Evaluation of an Applied Psychology Online Degree Maggie Gale, University of Derby

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1 Evaluation of an Applied Psychology Online Degree Maggie Gale, University of Derby Summary An online questionnaire survey was used to explore the learning experiences of 29 students studying for a unique online psychology degree at the University of Derby. The questionnaire covered study patterns and use of online resources, academic and pastoral support, and qualitative aspects of students experiences of online learning. The results showed that most participants combined studying with work and other commitments, using a little and often pattern of study. Most of the sample had used the online discussion boards and most found the online group work useful, but nearly a third would have liked greater interactivity. Nearly all participants reported they would approach a course tutor in the first place for both academic and pastoral support, but over half had exchanged contact details with other students and nearly 80% reported seeking advice form other students. Nearly half the students found the tutors very helpful but the qualitative data indicated dissatisfaction with inconsistencies in e-tutoring skill and activity. The programme has been improved in responses to the survey findings, by introducing an online Fresher s event. The findings will also be used to inform improvements in online and electronic learning opportunities for students on the campus based psychology degree programme, and disseminated across the university and the national HE community to inform research and development in online learning in HE. Rationale The University of Derby is unique in offering a BPS-accredited, fully online psychology degree in which face-to-face student-tutor contact is limited to a single residential week at the end of stage two of the programme. The programme is now fully developed with the first cohort graduating in summer The focus of the psychology team prior to the study was on developing online course materials and limited attention was paid to the student experience of studying online. The objective of the present study was to explore the student experience using an anonymous online student questionnaire that was formulated for the purpose of the study. Methods A 30-item instrument was developed using a proprietary online questionnaire tool (survey toolkit.com). Items were selected based on the existing literature, feedback Online learning evaluation, page 1 of 12

2 from students, and consultation with the Faculty Elearning Coordinator, the Faculty Elearning Teaching Fellow and the University s E-pedagogy advisor There was a range of item types, including multiple choice questions, Likert-type scales, and open-format questions to allow students to express their thoughts and feelings in their own words. The questionnaire is given in the appendix. The information collected fell into four main categories: Demographic - allowing the researchers to get a feel for the makeup of the student population on this course. Study resources aimed at eliciting the usefulness and use of the various means available to teach the programme. Pastoral to find out where and how the students access help when required. An opportunity was also given for students to share their reasons for choosing this method of study. Qualitative students were given the space to express any thoughts they had about the perceived interactivity of the course and the feedback they received from tutors. Finally an opportunity was afforded for students to report their experiences of the course, both good and bad. We were interested in the ups and downs experienced by the students. Participants and procedure The study was approved by the internal ethical committee of the psychology department. The survey took place during the autumn semester of the academic year 2006/7. Participants were recruited by ing all students who were studying the programme and inviting them to participate in an online survey of their experiences of online study. It was stressed that all data would be collected anonymously and that there would be no attempt to match participants to their responses. Responses were automatically recorded by the software, and were downloaded from the web into a word document where they where coded and analysed Findings Of 108 students enrolled on the programme at the time of the study, 29 completed online questionnaires, giving a response rate of 26.85%. Most participants were aged between 26 and 45 years, and over half were UK resident (see table 1 below). Fifteen participants (51%) lived with dependents and 20 (69%) worked outside the home, of whom 14 (70%) reported being in full time employment. The majority of respondents (69%) gave professional development as Online learning evaluation, page 2 of 12

3 their reason for studying and the remaining 31% reported studying purely for personal interest. Participants were therefore predominantly mature students studying in limited time, mainly for career development reasons. These data are approximately in line with that of the cohort overall, which indicates that the sample is representative of the student population studying the programme. Table 1. Participant details. of Pts (%) Age group over 45 1 Country of Residence UK 18 (62%)* Germany 3 (11%) Ireland 2 (7%) Slovenia 1 (3%) USA 3 (11%) South Africa. 1 (3%) *NB does not total 100% because of rounding Results Study patterns and use of resources Asked about their study patterns, the majority (76%) studied part-time, the remainder full-time. The course structure is extremely flexible; both full-time and part-time students can take up to four modules per semester. The survey showed that 45% of part-time students were taking two modules, 21% were taking three modules and the remainder just 1 module. Full time students were studying four modules per semester. Asked about frequency of stuffy, 50% reported studying most days, 38% reported studying 1-2 days a week, and 7% reported studying most weeks. The course is designed so that all the materials for all the modules are available from the start of the semester. Using a 5 point scale most of the students (90%) reported this practice to be very helpful and no-one found it unhelpful or very unhelpful. Online learning evaluation, page 3 of 12

