Miss Harbinder Sandhu, Centre for Primary Health Care Studies, Warwick Medical School and Dr Andrea Docherty, Redditch and Bromsgrove PCT
As interest and utilisation of e-learning progresses within teaching, consideration must be given not only to those courses providing a predominantly e-learning framework but also to those which use e-learning as a tool to facilitate learning rather than as a key educational focus. One such course, the Certificate in Diabetes Care provided by Warwick Diabetes Care, University of Warwick, uses email communication, incorporating coursework submission, distance learning and internet access to facilitate student learning. We conducted a study to determine student views on the barriers and facilitators to this approach. The results not only highlighted student experience but also indicated the role which must be adopted by staff members in supporting student learning via these methods and subsequently the changes required of staff to successfully deliver the e-learning components of their programme.
In facilitating the use of e-learning to promote student self directed learning, academic staff benefit by moving from a teaching centred approach to one that is learning centred. This involves a move from a focus upon imparting knowledge and a responsibility for giving understanding to students via direct teaching, to encouraging independent learning and generating an expectation that students will be involved in directing learning (Samuelowicz and Bain 2001). These developments have been found to be advantageous to both the student and teacher, offering the former support and guidance and the latter improved technological understanding and application to practice (Galloway et al 2002). Correlation between positive student outcomes and academic staff satisfaction has been found when this approach has been adopted (Hartman et al 2000).
To achieve this development in approach to teaching and e-learning, staff require multiple resources including training, support and time (Newton 2003). However, limited research has focused upon the needs of staff where e-learning is a tool to the facilitation of learning and not the primary educational goal. In addition, this research has generated information solely from staff perspectives and has rarely focused upon the needs of students as a way to direct the learning and teaching needs of staff.
The current study therefore utilised students responses to a questionnaire focusing upon the barriers and facilitators to e-learning within the CIDC course to determine the required role of staff in facilitating learning.
A two staged approach to the evaluation was adopted incorporating a preparatory phase of a comprehensive literature review and semi structured interviews to provide an in depth understanding of student experience and identify key themes. Data generated from this stage was then used in the development a student questionnaire. The latter was used to obtain a greater breadth of student views.
The literature search generated 4 themes: Perceptions of e-learning, previous knowledge and experience, perceived impact and value of e-learning and barriers and facilitators. A random sample of 30 students from 2 course intakes were invited to participate in either face to face, telephone or e-mail interviews. Five students (age range 39-62 years), 3 female, 2 male, 3 of whom were GPs and 2 nurses, consented to participate in a telephone interview. All had completed the CD-ROM based version of the course. The interviews, lasted approximately 50 minutes and were semi structured in nature, allowing for general discussion around identified themes.
Interviews were transcribed verbatim. A qualitative thematic approach was conducted including initial theme, issue and category identification, cross categorisation, axial and selective coding, in addition to the identification of positive and negative incidents as a means to enhancing validity. Analysis of the interviews was carried out by two researchers to establish inter-rater reliability and revealed 4 themes:
Support: Variation in extent and form, preference for student contact, good integration with work.
Training: No course training, multiple areas of need, student devised learning strategies used.
Advantages and Disadvantages / Barriers and Facilitators: Advantage of flexibility, disadvantages of limited interaction and difficulties with self discipline. Barriers included limited time and IT skills.
Perception of E-learning: Flexible, easy, supportive, opportunity to learn, supports working practice, potential long term impact.
The above themes, in addition to the findings from the literature review, were used to develop the student questionnaire incorporating the following foci:
- Student expectation / motivation / perceptions regarding e-learning
- Prior knowledge / experience / training
- Perceived barriers / facilitators to e-learning
- Support - source, value and preference
- Training requirements
- Learning strategies / approaches
- Future impact: educational, work and personal.
- Improvements / changes
The questionnaire incorporated an equal mix of open and closed questions, focusing upon expectations and meaning of e-learning, background and experience, support and impact upon work, personal life and CPD. A random sample of 250 students from 3 course intakes (2001, 2002 and 2003) comprising a mixture of course delivery methods were invited to participate in the study via completion of the enclosed questionnaire. Seventy two questionnaires were returned (response rate of 29%). Descriptive statistical analysis using SPSS and theme identification from qualitative responses was carried out.
Results / Discussion
The sample had a mean age of 44 years (range 30 to 60 years), 75% of the sample were female, 25% male, 32% were GPs, 38% practice nurses and the remaining 30% included staff, district and diabetes specialist nurses. In relation to type of course, 63% attended a residential course, 30% distance delivered and 7% used the CD-ROM.
Response to student questionnaire generated two key themes; barriers and facilitators to e-learning and the impact of e-learning upon work, personal use and CPD.
Results relating directly to students experiences and perceptions of e-learning, generated from the current study, are presented in a separate paper. In this section we will be using these findings to identify the expectations of staff and subsequent staff needs with regards to e-learning. These needs fall within three categories; awareness and assessment, training, support and monitoring.
