Online Learning With An In Depth Analysis Education Essay

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In present days the way we teach and learn is changing radically. Internet's rapid growth and development has had a distinct impact on teaching and learning today. Personal computers (PC) and advances in online learning have allowed recent features of the World Wide Web (WWW) to be used in the educational sector. These features are known as integrated systems and called Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs), which were particularly noticed in the educational sector and especially in Higher Education (HE).

For many years Brunel University implemented its U-Link system into its traditional way of teaching. To determine whether it's a success or a failure, the views and opinions of the students have been collected through a questionnaire and analyzed to show current the situation and the potential impact in the future.


I would like to thank my supervisor Dr. Kevin Lu and Dr. Nandish Patel for all of his wise words, support and guidance during my final year project. Finally, I would like to give a special thanks to my girlfriend for being supportive and encouraging while finishing my dissertation and my friends who have supported me throughout my time at university, and have motivated me during my hardest times.

Table of Contents


Aim 3

Objectives 3


Online and Distance Learning 4

Analysis of U-Link Web Based System (VLE) 4

Quality and Security of VLE's. 5

Author research compare to research already done. 6


Overview 7

Qualitative Approach 7

Quantitative Approach 8

Approach Choice 8

Research Options 8

Questionnaires 8


Chapter 1 - Introduction

1.1. Introduction

This research investigates Online Learning with an in-depth analysis of Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) at Brunel University and determines its success or failure as learning and teaching tool for students and teachers. It will focus on how traditional (campus based) universities have adopted to this advance in technology, by introducing this system, and also the issues that not only affect technology but also the affect this particular technology has had both on students and teachers.

The idea of "virtual university" dates back to the 1926 when J. C. Stobart wrote a memo, while working for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). No further action was taken until the late 1960's when a "Collage on the air" approach was used to provide adult education by means of radio and television which gave leeway to the more commonly known online distance learning and today's institute of "The Open University". (, 2011).

Then the most important question is what is online learning? Online learning is defined by Anderson as:

"It is the use of the Internet to access learning materials; to interact with the content, instructor, and other learners; and to obtain support during the learning process, in order to acquire knowledge, to construct personal meaning, and to grow from the learning experience" (Anderson, 2009).

The definition is looked at more in the Literature Review section of this paper. As more and more people use online materials to help them improve their skills, educational interests and further their career, there are both positive and negative aspects of the way people learn. Therefore research is primarily towards students at the University, and questions that first come to any person affected by this way of learning are:

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

What are the benefits to the university?

What are the benefits to students?

Because of the fast moving pace of WWW, and internet technology, the way we interrelate and share information is changing, particularly in the educational sector with the introduction of personal computers in 1980's. This move opened the way for education to reach more people and allows higher educational institutions to offer more possibilities to a wider spectrum of customers; in this case, students.

1.1. Aims and Objectives

Aims of this dissertation are:

To investigate if online learning has a positive or negative impact in higher education.

Aim to research in detail how positive or negative online learning is in higher education in the 21st century. It will equip the reader with the basic knowledge of online and electronic learning and how it is affecting university level education, and will include history and overview of VLEs.

To make issues relating to VLEs at University level clear to the reader.

In this part, the reader will get in-depth knowledge on issues regarding security and quality that has affected online learning at the University.

To investigate the future for online learning in higher education

Further work and which direction online learning is going to take, and what impact it will have on higher education.

To be able to achieve those aims, the objectives of the research must be accomplished.

The Dissertation's Objectives are:

Understand and analyze online learning.

Analyse the U-Link system used at Brunel University

Analyse benefits and pitfalls of VLEs in higher education

Analyse the affects and importance of quality and security of online learning at University

Compare author's research with existing materials relating to online learning in Higher Education.

1.2 Dissertation Structure

In order to provide the reader with a clear understanding of the Dissertation a chapter structure, layout and brief summary has been drawn up:

Chapter 1 - Introduction

Introduction and reasons for the research, its aim and objectives.

Chapter 2 - Literature Review

Review of existing materials on the subject area to address key areas associated with Online Learning in Higher Education. It will provide the reader with a clear understanding of the issues and aspects that relate to this chosen topic.

