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
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
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.
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)
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
- 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.
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.
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."
of Students (n=14)
Table 1. Student Learning Style Inventory
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.
of Students (n=15)
style most appreciated
style least appreciated
interesting, constructivist, narrative
teaching and/or cooperative group work expected
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.
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
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
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)
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
for future course work and course design can be made using findings
from this study. These include:
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.
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 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.