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Learner Support System for Online Students

Towards the design of a learner support system for online students in the Caribbean tertiary education sector.

Introduction

Online education continues to gain prominence in the tertiary education sector of the Caribbean, as the various institutions seek to provide alternative routes to accommodate the growing number of adults wishing to enhance their professional and academic status. In this regard, a lot of emphasis is placed on expanding the number and range of programmes offered online, and in particular focussing on those in demand by a mature career-enhancing cohort.

While not minimising the importance of this thrust, the newness of studying in the online learning environment and the challenges associated with it should not be underestimated. Many students, on entering their first online programme, do not fully appreciate the extent of the difference between their experience as a learner in the conventional face-to-face classroom and the one awaiting them in the online environment. Many theorists and practitioners are therefore drawing attention to the learning skills that students should develop in order to have a successful online learning experience.

Even though there is no empirical data to substantiate this claim, it is very likely that a high proportion of Caribbean adults currently studying online are first-time students in this environment. Moreover, as more programmes are offered, targeting a wider cross section of potential students, online learning will remain a novel experience for many in the short and medium-term. Consequently, administrators of the regional higher education sector must take seriously the responsibility of developing systems to facilitate learner capacity-building among adult learners.

While learner support encompasses a range of services including the administrative and the provision of remedial education this paper will focus on providing support aimed at strengthening the overall learning capability of students, in order to enhance their capacity to function in the online learning space.

Learner Support System for Online Students

Profile of the Learner

The proposed system is intended for an online adult learner of the Caribbean tertiary sector. While some attributes of this learner may be shared by counterparts in other parts of the world (UNESCO/COL, 2005, p. 3) it is important to define the individual within the local context to ensure that strategies proposed are adequately informed by local conditions. In this regard, the discussion would draw on data gleaned from two studies, conducted among undergraduate students of the University of the West Indies Open Campus, as well as material generated as part of the delivery of its graduate programmes. While the data reviewed may be limited, it is felt that they cover a sufficiently wide range of situations so that when combined, they offer a reasonably adequate picture of the learner being targeted.

Demographics

Hunte (2010), in her study of Level 1 distance students of a B. Sc. Management Studies programme found that the majority, 85%, were female. Of the total cohort, 65% were responsible for dependents ranging from one, in the case of 25% of the group to five in the case of 1%. In terms of employment, 38% had been in the workforce for up to 5 years, 14%, for 11 to 15 years, and 13% for 16 to 20 years.

What these data appear to indicate is that the online adult learner of the Caribbean tertiary sector is typically employed, carries responsibility either solely or in partnership with another for managing a household, and has been out of the formal school system for several years.

Responses to a later question showed that some 83% chose the distance mode since they needed to continue working while studying, while 49% needed to update their skills for career advancement. According to the author, these reasons locate these learners within the goal-oriented category of Houle’s (1961) three-part typology of adult learners’ orientation to education, seeing that they “use learning to gain specific objectives”. Of interest is that there did not appear to be any responses that could have classified respondents in either of the other two categories, namely activity-oriented learners, those who “participate primarily for the sake of the activity itself” or learning-oriented learners, those who “ pursue learning for its own sake, the lifelong learners” (Hunte, 2010, p.105). Hunte also sees similarities between her findings and those of the earlier study of Kuboni, Thurab-Nkhosi and Chen (2002) who concluded that “economic and social factors play a greater role than pedagogical issues in influencing persons to study by distance”.  (cited in Hunte, 2010, p. 105).

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Technological Challenges

Hunte also draws attention to the students’ technological challenges. She notes that respondents did not consider themselves to be competent in the use of commonly used technologies and related processes such as sending email attachments, using URLs to access specific websites, and using word processing software. (pp. 107-108).

Technology-related issues are also highlighted in the second study reviewed. Cain and Phillip (2013), in their qualitative study conducted among B.Ed students, draw attention to two such issues. First, they note that some participants did not have ready access to the basic requirement of Internet access.  As such they had to rely on the services of the Open Campus site, which in some cases, involved travelling long distances.

The second relates to students’ inability to navigate the Learning Management System (LMS). One participant of the study claimed that many of her colleagues were having difficulty using the tools of the LMS. The researchers themselves acknowledged this, adding that some students went through the entire course having navigation problems.  The participant, commenting further, expressed the view that the students would have less difficulty if they made use of the tutorial designed to assist students in building the technical skills for functioning in the online classroom. It was permanently available and she herself used it regularly throughout the semester and could attest to the benefits of regular, continuous practice. According to her, “They had a lot of activities for you to do, which helped”.

