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On-line delivery: making the rough road smooth

Martin Maguire
Des Matejka

School of Education (NSW), Australian Catholic University
On-line delivery has been widely adopted by Tertiary institutions for the presentation of post-graduate subjects and courses to part time distance education students. The road to success for this group of students is often quite rough. The ubiquity and the pervasiveness of the Internet and world wide web provide a ready platform for the development of virtual learning communities with the potential to make this rough road a little smoother. They also raise equity issues for participation and retention.

This paper reviews the factors which make the web so attractive for on-line learning. Two Information Technology based subjects are offered by on-line delivery at a multi-campus university. A number of factors indicates the success of this initiative in meeting the individual needs of these post-graduate distance learners. However, it is evident that on-line delivery raises its own set of barriers to engagement in learning in addition to those encountered by part time students studying in distance mode. For some, combinations of these barriers prove insurmountable while for the majority these are only temporary hurdles to straddle in achieving success. It concludes that those who succeed, develop more positive attitudes to the technology and are empowered by the acquisition of new knowledge and skills to apply these in the workplace and in other learning situations.

The lure of the world wide web for learning

Combinations of economic, commercial and educational influences have driven the agenda to deliver post-graduate subject and courses to distance education students. Young (1998) concludes that on-line delivery offers a vehicle for universities which are under pressure to compete with others in a global marketplace to cut costs, reform teaching methods and enter into collaborative relationships with industry. West (1998) sees virtual universities delivering low cost, quality enhanced subjects, almost universally. Zelmer (1999) cites the trend towards global alliances of universities as an influence. Lazenby (1998) argues that Universities are adapting to economic pressures to be more flexible. Romiszowski (1997) sees the web as a means for novices to interact with experts in the learning process. Bigum (1996) sees organisational and not educational interests as driving the agenda.

Hara & Kling (2000) conclude that the majority of academic literature, popular press and promotional material emphasise the virtues of on-line courses. Institutions become more viable and distance education students benefit by way of convenience and enhanced learning materials. The difficulties of providing these courses are minimised. Issues raised by academics including the development and ownership of the teaching material, determining the actual costs of delivering these courses and therefore their profitability, and the difficulties that students face in studying these courses are not so prominent.

A web-based instructional model

On-line distance education is a key focus of post-graduate teaching at the Australian Catholic University. The key aim of the School of Education (NSW) web-based instructional model (See Maguire, 2000) is to develop a student-centred virtual learning environment in which participants are supported in their learning by other learning agents including instructional material, activities, the presenters and other participants. Maguire & Matejka (1999) identify a number of factors that indicate the success of this model in meeting the individual needs of this particular group of learners. The model supports learning by offering flexibility over when, where and the pace at which participants learn. It meets a variety of individual learning styles, incorporates authentic assessment tasks, develops personal Information Technology literacy and empowers the participants to use Information Technology in their particular learning environment.

Barriers to participation and engagement in learning

While on-line delivery offers advantages for post-graduate distance education students, this preliminary study presents data to support the view that this particular mode also raises new barriers to equitable participation and engagement in learning. Two groups of students are considered separately: those who failed to commence or complete their studies and those who successfully completed the subjects.

Those for whom the barriers were insurmountable

For this minority group, the barriers raised proved insurmountable. These students either never responded to communications, provided no evidence that they had engaged with the learning activities or officially withdrew from one or both the subjects. In 2000, a free response survey was mailed to students in this category who had enrolled in the on-line subjects in any of the three study periods. Its purpose was to determine barriers which had influenced their decisions to withdraw from studies. A follow-up phone survey was undertaken to clarify responses from those who indicated that the barriers they encountered were due to one or more of the "technology" factors discussed below. As expected (See Roblyer,1999) the response rate was low from the group.

