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Volume 8, Number 9: June 27, 2002

100 Pounds of Potatoes in a 25-Pound Sack:
Stress, Frustration, and Learning in the Virtual Classroom

by Robin Mello,
University of Wisconsin-Whitewater

 

Abstract

This article discusses the events surrounding a small research study originally intended to examine student learning in an online graduate-level education course. However, the nature of the research changed because of technological problems that students and faculty encountered. Systemic breakdowns, technological glitches, and an overloaded course delivery system ultimately resulted in students' and instructor's inability to consistently communicate in the virtual environment. Participants' responses to this stressful environment are examined here and the effect of discontinuous connections on teaching and learning in the virtual classroom is discussed. This paper concludes with a discussion of one of the study's more surprising findings, that students reported being positively oriented toward computer-mediated learning in spite of the frustrations they experienced.


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Introduction

The following narrative describes a small research study, begun in the fall of 2001, designed to examine the impact of interactive teaching methods on student learning in the online environment. The investigation's focus quickly changed, however, to an analysis of how a group of students and their professor coped with a major breakdown in technology. The general story of their struggle in the face of numerous structural failures, built into the online environment, as well as the specific problems, dilemmas, and some small successes experienced, are discussed here.

The system breakdowns experienced during the study were due, in large part, to a lack of server space, faulty long-range planning on the part of the university, and an overloaded course format system, (in this case, using the product Blackboard). The title of the article was inspired by a student comment made at the height of the debacle. She observed: "I do not feel that anyone cares or even pays attention to the student's needs. I told my husband, they've gone and put one hundred pounds of potatoes into a twenty-five pound sack!"

Although students were generally very disappointed with the dysfunctional operation of the virtual system, they were, by the end of the semester, positively oriented toward the online classroom in general. Remarkably, or so it seems to the researcher, participants were able to put much of their anger aside and keep their energy focused on coping and developing their knowledge base. Instead of rejecting the idea of virtual learning because their experience in the course was egregiously poor, they embraced those aspects of online learning and teaching that seemed to support their voice, education, and ability to create interpersonal connections.

It is hoped that the following discussion will help focus the work of the professorate as those of us in higher education continue to explore ways to bring sound pedagogical practices into the online environment. This paper seeks to address a much-needed discussion topic: What happens when the blackboard is inaccessible and the classroom, along with the student, disappears?

Literature Review

Grant & Murray (1999) find that students at the university level learn best when engaged in problem solving and will more likely appreciate their college experience when educational activities and curricula directly apply to real-life professional situations. This is in direct conflict with what we know about the nature of teaching in most colleges of education nationwide. As Grant & Murray point out, a majority of professors in academe are perceived as being divorced from students' needs and experiences; even "good" teachers struggle with linking pedagogy and theory to practice (Palmer, 1998). Additionally, Leamnson's research (1999) addresses the dearth of interactive methods and hands-on applications in university level education programs. To alleviate this situation, it is suggested that on-campus courses be combined with practical and useful fieldwork. Incorporating computer mediated learning environments (CMLE) into the mix can also provide students with interactive learning processes and establish better long-term learning relationships between students and faculty. These changes in pedagogy and method, if implemented consistently in college classrooms, will, it is assumed, positively impact students' knowledge, professional identities, and attitudes.

Ragan, Lacey, & Nagy (2002) suggest that one of the best ways to connect real-life learning with theoretical content is to offer online instruction that is both rich in resources and utilizes discussions and contact with instructor and other students. For this the hybrid course, i.e. instruction that combines face-to-face and virtual learning environments, is highly effective (Garnham & Kaleta, 2002; Spilka, 2001). Findings from Spilka's study show that CMLE lend themselves to independent inquiry, simulations and practice in practical applications, as well as consistent and long-term interaction with colleagues and peers. Therefore, a solution to ridding academe of didactic forms of teaching, such as the traditional lecture, may lie within the virtual realm (Conyers, Kappel, & Rooney, 1999). In light of the call for more interactive and reality-based learning environments (Grant & Murray, 1999), online (OL) course work would seem to be the answer to higher educations' need for teaching reform (Cornell, 1999).

As the entire field is approximately thirty years old, investigations and inquiry into the nature of OL learning and development of best practices in distance learning (DL) programs are still in the early stages (Miller, Cohen, & Beffa-Negrini, 2001). As a result, the majority of studies examining learning outcomes have only been instituted in the past seven years (Ragan, Lacey, & Nagy, 2002). Opportunities to study program longevity and methodology are, for the most part, still unavailable (Dabbagh, 2001; Goldsworthy, 2000).

