Monday, February 06, 2012

Quality and Profits: Virtual Learning Environment and Real Engagement - A Conversation with students and tutors


Background

This study was carried out in a Private Business College based in the City of London, which offers MBA degrees validated by the University of Wales. The college decided to implement a VLE supporting its campus-based students in October 2010, with the goal of improving its ‘student engagement’. The college, following a common practice in the sector, used Adjunct Lecturers rather than Tenured ones, and the Management was concerned that this affects the Tutor availability and consequent engagement of the students with the programme or the institution.

The Study

This study looked what, if any, impact the implementation of the VLE has had on the student engagement one year after it was rolled out. Two focus groups, one consisting of five students from across two cohorts, and another consisting of four Tutors and Course Administrators, were arranged. Also, three separate interviews were also conducted, two with Tutors using the VLE to deliver their courses and one with a technical staff member tasked to provide VLE support.

Students’ Focus Group

Five students from two different cohorts attended the Focus Group to discuss if the introduction of the VLE enhanced the engagement with the college.

Summary

Broadly, the view was that the availability of VLE allowed better communication with Tutors, as the students could post queries or read what others have said. However, they resented the fact that the college stopped giving printed class notes, which they could read while traveling in the bus. They also pointed out that not all students have a personal laptop, and often it is too expensive for them to print the notes outside.

The students saw the primary use of VLE as a repository of of course handouts and information. They said they would rather chat on Facebook or GoogleTalk: They said they didn’t think the VLE is for anything else other than downloading course handouts. There were privacy concerns, and the students thought that someone could be listening if they share too much on the VLE.

The VLE was found to be easy to use. They could log in, and if they had any difficulty, forgot the password or couldn’t find information, the support staff was helpful. However, they thought some of the Tutors couldn’t use the VLE properly: Many tutors were very inconsistent about uploading their materials, they reported. Students felt ‘lost’ if they could not find the classroom notes even days after the actual session.

Finally, they thought the VLE could be improved ‘if it’s like Facebook’: If they can upload their photos, and write about themselves. When told that this was already possible, they said they did not think it was appropriate – the setting was very official.

Excerpts from transcripts Of Student Focus Group

The moderator welcomed everyone and opened the proceedings by explaining that the objective is to discuss what impact Moodle usage may have had on the student experience of the college.

Moderator: How often did you use Moodle and what did you use it for?

Student C: I log in regularly, let’s say, weekly once or twice at least. I would use this to download class notes and read the posts teachers were putting up. Not for all modules though: There is nothing for some of the modules.

Student A: That’s true. There isn’t anything for Economics.

Student C: I felt lost on that module. I told A [Tutor] but he didn’t put things up on time.

Student A: I used Moodle regularly too, but lack of materials put me off.

Student B: You complain that there were no notes for Economics, but the tutor gave printed notes. I like printed notes. I can’t access Moodle when my husband is at home and uses the laptop.

Student A: I requested if the notes could also be put up. It was easy for me: I didn’t want to carry them around.

Student C: That’s the point. I don’t see why A [Tutor] wanted to give printed notes. I thought it should be consistent for all modules.

Student B: I like printed notes. I know the college is trying to save money, but all students don’t have a laptop.

Student A: Most students have laptop. You have one!

Student E: I have a laptop, but can’t read it on the screen. I can’t print all the notes. It is too expensive.

Student B: Well, I don’t have a personal one. I can’t download much. My husband uses it too. Besides, I can read the printed notes while I am in a bus.

Moderator:  Did you use Moodle for any other activity than downloading class notes?

Student A: Not really. There was nothing much on.

Student C: I did read the posts R [Tutor] was putting up. That was interesting. I also did the quiz M [Tutor] used.

Student D: I did those too. Yes, they were good. I hope we are referring to the same thing though.

Student B: I found them interesting. I later realized that that was meant to be a preparation for the final exams.

Moderator: Did you use the forum at all?

Student C: To be honest, I find forums a bit boring. I can’t wait so long to get an answer.