4 Most students therefore appeared to take a little-and-often approach to study, rather than blocking out longer periods of time to concentrate on their studies. Given the sample demographics it would be useful to explore whether this pattern is an active choice or a response to circumstances, for if online students tend to be forced into little-and-often learning, it would be preferable to design and deliver the course in ways that are more specifically designed to accommodate that pattern of learning. Asked about interactivity, 69% found the course interactive enough, but 31% would have preferred more interactivity. te that the questionnaire did not define interactivity, so the figures may disguise varying student conceptions of interactivity. The course materials have been updated since the survey in ways that were intended to increase the level of interactivity [for example by inclusion of videos, more exercises with online feedback etc], but staff and student and staff perceptions of interactivity may also vary and there is a case for further research on student and staff perceptions of interactivity in online learning. Communication and student support was delivered mainly through asynchronous discussion boards. A very high proportion of students (80%) reported using this as a study resource with only 17% reporting non-use of the boards. Asked about frequency of use of the course forum, however, 86% reported using the forum at least sometimes, with only 7% reporting using it hardly ever. The discrepancy between responses to items suggests that discussion board/forum use is widespread but that students views about their functions may vary, which again is an area worth further investigation. Given the data on use of discussion boards, it was perhaps surprising that only two students reported finding the tutors more useful than the materials for ascertaining information. However, when asked about their experiences of online contact with tutors, 48% of students reporting finding them very helpful and 31% quite helpful. Just two students (7%) reported finding the tutors not very helpful. Again, more research may be needed to explore the interplay between use of discussion boards and interaction with tutors among online students. One very basic form of interaction between students and tutors is the feedback students received on both formative and summative work. Feedback was viewed in a positive light by most participants (83%), but 17% reported they did not find the feedback helped to motivate them. Group work is a feature of several of the online modules because the course team believed that incorporating group work would both mirror the experience of campus students and facilitate relationship building among online students. Group Online learning evaluation, page 4 of 12

5 work is managed by students forming groups via the module discussion boards and the module tutor then providing a private group area for the groups to work in. The private group areas typically have arrange of functions enabled such as file exchange, discussion board and exchange. Asked about the value of group work on the course, most participants (87%) reported seeing the group work as beneficial Academic and pastoral support Asked about frequency of seeking advice from tutors, four students (14%) responded that they hardly ever sought advice from the tutors, whereas 25 (just over 86%) had sought advice from tutors. The majority of the respondents (66%) reported that they would approach tutors first for academic advice, with the remainder reporting they would ask fellow students first. A larger majority (86%) reported that they would approach tutors first if they had a personal problem affecting their study. These data were encouraging in suggesting that pastoral support was viewed positively by students. When asked if they had actually sought advice from other students, nearly 80% reported they had. Asked about their contact with other students, 14% said they are never in contact and 21% hardly ever in contact whereas about 55% reported exchanging contact details with other students. This would tend to suggest that students were been able to establish working relationships with other students. This is encouraging given the importance of the social context of learning in the student experience (Rogoff, 1994). Qualitative responses Participants responded to the qualitative section of the survey with enthusiasm and provided a rich source of data. When asked for their reasons for choosing this method of study flexibility was cited as the main reason. For some this meant having the flexibility to work around child care consideration and work commitments, while others remarked on the distance they would have to travel for a campus-based course. One respondent used the word isolation in a positive way, suggesting this is better for them. Financial considerations were seen as important for many: The online course was more cost-effective because it allowed students to earn while they learn. Convenience was also important as some reported they travel a lot, and could therefore not commit to a campus based course, or have to keep moving for their own or their partner s work. Online learning evaluation, page 5 of 12

