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Students' attitudes to using forms of on-line learning support

Alison R Viskovic
Department of Social and Policy Studies in Education, Massey University
The main objective of this paper is to compare the findings of two student surveys, carried out in late 1997 and early 2000 with two similar groups of students.

The groups are stage two and three students in an in-service, part-time BEd programme designed for tertiary teachers and adult educators. Most of the students are already employed, mainly in polytechnics and private training establishments (PTEs). Because students are spread throughout New Zealand, a mix of delivery modes is used, including face-to-face groups (both on- and off-campus), paper-based distance study materials, and some on-line facilities.

In 1997 three papers (ie subjects or courses of the degree) first experimented with including Internet elements, mainly class email lists and/or World Wide Web (WWW) pages with message boards and supplementary learning materials. At the end of the year students were surveyed to find out their opinions, and the range of facilities available to them, to assist our planning decisions about extending the approach to more papers. Results were mixed: distance students were more enthusiastic about on-line communications than those in face-to-face groups; only 60% of respondents had Internet access at that time; and not all staff were convinced about the value of on-line learning for learners in our context. As a result, expansion of on-line facilities over the next two years was slow, adding only four more papers (none Internet-only).

The survey was repeated with a similar cohort, who were studying in 1999. However, the mix was slightly different, in that numbers had grown, with the main increase being in off-campus, face-to-face groups provided for tutors and trainers in Maori PTEs. Because of the nature of the programme, which encourages participation, discussion and practical group activities, and because most of our students are themselves teaching in face-to-face situations, there are still reservations among both staff and students about what and how much should be done with on-line learning. This is particularly so for the Maori groups.

Our conclusion at present is that we should continue to trial on-line learning activities in papers that suit such approaches, especially to support individual distance learners; and that constructivist learning (both individual and social) can be complemented by appropriate use of WWW facilities. However, we must not lose the trust of a significant group of learners whose cultural preference is for learning in face-to-face groups with a teacher/facilitator, and so we do not envisage any paper being converted to a solely on-line mode of delivery.


The context for the surveys reported in this paper is a BEd programme for tertiary (post-school) teachers. When the first survey was conducted at the end of 1997 the programme had been running for three years, offered by Wellington Polytechnic in both face-to-face and distance modes of delivery. That survey sought information about students' facilities and use of on-line learning support at the end of the first year in which on-line methods had been used in selected papers. Results of that survey were reported in Viskovic (1998). During 1999 the institution merged with Massey University, but the original programme has continued in similar forms of delivery. Early in 2000 a repeat survey was sent to those students who had been studying in stage two and three papers in 1999 to check for any changes in attitudes to and use of on-line learning. The surveys were sent only to students of stage two and three level papers, as no distance study has been offered to date for stage one papers.

The BEd programme was designed for in-service, mainly part-time study (similar to Australian programmes for TAFE teachers) and included distance students from many parts of New Zealand. Many joined only at stage two or three, gaining entry via cross-credit from a certificate or diploma in tertiary teaching completed at their local polytechnic. The introduction of Internet-based on-line learning to supplement conventional paper-based distance learning materials was therefore expected to be useful, especially in widening opportunities for communication among staff and students. Some staff were more enthusiastic converts than others, and the early papers that added on-line facilities were all associated with staff keen to try out the effects of using the Internet.

In 1997 students in the stage two and three papers mainly came from institutional settings such as polytechnics, and face-to-face papers were available only on the Wellington campus - all other students at those levels had to proceed by individual distance study. By 1999 there were more varied arrangements: as well as the Wellington classes and individual distance students, there were increasing numbers of off-campus students meeting in face-to-face groups that we had negotiated with tutors working in Maori Private Training Establishments (PTEs). The latter groups were taught mainly by local tutors, supervised by Wellington-based paper coordinators, and part of the delivery partnership agreement was that we would maintain face-to-face groups to meet Maori learning preferences and cultural values.


A selection of literature since late 1997 was surveyed, mainly from journals and on-line conference papers. The survey questions used in 1997 were reviewed, and a few that no longer seemed relevant or likely to produce useful data were changed (for example, a question on the range of computer features deleted an item about whether the student's computer had a Windows-type interface). The questionnaire was posted out with postage-paid return envelopes to the last recorded address for each student in the identified groups. Results were collated in tables for comparison with the 1997 results, and open-ended responses analysed by inspection and comparison for both trends and distinctive comments. Staff colleagues were not formally interviewed as that had not been part of the original project. However on-going anecdotal evidence was available from discussion at staff meetings on curriculum development, and from data in staff members' end-of-course reports.

