Learn the lingo and let the net set you free

January 16, 2004

Students need a guiding hand to get the most out of cyberchat.

Gwyneth Hughes and Lynda Lewis believe e-mentors are the way forward.

Some students quickly become comfortable with learning in cyberspace. Others find it more difficult. They may be able to cope with the technology but do not understand the point, or they understand the point but not the technology. Like many universities, East London has a virtual learning environment (VLE). Most people assume that the flexibility of online learning will improve the undergraduate experience and widen participation. After allowing a couple of years for ironing out technical glitches, we decided it was time to examine this claim by asking learners what they thought. Our research revealed that focusing on the technology rather than on the learners could reduce, not widen, participation. Tutors needed e-mentoring as well as technical support.

We interviewed 26 students and tutors in three disciplines - innovation studies, education and health sciences - where the VLE was used for more innovative group work and assessment. We evaluated the courses and learner interaction. We asked what worked and what didn't, who kept their fingers on the mouse and who was left thumping the Qwerty keyboard in frustration.

The results were not straightforward, but one thing was clear: helping students to gain technical skills is not enough to ensure inclusive e-learning. The novelty and flexibility of the VLE enthused some. One part-time student told us: "I could access it from work during my lunch break; I could access it from home. It was convenient - it was great."

But another moaned: "Someone should have done something and said, 'look this isn't working, people aren't liaising with one another, there's no collaboration - look at the chatroom, no one's using it'."

Technical incompetence and/or glitches were generally not a problem or not an insurmountable one. The main stumbling block was that many students did not know how to communicate online with their peers and did not realise how this interaction might help learning. Tutors had made sure the students had technical support but had forgotten to guide them on learning online.

Some students defaulted to more familiar face-to-face methods for group work and succeeded in their tasks. But the more disenchanted gave up or received poorer grades than expected. All of the latter had at least one educational disadvantage, such as outside commitments, dyslexia or English as an additional language - the very students widening participation aims to include.

This confirms growing concern among e-learning supporters that an overfocus on technology hides important learning issues. Take language. We cannot assume that words we use in everyday speech mean the same thing online. How many people automatically think of a chat as being something that takes place on a computer screen? One mature student told his class of his excitement at starting his first online chat with his course group. He was working at home and waiting for others to join him online when his teenage children walked into the room and turned on the television. "Be quiet, I won't be able to hear the other students in the chatroom," he told them.

His children creased up with laughter. Language barriers can come in other forms. Text-based webpages, for example, pose real problems for students who have difficulties reading large amounts of non-contextualised information. This includes students with dyslexia. Tutors need to ensure that clear, concise instructions are provided for such students.

Common teething problems with group work are magnified online. While technical scapegoats are easily found, tutors can work wonders with reluctant participants by employing a little coaching and support. So should we discourage use of online learning for anything more sophisticated than putting course materials online? Overall, the students we interviewed found their first excursion positive. However, while the tutors were very aware of the need for technical support, they were less sure about how to advise learners. For this reason, UEL has taken the dual approach of e-tutors with e-learning mentors and technical support. We hope to ensure that those learners who we are trying to pull in through widening-participation initiatives are not the ones who are further disadvantaged by our insufficient awareness of the learning and teaching implications.

Gwyneth Hughes is e-learning coordinator, and Lynda Lewis is a senior lecturer in the School of Education and Community Studies, at the University of East London.

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