Education at the Crossroads: Online Teaching and Students' Perspectives on Distance Learning

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1 Education at the Crossroads: Online Teaching and Students' Perspectives on Distance Learning Jacqueline Leonard and Smita Guha Temple University Abstract The Internet offers colleges and universities new opportunities to act on a potential watershed-online learning. Online learning offers students and institutions greatfiexibility, and thus, online courses are increasing in number and scope. This article taps the perspectives ofpreservice teachers enrolled at an urban university. The majority ofstudents in traditional coursesfavor online courses but are less likely to enroll in them. Implications are that instructors mutst address student perceptions that online courses are not as effective in preparing them to teach. The majority ofstudents taking online coursesfind that they meet their academic needs and improve their technological skills. (Keywords: digital linkage, distance education, online learning.) With the advancement of computer technology, specifically with the availability and extensive usage of the Internet, a dramatic change has come in the way our society delivers information. Technological prowess has brought tremendous convenience to our everyday lives. Distance learning has become an increasingly important part of educational programs in higher education across the United States. Colleges and universities are extending their resources to be digitally linked, offering convenience to prospective students who are finding the nontraditional way of education a better fit for their busy lifestyles. Although this new mode of education is in its infancy, it holds enormous promise for students who cannot take courses on the traditional college campus. Convenience is the major motivation for enrolling in online courses. For second-career college students, commuting from their place of employment and conflicting time schedules pose major barriers to attending regular classes. Therefore, college educators must understand students' needs and provide the necessary resources to allow these students to take the courses they need. The educational institution benefits, as it provides a conduit to reach students at a distance. Hence, teaching online courses could be viewed as an important step that college educators should consider. In order to remain competitive, many colleges and universities are offering courses online. Colleges of education are no exception. Though opportunity and flexibility are apparent benefits of online course offerings, it is appropriate to conduct a study to view the perspectives of preservice teachers on the benefits or drawbacks of online learning. Having firsthand experience, preservice teachers are in a position to assist in reviewing the basis of online teaching. The responses of preservice teachers constitute an important factor in the assessment Journal ofresearch on Technology in Education 51

2 of educational course offerings, modality of operation, and, of course, the importance of online instruction. The purpose of this article is to report on student perceptions regarding online learning in the College of Education at a large urban university in the eastern United States. In order to accomplish this purpose, two courses-curriculum in Early Childhood Education (ED 107) and Teaching Children Mathematics (MTH ED 462)-were taught in an online format instead of their previous conventional classroom venue. Both had been offered as regular courses where students met face-to-face on a weekly basis. Knowing that many students commute from a distance and are unable to attend classes at a specific time, we took advantage of a university-wide program to promote online courses and to be a partner institution in technological advancement. RESEARCH QUESTIONS Although the courses were approved, the Department of Curriculum, Instruction, and Technology (CITE) has no policy regarding online courses. In response to concerns about the quality and substance of these courses, the objective of this study is to analyze preservice teachers' perspectives on distance learning and to evaluate the perceived benefits of taking the above courses online. The research questions are as follows: * What are students' beliefs and perceptions about taking online courses? * How do students who have taken online courses perceive their value? Background Information We received a $7,500 grant to develop online courses in our respective fields of early childhood education and mathematics education. With prior knowledge of online technology and related Web design experience, we took the initiative in designing our online courses. Moreover, we enrolled in an online course on interface design to learn about new Web-based technologies and to gain a student's perspective. These experiences led us to conduct a pilot study with students taking the traditional version of the courses we intended to teach online. A formal studywas subsequently conducted with the students who actually enrolled in the online courses. METHOD Sample The sample in both the pilot and formal studies induded students, ages 20-45, who were enrolled in our courses. The majority of these students were female (37 females and 7 males). Participation in the studies was voluntary. Twenty-four students (6 in ED 107 and 22 in MTH 462) who enrolled in the traditional courses elected to participate in the pilot study. Twenty students (11 in ED 107 and 9 in MTH ED 462) who decided to take the online courses participated in the formal study. All of the 20 students enrolled in the online courses lived off campus; only three had taken an online course in the past. 52 Fall 2001: Volume 34 Number 1

