Learners' Experience of e-Learning: Research from the UK
Symposium Convenor: Helen Beetham
Independent consultant, email@example.com
Research into networked learning has until recently focused on specific
technologies, or specific interventions in learners' practice, or specific
environments designed for learning. This was appropriate in an era when
the technology used by learners was largely defined by the institutions
in which they chose to study. Whether from a business process perspective
- justifying the investment in digital technologies - or from a participative
perspective - exploring how learners experienced the new digital offering
- the technologies themselves were often the starting point simply because
they were in every sense a 'given'.
Today's learners are independently networked. Institutionally-provided
technologies are not their only options, and among well-resourced learners
they are often the least-favoured. The curriculum as manifested through
institutional web pages, bibliographies, lecture notes and scheduled tasks
is only one route to the advertised outcomes: digitally wised-up learners
will be exploiting many others. This makes it less easy - and less relevant
- to construct research around the technologies themselves or around technical/curricular
innovations. We are now observing learners as they participate in a range
of social and educational practices, supported by an array of personal,
public and institutional technologies. How do they experience their learning
in this new environment? And what practices and beliefs characterise an'effective'
The UK's Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) has a strong track
record of funding development projects in e-learning, many of which have
been evaluated for their impact on learners. For the JISC, investigating
learners' experiences in a more holistic way became a priority because
of the need to develop systems and standards that fit the learning lifestyles
of this'net generation'. A comprehensive review of literature (Sharpe
et al. 2005) found that learners' perspectives on e-learning were poorly
represented even in research claiming to place learners' experience at
its heart. There was a particular need for studies that looked at learners'
experiences beyond the boundaries of individual programmes or technical
Following recommendations from this review, two projects were funded
specifically to elicit learners' experiences across different programmes
of study and modes of technology use (Creanor et al. 2006 and Conole et
al. 2006). Using innovative and participative methods, they identified
- Learners are living complex and time-constrained lives. In these
circumstances efficient and flexible access to learning materials, experts
and communities are increasingly important.
- Learners make frequent use of technology both at home and within
their institution. They use the internet as the first port of call for
information in their lives and expect to be able to locate and download
relevant resources for their study. This fits with Frand's observation
that for the 'Net Generation' 'computers are not a technology but a
given' (Frand, 2000).
- Similarly, many learners are used to establishing technology-mediated
conversations and expect frequent and responsive communications in support
of their study. Again this corresponds to Frand's Net Gen characteristics
of 'staying connected' and 'zero tolerance for delays'.
- Personalisation and choice are key aspects of technology use in learners'
lives that they expect to transfer to their study.
- There is an'underworld' of informal learning which is not mandated
or supported by the institution but frequently enabled and sustained
by use of technology.
- Effective e-learning involves complex strategies in which personal
beliefs, motivations and affective issues are a factor as well as access
This last point illustrates how, within the general trend toward digital
literacy, learners show enormous diversity. As Thorpe et al. point out
in their paper here, learners are still highly influenced by their past
experiences of learning, it is just that in considering this history we
must now include their different experiences with e-learning, with social
networks, and with personal technologies. To the existing challenges of
learner-centred research we must add the complexity of learners' relationships
with and through technology, considering that they too are open to development
The projects presenting papers at this symposium are part of a second
phase of JISC funding, designed to add detail to this broad picture of
diversity and change. The projects have the common aims to:
- investigate how learners experience and participate in learning in
- investigate the strategies, beliefs and intentions of learners who
are effective in learning in technology -rich environments (recognising
that effectiveness is a complex and contested idea);
- develop methodologies for eliciting the learner experience, drawing
on the relevant technologies where appropriate.
Although the projects engage in regular collaborative events and have
a shared wiki for research outcomes http://mw.brookes.ac.uk/display/JISCle2/Home
the four papers offer different viewpoints on the research process. Jefferies
et al. explore in more detail the innovative and participative research
methods the projects have adopted, and which continue to evolve. They
discuss the use of video and audio diaries and the implications of allowing
participants to control the technologies they use for data capture as
part of the research process. This project is following participants over
two years of study and identifying critical moments in their emerging
practices and identities as e-learners. First-year learners in transition
to higher education are the focus of Hardy et al.'s research. Their paper
explores some of the practicalities of data collection and offers insights
into new students' expectations. They suggest that while most undergraduates
arrive with already-high levels of IT competence and confidence, they
tend to be conservative in their approaches to university study. Learners
involved in this project maintained a clear separation between technologies
for learning and for social networking.
Thorpe et al. situate their research in the context of well-established
literatures on student learning in general, on work-based and informal
learning, and on communities of practice. In dealing with learners as
subjects of and in their own learning contexts, they argue that we can
also learn from the methodological frameworks offered by identity theory
and activity theory. They present early data from learners on two practice-based
courses, and contrast their experiences with the educational intentions
expressed by their course tutors. Finally, Childs and Espinoza-Ramos offer
a draft typology of learners' preferences, suggesting a complex inter-dependency
of choices around physical spaces for learning, levels of social engagement
in learning, and supportive technologies.