Chapter 3 - Research Methodology

The author will look into a different range of research methods used to conduct research and the choice of research method that will also contain the advantages and disadvantages that justifies the chosen method. In this chapter, the author will include any issues regarding the designing of particular questionnaire for students at the university. It will include as well issues that arise during this process and how the author intends to overcome these problems.

Chapter 5 - Data Analysing

Information that had been recorded from the questionnaire will be detailed in this chapter along with graphical illustrations of that data obtained. Relevant explanations of the results will also be included.

Chapter 6 - Discussion

Data analyzed in the previous chapter will help draw conclusions on how online learning affects students in higher education.

Chapter - Conclusion

Final chapter of this Dissertation will contain the conclusions that have been drawn from research undertaken and the results that have been extracted from this research. This chapter will fulfil the authors' objectives that were originally outlined.

1.3 Summary of the Structure

Individual chapters have been identified by the style of a dissertation which is a research dissertation. The author believed that this particular structure of the flow is best suited for this dissertation and would allow the reader to follow the progression of the dissertation easily. Particular chapters have also been chosen because they allow the author to display all the potential outcomes from all possible areas of research to be conducted and to answer the question of success or failure of online learning in higher education.

Chapter 2 - Literature Review

2.0. Overview.

This section provides reader with a clear understanding of the issues and aspects that relate to the topic of online learning in higher education. In this section the author uses existing materials on the subject area to address key issues related with online education, and will look at this learning in the past, present and potential routes for the future.

2.1. What is online learning?

From researching many sources the most relevant assumption of e-learning is that online learning will meet the needs of people whose access to conventional education is not appropriate or available, or 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 (Stephenson 2001.) Freeman et, al. introduced the idea of "Virtual University" and explained it as:

"Communication 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"

The rapid growth and development of the Internet is the major element in Communication and Information Technology (CIT). Ryan et. al. agreed with Stephenson's assumption that the Internet is not only the way of delivering courses to conventional students but also to geographically challenged students. They also agreed that the Internet has impacted staff and students on campus in ways such as:

Staff are incorporating the Web as a resource,

Staff are guiding students to use the Web as a resource,

Parts of courses or whole courses are being delivered online which is researched later in the dissertation,

Both staff and students are using bulletin boards and e-mail facilities on and off campus (Freeman et. al. 2000)

E-Learning continues to play 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 (VLEs), which incorporate the use of bulletin boards and e-mail facilities mentioned by Freeman et. al. This introduction of VLE's in traditional universities means that both students and lecturers are "no longer classroom - bound" (Chang, Hung and Lee 2002.) Alexander and Bound 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". 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 assumption that the work will be completed offline by the student.

2.2 History of online learning

The first ever online courses started with command - line systems which required patience and some skills. They were not designed with novice users in mind. Nowadays, online courses are designed to reach many different people with a wide range of skills and knowledge. As Clarke and Mayer have observed "sensing the economic potential of marrying education and the Internet, a variety of sites have recently sprung up". Open University (which is a distance learning based University) over the past 2 years has seen an overall increase in university intake, who missed out or did not have the opportunity to gain a higher education (Open University 2011). With that potential and the popularity of this type of university, the idea of expanding this kind of learning will continue and will be discussed further in later stages of this dissertation.

The introduction of personal computers and advances into distance learning allowed new features of the web to be used in the education sector. These features are also known as integrated systems, for example Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs).

2.3 Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs)

Virtual Learning Environments are learning management software systems that synthesise the functionality of a computer - mediated communications software (e-mail, bulletin boards, news - groups etc.) and set of teaching and learning tools designed to enhance a student's learning process (e.g. WWW), (Britan and Liber 2000). Brunel University adopted a Blackboard VLE, which allows many features for course delivery. These features are not only restricted to the Blackboard system but they are available on the other VLEs that are in existence today. These features include student, tutor and designer features (Freeman et. al. 2000). As students log into their VLE account, they are offered features such as:

Below is a basic layout for Brunel University VLEs Web Based System

Course content, which include materials for specific course and specific module,

Discussion board which is a form of online communication where students can post their questions or comments onto online discussion board which can be accessed by other students and teachers,

