VIRTUAL LEARNING ENVIORNMENT ANALYSIS THROUGH FOCUS GROUPS

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The report moves forward by describing the importance and implementation of focus group research method; in the mean time highlighting the advantages and disadvantages of the later. Interactive group session was conducted to explore the views of users about VLE (virtual learning environment) for University of Central Lancashire students. It's been kept a concern that users are the students who use this system daily; moreover have good knowledge about computing and web design. Because students with less computing experience would have cause diversions in the discussion and debate would have gone out of focus.

INTRODUCTION

A focus group categorizes a certain group of people who have been brought together to discuss a certain evaluation or evolving idea with deeper knowledge and criticism. These methods are very handy for evaluating service qualities or for test bed new ideas. Basic structure of focus group discussions is more like an interview, but of six to twelve users at the same time.

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Focus groups are very useful tool for collection of concerned informative data. These focus group interactive sessions allows investigating the usefulness of various groups of people and also helps to find out the reason why they think in this way about certain issue. Focus groups are no doubt really useful in investigating the use, effectiveness and usefulness of any service as they allow you to gather detailed information by probing user's views. They are also helpful to encourage user to suggest about key issues like decision making and resource allocation.

However, flow of Focus groups is not very easy to control and different users may have crossed views over same issue and come with a different agenda. One of the main issues with focus group interactive sessions is that it requires a topic of sufficient potential and substance to discuss otherwise there would be no benefit of group session and information collected will lose its authentication straight away. Moreover to keep validity of findings alive interviewer should act as a good listener after putting a question most of the time but it does not mean he cannot interfere but only without disturbing the course of discussion carried out.

Here are some key guidelines, which are far helpful to conduct a Focus group interactive session:

• Specify and define issue for discussion clearly and be specific about the areas you want to discuss. You can prompt the group debate to guide the participants towards the areas of discussion you think remained blank.

• For a Focus group session interviewer must look forward to develop no more than 5 to 6 questions. One should try to keep question as open as possible, because open questions always lead towards a healthy debate between the participants rather than presenting them with some closed questions that they prefer to answer in yes or no with reservations upon them.

• There is need to be very careful when selecting users, necessarily they should be representative kind of people who preferably involve in rebellious kind of discussion and do not come with those answers which an interviewer was already expecting to hear. So Focus group method requires careful selection of participants comparative to other research methods like naturalistic observations, surveys or interviews.

• To encourage and give a good start to group discussion interviewer should some with some background analysis of participants, it will act as a catalyst to discussion.

• Furthermore participants should be contacted in advance to arrange Focus group meeting and if possible they should be provided with some information over the topic they are going to speak up.

Now some guidelines over planning the session for Focus group discussion:

• The focus group session should be more than 1 hour or 1.5 hours. Moreover the session should be conducted during lunch meal hours to motivate participants by providing some refreshments like tea, coffee and biscuits etc. to them.

• Sessions should be conducted in a good environment and if possible participants should be seated around a round table.

• The observer should try to maintain the flow of the discussions as continuous as possible.

• Observer should make sure that every participant is participating in the discussion, moreover try to give chance to speak up to anybody who do not seem to get a chance.

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• Discussion is not meant to be one sided in the Focus group sessions. Observer should try to make it as interactive as he can. To do this interviewer should ask next question to a different person every time and try to come with a conclusive summary after every participant finishes saying his point of view.

• Interviewer should have a clear agenda in mind which should include the following features:

1. Welcome

2. Introductions

3. Agenda

4. Aim of the focus group meeting

5. Ground rules

6. Questions and answers

• sessions should be recorded electronically and by taking notes because in these kind of interactive discussions sometimes it become really difficult to remind what took place during discussion.

• Try to transcribe the sessions as soon as possible to keep your findings approximately accurate.

• Provide a list of the questions to all members of the group, including helpers at the session.

• Interviewer should plan the questions very carefully.

• If there is a fear concluded from user profile analysis that session will go one sided interviewer should set a certain time limit for every participant to answer.

Related research

Focus groups are been recognized as a common research technique used to gather information like opinions, values and beliefs from a familiar group by interviewing. The focus group method is recognized as a technique of group interview that helps to generate data through the opinions gathered from participants individually and collectively (Kitzinger 1995). This methodology was evolved in some way near 1920s when market researchers used this technique to know consumer expectations (Robinson 1999). The initial need to develop this technique rose when social scientists of 1930s found results of individual interviews not so accurate (Krueger & Casey 2000). So this technique was evolved as a investigation method which give researcher less control as compared to individual interviews in the context of information gathering (Krueger & Casey 2000). This technique was found really useful for knowing public opinions and expectations about a particular issue, product, service or idea (Beaudin & Pelletier 1996, Krueger & Casey 2000). The early progress of focus groups happened to occur between World War II and the 1970s and was largely affected by the market research sector (Gulanick & Keough 1997, Morgan 1998a, Krueger & Casey 2000). Academically this approach was famous around 1980s. Today, focus groups are being utilized in the research of a wide range of disciplines, including the social sciences, health and nursing, modern technologies like computing, web development and modern educational and learning interactive computing environments. (Gulanick & Keough 1997, Sim 1998, Clarke 1999, Riche & Ezzy 1999, Beyea & Nicoll 2000).