The symposium will offer an opportunity to hear updates from these projects
as well as exploring the issues raised in their presented papers.
Introduction - .pdf
'How it was for me…' First steps on our Learners' Journeys through
A.L.Jefferies, R.S. Hyde, P.R Bullen,
STROLL project, Blended Learning Unit, University of Hertfordshire, UK
The JISC funded STROLL project set out to document and research into
learners' own views of their experiences of learning within what is seen
as a technology-rich environment and to consider a range of learners'
experiences of learning recorded during their'journeys' at the University
of Hertfordshire (UH) and Hertford Regional College (HRC). Over thirty
undergraduates from a diverse set of backgrounds have been recruited to
the project as volunteers and reflect the university's wide diversity
of intake in race, age, gender and nationality. In May 2007 the STROLL
team invited students to spend a pilot week recording their learning experiences.
Creating their own video or audio diaries with webcams or camcorders or
using digital voice recorders, the students recorded their answers to
a series of questions.
- Do you enjoy using technology for learning or leisure?
- Do you have any difficulties using technology in every day life and
in your studying? What would make e.learning technology easier to use?
- Have you used any social network technologies this week? How do you
use them? What do you like/dislike about them?
- How can your lecturers use technology (including StudyNet) even better
to improve your learning? What tricks are they missing or what ideas
could they use?
Further diaries are being recorded in October 2007 and in March and October
2008, with a variation of the questions each time. The project report
will provide a set of longitudinal experiences, the 'learners' journeys',
showing the use that students make of e-learning tools such as the university's
own MLE (StudyNet) and the pervasiveness of technology for learning and
leisure in their everyday lives.
The project team will bring to the symposium examples of the early results
from the first two sets of diaries, including some sample video clips
of the students' reflections in response to the questions identified above.
These indicate an enthusiasm for using technology across the student group
both for learning and leisure and a widespread use of social networking
tools. These are broadly in line with findings from the Phase 1 outcomes.
The symposium will also be an opportunity to discuss research methodologies
as they emerge across the consortium of projects. There has been relatively
little research into the use of video diaries to capture student reflection
on learning, although there are examples of their prior use in medical
research for patients monitoring their own conditions. A qualitative approach
to the analysis of the data has been followed. Transcripts of the audio
and video files were produced, themes from the data were recorded and
the student transcripts subsequently colour coded according to the students'
comments on the key questions asked. This allowed a quick comparison of
data between the different sets of student reflections. Later on NVivo
was used to support and record the tracking of the large quantities of
data. Short telephone interviews were used to follow up the individual
students after their data had been transcribed.
Some quantitative data was also gathered to record the backgrounds and
programmes of study and to provide an audit trail for the project. This
has been analysed using SPSS.
The paper and presentation discuss the practicalities of organising video
diaries as a means of capturing a rich amount of data and the methods
used to analyse them, given the quantities of data available as well as
indicative answers to the main research questions.
Full Paper - .pdf
Expectations and Reality: Exploring the use of learning technologies
across the disciplines
Judy Hardy1, Denise Haywood2, Simon Bates3, Jessie Paterson4,
Susan Rhind5, Hamish Macleod6, Jeff Haywood2,
1EPCC, 2School of Education, 3School of Physics, 4School of Divinity,
5School of Veterinary Studies, 6Centre for Teaching, Learning and Assessment,
The University of Edinburgh, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com,
firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com,
The aim of the LEaD project is to undertake a study of first-year students
from a variety of different entry routes and across a variety of subject
areas at the University of Edinburgh. Its focus is on "critical moments";
more specifically, the involvement and impact of learning technology on
learners' transition to University and how their use of learning technology
changes as they progress through their first year.. The study includes
a heterogeneous range of students from three academic disciplines: Physics,
Veterinary Medicine and Divinity. Courses in these subject areas have
an established e-learning presence and have begun to gain experience and
understanding of how to embed Web2.0 tools such as weblogs, podcasts etc
in support of the teaching, hence this is an ideal time to study the student
perspective in parallel with these initiatives.
The key objectives of the project are:
- To survey learners' expectations regarding the availability and use
of e-learning at University.
- To observe how learners adapt and change their approaches to e-learning
during their first year at University.
- To investigate to what extent learners use non-institutional / personal
e-learning technologies to support their learning.
- To identify the key factors that influence learners' choices of e-learning
strategies and how these are utilised.
Teaching staff from each of the academic disciplines involved in the
study are integral to the project team; their involvement is key to maintaining
student engagement over the duration of the study. We have followed a
mixed-mode approach, including a series of reflective student diaries
recorded at key points over the academic year. together with collaborative
and group discussion. In addition, since 1990 the University of Edinburgh
has surveyed newly arriving undergraduates' experience and expectations
of learning technologies and their use in teaching and learning by means
of an online questionnaire. In our paper for the symposium we will discuss
the tools and techniques used for data collection and will highlight emerging
Full Paper - .pdf
Learners' experiences of blended learning environments in a practice context
Mary Thorpe, Gráinne Conole, Rob Edmunds
The Open University, Institute of Educational Technology, firstname.lastname@example.org
This project focuses on students studying courses with a work-based learning
element. Such courses may require students to do a number of days of practice
learning as a compulsory and assessed part of the course. Others develop
practical skills as the content of the course or focus on the work practice
experience of students. Seven courses have been identified, drawn from
Health and Social Care, Mathematics, Computing and Technology, and the
Business School. The project focuses on the key research aims of the JISC
elearning programme, and constitutes a distinctive context in adding the
work and practice dimension to what is to be explored. Issues of skills
development and reflecting on practice are central to these courses. Students
are also studying part-time and many are older than 25.