Announcements where tutors post important information regarding courses, or specific schools to which students belong to send information regarding school or university,

Assignments where teachers post theirs coursework questions, a submission deadline, and grade after work has been checked,

Calendar - basic calendar with specific deadlines for the specific module,

Chat - live chat where students and teachers can communicate if they are online,

Discussion -gateway for students and their tutors regarding any sort of problem with a course, coursework questions and general topic based communication tool between both parties,

Mail - personalized for each module mail system between school and students,

Web links - important links to module related information and additional reading and software download pages (Brunel University, 2011).

Every teacher and every student can freely change font and colour, and hide some of the links on the main page, but the most important feature of this system is a designer feature. This allows the designer to assist in the production of online modules by having hidden activities that can affect the usefulness and robustness which both allow the look and feel of the VLEs to change to fit the requirements of the module or course (Freeman et. al., 2000). All the functions identified above are very important for both students and teachers so is important to understand the role VLEs plays in terms of offering flexibility to higher education for students and teacher in areas of:





Exit (Inglis, Ling and Joosten, 2002).

The introductions of VLEs have made online learning flexible in above areas. Place and time are no longer important, people can learn at home or at work or elsewhere because of the availability, of the materials as long as they have an Internet connection and tools to access it. Having materials available almost 24/7 provides the opportunity to work at anytime that best suits them. Entry and exit to a course can also be made flexible by VLEs as it can incorporate pre-tests for entry to a course and it can also show the course materials in advance so the student can make a decision on how far they need to go in a course to attain the level they wish.

2.4 Benefits and Pitfalls of online learning

With the advances in technology there are numbers of benefits and pitfalls where the technology does not meet the requirements. Especially in online learning environment it has its benefits and pitfalls. Cifuentes and Yu-Chih verified that "online educational environments stimulate learners to dig for information and practical examples thus more efficiently meeting educational objectives by making the learner the centre of the educational experience". On the other hand Cifuentes and Yu-Chih (2001) summarize the major drawbacks of online learning as technical challenges; such as, technical failure, constraints of e-mail that include sending diagrams or pictures, and the time involved. In addition, dependence on an unresponsive partner can cause frustration in a learner, leading to a sense of detachment. He also states that in chat rooms, good typists can monopolize the conversation, and protocols need to be learned by other users or they could become overwhelmed, in addition conversation can be interrupted due to other students asking questions. Therefore Taylor "considers online learning as an excellent mean where student uses memorisation and analytical skills or evaluation skill to uncover solutions. A pitfall linked with this way of learning is that any module or course that is trying to change a student's attitude does not work well online. (Taylor, 2002).

VLEs may not be the most innovative educational technology available to use, but it is one of the most common, with 86% of respondents from the United Kingdom Higher Education institutions reporting the presence of a VLE in their establishment (OECD, 2005). As well as analysing the general advantageous and disadvantageous aspects of VLEs, there is a lot of literature concerning the actual facilitators and inhibitors of VLEs. A facilitator is a launch pad or catalyst, where someone or something has aided or lifted online learning to new platform, whereas inhabitations are known as the barriers to this way of learning. "Environmental, cultural, technological, personal attitude and business driven facilitators", those are the main facilitators, whereas the main inhibitors are classified as: "environment, technology and infrastructure, personal characteristics, cost and resources", (Chan, Hung and Lee, 2002).

To summarize this part of the literature review there are a few benefits and a few pitfalls listed by different researchers. Inglis, Ling and Joosten clearly summarize how knowledge media (online learning) offers opportunities to deliver courses in ways that can be:



Better" (Inglis, Ling and Joosten, 2002).

At the beginning there is an initial expense from university, in order to set up the functionality of VLEs but within time the university will save money in areas such as: administration, marketing and communication. The second potential benefit is speed. Students and teachers are able to download or upload information related with specific module or course onto VLEs anytime in any place with the simple requirements of a PC and an Internet connection. Finally, the idea of having better learning from introduction of this type of learning is meant in terms of quality of education for student through the multimedia options that are made available from this adaptation in learning. Because of the new ways that materials can be displayed to the student, online learning has the ability to present materials in different ways including video, animation and also the option to interact more as a group (through discussion board and chat) which can be lost in the lecture.