Some provisional conclusions can be drawn from the existing literature, however. Regarding OL education's efficacy, for example, Miller, Cohen, & Beffa-Negrini (2001) find that older students returning to college after a period of years away achieve higher grades in OL courses than face-to-face (f2f) instruction. This includes those individuals who do not describe themselves as technologically literate. Older students appreciated the lack of lecture along with the increased opportunities in CMLE to participate in discourse processes on an ongoing basis. Conversely, younger students (traditional undergraduates) do the same or slightly worse in OL courses, even when they are familiar with the technological aspects of the virtual classroom (Fetterman, 1998; Mello, 2001). It should be noted that in some studies OL learning outcomes were indistinguishable from those in the f2f environment (Schulman & Sims, 1999; Young, Cantrell, & Shaw, 2001). Questions, therefore, regarding how best to construct, instruct, and evaluate CMLE are currently an important focus of research and are just beginning to be more widely examined (Fetterman).

Project Design

Overview. In 2001-2002 the author was invited to be a Teaching Scholars Fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater (UWW). The fellowship program engages a small group of invested academics in a yearlong examination of their teaching within a comprehensive university setting. The study discussed here was the result of that participation and was originally designed to investigate questions regarding the impact of threaded discussions, virtual role-plays, and computer-mediated simulations on students' learning and development. It focused on fifteen individuals enrolled in a hybrid graduate course 1, delivered using the Blackboard (Bb) system/format, which concentrated primarily on issues, perspectives, and diversity in the American education system.

Assumptions. In anticipation of the Teaching Scholars' study, a focus group was convened during the summer of 2001. It consisted of seven students (five women and two men) who were attending a hybrid OL educational philosophy course. The participants, all returning students with at least seven years professional teaching experience, were working toward a master's degree in Educational Studies. In discussions that centered around their perceptions of teaching and learning OL, students reported feeling more at ease in the OL discussion groups and "freer to express their feelings and opinions" than in f2f meetings.

I feel intimidated in a class where I may be called on to contribute ideas unexpectedly. I once dropped a class because a professor singled me out on the first day of class and I didn't have an answer to his question. (Interview) 2

In general, students in the focus group found OL education more inclusive because it encourages instructors to abdicate direct control and become facilitators. Data collected from prestudy interviews caused certain assumptions to be formed that influenced the research discussed here. These included the beliefs that:

  • OL learning is most beneficial to certain types of individuals, particularly diffident and nontraditional students;
  • Students engaged in OL learning interact with each other in more consistent and more complex ways than they often do in f2f environments;
  • CMLE provide opportunities for course designers to include more opportunities for higher level thinking than is experiences in f2f courses;
  • OL courses were more easily tailored to individual student needs, and therefore learning and teaching are improved.

Method. Methodologically the study was grounded in narrative inquiry and qualitative methods (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000). Data was coded and analyzed using axial and collocation methods (Mello, 2002). To establish baseline data for this investigation, students enrolled in the graduate level course entitled Foundational Problems and Conditions in American Schools (September 22- December 10, 2001)3 responded to a survey pertaining to their interest, experience, and expertise with CMLE. They also participated in a learning styles inventory (McGraw-Hill, 2001) via email. Additional data sources included an in-depth narrative analysis of discussions and email conversations, mid-semester and post-course surveys, and in-depth telephone interview/conversations with individual students.

Findings

Learning & Teaching Preferences. Responding to the Learning Style Survey (McGraw-Hill, 2001), a majority of participants described themselves as interactive learners. They reported that their interest in taking an OL course was primarily based upon their desire to learn at their own pace: "I find that sometimes traditional classes move to slow for my taste" or because they didn't "like rigid environments in classroom/learning."

Student Learning Style
% of Students (n=14)
Learning Style
53%

Interactive Learner

42%

Independent Learner

33%

Narrative Learner

28%

Visual Learner

14%

Mathematical/
Logical Learner

Table 1. Student Learning Style Inventory

When discussing the teaching style least appealing to them, the majority of students reported disliking lecture-type courses. A typical response was: "I hate lecture--find it exhausting and boring and uninspiring." Conversely, a minority of students reported loving lecture and disliking anything cooperative or hands-on.