There are very likely several reasons why students did not pay attention to the tutorial. One that readily comes to mind is that they did not have the time. Given the characteristics highlighted above, this is not unexpected. Nonetheless, it can be argued that lack of available time may not be the only factor, since at least one person in the group, the participant cited above, would have had the same time constraints.

One could argue that time could emerge as a convenient target of blame, thereby diverting attention from other factors that may be equally, if not more, important. In this regard, it is likely that many students did not feel that they could handle the self-instructional materials. On the other hand, the participant referred to above seemed to be better equipped to do so.  Being able to follow detailed instructions is becoming more and more necessary as ICTs gain prominence in the higher education sector.

Supporting students in developing the know-how for following instructions informed the approach taken in the implementation of an instructor-guided orientation course for incoming undergraduate students. In an attempt to remove all possible hurdles likely to obstruct successful use of the discussion forum, the course coordinator considered it necessary to provide instructions at the lowest level to assist students in determining whether there were any new postings. The instructions were as follows:

Knowing what’s new in a forum

  • It’s important to know how to ‘read’ the main forum page. Note that the discussion at the top is either a new posting or an older posting that someone replied to.
  • Just as a reminder – on that page there are 5 columns. In the first column, headed ‘Discussion’, you have the subject of the discussion post. The second column tells you who made that first post under that subject. The third column reminds you of the Group number and, very importantly, the name of the tutor of the group. The fourth column states the number of replies to the initial post and the fifth gives the date of the last post as well as the name of the person making that last post.
  • Of course, if there were no replies, the name of the person making the last post will be the same as the person who started the discussion.
  • You have to look at all the columns in relation to one another, and in particular columns 4 and 5, to know if there is an additional post to the original discussion, since your last visit.

Two factors are to be noted about these instructions. First, even the seemingly straightforward operations may comprise a complex of several tasks and for some students these tasks need to be unpacked. Secondly, limited spatial awareness skills may be hampering students’ ability to navigate the non-linear web-based environment.

Overall, the picture emerging from both studies about limited Internet access and low levels of ICT skills seems to fit in with findings of a larger 2013 ITU/UNESCO Report outlining the status of broadband penetration internationally. The following information, extracted from more extensive data sets of that Report, shows the status of selected Caribbean countries in relation to more developed ones as far as this aspect of telecommunications is concerned.

Table 1: Fixed Broadband Penetration, 2012 (per 100 inhabitants)

Rank Country Rate
1 Switzerland 41.9
2 Netherlands 39.4
20 United States of America 28.0
23 St. Kitts & Nevis 27.2
32 Barbados 23.8
54 Trinidad and Tobago 13.6
85 Antigua & Barbuda 5.6
95 Jamaica 4.3

(ITU/UNESCO, 2013)

Table 2: Percentage of Households with Internet – Developing countries, 2012

Rank Country Percentage
1 Korea (Rep.) 97.4
2 Qatar 88.1
15 Barbados 57.9
17 St. Vincent and the Grenadines 49.7
20 Antigua & Barbuda 48.2
31 Trinidad & Tobago 40.0
37 St. Lucia 32.2
47 Jamaica 23.0
107 Haiti 3.4

(ITU/UNESCO, 2013)

It is outside the scope of this paper to address the implications of these data any further. Nonetheless, they highlight the extent to which the conditions that they describe in Caribbean countries can lead to significant skills deficiency within the population.

Work Overload or skill Deficiency?

Another area of interest in Cain and Phillip’s study is the view expressed about the large number of activities students were required to do over the duration of the course. One participant began her assessment of the situation this way:

When you really check it out the activities are leading you up to whatever assignment or exam that is coming up. But … there are too many. But if you try to do most of them, it makes it easier at the end because … you can use that to do your final assignment. Instead of having to go now and do all the readings to prepare for the assignment. You could have been preparing along the way.

The participant followed up this positive remark by examining the situation from the opposing perspective of her colleagues:

If there are not so many activities, you can make a response that is rich, enlightening and informed. But because they rush, they just write something … If you have less activities, you could make more meaningful contributions. (Cain and Phillip, 2013, p. 311)

As reported by this participant, many students were of the view that the number of activities they were required to do exceeded what they could reasonably be expected to undertake in the time allotted.  It can be argued that the issue here may not necessarily be the volume of work to be done but rather the extent to which students are able to make connections among the various activities, thereby recognising each as part of an integrated whole. To the extent that they are unable to do so, then their approach to the assignment would very likely be disjointed and fragmented, which, in turn, could lead to a feeling of being overwhelmed.