Focus groups are used not only to derive new information or evaluation of new systems, it is been really useful to take look upon generalized public views, believes and traditional values (Krueger & Casey 2000). Focus groups acts as an interactive idea when researcher wanted to broaden the horizon of his research and want to improve a larger scale quantitative study (Krueger & Casey 2000). Particularly focus groups authenticate the means of knowing the perspectives of stakeholders and get to learn about their experiences through the ideas under light. So this is actually the main focus of this kind of research method that stakeholder individuals are respected as healthy source of requirement gathering and they are encouraged to express their views more openly in a cross debate manner (Clarke 1999). Although there is no question about the health of this research technique but still there is a need to develop some applicability which can be used in the discussion of methodological issues (Webb & Kevern 2001). Increasingly, focus groups are also being used to acquire the views of the people living in traditional environments with low literacy rates and less susceptibility to internationally recognized languages where conventional research tools get failed or not of as useful as they are in other environments. (Clark et al. 2003).

Research Method

Focus Group requirement elicitation research method.

Participants

Student participants included in this Focus group session about UCLAN E-Learn has been carefully selected keeping the fact in consideration that got enough knowledge about computing and they can flame up a healthy debate over this virtual learning environment. More over they were informed in advance to join the meeting and prepare themselves in advance to discuss concerned issue.

Procedure

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At already set date the group meeting started with a 10 minutes delay which was intentionally given to participants to relax and get ready to start the debate. The participants were asked 6 questions to get their views over the E-Learning environment. 10 minutes break were given to participants after half an hour session debate to have refreshments and the point where debate closed at that was noted. Participants got critically strong in the second half of debate in comparison to first half.

Interview Questionnaire

Do you feel UCLAN E-Learn have any problem with it; if there are some would you like to mention some?

Would you like to mention some learning outcomes of E-Learn?

What are the possible accessibility and usability issues with E-Learn?

Will a special browsing environment would be really helpful to improve the WebCT Learning capabilities?

How we can address the possible usability issues for the system?

Do you find E-Learn boring; if you find it boring what can you suggest for the design improvements of the system?

GROUP RECOMMENDATIONS

After the Focus Group session the members suggested following recommendations to make WebCT more vulnerable for UCLAN students:

WebCT features should be enhanced in broader way for example it should be merged with group wise webmail; so user can be saved from using multiple browsing windows which really irritates them sometimes.

There are some serious innovations and furnishing steps are required in E-Learn design; designers should work over making it more colourful and fun oriented for students.

Right now there is need go miles down the road to enhance the usability and accessibility of E-Learn.

Direct interaction should be available with tutors on WebCT; it will better if it is being connected with social networks like Twitter and Facebook.

Some extra stuff got to be removed which have been put over E-Learn to fill out the side space; instead of that some useful links like campus stories or online academic journals and magazines should be available there.

Group reached the consensus that E-Learn should be turned into healthy information source rather than just a tool for downloading the lectures.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

The author wants to thank you all the participants for participating in the Focus Group session.

References

Beyea SC & Nicoll LH (2000) Learn more using focus groups. AORN Journal 71, 897-900.

Beaudin CL & Pelletier LR (1996) Consumer-based research: using focus groups as a method for evaluating quality of care. Journal of Nursing Care Quality 10, 28-33.

Clarke A (1999) Focus group interviews in health care research. Professional Nurse 14, 395-397.

Clark MJ, Cary S, Diemert G, Ceballos R, Sifuentes M, Atteberry I, Vue F & Trieu S (2003) Involving communities in community assessment. Public Health Nursing 20, 456-463.

Gulanick M & Keough V (1997) Focus groups: an exciting approach to clinical nursing research. Progress in Cardiovascular Nursing 12, 24-29.

Kitzinger J (1995) Qualitative research; introducing focus groups. British Medical Journal 311, 299-302.

Krueger RA & Casey MA (2000) Focus Groups: A Practical Guide for Applied Research, 3rd edn. Sage Publications Inc., Thousand Oaks, CA.

Morgan DL (1998b) Practical strategies for combining qualitative and quantitative methods: applications to health research. Qualitative Health Research 8, 362-376.

Riche PL & Ezzy D (1999) Qualitative Research Methods: A Health Focus. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Robinson A (1999) At the interface of health and community care: developing linkages between aged care services in a rural context. Australian Journal of Rural Health 7, 172-180.

Sim J (1998) Collecting and analysing qualitative data: issues raised by the focus group. Journal of Advanced Nursing 28, 345-352.

Webb C & Kevern J (2001) Focus groups as a research method: a critique of some aspects of their use in nursing research. Journal of Advanced Nursing 33, 798-805.