Teaching Method
% of Students (n=15) Teaching style most appreciated Teaching style least appreciated
86%
Interactive, interesting, constructivist, narrative Lecture
14%
Lecture Project-based teaching and/or cooperative group work expected
Table 2. Teaching Method Survey Results

In the area of both learning and teaching, these students were not unlike those discussed in the literature. Most were independent learners who appreciated being able to work at their own pace and who were returning adults--aware of their preferences and expectations in the classroom environment. At this point in the study everything seemed to indicate that the study was set up to clearly investigate how these students responded to the CMLE with hopes that data would yield some nuanced, thoughtful, and useful information on the nature of learning and teaching online. This, however, turned out not to be the case.

System Breakdown! The original purpose of this study was to examine student learning and instructor-student interactions in OL environments; however, the focus of the research quickly shifted to that of learning and teaching under severe stress and in the face of technological breakdowns. Due to unforeseen problems with the online delivery system, in the fall of 2001 the UWW server began to experience severe problems due to increased use, along with a shift in allocation of server space. This, in a virtual sense, caused gridlock: too much information trying to squeeze into too little space. Access to web-based courses slowed to a crawl. At times, students were prevented from being able to sign on altogether. While this crisis was being resolved, Bb itself suffered severe problems. These were exacerbated by WWW overloads in the aftermath of September 11th. Support services on the UWW campus were not able to rectify the problem in a timely manner.

Students and faculty began to resort to email in order to communicate and disseminate information. Unfortunately, the email system at UWW also broke down for a period of a week. After this event, a "migration" to a new system was begun; this caused glitches that are still being worked out, to date. The result was that for approximately one-third of the semester email became an unreliable communication tool. During the second and third week of October, contact between students and faculty became nearly impossible. The researcher/instructor personally resorted to calling each student on the telephone and mailing them instructions and information.

In addition to all these problems, the library at UWW switched to a new electronic reserve system, a move that proved to have disastrous results. In its first iteration, the new reserve system was not functional for off-campus users. Students in the Foundations course now found themselves unable to download articles and assigned readings from home, thus eliminating two of the key reasons for their decision to register for an OL course (i. e. their ability to work independent of a given time schedule and at home).

Student Retention & Stress in the OL Environment. In the Foundations course, 50% of students dropped out during the month of September. 75% of these individuals attributed their decision, entirely or in part, to the technological problems they experienced. By October 15th only seven students remained.

Students, responding in mid- and post-course surveys, reported experiencing a high level of frustration regarding the technological difficulties.

It has been frustrating. The problems with Bb got us off to a bad start and they make the course much more difficult to do and much more time-consuming than it should be. Right now the wait time is tremendous! I find that I can go to the library and get the information from a book faster than I can on line. It takes forever to scroll and then I have to wait and I loose my train of thought. This has been so frustrating with technical problems and time limit. (Survey)

Personally, I'd like the instructor to go home and try to download all of this on their own computer to see just how frustrating the process can be. I have personally spent one-third of my time trying to get information. I do not feel that anyone cares or even pays attention to the student's needs. I told my husband, they've gone and put one hundred pounds of potatoes into a twenty-five pound sack! (Survey)

By November 15th most of the technological glitches within the UWW system had been fixed or attended to. However, the Bb interface was still exceptionally slow. Students reported waiting up to five minutes for the course to upload, even on the fastest computer system available. The instructor experienced the same difficulties. At times, the instructor spent up to five hours trying to accomplish simple tasks such as posting messages and announcements or computing and updating grades.

At midterm tension within the course's virtual environment was high. Students were confused about expectations and standards, due to the fact that consistency of feedback on the part of the instructor was difficult to sustain.

This is a new environment for most people and when we are unable to communicate effectively with a professor then we don't know what expectations are and then that raises the stress level...I feel so alone and isolated at my computer when communication breaks down! (Survey)

Learning in the Face of Adversity. Surprisingly, in spite of these stresses, students reported that, when they reflected on their own learning and development, they enjoyed the OL environment. They reported feeling freer in their expression of feelings and opinions, less intimidated than in f2f environments, more capable of thinking and analyzing major concepts and facts, and more in charge of their own learning. Their impression, over all, was that they learned more in the CMLE than in f2f courses. Students reported appreciating the DL model because it gave them time to meet personal and professional obligations and to further their professional and academic goals. It also provided a way for those who lived far away from campus and obtain a graduate degree.

