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Student perceptions of learning environments.


To meet the needs of today's emerging tech-savvy, time-crunched students, professors face the challenge of creating psychosocial learning environments that incorporate distance instruction, as well as maintaining their traditional instruction. In order to serve this population, student perceptions of online learning environments need to be considered during course development and implementation. This small-scale study compared perceptions from students in a face-to-face, hybrid, and distance-delivered version of the same social work course and found distance education falling short when compared to other delivery methods.


Distance education is changing the face of higher education. "As distance education becomes more prevalent, higher education has attempted to meet the growing demand for courses, curriculum, and programs offered at a distance" (Lindner, Dooley, & Murphy, 2001, p. 25). While research on the technological aspects of distance education is readily available, there is limited research in identifying interpersonal dynamics within the distance education environment (Walker & Fraser, 2005), and no research in particular on graduate-level social work students' perceptions of distance education. Studies on distance education tend to focus mainly on instructors' activities, such as satisfaction and teaching methods, and on student outcomes, such as achievement, grades, and test scores (Walker, 2002). Further, in distance education, most studies focus on learning, and only about one-third of those are research based (Murphy & Cifuentes, 2001). To bridge the gap between face-to-face teaching and learning and quality distance education, students' points of view need to be studied in order to understand the psychological, social, and technical obstacles they face (Wilcott, 1994). When determinants of psychosocial educational components are better understood, instructors then have opportunities to make changes in their distance-based classes in order to improve the distance learning environment, and thus the learning outcomes, of their distance education students.

This study addresses student perceptions of the online psychosocial learning environment. Psychosocial involves students' interactions with their environment, which includes dynamics of their involvement with other students and with the instructor, and their thinking related to how the environment influences what they do, or do not do, in class. In distance education, the dynamics of student interactions are much different than those found in traditional face-to-face classrooms. There are no social, economic, or race barriers that enter a "computer classroom." The binding factor is typically access to a computer. Further, social learning opportunities, often taken for granted in face-to-face learning environments, must be explicitly introduced by the instructor, as they often do not occur naturally in online learning situations.

Study Description

The goals of this study were to explore (1) the learning environment preferences of graduate students enrolled in traditional face-to-face, hybrid, and distance education classes, and (2) the students' perceptions of their distance learning environment during an online class. Participants in the study were graduate-level students enrolled in the same social work course at a regional state university, taught by the same instructor; and used the same text and assignments. Three sections of the course were studied, each in a differing delivery format. One section of the course was taught in a face-to-face format, one section was taught in a hybrid format (part online, part face-to-face), and a third section was taught completely online.

Research Instrument and Administration

A standardized, Web-based research instrument, the Distance Education Learning Environment Survey (DELES), was utilized for data collection. The DELES has demonstrated validity and internal consistency reliability (Walker & Fraser, 2005). Likewise, the DELES has the ability to merge two distinct areas of study--psychosocial learning environments and distance education. A survey of student participants was conducted using two forms of the DELES: the DELES-Preferred and DELES-Actual. These two forms of the DELES are similar in structure, yet the items vary slightly in order to investigate students' learning environment preferences early in a class (Preferred form) and their perceptions during a class (Actual form). The DELES contains six scales designed to investigate (1) Instructor Support, (2) Student Interaction and Collaboration, (3) Personal Relevance, (4) Authentic Learning, (5) Active Learning, and (6) Student Autonomy (Walker & Fraser, 2005). Instructor support is identified as the instructor being approachable and responding quickly to student inquiry. Student interaction and collaboration is the extent to which there are opportunities for students to interact with one another and exchange information. Personal relevance is the connection between the students' out of school experiences, while authentic learning is the extent to which they have an opportunity to solve real-world problems. Active learning is the extent to which they have an opportunity to take an active role in their learning. Student autonomy considers students' perceptions of having the opportunity to initiate ideas and to make their own learning decisions. In all, the survey contains 34 psychosocial learning environment items with a 5-point response scale of Never, Seldom, Sometimes, Often, and Always, with "1" representing Never and "5" representing the ideal Always.

Of 39 total students enrolled in the social work course, 26 (66%) completed the first survey administration using DELES-Preferred at the beginning of the semester. These respondents were: in the face-to-face class (n=6), in the hybrid class (n=7), and in the online class (n=13). This allowed the researchers to identify the learning environment characteristics students preferred. Sixteen students (41%) then completed a second administration of the instrument, the DELES-Actual, near the end of the academic term. This instrument administration offered insight on students' perceptions of what actually occurred in their learning environment.