In both surveys there were 21 "group-based" papers available for students to choose to enrol in over the two stages of the degree, plus further Independent Learning Project courses. In 1997 three papers of the 21 offered on-line communication facilities, and one of them had a fully Internet-based version (as an experiment, but in fact most of its students down-loaded the materials to their own computers, and many printed out all the pages to work from). By 1999 four more papers had added on-line communications, so that there was more chance that 1999 students had had an opportunity to experience such an option.

Findings from the survey

In 1997 69 questionnaires were sent out to a mix of Wellington-based and distance students and 36 were returned, a 52% response rate. For the 1999 students, 113 surveys were sent out and 54 returned, only a 47% total response rate. However, a more accurate comparison can be achieved by looking at subgroups (see Table 1). In 1999 there were 68 Wellington-based and individual distance students, who returned 45 surveys, a 66% response rate for students who match those surveyed in 1997. The difference arises in the responses from the off-campus groups that were new in the 1999 survey, whose students were sent 45 surveys but returned only 9, a 20% response rate. The latter group is made up of tutors in Maori PTEs, who prefer face-to-face group classes. Subsequent discussion suggests that interviewing might have produced more responses, and that many did not respond to the survey because they did not want to lend support to a potential change in delivery.

Table 1: Distribution and return rates for 1997 and 1999 groups.

Rate 1997
Rate 1999
A. Wellington class groups451840%281346%
B. Distance, Individuals241875%403280%
Subtotal of A and B693652%684566%
C. Off-campus groupsNANANA45920%
Total of A, B, and C693652%1135447%

In comparing the main trends between the two years, I found that access to computing had improved most in the area of home facilities, from 72% in 1997 to 83% in 1999. In both years 77% of all respondents said they had access to computing at their workplace (this might have been higher, but in each year several stage three people were studying full-time, therefore not in a workplace). In 1997 three people (out of 69) had no computer access, whereas in 1999 only two (out of 113) had no access, but it is significant that they were both in the new "off-campus PTE groups" subsection. Home access was important, because, as in 1997, many people commented that while they might have computing access at both home and work, home was where they chose to do their study.

Looking at features associated with students' computers, I found that from 1997 to 1999 Internet access had increased from 60% to 85%; CDROM availability from just over 50% to 87%, and digital camera availability from 0 to 16 %. In the software area, everyone with computer access was using word-processing in both years, and the main increases in activity were in email, from 66% to about 95%, and World Wide Web (WWW) browsers, from 60% to about 95%. Other increases were in the areas of presentation graphics and some desktop publishing, but only about 15% of the 1999 users had tried webpage design. Few had access to computer conferencing software other than methods based on email and WWW chat-room-types of contact. In both years, most users preferred reading from paper, not from screens, and the rate of usage of the message board facilities in the on-line papers was low in all but one where activity was "required".

An important part of each survey, for our department's future delivery planning, related to people's attitudes to using the Internet for study-related activities. The question asked about their preferences in both surveys was:

If BEd papers (both local and distance) included more opportunities to use email and webpages, which of the following would be your reactions? (you may tick more than one)
Table 2 compares the findings of the two surveys, by percentages of respondents.

Table 2: Student preferences for some Internet study activities

Face-to-face groups (both
Wellington and off-campus)
Distance students
(individual study)
% of 18
% of 22
% of 18
% of 32
% of 36
% of 54
I would enjoy this extension
to the course activities
I have facilities available, and would be willing to try new activities 416850624561
This would encourage me to extend my facilities, eg link to the Internet 35213893613
I would like to use these methods for on-line group discussions472681256322
I would like to use these methods for collaborative assignments or projects 354263343835
I am not sure, until I have the opportunity to try things out for myself 232131312726
I prefer to keep to written materials and personal class attendance 237419122133

The biggest increase in those who thought they would enjoy using more Internet communications came from distance students, but there was also an increase among those in Wellington face-to-face groups who were willing to try this. Fewer people in 1999 than in 1997 expected to need to upgrade their computer facilities, which, when considered with other responses about computer features available, suggests that many now have higher-capability equipment. An unexpected drop between 1997 and 1999 was in the percentages interested in on-line group discussion and collaborative work, possibly linking to another finding about the popularity of one-to-one and list email contacts. A final trend was the continued strong preference of those in face-to-face groups to want to retain that mode. Some Maori students in off-campus groups specifically voiced their concern that increased use of on-line communication might reduce the availability of the face-to-face, teacher-led learning that they valued highly and had specifically negotiated to have available to them.

