Student Perceptions of Online Courses: Real, Illusory or Discovered.

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1 Student Perceptions of Online Courses: Real, Illusory or Discovered. Lorraine Cleeton, Abstract: Research on individual differences among higher education students taking online courses is conducted to increase the cognitive and affective awareness of students which might at the end of the course lead to a connative change in student behavior. In order to examine the perceived barriers of online higher education students before and after their participation in an online research course; the Research Barrier Questionnaire (Cleeton, 2005) was administered to online students in the Ph.D. program in Education at an online University, before and after they took a research education course online. Student perceptions were analyzed in terms of examining possible barriers at the beginning and end of the online course to see if students face the same, different, or newly discovered barriers at the end of the course. For example, are students afraid of statistics at the beginning and realize at the end of the course that their real fear was in their time management ability. It is hoped that results will inform students about possible strategies to use to improve their course performance and for instructors to incorporate possible changes in future course design. Keywords: Online Doctoral Student, Research Course, Research Barriers Introduction The adult learner is characterized by being diverse in learning styles and learning preferences. According to learner-centered principles, learning does not occur in a vacuum and the learner discovers and constructs meaning from information and experience based on their unique perceptions, thoughts and feelings. Koohang & Durante (2003) maintain that online instructors need to be very aware of how students perceive and react to online courses since student perceptions and attitudes are critical to motivation and learning. The outcomes of a study by Gee (1990) found that successful distance education students favored an independent learning environment while successful oncampus students showed a preference for working with others. Sarasin (1998) suggested that instructors should be willing to change their teaching strategies and techniques based on an appreciation of the variety of student learning styles. The online environment necessitates a considerable amount of discipline and self-motivation (Serwatka, 2003) as online courses usually involve more time commitment than face-to-face courses. Learner motivation is one of the main factors affecting student performance and online learning success (Cole, Field & Harris, 2004). Motivation is influenced by the students interest in the content and their perceived relevance of the course; perhaps they have an interest 1

2 in the content and its application to them or a future position (Benbunan-Fich & Starr, 2003). It might be that online students who are motivated to learn will choose tasks that enhance learning, will work diligently at those tasks, and will persist in the task to attain their goals. ` Online learning offers the learner flexibility and convenience in taking courses. The learner is able to establish a schedule for participation in discussions and assignments. The learner is free to develop critical thinking skills involving the analysis, synthesis, and application of information to learning situations at the learner s own pace. The online learner has the availability of multimedia in which concepts in statistics can be simulated through different exercises e.g., entering data in a table and producing a three dimensional graph. In addition, new information, not contained in traditional sources, can be used to effectively reinforce other course information through offering examples, explanations, assessments, and exercises potentially enhancing learning compared to face-to-face teaching (McEwen, 1997). Researchers in the area of barriers to online learning have pointed out that there are several main barriers student might encounter such as difficulties in the following areas: course design e.g. comprehending the objectives of the course, learner motivation, time management, and comfortableness with online technologies. Suggestions for addressing the challenges are provided by Muilenberg & Berge (2005) in which they found through a factor analysis of online barriers that comfort and confidence in using online technology and motivation to learn were key to online success. In a previous study, Cleeton (2006) found that students in a Foundations Course in Doctoral Study were having difficulties in doing research in four main areas: (1) the mechanics of writing, (2) fundamentals of research, (3) selfmanagement, and (4) cognitive style. The Research Courses at the doctoral level aim to address the research needs of doctoral students in an online doctoral program in Education. Students in the Research Courses had previously expressed problems with research issues such as I don t enjoy rewriting, I can t relate to statistical theory as I am a people person, The challenge is pulling it all together from its parts and writing it all up. Historically, the evaluation in online learning has been done by instructor grading at the end of a course. The gap in the research acknowledged in this study has been addressed by measuring the behavioral difference between entry and terminal achievement perceived by the online learner. The research hypotheses in this study follows: Null Hypothesis 1: There is no difference between the perceived research barriers at the start of a Research course and at the end of the course. Null Hypothesis 2 : There is no relationship between the perceived research barriers at the start and end of a research course and course achievement. 2

3 Method There were 28 non-traditional doctoral students in Education who were enrolled in two Research Design doctoral courses at an online university, taught by the same instructor. Each student was given a 17-item questionnaire asking them to rank the difficulties their perceived learning barriers, at the start and finish of the course. The items on the questionnaire were divided into four sections: Research Barrier Questionnaire 1. The Mechanics of Writing 2. Fundamentals of Research 3. Self-Management 4. Cognitive Style The items on the questionnaire were the following: 1. Writer s Block 2. Procrastination 3. Rewriting 4. Edit 5. Sentence Construction 6. Choosing a Project 7. Literature Search 8. Frame Objectives 9. Prioritize Objectives 10. Framing Hypotheses 11. Whole Part View 12. Sampling 13. Matching Learning Style to Project 14. Time Management 15. Instrument Construction 16. Statistics 17. Graphics There were two further separate questions What are your strengths? and What other barriers do you think you will have? Students were given a total of 15 minutes to complete the instrument. Students in this doctoral online program had to answer at least two discussions per week and complete a two part assignment each week. The duration of the course is 12 weeks. 3. Results and Discussion The results were analyzed in terms of the ranking of perceived research barriers at the start of a Research Course and the end. Also, in terms of the ranking of the of perceived research barriers at the start of a Research Course and at the end of the course and overall achievement score on the assignments. The rankings of the perceived research barriers at the beginning and end of a Research Course are illustrated in Table 1. 3