Student Perceptions

Results revealed areas of mismatch between students' actual perceptions of the learning environment in each of the three instructional settings. For instance, on the scale of Instructor Support, learning environment preferences were higher from students enrolled in the course taught in a traditional manner (scale mean (m)=4.66 of 5 response levels), closely followed by the hybrid class students' preferences (m=4.68) and the preferences of students in the course offered completely online (m=3.62). The results of students' preference on this scale indicate that the distance education students had lower expectations related to instructor support than students enrolled in the other two courses.

Another discrepancy we discovered was on the scale of Student Interaction and Collaboration. Students' perceptions of the actual learning environment (as opposed to their preferred environment) resulted in a higher scale mean in the hybrid course (m=4.23) compared to the online course (m=3.12). Students in the face-to-face course perceived the interaction and collaboration at a mean of 3.97. Therefore, on this scale, the hybrid course was perceived by students as having stronger peer-to-peer relationships. On the other hand, on some scales, there were similarities in students' perceptions. For example, on the scale of Personal Relevance, in both the face-to-face class and the hybrid class, the actual perceptions of students resulted in equivalent means (m=4.03). Distance students' perceptions were very similar (m=3.84), suggesting that students view the course to be personally relevant regardless of the delivery method.

Students in each version of the social work course also had similar perceptions related to Authentic Learning. Their mean actual perceptions were little more than a half a point (0.64) different with the strongest mean from the course taught face-to-face (m=4.24), followed closely by the online course (m=4.12), and the hybrid course (m=3.60). Statements in which students responded to in the Authentic Learning scale included: "I work on assignments that deal with real world information," and "I enter the real world of the topic of the study." Authenticity is more reliant on course content and materials, compared to social interaction and collaboration. This difference may indicate that, if a graduate-level course is perceived as authentic in one mode and the content remains the same in other delivery modes, then the learning environment is congruent. Another close similarity was discovered when students indicated their Active Learning perceptions were comparable in the face-to-face class (m=4.33) to those of students in the online class (m=3.76) and the hybrid class (m=3.73). On the scale of Student Autonomy the face-to-face class mean (4.48) was only a half a point (0.51) different than that of the online class (m=3.97). Statements on the scale included items such as: "I make decisions about my learning" and "I play an important role in my learning".

Student Preferred Learning Environments compared to their Actual Perceptions

In examining the face-to-face course responses, student preferences compared to their actual perceptions, data indicated that on the scales of Personal Relevance (Preferred m=4.22, Actual m=4.03) and Authentic Learning (Preferred m=4.25, Actual m=4.24), students responded with a higher preference than actual occurrence, but to a very limited degree. However, in the areas of Interaction and Collaboration (Preferred m=3.73, Actual m=3.97), Student Autonomy (Preferred m=4.38, Actual m=4.48), Active Learning (Preferred m=4.21, Actual m=4.33), and Instructor Support (Preferred m=4.66, Actual m=4.68), students' preferred perceptions of the learning environment were lower than the actual occurrence, albeit to a limited degree.

In examining the hybrid course responses, the data indicate that in the areas of Personal Relevance (Preferred m=4.21, Actual m=4.03), Authentic Learning (Preferred m=4.29, Actual m=4.12), and Active Learning (Preferred m=3.81, Actual m=3.73), the preferred means were stronger than the actual means, although again not to any meaningful degree. On the scales of Instructor Support (Preferred m=4.52, Actual m=4.66), Interaction and Collaboration (Preferred m=3.71, Actual m=4.23), and Student Autonomy (Preferred m=4.01, Actual m=4.16), the actual means were greater than the preferred to a small degree. Overall, despite these slight differences and similarities, the preferred learning environment was largely congruent with the actual learning environment, the largest difference being on the scale of Student Interaction and Collaboration where the actual learning environment mean exceeded student preferences by only 0.52.

Finally, in examining the online course responses, students reported stronger preferences versus actual perceptions on Instructor Support (Preferred m=3.94, Actual m=3.62), Interaction and Collaboration (Preferred m=3.27, Actual m=3.12), Authentic Learning (Preferred m=3.63, Actual m=3.60), and Active Learning (Preferred m=3.82, Actual m=3.76). The actual mean in the areas of Personal Relevance (Preferred m=3.81, Actual m=3.84) and Student Autonomy (Preferred m=3.89, Actual m=3.97) were stronger than what students indicated as their preferences. Again, like the face-to-face class and the hybrid class, if the distance class is viewed alone, there is minimal divergence across the six scales, indicating that the learning environment largely matches students' preferences.

