Investigate online learning in higher education

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The aim of this research is to investigate online learning in higher education, especially in OU, and its success. It will look at how traditional universities have adapted to this change in teaching and learning technology, by the introduction of Virtual Learning Environments (VLE's) and also the issues not only affecting technology but also the effect this technology has on both students and Lecturers.

The idea of this 'wireless university' goes back to the 1920's when educationalist J C Stobart pondered over the idea [1]. It was not till the 1960´s that this idea was taken further when a 'College on the air' approach was used to give adult education a new resource by the means of radio and television [2]. This then develop into what is now known as online distance learning 'The Open University'. The introduction and fast growing pace of 'The Open University' among society made this a clear opportunity to introduce all this new advantages in technology to change the traditional teaching and learning approach.

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Before we go any further, there is something that needs to be explained and understood: what is online learning? Online learning is defined as 'a mixture of the different preferred learning methods, delivered to the learner through the use of information technology' [3]. I will give a better inside into this notion in the Literature Review section of this dissertation. This new technology brings both positive and negative views to the way teaching and learning is developed and online learning is becoming the prefer method for people to develop their career or improve their educational interests.

Once this issue is first considered, lots of different questions need to be answered in order to fully understand all the different angles and views from the direct users of this new technology. Some of the questions that may come to anybody using this way of teaching and learning are:

 What are the advantages of courses and modules being put online?

 Are there any benefits to the university or organisation?

 What are the benefits to the students?

 What are the benefits for the lecturer or teacher?

Technology is part of our daily lives and for that reason we are always looking for ways to reassure ourselves that this is an advance in the right direction and that the people it primarily affects will, in the long run, benefit for its advantages. Because of the fast moving pace of the World Wide Web and intranet technology the way we interact and share information is changing, particularly in the education sector with the introduction of personal computers in the 1980's and the introduction of ICT within the National Curriculum For that reason more and more people can gain access to education and it allows Higher education establishments to expand their offer and to introduce this new technology in their courses and modules

This Research aims to be the starting point to answers the following question: How Successful is Online Learning in The Open University?

This study is the process of a long discussion between the author and students from the OU since the progresilly introduction of this new technology by The Open University three years ago. Whilst teaching one of the language courses, the author received information about the Blackboard system and how it was being planned to be used in the future. The author developed an increasingly interest in this new tool that Open University was implementing. Also during a staff development meeting the author became aware of the online learning in general and was interested in how they would be affected.

During the meeting the author came across modules that already incorporated the use of the Blackboard system and this further interested the author. As said in the introduction above there are many areas to online learning. This means that the study of a particular area must be refined for the purpose of this study. With the author teaching languages at Open University and having access to the Blackboard system and regular contact with both staff and students at the University it was decided that the author would look into online learning in Higher Education and in particular within the Open University. This was backed by the change in how modules are taught at the university, and how other changes at the university such as the emphasis on using the Blackboard system, forums, e-mail for more of the basics such as the hand in of assignments and the discussing of topics.

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It is anticipated that this dissertation will differ from other work carried out on this topic area as it will contain primary research which will be based on online learning and the Blackboard system that is being used within the University. This will mean that the author is able to give realistic views and draw clear conclusions on the success of online learning within the OU

The Research aims are:

To investigate the success of higher education online learning in Open University,

The dissertation aims to research in detail the successfulness of online learning in higher education is in the 21st century. It will give the reader a basic understanding of online and electronic learning and how this is transforming higher education at university level. This will include a quick overview and understanding of the history of online learning.

To research how universities have implemented and develop online learning,

This dissertation will look into how The Open University has used online learning to teach their modules to their students.

To investigate online learning courses.

This will involve investigating and understanding the effect of online learning to the students learning using this new technology and the teachers who have to deliver the content of their modules in this way. It will also investigate students' results from this way of learning.

To inform the reader about the issues relating to online learning in Higher Education,

The dissertation will provide the reader with an understanding of issues such as security and quality that has affected online learning in Higher Education.

To look into the future of online in higher education,

The dissertation will considerer the direction online learning will take in the future and what the effect on higher education considering whether this will be a positive improvement for higher education. This will suggest any other areas for further work.

