MIRROR, MIRROR ON THE WALL: A REPLICATION STUDY OF STUDENT PERCEPTIONS REGARDING MOTIVATING AND INHIBITING FACTORS IN DISTANCE LEARNING
Mary I. Dereshiwsky
Any learning experience critically depends on "the eye of the beholder" in terms of how it is perceived by the learner. Student perceptions regarding their instructional experience are frequently an unpredictable mix of past experiences, expectations and their own readiness for success.
Along with perceptions come motivations to persist and excel. Such motivating factors may be both facilitating and inhibiting.
The Web-based instructional environment adds the element of novelty to the mix. Technologically mediated instruction is still relatively new. As such, some students face the challenge of adaptation to change, as well as possibly inappropriate expectations and comparisons to the traditional brick-and-mortar face-to-face instructional environment.
What are the types of student motivators, both facilitating and inhibiting, perceived by learners in a Web-based doctoral level research design course? This study is a replication of the research conducted by Linda Peters (2001). In this study, she categorized such emergent student motivators into the following five general categories: 1) issues of computer access; 2) issues of computer skills; 3) issues of computer hardware; 4) issues of time management; and 5) issues of personal contact. These factors were shared with students in an asynchronous discussion designed to elicit their perceptions of such factors, both positive and negative, as well as any additional emergent factors they felt were salient to their online instructional experience.
Methods and Procedures
The study sample consisted of ten doctoral education majors enrolled in an all-Web-based required course in research design at Northern Arizona University (NAU). All students enrolled in this course agreed to participate in the study.
The instructor created asynchronous discussion folders for the purpose of the study. At the start of each week, she invited the students to post their reactions to one of the preceding five factors. She added a sixth open-ended grounded theory discussion item, "Are there any other factors, either positive or negative, which I have not yet asked you about but which you believe are relevant to your online instructional experience?" This final grounded theory discussion item allowed for the emergence of unanticipated, yet salient, factors as perceived by the study subjects.
The students were informed that all responses are valid and valued, be they positive or negative. Furthermore, while a new discussion topic (factor) was introduced at the start of each week, students were welcome to continue posting on a discussion topic even after the week was over, and until the official end of the course.
Findings and Results
Results will be summarized for each factor (discussion topic) below.
Factor #1: Computer Access
Three students felt that computer access, in and of itself, was not a key issue. They felt that in the current information age, access was readily available at some location, be it home or school. However, as one student cautioned, " we are probably a self-selecting population. We wouldnt opt for a web-class if we didnt have convenient access." As another stated, "I would be ruined if I did not have my own computer or access to the Internet anywhere else besides the NAU lab."
However, the above belief was counter-balanced by two students living in remote locations. They bemoaned the unreliability of dependable computer connectivity at such remote sites and felt it was a hindrance to their continued successful engagement in online study.
Interestingly, opinions as to whether home or school connections were better were split. Some students applauded the convenience of studying at a home computer: "its great being able to go to class in pajamas via the Web," as one subject put it. However, others experienced faster and more reliable connections at the work place. Students also praised the ability to stay connected to ones class even while traveling for work or personal reasons.
Surprisingly, a couple of subjects chose to discuss other factors, such as time management, problems with procrastination, and the desire to have synchronous chat sessions to reinforce understanding of the research material.
Factor #2: Computer Skills
Four students characterized their computing skills as being adequate: " proficient, but not outstanding," in the words of one respondent. These students felt comfortable in navigating the Web generally, as well as copying and pasting text content into asynchronous posting areas in the course room. In general, students also felt that computer skills get better with time and practice. They were able to compare how far they have come in these areas and to appreciate how much more proficient they currently feel in these basic skills.
Three subjects would have, in their own words, been lost without having a support person: i.e., a computer-savvy spouse or a helpful lab aide. One of them recounted a recent horror story in having to switch computers and spend over an hour re-opening a transferred file with her husbands help. "I must say a prayer for those whose computer knowledge is not quite where my husbands is, though I believe sheer stubbornness will get you pretty far." Another student whimsically mused, "Has anyone met a user-friendly manual yet?"
In their responses to this factor, a number of students referred to issues of server crashes, unreliable dial-ups and related problems with computer hardware. They did not seem to perceive this computer skills factor as being separate and apart from the above other technological issues.
Factor #3: Issues of Computer Hardware
Students spoke of their need to be versatile in this regard: to be able to work on a variety of different computers at home and at work and in the computer labs, and often with mixed results. Typically, they found themselves preferring one type of computer to another, and yet at the same time not having the luxury of getting to work on that particular computer for all of their course work.
Another student bemoaned having to work on outdated equipment at school"dinosaurs," as she put itwith the attendant slow transfer speeds. Once again, as with the preceding two technological factors, speed and reliability of connections, as well as having a knowledgeable and user-friendly support person accessible, were mentioned.