To summarize this part of research, all of the above benefits show that VLEs, if administrated correctly has a potential to successfully offer low cost, easy access and better quality courses to make it a successful education tool.

2.5 Issues regarding online learning

Review of the literature indicate the advantages and disadvantages of e-learning, the author obtained the basic knowledge and understanding of online learning, particularly in higher education. As Furnell and Karweni stated, main threats the HE institutions companies could face are:

"Malicious software such as viruses, worms and Trojan Horses,

Hacking and denial of service attacks,

Masquerading and spoofing

Fraud, data theft and malicious damage (Furnell and Karweni, 2001).

Above threads are relevant to any Internet based organization especially to University where in particular online data available for students and teachers could face any of the above risks. Furnell and Karweni discussed that there is a need for some sort of security solution structure which could include:

Access control - every student and teacher would be equipped with a unique username and password, and log in screen access is controlled dependent on their course or module.

Communication security - all data encryption should be safe on whole network and in all communication between students and teachers.

Authentication and accountability - to make sure that students registered for a specific course have access to just that specific course and importantly when students take an online exam, the registered student is the person who undertakes the exam. (Furnell and Karweni, 2001).

Security is becoming more and more necessary within education today, as stated in the above literature. As well as security, another issue affecting online learning is cost. The actual cost of administering online learning can be expensive but can in turn be viewed as an investment because "Coursework has a value that last for several years. Courseware should therefore be seen as an asset" (Inglis, Ling and Joosten, 2002). Although this seems straightforward there are a number of factors that must be taken into account in order for the courseware to be a good asset. These factors include marketing, up to date courseware and systems. These issues will mainly fall on the shoulders of the teachers, since they will have to make sure that the material that they are teaching is up to date and still relevant. They must ensure that they market their module well so as to attract the students.

So far, in this part somewhat negative issues were discussed, how they affect online learning. Although these issues are important and must be addressed it is also important to examine issues such as the driving forces for online learning. Driving forces are defined as "key external pressures that will shape the future for the organization" (McNamee, 1999). In terms of online learning the specific driving forces outlined by Chan et. al. Are:

"Increased complexity and rate of change the working environment due to technological changes,

High cost of the traditional training methods,

Life-long learning requirements,

Trade off between self-development and work productivity" (Chan et. al. 2002).

These driving forces show clearly that the universities are currently facing pressure to keep up with changes in culture and society. This particular issue has an important role in online learning, because if there was no demand (power) then it would firstly not be successful and secondly there would be no future for it. As well as issues that are considered to be obvious, less than obvious issues such as learning styles must be addressed. People have many different ways of learning and this has to be taken into consideration when making a course or module available online."Research suggests the most effective learning occurs when courses are designed to appeal to various learning styles" (Burd and Buchanan, 2004). With the introduction of online learning in traditional universities a new style of teaching will need to be adopted if the online learning is to be successful. In reviews of learning styles it is clear that "in a face - to - face classroom, this traditionally involves developing a pedagogy that may include lecture, active learning exercises, and experimental learning" (Burd and Buchanana, 2004).

This shows that all the people who interact with online learning need to be open and willing to adopt their way of learning so as to gain the most from this learning tool. Finally, the problem with enthusiasm must be reviewed. This is because as well as issues on how to teach using this new tool lecturers must actually want to teach and be passionate enough to carry it off. As clarified by Burd and Buchanan "online learning is most successful when individuals are enthusiastic about teaching and learning in this medium and willing to take risks to learn to communicate effectively employing the available technology" (Burd and Buchanana, 2004). This statement also shows that the learner must be enthusiastic about this change to the way they are learning. This means that to gain the most success for online learning both parties must want this change and be willing to adapt accordingly.