3 Design The pilot and formal studies used survey instruments to obtain data and analyze students' beliefs and perceptions about taking online courses. In the pilot study, 24 students who completed the early childhood and mathematics methods courses in conventional/traditional class settings indicated their views on the courses if they were taken online. The formal study gathered responses from students who finished the same courses online. In both of the studies, questionnaires were distributed to the students toward the end of the semester to obtain their responses. These data were analyzed using quantitative research methods. Procedures We conducted the pilot study prior to teaching the course online. Students enrolled in the traditional courses were given a questionnaire to elicit their views on the same courses if they had taken them online. The questionnaire consisted of 10 items, and a 5-point Likert scale was used to rank the responses. The scale ranged from 1 (Strongly Disagree) to 5 (Strongly Agree) and was used to categorize each student's response to the questions (see Appendix A online at select this article on the table of contents). In the spring of 2000, the online courses in early childhood education (ED 107) and mathematics education (MTH ED 462) were offered for the first time to undergraduate and graduate students, respectively. Near the end of these courses, the students responded to the Online Student Survey (see Appendix B online at select this article on the table of contents). A description of both online courses is given in Appendix C, online at jrte/, select this article on the table of contents. RESULTS Pilot Study There were 10 items on the questionnaire used in the pilot study. The results of the students' responses to each item are shown in Table 1 (see Appendix D- Table 1. Student Responses to Pilot Study Questionnaire Question Strongly Disagree Disagree Neutral Agree Strongly Agree Journal ofresearch on Technology in Education 53

4 online at select this article on the table of contents-for additional information in Tables 2 and 3). However, an item-by-item analysis of each response is given below to summarize the data. (Percentages may vary because not all students responded to all items.) The first question sought information on students' beliefs about the availability of online courses in the College of Education. Of the 24 students who responded to the survey, 53% agreed or strongly agreed, 25% were neutral, and 22% disagreed or strongly disagreed that more courses should be availability online. The second question addressed the possibility of offering all courses in the CITE Department online to both graduate and undergraduate students. Forty-eight percent agreed or strongly agreed, 17% were neutral, and 35% disagreed or strongly disagreed with the question. The third question was related to the content of ED 107/MTH ED 462 and asked students' views on whether a respective course could be taught effectively online. Thirty-eight percent of the students agreed or strongly agreed with this question, whereas 24% were neutral, and 38% disagreed or strongly disagreed. In question four, students were asked if they would register for ED 107 or MTH ED 462 if these courses were offered online. Forty-two percent agreed or strongly agreed, 12% were neutral, and 46% disagreed or strongly disagreed that they would take the courses online. Question five asked if students believed that taking ED 107/ MTH ED 462 online would prepare them to teach young children or mathematics. Thirty-five percent agreed or strongly agreed, 30% were neutral, and 35% disagreed or strongly disagreed that an online course could prepare them to teach. Question six asked if students believed that online courses encouraged students to communicate with their professors more often. Twenty-six percent agreed or strongly agreed, 43% were neutral, and 30% disagreed or strongly disagreed that communication would be enhanced in online courses. Questions seven and eight referred to students' perceptions about professors. When asked if professors had prompt responses to students' s, 62% agreed or strongly agreed, 33% were neutral, and 5% disagreed. When asked if online courses provided professors with less time to meet with students, 25% agreed or strongly agreed, 17% were neutral, and 58% disagreed or strongly disagreed. Question nine asked students if they believed that they would learn less material in an online course. Forty-two percent agreed or strongly agreed, 16% were neutral, and 42% disagreed or strongly disagreed. The final statement, "I believe that chat rooms cannot replace the value of a good classroom discussion" also elicited the following responses: 70% agreed or strongly agreed, 17% were neutral, and 13% disagreed or strongly disagreed. These data suggest that the majority of students believe that online courses should be made available, but they were split about their decisions to take these courses, having concerns about the effectiveness of online courses in preparing them to teach. The Formal Study To evaluate the online courses, 20 students responded to the Online Learning Survey (see Appendix B online at select this article on the 54 Fall 2001: Volume 34 Number 1