I have found that I have more freedom to post my true feelings on issues raised than I would have in a classroom environment. Classrooms have a more intimidating atmosphere that makes me feel like I either must say what I think others want to hear, possibly to fit in, or to keep quiet on an issue. The OL environment is more conducive to honest exchange of perspectives on controversial issues. (Survey)

I feel I learned more OL. OL learning provides the additional opportunity to learn technology too. It is a way to stay currently and to broaden horizons. (Survey)

I believe that [I] learned more in an OL course because you have to communicate what you have learned in writing. This is like having to do a presentation. (Survey)

Perhaps the most unexpected data of all were student perceptions of the OL course's effect on their professional understanding and abilities. In the midst of a huge breakdown in communication systems, students observed that the CMLE, along with the specific course design, made it possible for them to think more deeply.

One student noted that the course format called "for a different kind of learning" in an atmosphere that was "scholarly, creative, and interactive." As a result, she reported, "I found myself more interested in what others had to say and I broke out of my traditional mold. This was great for me." Another student commented: "Even though I generally like f2f classes better I don't think I learn as much. I learned more in this class and I find that I like talking out ideas in the discussions." The interactive and group activities students participated in served as a learning framework.

Information from student work, discussions, essays, and projects also bear these findings out. These data show that students were able to produce in-depth analysis, synthesize learning through the creation of a research-based study, and were able to apply theories learned in one module of the course to questions given in others. Depth and length of discussions along with the high numbers of comments were also substantial (in spite of the technological difficulties), leading the instructor to believe that deep and scholarly work had been done.

Data also show that, although communication was difficult and at times nonexistent, the professor continued to attempt to interact with students on a daily/weekly basis, (when access allowed). As a result, contact with the instructor was still an ongoing experience for most students, albeit a sporadic one. A great deal of information and discourse was transacted via email and over the telephone as students and professor kept in touch with each other. This would suggest that although relationships could not be built in a continuous format, the discontinuous off-and-on nature of discourse still provided students with a sense of membership in a learning community, one that was both evolving and connected to their own ideas and input.

Analysis

Khan (2001) proposes a Web-Based Learning Framework (WBLF) for evaluating OL learning. This framework contains eight incremental levels that are used to create and evaluate a strong CMLE.

 


Khan's Web-Based Learning Framework

1. Consistent pedagogical methods employed;
2. State-of-the-art technologies and open access;
3. Institutional commitment and participation;
4. Ethical actions among stakeholders;
5. Strong design in course formats and interface;
6. Availability of resource support;
7. Consistent and competent management of course;
8. Clear assessment of student learning and instructional quality.

Table 3. WBLF


Using WBLF criteria, the Foundations course ought to have been a dismal failure. It did not, for example, succeed at supporting student access to web-based instructional frameworks. Access broke down completely, and administrative response did not meet students' expectations (although data show that staff and administration at the Technical Support Services worked diligently to fix the failed system.) Yet students still found their learning to be of superior quality! In addition, the OL mode of instruction was regarded by students to be of high academic value. Why this is so cannot be definitively answered here. Data show that students experienced a high level of stress during their tenure in the course. They were critical of the system and of the instructor's inability to fix the situation. However, they did not complain or find fault with the course itself, the nature of OL learning, nor its content. Their reactions, retrospectively, were that they appreciated both the OL environment as well as the curriculum they had explored. Findings from this study indicate that further research is needed in order to examine the relationship between the epistemological nature of OL instruction and students' perceptions of their own learning processes in CMLE.

Suggestions

Specific suggestions for future course work and course design can be made using findings from this study. These include:

1. Diversify online delivery systems. It may be useful to design hybrid courses, in the future, that combine not only f2f interactions but also utilize such things as 'snail mail,' telephone conversations, and student work in both hard copy and on disk. In addition, it is suggested that no institution rely on one type of course delivery system solely. When this happens it is likely that a glitch in the system will result in the inability of all students and all instructors to function well. In looking at the future of virtual instruction we need to include as many products and formats as possible; diversity is imperative in keeping access available.

2. Change the widespread use of Bb as the primary means of OL course support. In light of the fact that Bb showed itself to be inferior both in design and service to other interface applications, it is suggested that UW System expand its support of course delivery packages to include more choices for professors and students. In addition, it is suggested that no UW campus be asked to rely on one course delivery system only (as discussed above). The instructor of the Foundations course, due to the fact that the Bb system was found to be of poor quality, made a decision to switch to a more integrated, supported, and flexible framework. Data show that in January 2002 the instructor participated in WebCT training in anticipation of designing and teaching more online courses in future.

