovative Learning Technologies (VCILT) has been created to deliver high-quality e-learning. In this paper, we carry out an evaluation of students' perceptions, responses and reactions to the current e-learning environment that has been set-up at the University. The students are undergraduates in the first year of study. We find that, although our current e-learning environment helps to promote technology-enhanced and networked learning (through different computer-mediated tools), it seems that student preferences for learning are overlooked in the design of courseware materials.

Review of Literature

Distance education is flexible and adaptable in that learners can study anywhere and anytime. The notion of flexibility and autonomy has been seen to denote independence among distance learners. Garison and Shale (1990) however, postulate that the notion of independence in the educational transaction in distance education seems to overshadow two-way communication between the teacher and the student. On the other hand, E-learning providing a framework for networked and technology-enhanced learning on the web must not be looked upon as only a new medium of delivery but one that presents us with a high potential to enhance the overall learning process (Nichols, 2003). The ability of e-learning systems to support hypermedia contributes in efficient delivery and better quality of education. There have been some critiques that many developers of education web-based materials have a tendency to use the Web in traditional ways (Hong et al., 2003). Consequently, the resulting learning environments often appear as electronic versions of traditional courses. Hong et al. (2003) reports several findings from research on students' satisfaction in web-based learning environments. However, many studies also reported no difference in leaning achievement between students taking Web-based courses and students enrolled in traditional face-to-face classes (Carswell, 2000; Collins, 2000; Santally, 2003). Carswell (2000) found that students felt they gained valuable experience in using the Internet and its associated tools for communication purposes in a web-based course. Although this was not an integral part of the course objectives, students welcomed the additional skills acquired.

The Problem

Since e-learning is quite a novel approach in the Mauritian context, this study is of a very important nature to determine the acceptance of this new learning methodology among the stakeholders; especially the students who are going to experience this novel approach for the first time and the University Academics who have always worked to keep up a with a high standard of education. The research questions we want to address in this study are: (1) What are the students' attitudes towards e-learning and using the Internet as a tool for the learning process? (2) What are students attitudes towards the current e-learning environment in the University in terms of: Achievement of Learning Outcomes; Flexibility in their learning; Proficiency in ICT (Information and Communication Technologies); Learning and Cognitive Styles; Performance in the exams; Accessibility to the environment (3) Were students' attitudes towards the use of networked learning tools positive and perceived as a means to enhance their learning? (4) Are students willing to use such environments for a major part of their programme at the University? Students data, 2003-04, was collected online <http://vcampus.uom.ac.mu/testcentre>.

The CSE1010E Learning Environment

The CSE 1010E was initially delivered through print-based distance education mode and it became the first module to be delivered online at the University of Mauritius on a very large scale (~1000 students). The CSE 1010E module has now been delivered without any major problems, for approximately two academic years. Students have access to an online study guide (also available in print format) where they have access to an instructional plan that helps them in their learning. The contents section provides students with a multimedia learning material arranged in a hypertext structure that helps them to understand concepts easily. Furthermore, students have access to discussion forums where they can collaborate with peers and tutors about concepts and topics related to their module.

The Learning/Cognitive Styles Survey We carried out two surveys in this phase: Learning Styles and Perceptual Styles. The learning style survey is based on the Honey and Mumford (1986) questionnaire that classifies learners in four types of categories: reflector, activist, pragmatist and theorist. The Perceptual Styles Survey is carried out to find out about learners preferred sensory ways of information processing i.e. whether learners prefer information to be presented orally (auditory), visually or in a kinaesthetic form. We also investigate any relationship that exists between students learning styles and perceptual styles. The effects these styles have on students' performance are also studied as well as their perceptions towards the e-learning environment.

The Feedback Questionnaire Student feedback questionnaire has been a common practise for institutions and educators to evaluate and constantly improve the quality of teaching and learning. This method is also very useful in evaluating distance-learning environments especially web-based systems. The questionnaire we used in the study was divided into four sections:

Background Information. The students' age, gender, Programme of study, ownership of a computer related information was asked in this section. Students were also asked to give their virtual campus login to be able to identify their preferences with their learning, perceptual styles and their performance.