What students said about their on-line learning

Students were invited to comment at the end of the survey on experiences they had had in papers that incorporated on-line learning activities. Some of the 1997 comments are based on visiting sample courses, not on completing a full sequence of study. Some of the 1999 comments may include references to experiences in papers outside our BEd offerings. The following are a representative selection of the comments:

1997 student comments:

1999 student comments:

Staff reactions to using on-line teaching and learning

1997: For many of the staff, adding distance teaching to their existing face-to-face classes had been a major change in itself in the 1995-7 period. We were unusual in our institution (then Wellington Polytechnic), being the only department offering distance study to meet the needs of our mainly part-time, mature group of students, who were also not typical for the institution. Preparing materials and communication activities for on-line support via the WWW meant a further "gear-change" and a rethinking of patterns of communication.

One early decision was that we did not want to use the WWW simply for delivery of class materials. Our preference, after considering the literature to date, was for using email and webpages to foster student communication, collaborative activity, constructivist learning, and access to information via the Internet to augment our resources. Some also saw on-line communication activities as a facility for face-to-face as well as distance students. Overall we concluded that each paper should be considered individually, and decisions on the amount and type of on-line learning incorporated should depend on the learning outcomes, processes and content of each paper.

1999 / early 2000: Varied attitudes to on-line learning support have continued:

Findings from the literature compared with survey findings

In 1997 I found a number of writers reporting concerns over aspects of the implementation of on-line learning in their teaching contexts, including the time it took for teachers and students to adapt to the new ways (eg Stacey, 1997). Others reviewed the pros and cons of synchronous and asynchronous communication (eg Kilian, 1997). Many discussions focused more on concepts that could inform on-line learning design, such as hypertext (eg Landow, 1992; Nix and Spiro, 1990); virtual classes (eg Tiffin and Rajasingham, 1995); constructivist learning (eg Zepke, 1997). Some people were already using the WWW for delivery of materials, rather than for new ways of teaching and communicating. Others feared that one effect of using the Internet for teaching might be that administrators would see on-line learning simply as an efficient means of distribution of materials, regardless of educational merits or problems.

An overview of writing since then shows a continuing wide range of perspectives. I focus below on some of the concerns that have been raised, in the hope of identifying questions for further research into what will work for us, and why.

Hara and Kling (2000) found three main sources of frustration among students using a web-based distance education course. These were technological problems with equipment; minimal or not timely feedback from the instructor to students; and ambiguous instructions. In their own literature survey they found similar and wider concerns arising from a range of experiences. They concluded that important limitations and pervasive problems need to be acknowledged, whereas often what gets "advertised" is only the virtues of web-based distance learning. In my own context, I believe we have given timely feedback, but staff have certainly noticed an increase in time spent responding to students' email messages, which can be another problem to manage. An interesting clarification of instructions was needed for one of my own papers: I had provided a mindmap with several alternate routes through the topics to allow students more flexibility in constructing their own learning paths, but several emailed me to ask, "Please, just tell me what to do".

Hara and Kling (ibid) also commented on the many articles they found that stressed the potential of web-based learning, but understated the extent to which instructors might need to develop new pedagogies and different approaches to managing on-line courses. They believe there are still untested assumptions that advanced technologies are pedagogically more effective than older technologies.

Gillham, Buckner and Butt (1999) carried out a user-centred evaluation on a website developed to support a traditionally taught course. The students had an arts background and not all were enthusiastic computer users (and so would be comparable to some of the students in our BEd papers). The site was found to be useful in introducing web-based educational material, but there was little trade-off in reducing student/teacher contact time. Overall, students preferred to stay with what they were familiar with rather than move further down the path to computer-assisted learning. Again, these findings seem to echo the responses of some of our students, especially those in face-to-face groups: one of my classes said in effect, "Why would we want to talk on-line with distance students when we can talk to each other here?"