One barrier for this group was purely administrative. The names of some students enrolled in non-Sydney campuses were not included on the enrolments lists. Subsequently, the pre-study information including web-site details and the time and place for the first teleconference, was not received in one or two instances. Four of the seven respondents indicated that technology-related factors presented a barrier to their participation or retention in the subject. A failure to make our expectations of participants' computer literacy clear up front was a contributing factor in at least two cases. One respondent provided a comprehensive analysis of personal barriers faced in on-line study of a technology-based unit. A lack of background in and familiarity with the software application, high levels of frustration at lack of progress in acquiring the skills after hours of work, lack of relevance of the application in the home and in the work environment all contributed. A second respondent overcame initial difficulties related to lack of technological literacy but failed to overcome further technological deficiencies during the study period. The third respondent was feeling a bit overwhelmed by the fact that she was not connected to the Internet when news of her pregnancy provided a ready excuse for not commencing studies. Another stated that failure to attend vital teleconferences in which software skills were introduced was difficult to recover from.

It is arguable that some of the participants in this group failed to make the connections to the Internet or to our site on one or more occasions and were put off by that. The data collected so far indicates that these technological barriers are important in decisions not to commence or to complete the study period.

Those for whom the barriers were only temporary

This group comprises the majority of those who enrolled in the subjects. As expected, data from the majority of the group to whom these barriers proved only to be temporary, was more readily available. It was gathered systematically in 1998, 1999 and 2000 from formal subjects evaluations, post-subject surveys, student discussions, informal feedback and presenter observation. Responses were a mixture of Likert scale, multiple choice and open responses.

The data provide a clear indication that part-time post-graduate students studying by distance mode face a combination of barriers to engagement in their learning. Three sets of barriers were identified: those related to part-time study, those common to distance education students and those created by "technological" barriers. It is the last group of these on which the study is particularly focussed.

The first group of barriers relates directly to the participant's role as an educator studying part time. The majority were in full time employment. The barriers include job pressures of time, changing family commitments including pregnancies, accidents and illness, changes of study plans, changes in work situations including transfers and promotions as well as moving from part time to full time employment.

The second group of barriers results from the remoteness of the students from the virtual study centre. They include a lack of peer support and social contact, isolation, lack of immediate feedback from the instructor, the inability of the instructor to respond to body language and feelings of isolation. Hirumi & Bermudez (1996) and Mellon (1999) argue that the effect these factors have on the learner depends on individual learning styles. These range from interpersonal learners who learn best by collaborating face-to-face with peers to those for whom the ability to study from home without travel, overcomes any negative effects of the distance. Roblyer (1999) concludes that where students are provided with a choice between face-to-face and on-line learning, that enjoyment is often less important than convenience.

No conclusions have been made regarding the relevant effects of these first two sets of barriers on those who successfully overcame them. All that is sure is that the barriers did have varying negative effects on participation and engagement by the participants.

Technology related barriers to participation and engagement

The third set of barriers raised by the "technology" of on-line learning is critical since these need to be overcome to interact with an on-line learning environment. It must be cautioned that some of these barriers are not relevant for those studying non-technology based subjects by on-line delivery. These "technology" barriers are due to three sets of related factors: the level of computer literacy or competency of individual participants; attitudes to and perceptions of information technology; and those related directly to access to the hardware, software and the networks required to engage in the on-line learning.

Computer literacy or competence

A number of assumptions are made about the required level of computer literacy or competence of students to study our subjects. The terms "competency" and "literacy" are used interchangeably in the literature. Simonson, Maurer Monta-Toradi & Whitaker (1987) see competence as the knowledge of computer characteristics, capabilities, and applications as well the user's ability to implement this knowledge productively. There is no universal set of competencies to measure this. Dusick (1998) agrees that this competence should be judged by the ability to satisfy personal needs. Accordingly, we assume a short list of competencies relevant to the on-line study of our subjects. Levels of computer literacy or effectiveness are measured by computer self-efficacy: a subjective, self reported measure of computer literacy which includes aspects of confidence and competence. (See Kartsen & Roth, 1998; Gist, Schwoerer & Rosen, 1989) Participants need to possess a range of competencies to access the web site to engage in learning. In these technology-based units they also need to have a range of technology skills on which to build the new skills required to complete the assessment. A majority of participants had difficulty with one or more facets of the vital components of the technologies because of poor literacy skills. Sending e-mail, e-mail attachments, file management, creation of folders and sub folders, and setting FTP to upload files, all proved difficult.