In order to fulfil all the aims of the study, different objectives have to be achieved. These objectives are:

Understand and analyse the following ways of learning: online, blending, open and distance learning,

Analyse the blackboard system used at the Open University

Analyse online based courses at Open University

Understand the pros and cons of online learning in Higher Education,

Analyse the effect and importance of quality and security in online learning,

Compare the author's research with other research in the same area

Literature Review

The purpose of this section is to provide the reader with an understanding of the main issues relating to Online Learning in Higher Education. This section intends to use existing material on the subject area to address the following key areas associated with Online Learning in Higher Education:

Online learning: Definition

History of online learning

Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs)

Pros and cons of Online Learning

Issues affecting online learning

Online learning in the 21st century is not an easy area to be defined. This is due to the usage of online online learning in many different ways by different people From the literature research the most common assumption is that online learning meets the needs of those people where access to conventional education is not appropriate or available, or online learning will act as a supplement in educational institutes, to change the relationships between learners and teachers and aid improvement in learning in our community's.[4]

In particular looking at online learning in higher education institutions, Ryan, Scott, Freeman and Patel refer to the idea of a Virtual University. They explain how the use of 'Communications and Information Technology (CIT) is having a major impact on higher education and, in particular, how the Internet is being (and can be) used to support teaching and learning'. [5]

The rapid expansion and development of the internet has had a clear impact on the way we teach and learn nowadays. As stated above the Internet is the major element in Communication and Information Technology (CIT), Ryan, Scott, Freeman and Patel agree with Stephenson's assumption that the Internet is not only a way of delivering courses to conventional students but also to geographically challenged students.[6]

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They also agree on the impact of Internet on staff and students in ways such as:

Staff incorporate the Web as a resource,

Staff recommend students the use the Web as a resource,

Parts of courses or whole courses are being delivered online (this is researched later on in the dissertation),

Both staff and students are using bulletin boards and e-mail facilities on and off campus. [6]

From further research being carried out it can be said that online learning is an extension of distance learning through the use of the Internet. Liu, Chan, Hung and Lee explain that this type of learning 'Uses the Internet to deliver learning resources and to provide an effective virtual meeting place of e-learners and coaches to interact' [7]. Online learning has an active role in enhancing distance learning and also plays a large role in traditional universities today for example with the introduction of Virtual Learning Environments (VLE's), which incorporate the use of bulletin boards, forums and e-mail facilities mentioned by Ryan, Scott, Freeman and Patel. This introduction of Virtual Learning Environments (VLE's) in traditional universities means that both students and lecturers are 'no longer classroom-bound' [7].

Although these definitions have a positive view of online learning and its use of the Internet to be able to do so, they do not take in to account that online learning could itself just be a tool rather than learning in its own right. This is backed up by Alexander and Boud who argue that 'online learning is, in itself, a misnomer. It is more appropriate to see online learning as a tool or support for learning that will substantially take place offline' [8]. This point of view makes the author consider the way in which we learn and also if online learning is intended to mean modules or courses placed completely online or partially online with the intention that the work will be completed offline by the student.

It is also important when gaining and understanding of online learning to look at the learning process and focus of online learning. In terms of the change from traditional classroom based learning to online learning the focus and learning process take a radical change. In classroom based learning the process is one-to many, this is because the focus is on the lecturer passing the information and knowledge on to the students [9]. Whereas Liu, Chan, Hung and Lee mention that 'Online learning focuses more on the students as information often flows to the students from the system. It appears to be a one-to-one learning environment' [9].

Ryan, Scott, Freeman and Patel's definition and understanding of online learning and the impact the Internet has been reinforce on a definition provided by the European Union (EU), which outlines e-Learning (a form of online learning) as 'the use of information and communication technology, including the Internet, to learn and teach' [10] re-iterating the impact the Internet has on how we teach and learn today, and gives a good definition to base the main focus of this study.

Due to this proposal deadline and the vast literature available on the area of E-learning, the rest of the Literature review relating to the main key areas mentioned above will be dealt with in the Final report of the research.

Research Methodology

This study needs a substantial amount of research, which needs to be planned and carried out in the most appropriate and effective way. It is important to understand how to collect data and ensure that it is relevant to the subject they are accessing by selecting an appropriate approach. The two main approaches to be used in this study are the Qualitative and Quantitative approaches

The qualitative approach is a subjective approach and tries to show that real research cannot be classified with numbers. The qualitative approach allows the author to look at research in more depth and is considered to be richer in detail [12].