4 Table 1 Perceived Research Barriers at Course Start and End Rankings of Perceived Research Barriers The following barriers were perceived by the students to be greater at the beginning than at the end: Procrastination, Framing Objectives, and Learning Style. Rewriting was perceived to be smaller at the beginning than at the end so it was a real barrier. Procrastination, Framing Objectives and Learning Style were illusory barriers and Rewriting was a real barrier. Cleeton (2006) ranked Procrastination as a significantly greater perceived research barrier at the 5% level of significance for those who completed a Learning Agreement in a long time as compared those completing it in a short time. In the present study, students had previously expressed problems in be able to keep up with the course because of concurrent doctoral writing commitments. Rewriting was perceived as a smaller barrier at the beginning than at the end of the research course and this could be based on the fact that doctoral students although familiar with rewriting in their 4

5 in their other doctoral work, might have found the amount of rewriting associated with a Research Course overwhelming. Learning Style might have been perceived as higher at the beginning than at the end because the students might not have known that they were going to be given a choice to select research projects that suited their learning style such as ethnographic studies for individuals interested in different cultures. Also, in Cleeton (2006), framing objectives was perceived as the most difficult barrier. Students in the present study viewed this task as higher barrier in the beginning than at the end. All the students in the present course had a background in education would have been used to writing objectives in their previous Education Courses and in their various positions in education. However, according to Kizlik (2006) over the past thirty years or so, the emphasis and attention paid to behavioral objectives has waxed and waned as different ideas change about how best to express instructional intent. There was one significant mean rank difference for Statistics, found by using the Kruskal-Wallis test for differences of perceived barrier rankings for online students at the beginning and end of a Research Course illustrated in Table 2. Table 2 Kruskal-Wallis Test for the differences of Perceived Barrier Rankings for Online Students at beginning and end of Research Course and Achievement Score Achievement Score Perceived Learning Barrier M Rank Significance 1 Statistics = high score on assignments 2= low score on assignments Students who got an overall high score on their assignments as compared to those who got an overall low score on their assignments perceived the barrier known as Statistics as a higher barrier at the beginning than at the end and this reached the 5% level of significance and Table 2 Real, Illusory, or Discovered Barriers it was an illusory barrier. It might be that students in this online research course were able to succeed in getting higher grades and lowering their perceived barrier in statistics through one of the teaching strategies of the course, critiquing each other s work, which mirrors the collaborative learning that takes place in face-face classes. Procrastination Framing Objectives Learning Style Rewriting Discovered Barrier 5

6 Choosing Instruments Statistics The analysis of students comments revealed: Procrastination At the beginning of the course, the students rated procrastination at a high level of difficulty. Bitter experience with procrastination taught them that procrastination was an enemy of research and they felt that they must guard against it in the future. Framing objectives By stressing the importance of investing time in framing objectives, the students felt at the end of the course that it would not be a barrier to future research. Learning style At the beginning of the course, the students found difficulty in changing their learning style from convergent to divergent thinking, but by the end of the course they had adapted to the new learning style needed for creative research. Rewriting Although the students did not feel at the beginning of the course that rewriting would be a significant barrier, they had underestimated the level of critical thinking and rewriting that was needed for literature reviews, so they discovered rewrite to be a real barrier. Choosing instruments At the beginning of the course the students perceived choosing evaluation instruments as a barrier and so it turned out to be in practice. They needed much more study of different types of Real Barrier evaluation instrument and particularly how to compose questionnaires. Statistics Much effort was placed in introducing students to statistics and to conquering the scars of former poor mathematics teaching, so that by the end of the course they did not see statistics as being a future barrier to their research. Limitations In a future study the sample size should be increased. There would also need to be analysis of the two questions at the end of the Research Barrier Questionnaire (2005) to gain further insight into the perceived learning barriers of the online doctoral students. References Cleeton, L. and Cleeton, G. (2006) A Smooth Passage Towards an Online Ph.D., ICEL Conference 2006, Montreal. Cleeton, G. (1991) Perception and Reality of Learning Barriers in an Electronics Course. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 82, Cleeton, G. (2005) Research Barrier Questionnaire (Walden University). Cleeton, L. (2000) External Representations and Cognitive Styles in the Solution of Simple Spatial, Verbal Reasoning and Mathematical Word Problems. Goldsmith s Journal of Education, Vol. 5, No. 1,

7 Gibson, C. & Graff, A.(1992) Impact of Adults Preferred Learning Styles & Perception of Barriers on Completion of External Baccalaureate Degree Programs. Journal of Distance Education, 1-5. Harper, G. & Kember, D. (1992) Approaches to Study of Distance Learning and Education Students. British Journal of Educational Technology 17, Kelly, G.A. (1963) A theory of personality-the psychology of personal constructs. New York: Norton. P. xii. Kizlik, B. (1997) Effective Study Skills. Retrieved March 1, 2006 from Liu, Y & Ginther, D. (1999) Cognitive Styles and Distance Education. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, Volume II, Number III. Oh, E. and Doohun, L. (2005) Cross Relationships between Cognitive Styles and Learner Variables in Online Learning Environment. Journal of Interactive Online Learning, Vol.4, No. 1, Summer, Smith, S.M. (1997) Preparing faculty for instructional technology: From education to development to creative independence. Cause/Effect, 20, Tucker-Ladd, C. (1996) Procrastination. Retrieved March 1, 2006 from p4r.htm 7

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