Student A: I get put off by forums. I have most of the class on Facebook.

Student D: I would rather use Facebook or GTalk, not Moodle.

Student B: It is very official, isn’t it?

 Student A: Besides, we can’t say anything there. You would be watching! [Laughs]

Everyone laughs.

Moderator: Did you find Moodle easy to use?

Student E: Yes, it was easy. I lost my password, but T [Technical Support] was very helpful.

Student A: Yes, he was helpful.

Student C: I couldn’t find the courses first, but he helped me to find it.

Student D: He also came to our class and trained us. Our group gave her trouble. May be the other group was more friendly to him.

Student B: No, we gave him trouble too, but he was helpful.

Moderator: Did you think Moodle was a good thing for the college to do? Did it help you overall?

Student C: Yes, it was helpful. It was easy to write to tutors and get their feedback.

Student B: Why, you could have emailed them?

Student C: It isn’t the same thing. If I emailed them, they could have been bothered. May be they were busy. They could write in Moodle when they are logged in.

Student A: Not really. They could respond to emails when they like.

Student C: I felt otherwise. It is more like phone calls when you can send a text.
Student D: That’s interesting. I felt the same way. Though I didn’t use Moodle that much.

Student C: I felt the tutors were more accessible once we had Moodle.

Student A: I agree to that.

Moderator: I can see the point. What improvements would you suggest if we have to work more on Moodle?

Student C: Well, you can make it like Facebook. We could have had our photos and write about ourselves.

Moderator: Could you not already do that?

Student C: May be we could. I didn’t figure it out fully.

Student D: Could we? But what’s the use?

Student E: We already knew each other in the class. May be to know people from other groups.. yes, that would have been good.

Student A: Some students in our group did that. But only few.

Student C: It would have been good if we could access the library from Moodle. I mean, without having to log in to the University library.

Student B: May be you could give us courses on Moodle other than what we are being taught.

Moderator: Like what?

Student B: Like English. It would have been good to have an English course.

Student E: You mean, like an Online one?

Student B: Yes.

Student E: Oh, that would be good. Only if this is free though. [Laughs]

Moderator: That may be a good idea. Anything else?

Student A: May be, you can have one Moodle tutor. Someone who helps us with all the courses on Moodle.

Student D: How would that work? One person can’t do all the courses.

Student A: My point is – we have A [Tutor] for Economics, M [Tutor] for Marketing. It is easy that way. If there was one person for Moodle, it would have been good.

Student C: We have T [technical support].

Everyone laughs.

Student B: By the way, did you think he knew when we are logging in and out? He told us that he can see the usage report.

Moderator: Most probably he can.

Student D: That will scare me. I never used it much.

Student E: Me too. Would he be able to see what I am doing on the site?

Student C: He would. What were you doing? [Laughs]

Everyone laughs.

Student E: Nothing much, but it is the passwords I was setting. [Laughs] I did go to him when I lost my password afterwards. How silly?

Student A: He may not see your passwords. Would he?

Student C: May be, he can.

Moderator: Is there anything else you can think of before we close?

Student A: Not really. I think Moodle is good.

Student B: I think you should give printed handouts, but Moodle is good. We can write to Tutors easily and see what others are writing, too.

Student C: Nothing to add. I have spoken much. I think Moodle can be improved and would love to help the college if it needs my participation.

Student D: Well, I haven’t used much. May be I will.

Student E: Nothing much to add. I am worried if T saw the passwords. I shall ask him.

The moderator thanked everyone for participating and closed the session.

Tutors’ Focus Group

Two Tutors and two members of the Course Administration team joined the Focus Group to discuss whether the VLE has improved the ‘student engagement’ at the college.

Summary

There were some divergence of views in the Group: One Course Administrator felt that the ‘VLE has done a lot and could do a lot more if the Tutors were using it more’, the Tutors generally felt that the students are not interested in using the VLE and that the forums bear evidence of the same.