5 table of contents). The results of this survey revealed that students who enrolled in the online courses were much more positive about their perceived effectiveness and the potential of the course to prepare them to teach. First, students reported that they had little difficulty accessing the course material or staying connected to the university's system. Furthermore, students had a high level of technological skill. Ten students in ED 107 knew how to send assignments online, and one student mentioned that, when she had a problem, she received support. Eight students in MTH ED 462 were comfortable sending assignments through the WebBoard, while other students used attachments to send assignments. Thus, the majority of students in both classes had a high level of comfort with the technology. Ninety percent of the students stated that they received all of the instructions they needed in order to be able to "attend" the online course. They indicated spending 50 minutes to 4 hours following the professor's instructions and interacted with the professor at least 1 hour per week. The students also mentioned that they spent from 0 to 2 hours a week interacting with their peers. Most of the students said they enjoyed their respective online course, even though 60% percent of the students believed that taking an online course was more challenging than taking a traditional course. Seventy-five percent of the students said they would like to take another online course, if offered. Overall, 75% of the students stated that they were satisfied with their online experience, and the same percentage felt their respective online courses had met their expectations. Forty percent of the students said they had more participation in the online course than they usually did in a conventional classroom setting. Furthermore, 50% of the students believed that the online courses gave them more opportunities to interact with their classmates as compared to a face-to-face course, and 60% stated that the online course gave them a better learning opportunity as compared to the traditional course. In summary, we found that some students had problems initially, but with a little guidance from us and some assistance from their classmates, these students became comfortable with the instructional mode. When we were unable to solve a technical problem, the students were directed to call the technical support service at the university. Finally, no student completing ED 107 received less than a C, and no student completing MTH ED 462 received less than a B-. Moreover, the programn evaluation showed positive results; the overall evaluation ratings of these courses were 4.14 (ED 107) and 4.09 (MTH ED 462) on a 5.00 scale. CONCLUSION As a result of participating in this study, preservice teachers should go through various phases of growth, starting from exploration and professional development to use of the Internet to communicate and facilitate online discourse (Sherry & Lawyer-Brook, 1997): "The Internet and the World Wide Web... provide a rich variety of tools and resources that could be used to enhance in- Journal of Research on Technology in Education 55

6 struction and communication by students, teachers, and administrators" (p. 2). Student engagement in distance learning has the potential to improve learning and mathematics achievement by actively engaging students in non-routine and high-level thinking skills (Sherry, 1997). Learning to harness this technology for themselves, teachers are encouraged to apply their knowledge of technology to teaching in future classrooms. Integrating technology into the classroom continues to be a daunting challenge. Barriers include extrinsic and intrinsic factors that affect teachers' ability to implement changes in the classroom (Brickner, 1995). Extrinsic factors include lack of access to computers and software, insufficient time to plan instruction, and inadequate technical and administrative support, while intrinsic factors include beliefs about teaching, beliefs about computers, established classroom practices, and unwillingness to change (Ertmer, Addison, Lane, Ross, &-Woods, 1999). Young children are exposed to technology at an early age by playing with computers and video games. "They are getting much of their information from television, computers, video games, the Internet... [which are] increasingly available in our digitally oriented society" (Barker & Dickson, 1996, p. 19). "Indeed, connecting to and using the resources of the Internet and the Web is a major thrust for schools nationally' (Barker & Dickson, p. 21). This research is important because teachers of young children need to become familiar with technologies that can improve student learning. This study shows that after participating in the online course, students perceive online teaching and learning to be an exciting and dynamic experience (Smaldino, 1999). v Contributors Jacqueline Leonard is an assistant professor of mathematics education, and Smita Guha is an assistant professor of early childhood education in the CITE Department at Temple University. Both have four years of teaching experience in higher education at Temple University and more than 10 years of teaching experience in Grades PK-6. (Address: Dr. Jacqueline Leonard, College of Education, 1301 Cecil B. Moore Ave., Ritter Hall 438, Philadelphia, PA 19122; References Barker, B. O., & Dickson M. W. (1996, November/December) Distance Learning Technologies in K-12 Schools. Tech Trends, 40, Bredekamp, S., & Copple, C. (Eds.). (1997). Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhoodprograms (rev. ed.). Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children. Bricker, D. (1995). The effects offirst and second order barriers to change on the degree and nature of computer usage of secondary mathematics teachers: A case study. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN. Ertmer, P. A., Addison, P., Lane, M., Ross, E., & Woods, D. (1999). Examining teachers' beliefs about the role of technology in the elementary classroom. 56 Fall 2001: Volume 34 Number 1

7 Journal of Research on Computing in Education, 32(1), Price R. (1999). Designing a college Web-based course using a modified personalized system of instruction (PSI) model. TechTrends, 43(5), Sherry, L. (1997). Linking technology with promisingpractices to improve teaching and learning. (ERIC No. ED ) Sherry, L., & Lawyer-Brook, D. (1997, March). The Boulder Valley Internet Project: Teachers mentoring teachers. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Education Research Association, Chicago. (ERIC No. ED ) Smaldino, S. (1999). Instructional design for distance education. TechTrends, 43(5), Journal of Research on Technology in Education 57

8 COPYRIGHT INFORMATION TITLE: Education at the crossroads: online teaching and students perspectives on distance learning SOURCE: Journal of Research on Technology in Education 34 no1 Fall 2001 WN: The magazine publisher is the copyright holder of this article and it is reproduced with permission. Further reproduction of this article in violation of the copyright is prohibited. To contact the publisher: Copyright The H.W. Wilson Company. All rights reserved.

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