The project aims: to investigate:
- the student experience in terms of learners' choices, the critical
moments in their evolving practice, and their personalisation of tools
- the impact of institutional policies and systems
- the impact of course-level pedagogic practices and learning outcomes
- the experience of highly skilled communicators and networkers.
A case study on each of the seven courses involved is in the process
of development, prior to data collection from students. Interviews with
course designers and tutors are being used to surface key issues, some
of which can be taken forward into the interviews with students.
Issues of student orientation and the design of courses incorporating
significant ICT elements are already generating interesting and inter-related
issues at this stage in the research process. Students' orientation to
technology differs and this creates different kinds of challenge for course
providers. For example, students recruited to courses in Health and Social
Care include many who are not enthusiastic technology users. Finding themselves
studying a course where ICT exercises are assessed and compulsory is described
as a'culture shock' by tutors. By contrast, students on a second level
Technology course are described as self-selecting and computer literate.
ICT integration into course teaching however has required new kinds of
design solutions to be devised. A Business School post-graduate course
teaches the required ICT skills in an initial tutorial and subsequently
summarises this in a wiki. Health and Social Care'front loads' ICT into
the first of three courses in the Social Work degree and integrates assessment
of key activities into the mandatory assignments and end of course assessed
component. The blended aspect of some courses also creates a particular
challenge in designing online forums. These can be heavily used in a course
where students have to collaborate to generate wiki pages. In a more traditional
course context, where the forums are meant for a discursive, group seminar
approach, participation has been of good quality from a core in the tutor
group, but others have taken part in a more perfunctory fashion - doing
just what is stipulated and engaging no further.
This project is using a combination of qualitative and quantitative research.
Interviews (face to face and telephone) will be analysed using nVIVO.
Survey data will use well-established OU processes for online delivery
and analysis. These will give us a framework setting a benchmark for how
a representative sample of students on the courses use ICT for study,
against which we can compare and contrast our qualitative data about particular
students. We are also working with a number of Centres of Excellence in
Teaching and Learning with shared interests in practice learning. These
early findings will be expanded upon at the symposium, with a wealth of
new data from the intervening months' work.
Full Paper - .pdf
Students blending learning user preferences: Matching student choices
to institutional provision
Mark Childs, Rossana Espinoza-Ramos
Learning Development Centre, University of Warwick, UK, email@example.com,
This paper describes the preliminary findings of the JISC (Joint Information
Systems Committee) funded project BLUPs (Students Blending Learning User
Preferences). The project is part of JISC's Learner Experience Programme
and is a collaboration between the Universities of Warwick and Northumbria.
The aim of the project is to identify the range of provision that students
choose when engaged in informal self-directed learning with respect to
these three dimensions:
- Social spaces and individual spaces
- Institutional provision and personal provision
- Physical environment and virtual environment
The project began in March 2007 and is due to finish in February 2009.
The pilot phase interviews were conducted during July and August 2007
and the analysis took place between August and November 2007. The main
phase of the project is taking place throughout the remainder of the 2007/08
academic year. Final conclusions and dissemination will take place during
the final five months of the project. As a result of the pilot phase of
the project an indicative typology of students' preferences, linked to
the students' rationale for those choices, has been developed.
During the pilot phase, twelve students were interviewed at the University
of Northumbria and eight at the University of Warwick. The responses made
by the students were clustered into groups with common attributes, in
which the choices they made consistently correlated with the factors influencing
them. The intention throughout this process was to create divisions that
were detailed enough to provide a close approximation of the students'
experiences and yet simple enough to be a practical tool to help practitioners.
From the interview data the following observations were made:
- Whether students preferred to work singly or in groups was a dominant
factor in their choices of provision. However students who were social
online were not necessarily social offline, and vice versa.
- Students' use of technology did not progress along a continuum of
less literate to more literate, or less usage to more usage. Some sophisticated
users of technology did not use the social networking sites of their
peers, but they were using technologies that the social networkers did
not. Students used one or other (or neither) of these sets of tools,
but not both.
- A minority of students also used additional technologies, but in
these instances there was always an identifiable factor behind this
usage, which differed from student to student, but was consistent where
the factor was present.
The categories developed during this pilot phase were used to analyse
case studies from a previous JISC project and were found to be applicable
to those data. The categories will be used to structure the interviews
and data gathered during the main phase of the project. The main phase
will also be an opportunity to further test the generalisablity of the
Full Paper - .pdf