This short report is based on research findings emanating from an e-learning project developed by Kingston University (UK) in partnership with four Further Education Colleges. It provides the background to the scheme, research objectives and the methodology, outcomes, and some issues and success factors in embedding e-learning within a face-to-face context.
The background to the scheme
This project’s aim was to provide VLE-based mentoring and course support for mature students on Access to nursing courses. The Blackboard VLE was used to deliver chosen modules, to facilitate tutorial support, and to support communication among students and tutors. A group of e-mentors, i.e., second and third year mature Nursing undergraduates, were also available on-line.
The VLE provided an extra dimension of support for students who already receive academic and pastoral support from their personal and subject tutors. The majority of these mature students were the first in their families to enter higher education. They have family, work and societal commitments, in addition to study-related commitments. Apart from the support they receive from the college, they have limited access to cultural and social capital, unlike their traditional counterparts, enabling their progress to higher education. This project therefore, aimed to provide an extra dimension of support through a VLE and e-mentors, and to research the outcomes of, and issues emanating from this intervention.
The students who took part in the project were aged between 21 and 50, taking a one-year Access to Nursing course at four Further Education Colleges. The project ran from Oct 2003 to July 2004.
Research objectives and methodology
The research objectives were to investigate how e-learning helps to prepare mature students for higher education, with particular emphasis on (a) changes in attitudes towards and perceptions of higher education, (b) helping students negotiate the higher education application procedure, and (c) assisting learners to become confident and effective learners. Data were gathered from interviews, questionnaires, and discussion boards on the VLE. Interviews were carried out with participating staff and students in the middle, and at the end of the project. A questionnaire was administered to students at the end of the project. Students’ postings on discussion boards were also collated and analysed.
The usage of the VLE varied among the four colleges, two colleges making use of the VLE more than the other two. About 150 students took part in the scheme.
Outcomes for students
Interviews with students on their experience of using the scheme, and with staff on their own usage and their observations of students’ usage suggest that the VLE helped some students’ changes in attitudes to and perceptions of higher education. ‘The university was a big thing’, for some at the time they started the Access course. They were not sure they were ‘going to achieve getting into university’. The VLE enabled them to keep an ‘association’ with their undergraduate mentors, and they were able to see themselves progressing to university. The interactions with mentors helped students to gain an insight into life at university, by ‘hearing from some one who is already there’, and from someone who has ‘first hand experience’. Students discussed books, libraries, assignments, coping with studies, family and life, etc. Mentors painted a ‘picture of how the university operates and how you can organise yourself while you are a student as well as a parent.’ For some, these discussions put their ‘mind at rest’.
The VLE and e-mentoring has also helped in the application process to universities. Some students made virtual visits to the universities through the web links available on the VLE. These visits triggered discussions in face to face classrooms, too. Students also posted queries to their mentors about forthcoming open-days at universities. Preparing for interviews was the main point of discussion amongst the students and between students and mentors. While the students received guidance from the college staff on preparing for interviews, they valued the extra support and encouragement that they received from their mentors who had gone through the same process in the recent past. The students also discussed their placements which impacts on their lives and studies in the future.
Evidence also suggests that the VLE contributed to the development of students’ study skills and confidence as learners. Access to extra resources on the VLE enabled some students to become more confident in their learning and subject-matter knowledge. In some cases tutors noticed improvements in the way students approached and prepared their assignments; students referred to extra material on the VLE. Confidence in the ability to use the VLE and development of communication skills were two aspects highlighted by some tutors.
The analysis of data also revealed a number of further outcomes. Students who read messages, announcements and used the calendar facility regularly felt that they were better prepared for the classes. The online environment (although within the face to face setting) nurtured a feeling of being a part of learning community, especially for part time students. Being able to communicate with mentors and staff through the VLE helped students to alleviate some of their anxieties, without waiting to meet tutors face to face. Some students benefited by the flexibility offered by the medium to access learning resources and communication facilities, especially when they were not able to attend the classes.
Outcomes – the teaching learning environment
The VLE also contributed to creating new interactions and relationships among students, mentors, and tutors, both face to face and on-line. The ‘online undergraduates’ was a new component for the teaching and learning environment for both students and teachers. Staff reported improved communication among the students, among the staff and between the staff and students. The VLE itself has become a focal point for discussion amongst students and staff. According to one member of staff, it has become a ‘common interest’, students stopping her ‘in the corridor and telling [her] about something, even if it is only passwords.’ Students found that they ‘can approach teachers’, and ‘teachers will help you.’ Some students raised questions related to resources on the VLE, while some staff made a point of referring to it in face to face classrooms. Staff also reported that they received more emails with assignments, and ‘silly Christmas cards’ attached, which was not unusual. The VLE also enabled her to teach her part-time group more effectively, whom she meets only once a week. At a more institutional level, two project colleges reformed their access curriculum in the following year (2004-2005), to integrate the VLE component into the curriculum. The staff reported that the lessons learnt from the project year were contributory to these curriculum reforms.
Embedding VLE in a face to face context – issues and success factors
The research also identified factors contributing to the successful use of a VLE, and issues involved in embedding a VLE in face to face settings.
A key factor for success was that, where the scheme was used well, the staff identified a pedagogical value and reasons for using the VLE. In one case, the staff member used the VLE to provide access to relevant learning resources that she would not have been able to provide through other means, such as complex anatomical illustrations and interactive diagrams for biology, references and illustration of key concepts in sociology, online self testing tools, etc. Two other staff members, teaching part time students, used the VLE to provide course-related information and as a tool to facilitate communication among students and mentors. VLE-based mentors were available to provide some of the pastoral support they themselves would normally provide but they thought that the undergraduate mentors would have first-hand, recent information about the university. A second key factor was that the staff provided dedicated induction sessions on the use of VLE and the mentors (in one case, with step by step worksheets). The staff also allocated further sessions in computer rooms. A third factor was that staff in colleges where scheme worked well had the flexibility to rearrange the teaching and learning arrangements to accommodate the VLE component. In addition, in these colleges the staff were able to integrate the VLE component into their teaching and learning, made it relevant to students and made constant references to the VLE, while in face to face sessions.
The barriers for using the VLE were: the staff not seeing the relevance of the VLE, perceiving it as an additional component, and consequently, letting students perceive the use of the VLE as a voluntary activity. Other major barriers were: the issue of passwords, lack of flexible access to computers with Internet access, students’ busy life while at the college, the course being not flexible enough to accommodate a VLE component, and students’ heavy course load pushing the VLE down to the bottom of their priority list.
The full report discusses the full range of findings and issues, and provides implications for practice and areas for further research needed.