3. Recognize the importance of ongoing student/teacher contact and make a commitment to investigating ways to improve OL teaching. Findings from this study suggest that instructor/student communication, even in a discontinuous pattern, is a key element in student success and learning OL and that continuity may not be needed in order to build viable student/teacher relationships. Therefore, more OL courses need to be designed that ensure long-term interaction between participants. Additionally, instructors must look for ways to design courses in layered formats so that, when systems do break down, students are aware of and can make use of alternative systems and formats.

Conclusions

Conclusions cannot be drawn from one investigation only. Students in this study elected to stick with the course work, in spite of the problems they encountered. Individuals who dropped out of the course were not contacted for this study. It could be surmised that those students who continued appreciated the OL environment to begin with and therefore were more resilient than their peers. Also, in learning to overcome the obstacles placed in their way, they might have felt empowered and more in control of their own learning; the technological problems may actually have added to their ability to solve problems and to be self-reliant. It is suggested that future studies examine this phenomenon in greater depth and detail.

This study, however, does bring up questions regarding the power of OL learning in general--even in light of an almost complete systemic failure. It encourages further investigations regarding how to assure student access. Because OL and DL models are acquiring priority status on campuses nationwide, it behooves us to investigate how learning technologies can support, rather than hinder, best practice.

Finally, this small study demonstrates a concerted need for continual teacher-student communication as well as better contingency plans--ones that are incorporated as part of course design--so instructors and students are better prepared to ensure continuity within the teaching/learning environment, especially when the technologies employed break down and result in virtual blackout.

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Notes

1 Hybrid courses are those that use a combination of f2f instruction and other traditional classroom practices with virtual learning environments.

2 All data quoted here are indicative of the larger data set and used with express permission of participants. Participants remain anonymous.

3 The name of the course has been changed in order to ensure student anonymity.

Works Cited

Clandinin, D.J., & Connelly, F. M. (2000). Narrative inquiry. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Conyers, J. G., Kappel, T., & Rooney, J. (1999). How technology can transform a school. Educational Leadership, 56 (5), 82-85.

Cornell, R. (1999). The onrush of technology in education: The professor's new dilemma. Educational Technology, 39(3), 60-64.

Dabbagh, N. (2001). Designing effective instructional strategies for a web-enhanced course on web-based instruction. Academic Exchange Quarterly, 5(4), 34-39.

Fetterman, D.M. (1998). Webs of meaning: Computer and internet resources for educational research and instruction. Educational Researcher, 27(3), 22-30.

Garnham, C., & Kaleta, R. (2002). Introduction to hybrid courses. Teaching with Technology Today. 8(6), downloaded April 10, 2002 from the WWW, http://www.uwsa.edu/ttt/articles/garnham.htm.

Grant, G., & Murray, C.E. (1999). Teaching in America: The slow revolution. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Khan, B. H. (Ed.). (2001). Web-based training. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications.

Leamnson, R. (1999). Thinking about teaching and learning. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

McGraw-Hill, (2001). Learning style survey (CD-ROM). NY: McGraw-Hill.

Mello, R. (2001). University of Wisconsin System School Library Education Consortium program evaluation 2000-2001. (Private research report). Department of Educational Foundations, Library Media Program, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.

Mello, R. (2002). Collocation analysis: A method for conceptualizing and understanding narrative data. Qualitative Research, 2(2), 231-243.

Miller, B., Cohen, N., & Beffa-Negrini, P. (2001). Factors for success in online and face-to-face instruction. Academic Exchange Quarterly, 5(4), 5-9.

Palmer, P. (1998). The courage to teach. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Ragan, P.E., Lacey, A. P., & Nagy, R. A. (2002). Web-based learning ad teacher preparation: Stumbling blocks and stepping stones. Teaching with Technology Today, 8(5), downloaded from the WWW 2/20/2002, http://www.uwsa.edu/ttt/articles/ragan.htm.

Schulman, A.H., & Sims, R.L. (1999). Learning in an online format versus an in-class format: An experimental study. THE Journal, 26(11), 54.

Spilka, R. (2002). Approximately "real world" learning with the hybrid model. Teaching with Technology Today. 8(6), downloaded April 10, 2002 from the WWW, http://www.uwsa.edu/ttt/articles/spilka.htm.

Young, S., Cantrell, P.P., Shaw, D. G. (2001). Online instruction: New roles for teachers and students. Academic Exchange Quarterly, 5(4), 11-15.



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