6 Improvements to the interactivity of the course were suggested by some students who felt this to be important, with more use of technology suggested by at least one student. However, most participants indicated they saw interactivity with tutors as the aspect of the course where changes were most needed. Most were unhappy with inconsistencies between tutors; some were very active with the students, whereas others were perceived as less active. This suggests that there are varying levels of skill (and possibly engagement) in the delivery of online modules; this is perhaps unsurprising as e-delivery is a relatively new phenomenon and one that staff are currently developing expertise in. The limited published literature on e- delivery has tended to focus on disciplines such as management and education (e.g Salmon 2004, Salmon 2002), and has not so far specifically addressed the issues that arise from delivering a programme in which laboratory reports are an integral part of the course. Feedback was seen as a problematic area by some with, again, inconsistencies reported between tutors. In line with the work of Gibbs (2003) positive feedback was viewed as having a motivating effect on the students while those who reported receiving only negative feedback reported being de-motivated and demoralised. It was suggested that more use of the feedback sandwich would be beneficial and constructive, as would guidance on how to correct the area being criticised. This approach is probably even more important for online students than for face-to-face students, as contact with tutors will be more limited due to the mode of delivery. As expected, feelings of isolation were reported by many students, although this was ameliorated when they had regular and prompt responses from the tutors. Contact with other students was also seen as having beneficial effects on the learning experience. Suggestions were made to include some kind of face-to-face contact on an annual basis, although this is recognised as being difficult with students being spread around the globe. Basic study skills were an area viewed by some as problematic. It was suggested that including information about library use/search skills training, good/bad essay models, and referencing examples would be helpful. Partly in response to this, an online Fresher s week, which incorporates learning materials and exercises on several of these skills, has now been developed for delivery to the next cohort. Study planning by students has been made easier by providing all the study materials at the start, and we expect this to improve the student experience by helping to promote students feelings of control. Control is particularly important for Online learning evaluation, page 6 of 12

7 online students, who are entirely responsible for their time management and often have other commitments to juggle alongside their studies. Potential study limitations There were a number of potential limitations to the survey that should be borne in mind alongside the results, for example although the sample was fairly representative in terms of age, country of residence etc., of the cohort it was till somewhat limited in size. It is also likely that there was a degree of self selection in that t is likely that it was the very motivated students who responded to the survey. A related point is that it would also be helpful to engage in further research to develop questionnaires to measure attitudes towards and experience of elearning in a more psychometrically sound way. It is also possible that the use of an online survey biased the sample towards those who were more capable etc of online study. A postal survey may therefore have made it more likely to get information form students with very negative experiences of online study. Implementation and dissemination Two major improvements have been made to the programme as a result of the survey findings. Firstly, all study materials have been reviewed and enhanced to include greater technical interactivity. Secondly, an online Fresher s week, with exercises and learning materials addressing a variety of skills such as accessing resources, groupwork and essay writing in an attempt to improve students study skills. The department also plans a further programme of work on e-tutoring that would be supported by a Departmental Teaching Enhancement Fund grant, if the application is successful. This programme would aim to further enhance existing areas of e-tutoring innovation and good practice, reduce inconsistencies in e-tutoring expertise and engagement across the department, and transfer what has been learnt from the online programme to enhance electronic and online learning opportunities for campus-based students. The study findings will be disseminated across the department, the university, and the HE sector more generally. In the department, the study has been discussed at departmental team meetings and the findings and their implications for online study are used to inform best practice In the university, the study findings have been presented to the University s elearning subcommittee, and this report is also sent to Professor Michael Gunn, PVC for Learning, Teaching and Scholarship, as well as Professor Colin Raburn the Online learning evaluation, page 7 of 12

8 Director of Quality Enhancement. The study will also be presented at the University Teaching Conference in July In the national HE sector, the findings are planned to be disseminated through presentation at the 2008 national conference of the Higher Education Academy Psychology Network, and publication of a report in the national journal Psychology Learning and Teaching. They have also formed the basis for presentations to other Institutions and other Academy subject centres regarding provision of effective support for online learners. Discussion and conclusions The online questionnaire produced a rich data set, especially in relation to the open format questions. Overall, students appeared to be broadly satisfied with their learning experience, but the data indicated several ways in which the team were able to improve the design and delivery of the programme. One key issue identified by the survey was the uneven level of engagement and expertise in e-tutoring among the staff supporting the online programme, and the next step in programmes of this kind may be to explore ways to support less confident and less expert tutors to improve their online tuition as well as developing further innovations and further enhancements to existing good practice. The findings also suggest several potential areas for further research, including student and staff perceptions of interactivity, use of discussion boards and interaction with tutors. A potential first step in further exploring the issues identified in this report would be to develop a form of focus group in which students from different time zones could participate equally. The development of such a tool would be of value in data collection in what is likely to be a burgeoning area of research in many areas of teaching learning and assessment. Many of the issues described by respondents were more extreme forms of the problems reported by campus students. The survey findings leave open to some extent whether those issues indicate that online learning is genuinely more demanding, or that the online mode of delivery tends increase student perceptions of problematic learning experiences. In either case, lessons learnt from developing and evaluating online learning may be highly transferable to campus learning, for campus-based courses increasingly include electronic forms of tutoring, learning and student support. Depending on the success of further funding applications, the department hopes to be able to enhance online provision for campus-based students as a result of the insights gained from the present survey. Online learning evaluation, page 8 of 12