Content and didactics. In this section, students had to evaluate the contents of the course in line with the learning objectives proposed to them and their own expectations from the course. They were asked to evaluate the use of images, text and animations in the module. Their perceptions of these objects are very important to see how different learners respond to the system features.

Multimedia Presentation and communication. In this section, students were asked to rate the text readability, image, sound and video quality and the ease of use of the environment. Students' perceptions about the use of forums were also recorded in this section and the ease of use of the communication tools. Students were also asked whether they are willing to follow other modules online and whether they are willing to have a majority number of modules from their curriculum online as well as their own perception about whether computers increased their motivation and confidence throughout the learning process.

Technical Aspects of Environment. Students were asked about navigation aspects of the learning environment, online help standards, flexibility of access to the environment, delivery speed and ease of downloads and frequency of use of the platform.

Student Assessment and Performance data

Performance of students who took part in the survey was measured in three assessments throughout the semester. The first assessment consisted of students producing a word report of approximately 2000-3000 words on the comparison of two computer systems and recommendations for the purchase of one of these systems. Students were graded on three criteria--use of word processing techniques, comparison of the two systems and the quality of the recommendation. The second assessment was a common class test that was carried out in the middle of the semester and the final assessment was the examinations that took place at the end of the semester. The first assessment and the class test each count for 15 %, while the final exam counts for 70% of the whole module mark.

Results

From the Learning style survey (n=102), we find that the first year students have a tendency to prefer the reflector learning styles while many students prefer more than one learning style. On average, 52% of students are reflectors, while 22% are activists; 11% and 13% are theorists and pragmatists respectively. We also find 48% of learners preferring to process visual information, 36% auditory and 16% preferring kinaesthetic and tactile instruction. However, from the two-way ANOVA test, we found no significant relationship with a student's particular learning style with his perceptual (cognitive) styles. These differed from student to student. For instance, a student may be a reflector but he prefers kinaesthetic activities. This seems strange but our study shows that this is possible although this can also form part of experimental error. There was also no significant difference in results (p=0.613) of students who used the e-learning system for the module compared to a control group who followed the module in a traditional distance setting (i.e. print-based material). The same observation applies to the results of students based on learning and cognitive style preferences. Another finding of this research study is about students' views of the current e-learning modules that are being delivered on-campus. Students generally like the idea of having online modules. They feel this gives them much more flexibility to learn the module and at their own pace.

There is a minority of students (mostly mature learners), however, who are concerned with their own level of proficiency in information technology, access to computers and the Internet. They also find that the courses are generally of static nature and they would prefer print the pages rather than read the whole lot of text online. Furthermore, they do not find that online modules help them in performing better or make the learning process seem easier for them. On the other hand, the idea of having an online course, especially for the first time increased their eagerness and motivation to participate in the class. They particularly found the networked learning environment stimulating since they felt to be "in permanent contact with peers and tutors". From the study and a description of the results, we may summarize our findings as follows. Students in general, prefer the reflector learning style. However, we also find students with other learning styles or with more than one learning style. Students prefer mostly the visual and auditory mode of perception than the kinaesthetic mode. There is no significant relationship (interaction) between preferred learning styles and the cognitive styles. This is based mainly on an individual basis for each learner. Computer-based learning does not necessarily increase student performance on the exams. However, there is increase motivation and preference of the students to learn with computers. Students do not prefer to read online, they would rather print the materials, which are mostly static pages although graphics are present. Reproducing print based material online therefore is not seen as adding value to the student learning experience and to the overall learning process.