One of our concerns has been to develop on-line learning approaches based on constructivist principles of learning. Tam (2000) provides a useful discussion of differences between "a highly industrialised, mass-production model" of distance delivery based on earlier views of educational technology, and post-industrial approaches to instructional design, "congruent with constructivist principles and developments in modern technology" (ibid, p. 50). Her statement that "A central strategy for building constructivist learning environments such as situated learning, multiple perspectives and flexible learning is to create a collaborative learning environment" is a challenge to us to find ways to achieve this among our different groups of students. I believe we need to recognise that the "learning culture" of each type of group has its own characteristics and values (discussed further in Viskovic et al, 1999).

While we have made a decision that our BEd papers will not use course webpages for delivery of large quantities of course content, we do recognise the value of others' websites as sources of alternative and supplementary materials. Jefferies (1998) surveyed students' use of the Internet, and found that they identified email and search engines as the most productive for them, with interactive tutorials and collaborative working considered much less useful. Areas of concern that she commented on included the anarchic nature of the WWW, with no quality controls over data; lack of bandwidth for fast delivery (especially for multimedia); relatively primitive search engines for filtering data; poor maintenance of links and updating of some webpages; and differences in the capacity of some browsers, which could make publication and collaboration difficult.

To date evaluation of our Internet-supported courses has relied only on staff and student feedback. Alexander et al (1999) carried out a substantial evaluation of information technology projects that had been funded by the Committee for the Advancement of University Teaching (CAUT). They produced a significant list of recommendations for improving the development of learning projects supported by technology, and particularly recommended more systematic evaluation of such projects - a message for us in future.


Reflecting on my survey findings and the experiences commented on by other writers, I note the following points: Matters for further investigation include:


Alexander, S, McKenzie, J, with Geissinger, H. (1999). An Evaluation of Information Technology Projects for University Learning (Executive Summary). [viewed 1 July 2000]

Gillham, M, Buckner, K, and Butt, R. (1999). The Cautious Student - A User-Centred Evaluation of Web-supported Learning. Innovations in Education and Training International, 36(4). 327-333.

Hara, N, and Kling, R. (1999). Students' frustrations with web-based distance education courses. [verified 22 Oct 2001]

Jefferies, P. (1998). Using the Internet as a Teaching Resource. Education and Training, 40 (8).

Kilian, C. (1997). Why Teach Online? Keynote Address to the Second Annual Teaching in the Community Colleges Online Conference. [viewed 1 July 2000 at, verified 22 Oct 2001 at]

Landow, G P. (1992). Hypertext: The convergence of contemporary critical theory and technology. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Nix, D, and Spiro, R J. (eds.) (1990). Cognition, education and multimedia: Exploring ideas in high technology. Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Stacey, Elizabeth. (1997). A Virtual Campus: The experiences of postgraduate students studying through electronic communication and resource access. [verified 22 Oct 2001]

Tam, M. (2000). Constructivism, Instructional Design and Technology: Implications for Transforming Distance Learning. Educational Technology and Society, 3(2), 50-60. [viewed 1 July 2000]

Tiffin, J. and Rajasingham, L. (1995). In search of the virtual class: Education in an information society. London: Routledge.

Viskovic, A, Purnell, S, and Evans, N. (1999). Three Cultures? Face to Face, Distance and On-Line Learning. Zepke, N, et al (eds). (1999). Adult Learning Cultures: Challenges, Choices and the Future. Wellington: WP Press.

Viskovic, A. (1998). Transforming Communication to Promote Learning: Using On-line Learning Approaches with Mixed Local and Distance Class Groups. Paper presented at HERDSA Annual Conference, Auckland.

Zepke, N. (1997). Narrative and Constructivism in Cyberspace: Instructional Design for Distance Delivery Using Hypertext on the Internet. Journal of Distance Education, 3(1).

Author: Alison R Viskovic, Department of Social and Policy Studies in Education, Massey University, Private Box 756, Wellington, New Zealand. Phone +64 4 801 2794 ext 6713 Fax +64 3 801 2697 Email

Please cite as: Viskovic, A. R. (2001). Students' attitudes to using forms of on-line learning support. In L. Richardson and J. Lidstone (Eds), Flexible Learning for a Flexible Society, 701-709. Proceedings of ASET-HERDSA 2000 Conference, Toowoomba, Qld, 2-5 July 2000. ASET and HERDSA.

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