Technical hitches inhibit net study

February 4, 2000

Research into distance learning reveals that student frustrations with technology and its implementation can inhibit educational opportunities.

A study by Rob Kling, professor of information science and information systems, and Noriko Hara, research associate in instructional systems technology, at Indiana University, challenges dominant thinking about distance learning.

The authors say: "Many advocates of computer-mediated distance education emphasise its positive aspects and understate the kind of work that it requires for students and faculty. The case data reveal a taboo topic - students' persistent frustrations."

The authors focused on a course organised entirely via the web at a major (unnamed) university. The original intention was to investigate the ways in which students overcame physical isolation, but the research pointed to some fundamental inadequacies in the online experience.

Main frustrations were the lack of prompt feedback, ambiguous instructions on the web and technical problems.

The report says: "Technology such as the web and online conferencing systems enable universities to implement distance education to reach a diverse population and to provide open-learning environments 24 hours a day.

"Some analysts argue that the internet-supported distance education courses do more than bring students into online classrooms, they form 'a critical pressure point for challenging the dominant assumptions and characteristics of existing traditionally organised universities'."

The authors argue that a positive attitude to web-based learning is not enough to counter structural failures: "Even an experienced administrator and online teacher misperceived the kinds of pedagogical shifts required from face-to face teaching and could underestimate the extent to which mentoring could be critical. Certainly, these issues arise in traditional face-to-face courses."

The authors conclude that "distance education advocates argue that the increasing number of online courses will expand educational opportunities. This article queries this assumption that these courses may be offered easily."

The report is available at:

http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue4_12/hara/index.html

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