2.6. Future of online learning.

After gaining an understanding of online learning and looking at issues that may affect its success the next step in this process is to consider the future of online learning. As stated by Allan Henderson online learning in particular e-learning "will become richer and richer over time so that students will get closer and closer to the richness of a face - to -face learning experience" (Henderson , 2003). This statement is becoming more and more valid as advances in technology allow teachers to use more multimedia to reach out to their students. The only problem that could affect this statement is that if the lecturer produces too much virtual effects and spectacular multimedia then this will distract the student from actually learning the materials (Henderson, 2003). As with any advance in technology, in particular in education there is the opportunity of advantages to both students and teachers. These advantages summarized by Henderson include the possibility of getting cheaper, improving accessibility and availability due to more and more online systems interconnecting. Finally, the fact that courses produced online have the potential to further improve online learning and to be more simple and easier to manage (Henderson, 2003).

Success in the future of online learning may be determined by many factors. Howard, Schenk and Discenza back this statement up by explaining "the most important factors for future success will be the quality and talent of the instructors and their commitment to excellence in learning" (Howard, Schenk and Discenza, 2004). This also shows the author that in order for online learning to be a success in the future then the people involved in this, (for example the lecturers and the university themselves) need to be welcoming and adapt to this change in how education is distributed. Therefore the success does not only lie with the lecturers but also with the students themselves. It is expected that "regular students will opt for distance participation in some of their courses, not only because it is convenient, but also because they perceive no loss of quality (Howard, Schenk and Discenza, 2004). At this time and more prominently in the future, the competition for students is coming to the forefront of university issues. With the introduction of the new way of teaching and learning, which is seen as a tool that is more accessible to more people, then marketing a university on this could be its most valuable asset. Making these changes now could give a university the future it needs to succeed as underpinned by Howard, Schenk and Discenza as they explain that "ultimately, the fundamental changes that could ensure the future success of university and college level institutions may well have to come from the accreditation agencies in realising that we are evolving in a competitive marketplace and that it is their role to ensure that the consumer has access to the information needed to make fair market decisions" (Howard, Schenk and Discenza, 2004).

2.7. Summary of the Literature Review

In summary, this chapter has looked at some of many areas of literature that are available on the subject of online learning. This particular literature review has provided an overview of online learning, including looking at past and present, as well as online learning benefits and pitfalls to this particular advance in technology. This literature review has also looked into a particular part of online learning in more detail; the introduction of Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) and how that has been integrated into higher education institutes, as a example of U-Link Web based System at Brunel University. Even though VLEs have been around for a number of years and some universities have embraced this advance, it is still clear to the author that there are quite a few universities that have not taken on the full impact and are still only moving slowly towards using this advance in the way education is delivered (Maccoll, 2001). The actual delivering of education through these systems offers the opportunity to not only deliver instruction but " it also involves the creation of the type of environment in which the full range of academic, administrative and support needs of thee learner are met" (Inglis, Ling and Joosten, 2002). Thus meaning that the students will be receiving more than just lecturer notes but opportunity to discuss the notes and receive support from numerous lecturers and other students. Also from this review it is clear that online learning holds "the promise of delivering education and training more effectively by providing students with a much richer environment in which to learn" (Inglis, Ling and Joosten, 2002). This way of learning has many advantages and as explained in the above statement it also has the potential to give students a little bit more out of their education. The literature from this study has also explained to the author that online learning is complex and that people learn in many different ways. This means that although online learning may seem automated, it cannot be... "rather, there has to be a right balance and integrity of pedagogy, technology and innovation", (Lie et. al., 2002). Related to this area in online learning, the author has also been able to summarise that online learning changes the roles of the teacher and learner and "promotes student - centred, active learning in which the individual becomes largely responsible for his or her own learning while the teacher is responsible for presenting multiple opportunities for processing information and assisting students in the creation of the knowledge" (Burd and Buchanana, 2004). This is not the complete role reversal but is an issue that is prominent throughout the research into online learning.

It can be concluded that this literature review provides a clear starting point for the dissertation and now allows the author to look in more details at this particular topic and research methodology. It has also shown the author how successful online learning could be, but much consideration must be given to how it is implemented and the issues affecting it since this could affect its success.