The Tutors agreed that the VLE was a good platform to share their class notes, but they were unsure how much they could do as they were adjunct tutors and did not want to lose control of their materials once they have shared it in an electronic format.

The question of access came up and that it is wrong to assume that everyone has a laptop and internet connection. The tutors also felt that they are being stretched as the VLE demanded more of their time. There was also an issue of prioritizing for students who would use the VLE and others, who would focus on print-based study.

A number of suggestions were made about what improvements can be done to the VLE.

“It would have been good if we could ask the students to keep writing a blog throughout the programme, and if this could be shared with other students. Since the blogs are contained within the individual courses, and only shared within the cohort, this isn’t possible now.” (Tutor, Male) 




Excerpts from transcripts Of Tutor and Staff Focus Group

The moderator welcomed everyone and opened the proceedings by explaining that the objective is to discuss what impact Moodle usage may have had on the student experience of the college.

The moderator explained that a similar focus group for students have already been arranged, and this session is to get different perspectives from Tutor and Staff.

Moderator: Let me start with an open question. Do you think the students are more engaged in the college after the introduction of Moodle?

Tutor A: Depends on what you mean by engagement. If you compare this with what was happening a year back, it is certainly better now. Can’t say whether that is because of Moodle or something else.

Staff A: I agree. I think the students are more engaged, but there are a number of reasons for this. We have improved many things now. But, yes, Moodle has done a lot and could do a lot more if the Tutors were using it more.

Staff B: Yes, agreed. Students spend a lot more time on the campus, now that the reading room is so much more better. I think they use Moodle more. But then we have better students now than we had before.

Tutor B: I agree with others. I think the students are more engaged with the college. I think they don’t care about Moodle though.

Staff A: Why do you say that?

Tutor B: I don’t think they access it often. I don’t know what they have been telling you, but my students don’t even log in.

Staff A: It is about tutors, I would think. I have heard that some tutors don’t put up notes, and they don’t log in, therefore. I think it is two way.

Tutor B: I set up quizzes on Moodle. These were meant to be formative assessments, to help them in their exams. Only three students out of twenty actually did these.

Tutor A: I agree with you. They don’t care about Moodle. They mostly want printed notes.

Staff B: I have heard students talk about the quizzes and I thought they found them really useful.

Staff A: I think different students are different. I am sure Moodle helps those who want to go the extra mile.

Tutor B: My problem is that I have a limited time and whether I should give it to help students who don’t use Moodle or those who do. It is not always true that the good students are using Moodle: There are others who are equally good but may not be that IT savvy.

Tutor A: Or may not have a laptop. It is a mistake to assume that everyone has personal laptop. Particularly these international students.

Staff A: I agree. I think if we expect them to use Moodle, we should give them a laptop as a part of the course.

Staff B: And, internet connection? I think that would be a problem.

Tutor A: I think they should arrange their Internet. Though they don’t want to spend money on everything.

 Staff A: I am not sure what can be done, but in the immediate term, may be we should encourage everyone to put more activities on Moodle. That will encourage the students and the word will spread.

Tutor A: I think many tutors will have a problem. Most tutors are just contracted ones in this college, and they may not want to share their materials electronically. What if the college takes their material and then employ another tutor?

Staff A: Yes, I think that’s an issue. I have heard this before.

Staff B: Also, there is an issue that some tutors may put up materials where they may not have copyright. I have seen someone trying to put up a Harvard Business Review article. I am not sure how he got the PDF and whether he could share it on Moodle.

Tutor A: I am not clear what I can share on Moodle. I usually follow the same rule as I do for photocopies. I hope that will be the case.

Staff B: I am not sure.

Tutor B: I think it would be quite similar, but may be that’s something the college can do – get a clear policy out. That will help everyone.

Tutor A: Also, a policy on Intellectual Property. The college can assure Tutors that their materials will not be used for any other purpose. I am sure no one intends to do that anyway, so it is an easy statement to make.

