Academic Exchange Quarterly Winter 2004 ISSN 1096-1453 Volume 8, Issue 4
To cite, use print source rather than this on-line version which may not reflect print copy format requirements or text lay-out and pagination.
Bernie Ward, La
Sandra Kippen ,
2001, Rural Health had been taught for some years at La Trobe University,
The evaluation used qualitative and quantitative data. Qualitative data consisted of three semi-structured interviews and a focus group with six students, students' online feedback, and answers to the questions “What was the best thing about this subject” and “How could this subject be improved?” on the QA tool used by the University for each year of the course. The quantitative data came from students’ responses to twelve statements on a Likert-type scale on the QA tool and online tracking of the students’ use of the material. All student data was used with the approval of the students involved.
This paper does not present the full results of the evaluation. Rather, we reflect on our online teaching experience, using, where it is relevant, the data from the evaluation.
The Organization of the Online Subject
Rural Health Online is a core subject for Public Health and Pharmacy students, and an elective in Teaching, Social Work, Arts, Nursing, and Behavioural Science. Being online, it is convenient for such courses, as it can fit into any timetable around core subjects and placements. The course consists of ten modules, released weekly. Each module contains a summary of the content and links to readings and relevant web pages, some quizzes, and points for discussion.
Students are divided into groups of six to eight and participate in threaded discussions within their group for each module. At the end of the week, one member summarises the findings for their group and posts them to the main bulletin board. Thus, for every module, some ten to twelve summaries of the content are available for review. Private contact with students is usually through email; a separate discussion board deals with technical issues and other functions of WebCT such as the tracking facilities and the calendar are also used.
Facilitating Student Learning
In teaching Rural Health in the traditional mode, we had developed effective strategies to facilitate deep learning, “characterised by approaching a task for its own sake so that an optimum amount of understanding is obtained” (Evans & Abbot, 1998, p.17). The challenge now was to achieve similar results for Rural Health Online. We knew that students who experience “active and long-term engagement with learning tasks” and who have the opportunity “to exercise responsible choice in the method and content of study” (Ramsden, 1992, p.81), have a better chance of deep learning. We believed that online learning offered potential for encouraging these aspects (Williams, 2001). Firstly, part of engagement is the reading done by students, and in this subject, students commented that they read more and worked harder than for any other course.
In other subjects you look at the reading but you don’t read the whole list. You pick and choose, but with Rural Health I found I was reading everything… because I found this one more interesting.
The above must be qualified with a reminder that online students do not attend physical lectures and tutorials and most students admitted that the time spent online per week was less than eight hours. Nevertheless, it became clear that we needed to give direction about whether reading is essential or merely supplementary. In the view of the lecturer at the end of the first year:
The online tracking information showed that hits ranged from 60 to 800 per student over the thirteen-week semester and at least one posting per student per week, with many students posting more. The perception of the lecturer about student participation compared with participation in traditionally taught subjects was:
It’s about the same. You always get that few who don’t turn up to class much. Maybe if it was face-to-face they would participate more. Maybe if they had to turn up where I had to see their face they may have. But you always get that group who don’t participate.
Online subjects are not time and cost-efficient
This is not a new concept. Experienced teachers have put the time required for preparation and teaching of one hour of an online subject at anything up to 200 hours (Edwards & Nicoll, 2000; Ng, 2000; Press & Washburn, 2001; Roach, 2001a). In spite of this, the first year of teaching Rural Health Online was done by one of the authors, who was well experienced in teaching the subject face-to-face but had no experience of managing online technology and teaching. She was allocated the same time as for teaching the subject in the past. That she survived to tell the tale may be construed as something of a miracle. This was a case of institutional expectations not being supported by resources (Arnold, 1999). For the subject to run again under these circumstances was out of the question and in its second year it was taken up by the other two instructors. However, once again, neither had experience of online teaching and, although the technology support had improved, they both found that the subject took considerably more time than any of their other teaching. One had taught the subject in its traditional mode in the past, but the other, who had not, found that her time was fully taken in managing the technology, and engagement with the content fell unsatisfactorily by the wayside (Bolliger, 2003). By the third year all three of the authors, now somewhat more experienced in online teaching, were involved. One prepared the subject, checking links and rewriting and updating material, whilst the other two managed the running of the subject. This last semester was achieved with little stress, improved engagement with the students and the material, and satisfactory outcomes all round, but it required approximately three times the resources of a face-to-face subject to achieve this.
Incorporating warm bodies
Whilst students generally expressed appreciation for the content, accessibility and flexibility of the subject, they missed the face-to-face contact with the lecturer and other students. In comparing with traditionally taught subjects, one student said, “You can go at your own pace. And if you find something interesting you can go to the link and read up on it”. The student qualified this by adding, ‘It’s just that you can’t talk to anyone about it’. This wistful-sounding comment reflected other students' views about the lack of face-to-face contact. Another talked about missing the stories of people from rural areas who had experiences to share:
don’t have a rural background so I don’t know anything about living in the
[with face-to-face teaching] You make the content live with real examples. And there are country students with real examples and real knowledge about rural health and so they’ve reached a stage by third year where they can contextualise that against theory. Sounding off against each other in class discussion can be really useful.
In response to this feedback, we now have three face-to-face meetings with students per semester. The first is a 'get to know the technology and each other' meeting, where students are allocated to their groups and work with their group on learning to manage the program. This is followed mid-semester by a workshop for the essay-writing component of the assessment. Finally, students meet in their groups at the end of semester to workshop examination questions and carry out an evaluation of the subject. Attendance is not compulsory and comprehensive notes from the sessions are published on WebCT, but most of the students attend nevertheless.
Groupwork is good
Managing the technology
In 2001 evaluations, students and lecturer commented on the difficulties of managing technical online problems. By 2003 only a very small number of technical issues arose as the expertise of lecturers and students improved dramatically.
Have Fun and Don't Panic
We believe strongly that the principles of reflective teaching apply to online subjects as well as to others (Kippen, 2003). The students' evaluations of Rural Health Online indicate that its interest and relevance, the online interaction and the freedom to choose where and when they carry out the work are major strengths of this subject. Student engagement has been demonstrated through the quantity and quality of online postings and the amount of reading carried out. This latter has caused us to ask whether the increased reading done by online students translates into more active engagement with the content, and whether this might not in turn pose the question, "Does the online environment offer improved learning opportunities for the usually superficial learner?" The question does not come within the scope of this paper, but invites further research.