Notable Inconsistencies

Overall, when all scale means are considered, the online learning environment responses are closer to "sometimes" occurring (m=3.69), while the face-to-face and hybrid classes represent a positive learning environment that "often" occurs, m=4.27 and m=4.12 respectively. If one accepts the argument that a face-to-face or hybrid class learning environment is the benchmark by which to measure, then the online social work class investigated here falls short (>1.0 on the 5 point response range) on two scales--actual Instructor Support and actual Student Interaction and Collaboration. The students in the face-to-face course reported a 1.06 higher score on perceptions of Instructor Support than reported in the online class. Similarly, the students in the hybrid course reported a 1.11 higher score on perceptions of Student Interaction and Collaboration than reported in the online course.


The purpose of this study was to compare the psychosocial learning environments for three graduate social work courses (face-to-face, hybrid, and online) and to measure student preferences and perceptions using a standardized web-based scale. This study helps to fill a gap in the literature on the interpersonal dynamics of distance education, particularly in graduate level social work education. The findings of this exploratory study reveal that the same graduate course taught by the same instructor in the same semester using the same syllabus result in different perceptions of students depending upon what delivery approach is used. Student perceptions of the learning environment were similar for all three classes; however, on two scales of the DELES, Actual Instructor Support and Actual Student Interaction and Collaboration, the online course was rated lower. That is, students in the online class reported less support offered by the instructor and fewer peer interaction opportunities than the face-to-face or the hybrid courses.

What can be concluded from this study is that, while the online learning environment is not poor, there is certainly room for improvement, and instructors should consider methods that enhance the learning environment of the online distance education courses. In order to create high-quality learning environments, instructors should have an awareness of what students prefer and aim to meet their preferences when possible (Walker, 2001). Instructors developing and implementing online courses must make particular efforts in this way. For example regarding instructor support, methods to utilize might be responding quickly to student e-mails, creating a personal web page for students to visit, and holding online office hours. Regarding student interaction and collaboration, methods to improve the psychosocial learning environment in online courses might include interactive chat assignments, group projects, web cameras or virtual classrooms.

Future research to better understand the unique challenges and opportunities of distance education as compared to face to face and hybrid courses, needs to be pursued. A follow up to the current study might include objective third party observers to collaborate the perceptions expressed by the students. Studies of this nature, utilizing instruments such as the DELES, along with documented observations of objective third party observers, might corroborate the perceptions expressed by students and "proved evidence of how closely their perceptions align with actual events, interactions, and conditions that occurred" (Wegmann, et al., 2005 p.237). The extent to which the results of the current study are directly related to courses in other subjects offered at the university level is limited; however, the information obtained here offers university instructors the opportunity to utilize the data and to develop and implement courses based on student feedback of the learning environment as opposed to traditional summative class evaluation and student cognitive outcomes. Such research will go far in supporting evidence-based best teaching practices that meet the needs of both professors and students for a quality learning environment in modern cyber classrooms.


Lindner, J., Dooley, K., & Murphy, T. (2001). Differences in competencies between doctoral students on-campus and at a distance. The American Journal of Distance Education, 15(2), 25-40.

Murphy, L. L., & Cifuentes, L. (2001). Using Web tools, collaboration, and learning online. Distance Education, 22, 285-305.

Walker, S. (2001). Online learning environments research. Sixth annual teaching in the community colleges online conference, Kapi'olani Community College & University of Hawaii. Retrieved December 1, 2005, from

Walker, S. (2002). Measuring the distance education psychosocial environment. Seventh annual teaching in the community colleges online conference, Kapi'olani Community College & University of Hawaii. Retrieved January 5, 2006, from

Walker, S. L., & Fraser, B. J. (2005). Development and validation of an instrument for assessing distance education learning environments in higher education: The distance education learning environments survey (DELES). Learning Environment Journal, 8, 289-308.

Wegmann, S., Adams, P., Higgins, B., Miller, M., Price, D., Simpson, C., & Swicegood, P. (2005). Teachers' efficacy in preparation and retention. Academic Exchange Quarterly, 9(3), 235-239.

Wilcott, L. L. (1994). Audio tools for distance education. In B. Willis (Ed), Distance education strategies and tools (pp. 135-164). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications.

Mary Jo Garcia Biggs, Texas State University-San Marcos, TX

Cynthia G. Simpson, Sam Houston State University, TX

Scott L. Walker, Texas State University-San Marcos, TX

Garcia Biggs, PhD LCSW, is Assistant Professor in the School of Social Work Simpson, PhD is Assistant Professor of Special Education in the College of Education Scott Walker, Se EdD is Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography
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Author:Walker, Scott L.
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2006
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