Awareness and Assessment
The study revealed considerable variation in student background, experience, expectations and confidence with regards to e-learning including vocation, expectations of the meaning of e-learning, its role within the course and the level of prior knowledge and experience required. Consequently, these differences may impact upon student management of the course and subsequent outcome. When combined with the potential variation in student needs resulting from the mix of course structures including residential, distance delivered and CD-Rom, these findings highlight the need for staff to recognise and respond to individual student characteristics. As such, staff must be aware of the differences within each student cohort in order for them to provide the necessary levels of support and training to maximise individual student learning. Prior to course commencement staff would benefit from using an assessment tool such as a questionnaire or brief focused interview to determine individual student need. The detailed findings from the current study (published elsewhere) may be used as a guide to this assessment.
Variation in student e-learning skills and confidence, reflected in the fact that over 50% of students considered lack of IT skills to be an obstacle to the completion of the course, highlights the need for staff to provide training to ensure each student begins on a level playing field. Students were asked to indicate preferred areas of future training. Responses included internet search strategies (47%), internet navigation (44%), time management skills (31%) and management of a distance delivered course (23%). In order to meet this need in student training, staff must feel confident and efficient in their application of these skills. Subsequently, we advise an assessment of staff skills in relation to e-learning, again either via questionnaire or brief focused interview. Identified gaps in skills must then be responded to through appropriate staff training and the required time for skill development.
Support and Monitoring
One of the greatest obstacles reported within the study was staff support. Although students used a variety of support sources including family, friends and colleagues, staff support was still viewed as essential to the learning process. However, 35% of students did not feel that educational support had been useful with over 50% perceiving isolation to be an obstacle. Students additionally commented on the need for greater contact, in particular email support and staff feedback. To respond to this need, staff must have appropriate time management skills. E-mail based communication allows for a continuous open channel of student access and as such must be managed effectively to offer maximum student support. In order to do this successfully there must be recognition of existing staff commitments and also the nature of the course with distance delivered requiring greater email contact than residential. In addition to e-mail, staff must provide a variety of support mechanisms including, where appropriate, face to face contact, telephone contact and student feedback. Again these mechanisms must be effectively time managed to successfully promote communication while at the same time facilitating student independent learning.
A key aspect of staff support in a course utilising e-learning should be the provision of guidance on student resource use, this is of particular benefit to students who have limited additional sources of support. Seventy percent of students viewed the course as an opportunity to learn, staff must therefore capitalise on this expectation by providing guidance on a range resources including websites and educational materials to maximise learning. Students used a variety of personal learning strategies. These included update emails from relevant websites, time management, select number of sources and course materials. Again, staff must capitalise on these strategies to support student learning by guiding students in their effective use and through the dissemination of these multiple strategies, where appropriate, to the wider student cohort.
Students expressed a keen interest in having greater access to course chat rooms, responding again to the high levels of perceived isolation within the course, which would offer them an additional source of support from fellow students. However staff would need to take on a monitoring role to monitor the quality of information shared, and to stop the potential for this resource to be abused. More extreme cases could also occur such as bullying. This is of particular consideration in a course with students varying in background, experience and professional status. Staff would therefore need to have regular access to the chat rooms, monitor its use and be available to counter any inappropriate or inaccurate sharing of information. This feature of their role must also be effectively incorporated into staff time, and as such, appropriately time managed.
The study revealed a number of areas for staff development to allow for maximum student support and staff satisfaction in undertaking the e-learning components of the course. Underpinning each of these areas was a requirement for staff training and associated development time. In particular, the provision of time for ongoing training and development, updating of learning resources and recognition of the often time intensive nature of e-learning, in particular student support via email. Staff therefore require support from their wider organisation including protected time and e-learning resources to meet these needs.
In line with the wider organisational role, it has been previously found that academic staff motivation and commitment are higher in institutions which provided a higher level of support (Lee 2001), highlighting the value of investment in staff training and the potential benefits to the quality of the teaching programme. A component of this support involves organisational recognition of the variation in course structure and subsequent demands placed upon staff time and resources. In particular, web based teaching of distance learning students requires almost twice as much time as teaching on campus i.e. residential based students (Visser 2000).
However, in providing support to individual staff, organisations must recognise and counter previously identified barriers including the fact that academic staff may not have been taught how to apply technology to teaching, may have a lack of understanding of what the technology can do and unrealistic expectations following implementation. In addition, organisations must recognise previously identified organisational barriers to change such as lack of follow through and limited evaluation. This includes the fact that if staff development is viewed as a one off process then there is a greater likelihood of failure to learn from experience (Stiles and Yorke 2004).
One method of responding to these barriers concerns the promotion of both intrinsic and extrinsic staff motivation (Newton 2003). Intrinsic rewards including satisfaction and personal development may be generated via encouraging staff to translate their ideas with regards to e-learning into working practice (Newton 2003). Extrinsic incentives / rewards for example recognition of e-learning developments within teaching as a form of CPD, must be promoted at an organizational level.
In conclusion, the study has revealed a cascade effect with regards to need. By identifying student perceived barriers and facilitators it has allowed for the identification of staff needs with regards to training and development. However, these needs can only be met by an informed, supportive and resourced organizational role. This effect applies equally to a course where e-learning is a tool to the facilitation of learning as it does to a course where it is the primary educational goal and as such these findings are of relevance to the expanding and varying role of e-learning within all areas of education.
Miss Harbinder Sandhu
Centre for Primary Health Care Studies
Warwick Medical School
Dr Andrea Docherty
Specialist Trainee in Public Health
Redditch and Bromsgrove PCT
Crossgate House, Crossgate Rd
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