For some, the assumptions made about their literacy levels meant that the level of instruction was not explicit enough at times. Lack of confidence with processes such as FTP led to an inability to enter the correct settings to ensure uploading of web pages. Lack of knowledge of the functions of a Web-browser even caused problems. A failure to realise that the "Refresh" button ensured the latest version of the web page was viewed, led to protracted aggravation from the fear that the FTP process was failing to upload latest versions of web pages. Most times these problems were overcome on a one-to-one basis by e-mail or telephone calls.

It was apparent that the majority of the participants had little formal training in "computing" and therefore had limited understanding of computing principles which are essential for effective computer use. The lack of these basic competencies adversely affected interaction with the learning community to varying degrees and lengths of time.

Attitudes and perceptions

The effect of attitudes to and perceptions of the technology seems also to be relevant to on-line engagement with the learning materials. According to Proost, Elen & Lowyck (1997) students' perceptions of and preferences for telematics (on-line) learning environments are affected by a large number of variables including gender, experiences and preferences for social contact. Mitra (1998) determines a triangular relationship amongst the types of computer application, whether or not the use is voluntary or involuntary, and attitudes towards computers. While attitudes generally play a determining role for student use of computers in non-task-related activities such as using e-mail with friends and family, the instructional process plays a more significant role in determining attitudes in a range of task-based computer uses.

Kartsen & Roth (1998) argue that while a wide range of experiences enhances students perception of their competence, it is the relevance of the experience to the particular context rather than the quantum of this experience which is most reliable as a predictor of performance in on-line studies. While computer self-efficacy is significant, it is not strong in its relationship to performance. Gist, Schwoerer & Rosen (1989) demonstrate that computer self-efficacy is positively correlated with a willingness to choose and participate in computing activities, expectations of success, persistence when faced with computer-related difficulties and computer-related performance.

Participants' attitudes to the technology itself affected the way in which they interacted with the learning community. Some were very tentative at the beginning of the learning period. Attitudes to the technology improved over the study period although not all embraced the technology by the end of the first subject. However, no person who successfully completed the first subject and was enrolled for both subjects withdrew from that second subject. One participant now saw a role as an innovator in a school in which most colleagues were not computer literate. The experience of on-line study provided participants with the chance to explore technologies by using the technologies. Many developed attitudes and the competence to apply technology to classroom and other on-line learning situations. Again, it is clear that attitudes to the technology affect participation and engagement in learning to varying degrees.

Access to the technology

Assumptions are also made concerning the participant's access to the technology required to study on-line. Thomerson & Smith (1996) conclude that technical problems during a course's delivery adversely affects students' perceptions of on-line distance education courses and that those who do not have a choice are much less likely to be less tolerant of technical problems. Richards & Ridley (1997) identify previous experience with technology as a factor affecting success in on-line distance education courses. The effects of quality of access to hardware, software, the internet, e-mail and teleconference workshops range from being major impediments to minor hurdles to full engagement and participation in on-line learning.

Hardware is a primary requirement for on-line study. For some participants, hardware factors provided real barriers. Some of these were temporary while other were on-going. System failures, disk crashes, time lost for warranty work to be carried out, lack of knowledge of how to "fix' small problems and loss of data, all created frustration of varying degrees. Those who had access to hardware in their own homes had fewer barriers raised than those who relied on hardware in their work place.

Software also created barriers. Some had not purchased the software by the commencement of the teleconference tutorials at which the basics were introduced. Those who chose to use earlier versions of designated software often had problems in trying to follow the instruction. Those who downloaded limited period trial versions of the software ultimately ran into troubles when its life expectancy ran out. Others had difficulty downloading essential software such as Acrobat Reader. Some reported that the software, especially the database program, was quite difficult to master for participants with a non-technology background. For a very few, the effort was not worth it.

Internet connections provided essential access and support but also barriers. The majority of participants had few prolonged problems in this regard although some were not connected in time for the commencement of the study period. The sources of the problems were not always apparent but they included the reliability of the Internet Service Provider and related hardware and software problems. At certain times participants were barred access to the web site for one or more reasons. Some had initial problems establishing contact with the site because of their lack of experience with user names and passwords. For others, the names and passwords had not been correctly entered by the system support staff. At times hacker activity at the web server outed the site for varying periods of time. This caused most frustration at weekends during which time the server was not attended. On a few occasions, traffic congestion and other factors led to failure of major links to the Internet. The non-user friendly messages which result are not very reassuring for a user struggling to come to grips with on-line access to study materials.