Although this approach appears to offer a better detail of research to the author there are limitations to this approach. These limitations are:

The data may be less representative - this could mean that the results from the research may be too general and this will make the results more open to doubt than quantitative.

Interpretation may contain 'self' of the researcher - This is when the author allows their own opinions, background and beliefs to play a role in the creation of the data and results.

Possibility of decontextualising the meaning - This is where the researchers results such as notes, text or images are taken to literally and out of context.

The danger of oversimplifying the explanation - This could lead the author to underplay or leave out detailed information that doesn't quite fit [13].

These limitations could affect this particular research in ways such as the researcher fails to produce enough specialised detail in the subject area or state to many personal opinions, background and beliefs which could bring bias to the final report.

As with any approach there are a number of advantages. The advantages are:

The data is grounded - the data and descriptions that are generated are usually grounded in reality.

Richness and Detail - The data accumulated is more focused and is delved into in great depth.

Tolerance of ambiguity and contradictions - Qualitative research is able to handle this type of uncertainty better than quantitative research.

Prospect of alternative solutions- Allows for more than one explanation as it is open to possibilities [13].

The Quantitative approach uses figures to possibly produce graphs and charts to show the outcomes of research undertaken. Where as the qualitative approach has a subjective approach the quantitative approach is seen as a more objective approach. The majority of researchers prefer this approach as it allows the researcher to remove himself from the area of study and remain objective [14].

Although the quantitative approach seems the more scientific and accurate approach there are a number of disadvantages that must be considered by the researcher:

Quality of data - the result data is only as good as the method used to get that data.

Data overload - The analysis may become to complex if the researcher does not take care when collecting large volumes of data.

False promise - Decisions can be seen as far out from the results that actually emerge.

Technicist - A researcher becomes obsessed with the techniques used to conduct the analysis rather than the issues that were set to carry out the research [15].

This approach also has a number of strong advantages. These are:

Scientific - This approach allows statistical data to be obtained by the researcher

Presentation - Because figures are produced by undertaking this type of approach then charts and graphs can be produced to present clearly the findings. This way of presenting data can be used as an effective way of communicating the findings.

Analysis - Large amounts of quantitative data can be analysed quickly using this approach.

Measurement - Analysing quantitative data can provide a good foundation for further analysis or descriptive reasons [15].

After looking at both approaches it is clear that in order to carry out this study successfully and obtain the results required to answer the main question aspects of both approaches will be used within the research methods selected. Quantitative data will provide actual figures that can be displayed in graphs and charts in order to be analysed and clearly show results. Whereas qualitative will give opinions and views on this topic which could be used to show in more detail peoples responses and also show the areas of research for future.

In order to collect the data required for this study the following research options have been considered:

 Questionnaires,

 Interviews,

 and Observation,

After serious consideration about the different research methods mention , the chosen one will be questionnaires. The questionnaire method has been selected as it allows the researcher to collect a large amount of data in a short amount of time, which is ideal for this particular project as it is restricted to particular deadlines. Questionnaires also allow for the collection of both qualitative and quantitative data as they allow for both open and closed questions to be asked. The final reason for selecting questionnaires is that there is little pressure on the participant because they do not feel under the pressure that they may have experienced in an interview. This will allow them to take their time and complete the questionnaire at their own pace and in their own environment.

Although questionnaires have been selected as the chosen research method it should still be justified why the other research methods were not chosen. Firstly interviews must be well organised and structured so that the research can gain the most information from the participant in the allocated time. This particular idea of having a well structured interview technique and the time to conduct the interviews were the main reasoning behind this particular research method not being selected. The researcher also does not have any prior knowledge of interview techniques and more importantly time is not on the researcher's side in order for techniques to be researched and learnt and enough time to be allocated to setting up the interview and then conducting the interview.

The final research method observation was not chosen either because in order to find the information and data needed to make conclusions and answer the question of the study observation was not appropriate as the researcher would be unable to asses whether a person was satisfied with the features of online learning. Also the author would not be able to successfully conclude whether online learning was a success without having to approach a potential participant, which is not the correct technique for conducting observational research.

