Over the past few weeks I’ve been looking at Induction processes here at Napier University – most specifically those introducing students to WebCT, Napier’s Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) of choice. Some of my discoveries have been quite interesting and back up in reality a lot of the theory that we’ve already discussed regarding the support of on-line learners.
One example comes in the form of a induction process devised by the social science department of the university, a pilot of which was run on an MSc course last semester. The format of this process was a 2 week course of daily activities, all very short – sub 30mins. Each activity would introduce the student to a different part of WebCT and show how it would be used on the course, including such things as discussion forums, chat rooms and multimedia libraries. An activity would be released each day over the two week period and the students were expected to work on them that day, collaborating with each other as required, as is the case on discussion tasks in particular. This higlights the second purpose of the induction process – to build a sense of community among the students despite working at distance. There were plenty of opportunities for discussion among the two weeks and it was hoped that they would participate in these at the correct time, thus creating asynchronous but quick-response conversations.
Perhaps unsurprisingly the students didn’t use the induction materials at all in the way intended…
I talked to the program leader about the whole process and the main learning point that arose was the fact that students, even well qualified and high acheiving students such as study on the course in question, will not follow a strict schedule, especially measured on a scale of days. The course leaders observed the students throughout the two weeks and noticed a trend of irregular visits, every few days at most, and on these visits the student would complete all available tasks at once. Rarely did a student complete the allocated task on it’s given day, probably due to the fact that they discovered the brevity of each activity at the beginning and realised that they were never going to fall behind. This led, naturally, to a lack of communication among the class as they were never on the same task simultaneously, and so the sense of community was never fostered among the group.
The second trend observed by the course leader was that while every student looked in on every task, some did not complete a large percentage of their tasks. Having talked to these students afterwards in feedback sessions she discovered that a they had decided that there was no point in completeting the tests and tasks at this early stage. They decided that they’d have a look now, take note of what resources were available, and then come back when the information was required, ie. when the problem or activity actually cropped up in coursework.
I feel that both of the above trends show that too much structure was given to the student. As we’ve seen and discussed in earlier sections of BOE, one of the main strengths of on-line learning is it’s flexibility. The on-demand, anytime learning offered by this medium is often quoted as it’s most desirable quality, so by giving the student tasks which require participation each and every day the process was setting itself up to fail. The fact that every student did complete every task shows that they were well designed and useful, but the delivery mechanism seemed to be flawed. Perhaps making communication and discussion tasks run over a week on the next run of the process and making completion deadlines for other tasks more flexible would improve the community building aspect, and allow students to work more in the way they desire.
This approach would also tie in with the second point of interest, which is the fact that some of the students themselves seemed to brand the induction activities as a resource to be referred back to as and when required. By branding the activities with a specific time and date, it encourages a ‘complete and forget’ mentality where the students consider the entire induction resource redundant after the induction period. If this idea was relaxed, and the students were encouraged to work through the tasks as and when needed, as suggested above and including throughout the course, then they would be more likely to refer back to the introductory help when required, and thus overcome problems more easily.
Overall, the induction materials were a success in that students found them useful, and problems with the VLE were cut, but I feel, along with the course leader, that a change in delivery method would make them even more useful. Looking at it more generally, students will always be strategic learners and attempt to complete their work via the path of least resistance. Accounting for this though and offering the resources in a manner that allows this more easily will make always them more well received, and thus more well used. Also, making sure that students realise that induction resources are not just useful at the start of a course but can be dipped into as and when needed will ensure that they are well supported throughout the program.