9 References Gibbs, G. & Simpson, C. (2003). Does your assessment support your students' learning? Journal of Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, 1, 1. Rogoff, B. (1994) Developing Understanding of the Idea of Communities of Learners: Mind, Culture, and Activity: An International Journal Volume 1(4) Salmon, Gilly (2003) E-moderating: The Key to Teaching and Learning Online (2nd edition), London: Taylor & Francis. Salmon, Gilly (2002), "E-tivities. The Key to Active Online Learning", London: Tayler & Francis. Appendix 1:The online questionnaire Available Applied Psychology Online Survey Studying Applied Psychology as an entirely online course is unique to Derby. We are interested in finding out more about the experience for the students. Please would you complete this short questionnaire telling us about your experience? The data will be anonymous and you will have the right to withdraw your data at ant time up to publication of the results. In the name section we ask that you enter a code name in order to maintain anonymity. This code must be quoted should you wish to withdraw your data. Your Name --- Please select --- Country of Residence 1. What is your domestic status? Living with a partner Single 2. How are you studying? Full Time Part Time 3. What is your age? Over Do you have dependants at home? 5. Do you work outside the home? Online learning evaluation, page 9 of 12

10 6. If '', what is your work commitment Full Time Part Time 7. How many modules are you taking this semester? What is your reason for doing the Online Psychology degree? Personal interest? Professional development? 9. How helpful is the study material? Very helpful Quite helpful OK t very helpful Unhelpful The study material is 10. How helpful is online contact with the lecturers? Very helpful Quite helpful OK t very helpful Unhelpful Online contact with lecturers is 11. Where do you find the most useful information? Lecturers? Materials? 12. How useful is online contact with other students? Very useful Quite useful OK A little useful t useful Online contact with students is 13. If you had an academic problem, who would you talk to first? Lecturers? Fellow students? 14. If you had a personal problem which might affect your work, who would you talk to first? Lecturers Fellow students? 15. How often do you ask for advice from lecturers Frequently Quite often Occasionally Hardly ever Never Online learning evaluation, page 10 of 12

11 I seek advice from lecturers 16. Have you asked for advice from other students? 17. How often do you seek advice from other students Frequently Quite often Occasionally Sometimes Never I seek advice from other students 18. Have you swapped contact details with other students? 19. We are interested in how strong a relationship you have with fellow students. How often are you in contact with felow students? Frequently Quite often Occasionally Hardly ever Never I am in contact with fellow students 20. Do you use the forum as a study resource? 21. How often do you use the forum as a study resource? Most days Most weeks Sometimes Hardly ever Never I use the forum as a study resource 22. How often do you study? Most days 1-2 times a week Most weeks 3-4 times a month Less frequently I tend to study 23. Do you find the course is interactive enough for you? 24. If '', how might this be improved? Your insight here will help us to modify the course to better suit the students needs. 25. How helpful is the groupwork you have to undertake? Online learning evaluation, page 11 of 12

12 Very helpful Quite helpful OK t very helpful Unhelpful I find the groupwork 26. Does the feedback you get from your assignments help to motivate you? 27. If '', how might this be improved? 28. What prompted you to choose this method of study? Please explain why online study is your preferred method. 29. How useful is it for you to have all the study material for a module from the start? Having all the study material from the start is Very helpful Quite helpful OK t very helpful Unhelpful 30. w it's your turn, we would very much appreciate you telling us, in your own words, what the experience of studying in this manner is like for you. We want to know the ups, the downs, the times of struggle, times of pleasure (if any). Please feel free to use as many words as you want in order to convey to us what the experience is like for you. Online learning evaluation, page 12 of 12

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