Reynolds (1979, p65) states, "Ethics refer to the rules of conduct when using human research participants". For this study it is important that before research begins, informed written consent is received from every participant within the study. This ensures that the participants fully understand the aims of the study and that the information they provide will be used only within the analysis of the study, and that they may withdraw from the project at any time. Encumber (203) agrees that consent in writing acts as a way of formally recording the agreement to participate and confirming that the participant has been informed about the research. Throughout the project informed consent is not a one-off event, but rather a dynamic and subtle process (Martin, 2004).

Confidentiality is also a major ethical issue when working in a study like this therefore out of respect for their privacy, confidentiality will be promised in the consent form. This may also add validity to the research findings as people may be more honest knowing their contributions are confidential. To ensure confidentiality, participants will not be asked to identify themselves on the questionnaire. The questionnaire will be kept strictly confidential and will be only available to the researcher. Statements (if needed) made may be used as part of the final research report, but under no circumstances will names or any identifying characters be included.

Data Analysis

It is important to consider how the data will be analysed once the questionnaire has been designed and distributed for its completion. One of the main issues to consider is that the data should be analysed in a way that can be presented in this study.

For that reason and after an exhaustive investigation into the tools that could be used to analyse the results from the questionnaire, it was decided that the most available and well know to the researcher was Microsoft Excel. Within Microsoft Excel all the data can be imputed as it is received and the information is easily updated. The the charts and graphs wizard can be used to create graphical material to display the results. This particular option of being able to display the results graphically is the main reason behind this particular tool being chosen as it will allow to breakdown the results by different scenarios, for example by age, gender or degree course.

[1] The Open University website http://www.open.ac.uk/about/ou/p3.shtml The Early Years, The idea starts with the BBC accessed on 04/07/2010.

[2]The Open University website http://www.open.ac.uk/about/ou/p3.shtml The Early Years, Aresponse to the problem of exclusion accessed on 04/07/2010.

[3] The Oxford E-Learning website http://www.oxford-elearning.com/demo/elearningcourse/ accessed on 05/07/2010.

[4] Stephenson, J (2001), Teaching and Learning Online: pedagogies for New Technologies, UK, Kogan Page Limited, ISBN 0-7494-3511-9

[5] Ryan, S, Scott, B, Freeman, H, Patel, D, (2000), The Virtual University: The Internet and Resource-Based Learning, Page 2, Kogan Page Limited, ISBN 0-7494-2508-3

[6] Ryan, S, Scott, B, Freeman, H, Patel, D, (2000), op. cit.,

[7] Liu, J, Chan, S, Hung, A and Lee, R, editors: Jain, L.C, Howlett, R.J, Ichalkaranje, N.S, Tonfoni, G, (2002), Virtual Environments for Teaching and Learning: Vol 1, World Scientific Publishing Co.Pte, LTD, ISBN 981-238-167-8, Page 76

[8] Stephenson, J (2001), op. cit,. page 1

[9] Liu, J, Chan, S, Hung, A and Lee, R, (2002), op. cit,. page 78

[10] European Commission, Elearning: Designing Tomorrows Education, http://europa.eu.int/comm/publications/booklets/others/03/txt_en.pdf accessed on 04/06/10

[11] Clark, R, Mayer, R.E, (2003), e-Learning: and the Science of Instruction, Page 12, Jossey-Bass / Pfeiffer, ISBN 0-7879-6051-9

[12] Haralambos M & Holborn M (2004), Sociology: Themes and Perspectives, 6th Edition UK,Harper Collins Publishers Ltd, ISBN 000-715447-X

[13] Denscombe M, (2003), The Good Research Guide: for small-scale social research projects, 2nd Edition, Page 280, Open University Press, ISBN 0-335-21303-0

[14] Dunsmuir A & Williams L (1992), How To Do Social Research, UK, Unwin Hyman Ltd, ISBN 0-00-322242-X

[15] Denscombe M, (2003), op. cit,. page 264

[16] Burns, R,B (2000), Introduction to Research Methods, Page 571, Pearson Education Ltd, ISBN 0-761-96593-9

[17] Denscombe M, (2003), op. cit,. page 163