Limited Capacity for Handling Difficulties

Email messages between students and staff of the UWIOC’s graduate programmes department as well as one-on-one counselling sessions that staff held with students provide another source of data about the learner. The following are summaries from some of the exchanges outlining matters that students were raising:

  • Student A:

Dissatisfied with failed grade for assignment. Wants a review. (Turns out that student did not attempt one section of the assignment).

  • Student B:

In giving reason for late submission of assignment, says that she actually attempted to submit by the due date, but later realised that she did not click on the save button. She does not agree that she should be penalised for her late submission. She also thinks that it was the responsibility of the group facilitator to have informed her immediately after the due date that her assignment was not received.

  • Student C:

Failed two courses. Says that stressful work environment and relocation have affected her performance.

  • Student D:

Failed more than two courses. Says that time management is a problem; she has children of varying ages. Nonetheless, she wants to continue in the programme.

  • Student E:

Was accepted in the programme the preceding year but deferred registration. She is unfamiliar with Moodle. She did not participate in the orientation. She needs help to become familiar with the online environment.

  • Student F:

Did not register for the preceding term but did not apply for Leave of Absence (LOA). Is seeking registration in current term. (Since student was not granted LOA, she may be considered as having withdrawn from the programme).

While acknowledging that these issues point to a need for improved institutional support, they do not minimise the possibility that learners themselves may not be adequately equipped to manage their increasingly more complex lives. The following are suggested as possible underlying factors impacting some students’ perception of and/or response to the situations in which they found themselves:

  • When faced with a disappointment (e.g. failing grade), the immediate response is to throw the blame elsewhere rather than examine what they did or did not do.
  • There is a tendency to exploit gaps, perceived or real, in the institution’s administrative procedures, in order not to accept responsibility for one’s shortcomings.
  • There is either an inability or unwillingness to assess the extent of the workload one is capable of undertaking.
  • Some students may be unwilling or incapable of assessing and making use of available resources. /underestimate value of available resources
  • In some instances, students are lodging a complaint at the end when the outcome they expected has not been realised.

In addition to the problems related to the management of their personal and family-related responsibilities, it is also likely that students may be ill-equipped to seek the help they need in their studies. Academic help-seeking has become an area of focus in the study of online learning as theorists seek to throw light on a capability now viewed as being pertinent for the online learner. Dunn, Rakes and Rakes (2014) view the asynchronous nature of online interaction as being an important deterrent to students’ seeking help from others in the environment. They explain,

Many students in online courses report feeling isolated as a result of the asynchronous nature of online course communication. In addition to feeling an absence of a relationship with peers and professors, many students doubt peer expertise, and avoid using classmates as a learning resource, while other students fear appearing inferior to their more competent peers. (p. 76)

For Du, Xu and Fan (2014) academic help-seeking is an important strategy of self-regulated learning, and they assert, “Many students fail to use this strategy appropriately to their advantage, and a lack of information and a perceived threat of help seeking may contribute to such failure”.

Categorizing learner attributes

On closer examination, the various facets of the learner experience outlined above seem to fall into three categories. First, some of the situations suggest that students may not be adequately equipped to undertake certain learning tasks. Secondly, many comments openly speak to difficulties encountered in handling the multiple roles of homemaker, employed person and student. Thirdly, there is the effect of limited internet access as well as low levels of ICT-related competence on students’ ability to function in the online environment.

Learner Development to Facilitate Online Learning

The online learning environment is primarily asynchronous in nature and, as noted by Dunn, Rakes and Rakes (2014), poses specific challenges for students. Thus, in designing the student support system, one must not only be aware of the characteristics that learners are bringing to the environment, but also have a clear sense of the qualities and competencies needed for them to function successfully in this online classroom. The three areas of focus emerging from the profile of the learner provide the backdrop for discussing the qualities and competencies required for learner development.

The literature on learning in the online environment generally falls into two broad categories. On the one hand, there is learning through social interaction and collaboration and on the other, learning as an individual activity. While there are advocates who would give prominence to one or the other, from the practitioner’s perspective, they are interdependent. Du, Xu and Fan (2014) seem to share this perspective given the understandings of learning that they use to introduce their study on help-seeking. They state, “Learning does not occur in isolation” and “Learners are affected by the social and cultural environment that surrounds them” and also, “Learning involves the process of change in the learner’s knowledge and skills” (p.1). Ludwig-Hardman and Dunlap (2003) make the connection even more clearly when they assert that self-directed learning skills are developed in a social context and that distance learners “need to possess a high level of self-direction and interest in connecting with other learners if they are to be successful” (p. 5).

