Networked Learning Conference 2008
Home > Beetham

Learners' Experience of e-Learning: Research from the UK

Symposium Convenor: Helen Beetham
Independent consultant,

Symposium Introduction

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' e-learner?

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 environments.

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 some trends.

  • 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 and skills.

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 and change.

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 technology-rich environments;
  • 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 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 HE

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,,,,,,,


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 findings.

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,


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 and systems;
  • 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,,


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 categories.

Full Paper - .pdf




| About NLC | 2008 Conference Papers | Conference Committee| Keynote Speakers
| Papers from previous NL conferences |Research Seminars| Current Conference | Sponsors | Contact |