As with the first computer access factor, one student felt that hardware per se was not a key motivating or inhibiting factor in and of itself. "The hardware neither motivates nor detracts. For me it is like the pen and paper I take to a standard class. As long as it works, it is not an issue. If the pen works and the paper does not get lost, Im happy. It is the same with the hardware. If it works and I can get my work done, Im happy. Sorry, no rich details from me on this one, it just seems to be a non issue for me."
Factor #4: Issues of Time Management
In contrast to the three preceding technology factors, this issue generated more than twice as much engagement and discussion on the part of the study subjects. In addition, as will become apparent below, students also chose to discuss related issues of personal contact (Factor #5) in conjunction with time management issues.
Proper planning and self-discipline were repeatedly mentioned as must-have student practices. Otherwise, according to the respondents, the danger of missing important announcements, procrastination, and getting behind loomed large. Several students mentioned that they have a set time of day, such as early morning, during which they have disciplined themselves to log in to their course.
On the plus side, the convenience of flexible, individual self-pacing was seen as a major strength of online learning. "This is a very unique setting and I feel that it allows individuals to perform at their best because they have some major flexibility in when research is done, what time of the day it is done, what is worn when doing research, what food or drink items are consumed, when breaks are taken, etc."
One student noted the variation that exists among different Web-based and Web-enhanced courses. She observed that issues of individual course format, layout and instructor expectations were significantly related to this overall issue of time management.
Nevertheless, several students felt a bit of disorientation and the pervasive feeling of having missed something major in terms of a due date or similar expectation, due to not having the more traditional face-to-face verbal reminder of whats due.
With regard to this disembodied nature of interaction, one respondent strikingly put it directly to the instructor in this way: "So Dr. D: How does it feel for you? You dont get a chance to see our little smiley faces or those of us who may be snoozing in the back of the class at 10:30 a.m Im a touchy feely type person and realize I have missed knowing my classmates in the third dimension."
A couple of respondents missed the face-to-face interaction. They also wondered whether all coursework could be similarly accommodated to all-online formats or whether some traditional residency requirements with face-to-face instruction should continue to be built into programs of study. "How strange it is to consider that [physicians] can be trained completely online. I must wonder how much credence is given to a doctoral degree obtained online. Do you think they get employed?" Another student shared an example of " a brilliant surgeon who coaches other physicians in orthoscopic medicine via visual conferencing."
Factor #5: Issues of Personal Contact
As seen in the preceding time-management discussion, this humanistic factor was a big area of focus for study subjects. Opinions were consistently split down the middle with regard to whether Web courses are facilitating or inhibiting on this issue.
On the one hand, respondents applauded the flexibility of pacing made possible by Web courses, and how this impacts their participation in the course. "I think the anonymity offered by online courses is a plus," one student shared. "The cyber classroom lacks the usual trappings that may occur in a traditional classthe judgments that may be made by observing and listening to others." According to another student, "I feel that the loss of personal contact in a cyber course is far outweighed by the ability to speak freely at my own pace and without any interruption. I can give more thought to what I have to say and how I want to say it." In addition, Web-based interaction " adds an air of mystery and curiosity. And isnt curiosity the big force behind our research?"
However, on the minus side, the majority of students also bemoaned the loss of face-to-face personal interaction. One of them noted the loss of body language and voice inflections as additional channels of communication. As vividly observed by another student respondent, "It upsets me to know that I could pass any one of my cybermates on campus at NAU and we would not realize that we know each other." "My father once told me that college has several purposes, one of them being making connections that will last a lifetime, both personal and in general networking it would be nice to associate a name with a face," replied another student.
A key moderating factor in whether personal contact was seen as a minus or plus, according to several students, was the communication style of the instructor. They felt that if the instructor created clear course expectations, and modeled a comfortable and facilitative open style of communication in all online interactions, this made for a positively balanced learning experience. Study subjects also expressed concerns about incoming college freshmen not being ready for all online course work, and their opinion that some courses should have face-to-face components at all levels.
Other Emergent Factors
As mentioned earlier, the researcher created a final posting area for students to bring up any additional motivating or inhibiting factors. This created an emergent grounded-theory opportunity for subjects to share salient issues not already discussed.
Interestingly, this final discussion-topic yielded additional discussion of pros and cons mentioned earlierparticularly with regard to human relations issues.
At the same time, respondents also reiterated concerns about missing something such as key due dates.
The preceding results suggest a number of conclusions and recommendations:
Peters 2001 article takes its title from a student feeling like Alice falling through the looking glass when it came to online learning. To stretch this analogy, the "mirror, mirror" title of this study reflects (yes, pun intended) the importance of self-awareness in terms of ones motivations re: the online classroom experience. Prior awareness and preparation, by both students and instructors, can indeed help tip the balance of motivating factors in the direction of maximally positive learner productivity.
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