While the concepts learning through social interaction and collaborative learning are frequently used interchangeably, there is evidence in the literature where a distinct meaning is ascribed to each term. Yang, Yeh and Wong (2010), in their study of students’ participation in an online EFL writing class, offer the following about social interaction:

In a community meaningful learning is achieved by interaction, and people share individual resources, elicit challenging questions and provide constructive feedback, so as to enhance personal intellectual growth (p.288).

They explain further that it is “a reciprocal process [in which] students not only acquired information from but also contributed information to the community. (p.298).

For some theorists collaborative learning conjures up notions of engaging in an activity leading towards a fairly well defined goal (Haythornthwaite, 2006).  Jahng (2012) considers it to be fundamental to successful problem-solving. In a study conducted to determine the pattern of group changes as participants undertake a group assignment, she explains,

Collaboration in a problem-solving activity demands complex learning skills for engaging in arguments as well as proposing alternative solutions to reach a consensus for the best solution. (p.2)

The notion of working together as a team to execute a project, or solve a problem and manage the processes and procedures involved in the undertaking is considered to be distinctive enough to separate understandings of collaborative learning from those of interactive learning (Kuboni, 2013).

In terms of learning at the level of the individual, self-directed learning (SDL) subsumes a complex of strategies for successfully managing one’s learning. Lai (2011), highlighting its relevance to online learning, draws on Knowles (1975) who defines it as,

A process in which individuals take the initiative, with or without the help of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identifying human and material resources for learning, choosing and implementing appropriate learning strategies and evaluating learning outcomes. (p.99)

McGuiness (2005) brings it all together and describes it as a continual process of self-management, self-monitoring and self-modification.

More recent theorists in the online field are using the term self-regulated learning in ways that demonstrate a close similarity with SDL.  Cho and Shen (2013), for example, say of SRL that it involves a student’s effort to manage learning processes systematically oriented to achieve goals (p.290). To that end, they identify the inherent constructs of SRL as goal orientation, academic self-efficacy, effort regulation, metacognitive regulation and interaction regulation.

 

Embedded in and straddling all learning capabilities described above is the skill of reflection. Herrington and Oliver (2002), drawing on the works of earlier theorists such as Boud, Keogh and Walker (1985) and Schon (1987) highlight it as important for online learning. They also distinguish between individually mediated reflection and socially-mediated reflection. In the case of the former, they advocate the use of journals, which they claim can facilitate the use of self-talk for reflecting on experiences and developing self-knowledge. With regard to the latter, they contend that it is enhanced considerably by collaborative work.

Intertwined with these learning skills are two other sets of attributes that are also deemed appropriate given the need to enhance the learning capabilities of the learner described earlier. First, there are the fundamental personal attributes consistent with being a lifelong learner.  Thorpe (2005), citing other sources, provides a reminder that lifelong learning is “a process of accomplishing personal, social and professional development throughout the life-span of individuals in order to enhance the quality of life of both individuals and their collectives. (p.24)

Secondly, there are those associated with digital literacy, and described as “those capabilities which fit an individual for living, learning and working in a digital society” (p. 2, JISC, 2011).

Towards the Design of the Learner Support System

The position advanced by Ludwig-Hardman & Dunlap (2003) provides a useful backdrop for conceptualising the design of a learner support system for mature Caribbean students engaging in online learning in the higher education sector. The authors assert,

To be successful, learners need the skills required for effective online learning, and those skills need to be explicitly taught and supported in the online learning environment. (pp.2-3)

Against the background of that statement as well as the preceding discussions, the system is being designed to support learner development along three separate yet inter-related lines, namely intellectual skills development, personal enhancement skills and technological competencies.

In terms of intellectual skills, the system will focus on both the cognitive and the metacognitive, given that both must be activated in conjunction one with the other to strengthen learning capacity. Livingston (1997) explains the relationship as follows:

Cognitive strategies are used to help an individual achieve a particular goal (e.g. understanding a text) while metacognitive strategies are used to ensure that the goal has been reached (e.g. quizzing oneself to evaluate one’s understanding of the text … Because cognitive and metacognitive strategies are closely intertwined and dependent upon each other, any attempt to examine one without acknowledging the other would not provide an adequate picture.