Discussion

Our study showed a preference for the visual mode of perception and we find a majority of students saying that they prefer to print material from the web site since there is a lot a text. In fact, research demonstrates that both low and average achievers earn higher scores on standardized achievement tests and aptitude tests when taught through their learning styles preferences (Dunn et al., 1995). While it is true that students nowadays have a tendency of becoming more independent and more motivated to use networked learning tools, taking into account their individual learning preferences could be an important factor in improving the teaching and learning process. Furthermore, average achievers tend to have poor auditory memory. They learn better through graphics and animations rather than text (Dunn, 1998). A recent trend in education literature has been to generally accept that hypermedia can accommodate learning style differences because of the multi-modal attributes that are involved (Ayersman & Minden, 1995). However, Litchfield (1993) (as cited in Ayersman & Minden, 1995) admitted that research specifically addressing multimedia programs and learning styles is almost inexistent. One of the advantages of web-based hypermedia is that it provides the same material (hosted on a web server) for all students. This advantage says it clearly that we are catering to a group of learners (that can easily range up to thousands) and it is assuming that we cater for all learning preferences. Having a variety of learning preferences and catering for individual differences are different things. Adaptive web-based hypermedia may be a step towards offering individualized instruction to students.

The problem with mature learners, however, cannot be linked only to one of learning and perceptual (cognitive) preferences. To a certain extent, it can be true. In this ease we cannot generalise our findings of learning and perceptual (cognitive) preferences to apply these for web-based environments. Furthermore there was no obvious difference between learning preferences of mature learners and young adults. The problem may therefore relate to other social and professional obligations of the learners. Proficiency of using the computers and prior information technology background may also be a deterministic factor in the promotion of technology acceptance among learners. The fact that students showed increased motivation and eagerness to follow the course online using a computer-based environment may have an important positive psychological effect on the students since this helps create a feeling of confidence and social adherence to the current trend. This aligns well with the idea of the School IT Project and the vision of making Mauritius a cyber island where ICT is being integrated through the school curriculum and in other key sectors of the Mauritian Economy.

Conclusion

We find in this study that we have a variety of learners in a classroom and that learning and cognitive styles may be important variables that we need to study further along with student perceptions and attitudes. As we have seen in this study, students mostly adopted a positive attitude towards web-based learning environments. The reasons behind this is mainly ownership of computers, proficiency in ICT and the feel of an urge to form part in the ICT bandwagon as part of the Government vision of making Mauritius a cyber island. From a purely educational point of view, we find the need to reconsider the design of such environments for a variety of learning paths based on individual learning preferences of students.

References

Ayersman D.J., & Minden A. (1995). Individual differences, computers and instruction. Computers in human behaviour, 11(3-4), 371-390.

Carswell, L.(2000). Distance Education via the Internet: The student experience. British Journal of Educational Technology, 31(1), 29-46

Collins, M. (2000). Comparing Web, correspondence and lecture versions of a second-year non-major biology course. British Journal of Educational Technology, 31(1), 21-27

Dunn R., Griggs S.A., Olson J., Gorman B., & Beasley M. (1995). A Meta Analytic validation of the Dunn and Dunn learning styles model. Journal of Educational Research, 88(6), 353-361.

Dunn R. (1998). Commentary: Teaching Students through their perceptual strengths or preferences. Journal of Reading. 31(4), 304-309.

Garrison, D. & Shale, D. (1990). Education at a distance: From issues to practice, Melbourne, FL: Krieger, 123-134

Hong K. S, Lai K. W & Holton, D. (2003). Students' satisfaction and perceived learning with a web-based course. Educational Technology & Society, 6(1), ISSN 1436-4522.

Honey P., Mumford A (1986). Using your learning styles. Maidenhead. Honey Publications

Litchfield, B. (1993). Design factors in multimedia experiments: Research findings and implications for instructional design. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Atlanta, GA.

Nichols, M. (2003). A theory for eLearning. Educational Technology & Society, 6(2), 1-10, Available at http://ifets.ieee.org/periodical/6-2/1.html

Santally, M. (2003). Learning and Perceptual Styles Consideration in the Design of Hypo-media Courseware for Distance Learning. ICOOL (International Conference on Open & Online Learning) 2003 Proceedings, Mauritius

Mohammad I. Santally, University of Mauritius, Mauritius

Santally works as Instructional Designer in the Virtual Center for Innovative Learning Technologies <http://vcampus.uom.ac.mu>.
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Author:Santally, Mohammad I.
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2004
Words:2665
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