Chapter 3 - Research Methodology

3.1. Introduction.

In-depth analysis of the research topic led to the decision of choosing a quantitative study as the main data collection method. As a result, an experimental questionnaire was designed and provided a very interesting and useful output. This chapter of the paper firstly explains the research philosophy and strategy and then, presents survey designs. Finally, it demonstrates limitations and ethics.

3.2. Research Philosophy.

This particular method approach is preferred by majority of researchers as it allows the researcher to remove himself from the area of study and remain objective (Dunsmuir and Williams, 1992). With the use of figures there will be possibility to produce graphs and charts to show outcomes of the research.

3.4. Research.

………. Questionnaires were distributed both online and offline. ………… were completed and returned back, however …….. were filled up incorrectly by not answering all questions. All in all, ……… questionnaires were correctly answered and the response rate achieved was ……%.

Offline, the questionnaires were collected in the Brunel University next to two Polish shops. Respondents and questionnaires' versions were chosen randomly. Online, the service Survey Monkey was used to collect data from respondents as well.

All subjects were informed that the survey was anonymous, as no personal data would be collected. What is more, they were assured that they could stop filling up the questionnaire if they felt unable to proceed or they were uncomfortable with answering any of the questions. Respondents filled questionnaires out personally to make them feel more anonymous and comfortable. Some participants could not finish the survey by themselves due to the language barrier and the writer had to help them by translating questions that were not understood.

3.5. Ethics.

An ethics form was prepared and presented to and accepted by the author's tutor, Dr. Kevin Lu. The following issues that might be affecting this research ethics were identified:

Collecting low quality secondary data. Academic practices were employed while collecting secondary data. The researcher paid careful attention to the quality and credibility of material used in this project

Infringement of respondents' right to voluntary participation and the right to stop taking part in the process at any time. Respondents were informed about their right before participating in the research.

Privacy of actual participants. No private data was collected in aim to make it easier for the researcher to keep the study ethical. Furthermore, participants were completing online questionnaires by themselves so the completed form could not be associated with anybody.

Lack of consent. Implied consent was applied throughout the whole process of research and data analysis. Implied consent was employed in questionnaire survey.

Creation of harm, stress, discomfort, pain and harm feeling. Non-malfeasance (avoidance of harm) approach was employed in order to prevent any ethical problems. Additionally, it was a priority to make participants feel comfortable in the process so they could deliver much more honest and comprehensive data.

Lack of researcher's objectivity in data collection and analysis. The selected research philosophy obliged the writer to conduct the study in an objective matter.

3.6. Limitations.

On the basis of Bell and Bryman (2007) the limitations occurred during the research can be categorised into four groups:

Data collection error - occurs when the research is executed with some faults, for instance misleading questions in the survey. The limitation may occur due to researcher's lack of professional experience in interviewing. Pilot tests and meticulous care paid to questionnaires' designs should lesser the possibility of this limitation appearance in the quantitative study.

Data processing error - wrong coding or errors in typing data. Coding was prepared very carefully to assure proper data analysis. However, there is a possibility of mistyping of some data causing minor errors in research results.

Sampling error - problems that arise due to choice of sampling method. Bell and Bryman (2007) claim that achieving a fully representative sample is almost unachievable. That limitation might occur as the non-probability convenience and self-selection approach were employed. This method can produce biased results. Therefore, no generalisations can be made. On the other hand, this study can be used as a pilot research for possible future research with well-designed sampling approach.

Sampling-related error - arises due to non-response problems. This has happened during online survey mostly.

3.7. Chapter Conclusions.

This chapter discussed research methodology used by the author in his Final Year Project. The reader is guided into the research philosophy and consequent strategies that the writer applied. The main primary research technique was an experimental questionnaire that was carefully designed to identify the affect of online learning in higher education. The survey was carried out online. Finally, the limitations of this study include the possibilities of data collection error, data processing error, single-lead studies, and constraints of time and lack of funding.

Chapter 4 - Research results and data analysis

4.1. Introduction.

Data analysis is one of the most important parts of the carried research. This chapter discusses this problem thoroughly. According to presented earlier research methodology, experimental study was conducted by the researcher.

4.2. Results