With regard to the personal enhancement dimension, one notes the broad framework governing Life Skills education as outlined in the proposed policy document of the Government of Trinidad and Tobago on the development of a National Life Skills Curriculum. While not adopting this framework, one recognises the relevance of its three constituent elements namely psychosocial skills, societal skills and occupational and livelihood skills.

Thirdly, while the notion of technological competencies falls within the broad parameters of digital literacy, as described earlier, it will focus largely on the aspect that the JISC document ascribes the label, ICT/computer literacy and further describes as “the ability to adopt and use digital devices, applications and services in pursuit of goals, especially scholarly and educational goals” (JISC, 2011, p. 2)

Essentially, the support system will seek to facilitate the development of the whole person not only to meet the requirements of study within the institution but also to lay the groundwork for continued personal and professional growth beyond the formal education setting.

Framework for the Design of the Learner Support System (a work in progress)

The development of the system is an ongoing exercise: only the first tier of skills have been identified thus far for each of its component parts. They are as follows:

Intellectual (cognitive and metacognitive) skills
  • Unpacking complex information
  • Recognising and making connections among different layers of information
  • Building on what you know
  • Interacting to learn
  • Collaborating to learn
  • Seeking academic help
Personal enhancement skills
  • Becoming aware of the self
  • Building awareness of self in the context of one’s environment
  • Developing capabilities for managing day-to-day activities
  • Building and maintaining interpersonal relationships
Technological competencies
  • Distinguishing between the public and private selves
  • Owning versus sharing knowledge
  • Balancing notions of self as individual and as group participant
  • Building non-linear literacy skills
  • Developing spatial awareness
  • Navigating virtual space
References
  • Cain, M. & Phillip, S. (2013). An exploration of students’ experiences of learning in an online primary teacher education program. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 9(3), 304-315. https://jolt.merlot.org/
  • Cho, M-H & Shen, D. (2013). Self-regulation in online learning. Distance Education, 34(3), 290-301.
  • Haythornthwaite, C. (2006). Facilitating collaboration in online learning. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 10 (1), 7-24.
  • COL/UNESCO (2005). Perspectives on Distance Education: lifelong learning and distance higher education.
  • Du, J., Xu, J. & Fan, X. (2014). Help-seeking in online collaborative group work: a multilevel analysis. Technology, Pedagogy and Education, 23.
  • Dunn, K.E.. Rakes, G.C. & Rakes, T. H. (2014). Influence of academic self-regulation, critical thinking and age on online graduate students’ academic help-seeking. Distance Education, 35(1), 75-89.
  • Herrington, J. & Oliver, R. (2002). Designing for reflection in online courses. In Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia (HERDSA) 2002 Quality Conversations, 7-10 July, 2002, Perth, Australia.
  • Hunte, S. (2010). Profile of the UWI distance learners: the implications for online curriculum development, teaching and learning at the University. Turkish Online Journal of Distance Education, (11) 3, 98-118.
  • ITU/UNESCO (2013). The state of broadband 2013: Universalizing broadband. A Report by the Broad Commission.  https://www.broadbandcommission.org/Documents/bb-annualreport2013.pdf
  • Jahng, N. (2012). An investigation of collaboration processes in an online course: how do small groups develop over time? IRRODL, 13(4), 1-18. www.irrodl.org
  • JISC (2011). Developing digital literacies: Briefing Paper in support of JISC grant funding 4/11. https://www.jisc.ac.uk/media/documents/funding/2011/04/Briefingpaper.pdf
  • Kuboni, O. (2013). The preferred learning modes of online graduate students. IRRODL, 14(3), 228-249.
  • Lai, H.-J. (2011). The influence of adult learners’ self-directed learning readiness and network literacy on online learning effectiveness: a study of civil servants in Taiwan. Educational Technology & Society, 14 (2), 98–106.
  • Livingston, J.A. (1997). Metacognition – an overview. https://gse.buffalo.edu/fas/shuell/cep564/metacog.htm
  • Ludwig-Hardman, S. & Dunlap, J.C. (2003). Learner support services for online students: scaffolding for success. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning. https://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/131/602
  • Mc.Guiness, A.M. (2005, May). Strategies for self-directed learning: Motivating today’s learner. Presentation for AST Instructors’ Workshop.
  • Republic of Trinidad and Tobago (undated). Policy on the development and implementation of a national life skills curriculum for personal development and employment enhancement; A Green Paper.
  • Thorpe, M. (2005). The impact of ICT on lifelong learning. In COL/UNESCO, Perspectives on Distance Education: lifelong learning and distance higher education. Pp. 23 – 32.

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