E-mail was the prime method for support in the subjects but also presented barriers to engagement. At times it was used for mass communication of an important message. Some participants used more than one service provider throughout the study period and sometimes more than one at any one time and did not check all accounts as frequently as they should have. Some had quite unreliable providers, a problem when many of the participants in one semester were provided access to one of these by their employing authority. Subsequently, some vital messages did not get through. Sending and receiving attachments even in rich text format were problematic and very difficult to overcome. Those who persisted in using web-based "free" services such as Hotmail were of most concern.

Teleconference workshops in which the software package was introduced in hands on workshops, generally were vital for the majority of non-technology participants in these subjects. Some participants missed one or more of these.

Evidence has been presented to support our assertion that on-line delivery raises its own set of barriers to engagement. These are compounded in a technology-based subject where participants are required to do more that just access the web for study material, and, perhaps, participate in on-line discussions. In these subjects participants from non-technology backgrounds had to "learn" quite sophisticated software skills by "doing". The barriers are due to three sets of factors: the workload and obligations of part-time students, the distance from the learning centre; and the technology factors required to engage in learning in the subjects. The last group provides fundamental barriers as they have to be overcome to study on-line.


While the focus of discussion of this paper has been on the barriers to engagement and participation, it is important to stress that these are outweighed by the many positive support structures implemented in the School of Education web-based instructional model. The available data support our judgement that the model is very successful in supporting engagement and participation in the learning for the two on-line subjects. It has made the rough road more smooth for this group of learners.

Those who complete the learning activities successfully, report very positively about how the model has met their varying needs. Many report that the experience has not been an easy one. The workload is evidently greater than for other MEd subjects. The misunderstanding and misconceptions due to lack of computer competence create barriers which remain in place for weeks on end. These raise high levels of anxiety which influence attitudes about the technology and on-line learning.

Successful participants report a shift in attitudes to their own learning, even though Cohen (1997) doubts that learning styles are affected after a period of one year even in a "technology rich environment". One participant reported a more proactive role as a learner. Another recognised a greater responsibility for collecting and analysing information that was of interest and relevance. One participant observed that learning is not confined to "narrow outcomes" as the processes required to study on-line are also integral to the learning. One became aware of a changing role as a teacher - more as the facilitator of learning since "often, school students knew more about the technology and how to access information than the teacher did". Another was less impressed since on-line study required self-motivation which he just hated.

To study the subjects on-line, participants acquired additional knowledge and skills which are not listed in the subject outcomes. Acquisition of these will affect the manner in which participants perform in other on-line subjects (See Chesterton, 1999) as well as their confidence and ability to apply these in their workplace. In the main, attitudes to the technology changed in a positive way over the study period, while a few deteriorated. As attitudes became more positive, so did the students' level of computer self-efficacy and confidence to work with the technology in their work setting. Those who succeeded were empowered by the acquisition of new knowledge, skills and an enhanced understanding of their own learning.

This preliminary study has raised more questions that it has answered. Much had been stated about the benefits of on-line delivery of subjects to universities and to students and how the ubiquity of the world wide web lowers the barriers to entry for remotely distributed students. The study has made us aware that on-line delivery also raises its own special set of barriers. These have the potential to prevent or impair successful engagement in the learning because the attitudes and competencies required to study on-line are lacking. The study has not provided a clear indication of how these factors interact and the varying degrees to which they affect engagement. We have not yet found hard data to compare participation and retention rates with traditional distance education. These are the focus of future directions of our ongoing studies.


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Authors: Dr Martin Maguire, Senior Lecturer, School of Education (NSW), Australian Catholic University
Phone (02) 9739 2428 Fax (02) 9739 2105 Email

Des Matejka, Lecturer, School of Education (NSW), Australian Catholic University

Please cite as: Maguire, M. and Matejka, D. (2001). On-line delivery: Making the rough road smooth. In L. Richardson and J. Lidstone (Eds), Flexible Learning for a Flexible Society, 452-459. Proceedings of ASET-HERDSA 2000 Conference, Toowoomba, Qld, 2-5 July 2000. ASET and HERDSA.

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