Moderator: I shall note it down as an action point. Both, copyright and intellectual property…

Staff B: Yes, I think that would be good. Also, I would like to see  a more personal feel of the VLE, so that everyone can create their profiles and also participate in the forum. I am as much part of this course as anyone else: I would love to have an account and at least be able to see what people are saying.

Staff A: You mean, you would be in the courses? I am not sure that’s a good idea. The students will feel that you are watching them.

Staff B: This is not about watching. We are expecting them to do more than their courses there, right? So, if I am part of it, may be I can ask them to do various other things. Like a debate.

Tutor A: I am not sure you will be able to do that within a course forum. That will distract everyone. But may be there could be a general forum, where you can do that. In fact, I think you should have a general forum where you should do that.

Staff B: Is there something like a General Forum?

Tutor B: I am not sure. I think everything is inside the course pages.

Tutor A: That’s an idea I have thought about before. I teach in the Leadership programme students. It would have been good if we could ask the students to keep writing a blog throughout the programme, and if this could be shared with other students. Since the blogs are contained within the individual courses, and only shared within the cohort, this isn’t possible now.

Tutor B: Yes, that might have been a good idea. Is that technically possible?

Moderator: Yes. I shall take that away as an action point.

Tutor A: Well, sometimes I don’t know what’s possible and what’s not. So, I don’t try it out. I always thought that we should do something at the programme level, but couldn’t figure out how this is to be done.

Tutor B: Yes, I mostly stick to the template too.

Tutor A: This is another thing to explore. It is not just student engagement. I think we should explore how to engage the tutors too. Once tutors are engaged, the students will automatically be engaged.

Staff A: That’s not necessarily true.

Tutor A: It is. You should think that the tutor would be stretched with the VLE as they have to respond to student queries at odd hours. They must feel it is worthwhile to do so.

Tutor B: Yes, it is true. I often answer the questions posted on Moodle at odd hours. Some students always post them at middle of the night.

Staff B: You surely don’t have to it immediately. You can always do it later.

Tutor B: That’s not the way I work. I feel uncomfortable if I don’t answer a query when I saw it. I always write something.

Moderator: Is there a difference when a student writes an email and when she posts a query on Moodle?

Tutor B: Not really, not from my point of view.

Tutor A: May be there is a difference. I think the moodle query is more urgent. I shall tend to respond to that immediately. Emails can wait slightly longer.

Staff A: I agree. I would think a student will post urgent queries on Moodle.

Tutor A: It is also about everyone watching.. [laughs]

Tutor B: Yes, especially you guys.

Tutor A: On a serious note, I treat the Moodle queries as if all the students have the same question, whereas emails are about one student having a specific query.

Tutor B: But good thing about Moodle is that sometimes, the other student will answer it before I do.

Moderator: How often does it happen?

Tutor B: It happens. Some students are always on, and quite helpful.

Tutor A: There are differences, though. Girls get more help than the boys. Prettiest girl gets maximum help. [Laughs]

Everyone laughs.

Staff A: That’s always the case, isn’t it?

Tutor A: Are we talking about some kind of strategy to engage students on Moodle then? [Laughs]

Everyone laughs.

Moderator: Before we close this session, any other suggestions on what improvements we can make to Moodle to improve student engagement?

Tutor A: I think we should start with Tutor engagement. It should not be seen as a distant big brother thing that the college is doing and tutors have to follow this. One should talk to all tutors and make them see the benefits. They have to do more work. The college should actually look at the Tutor contracts and see how they are rewarded for the extra effort they have to put up for Moodle.

Tutor B: I agree to this. And we should also look at student champions. The students should talk to students about using Moodle. I think that programme level course idea is very good. If the students are writing a blog and if other students can read it, that would be great.

Staff A: I think Moodle should be redesigned. It should be more colourful and young. May be we should allow students to put their pages up. I don’t think they know what all they can do, and may be we should teach them.

Staff B: I also think we should address the issue of access. Seriously think of giving laptops to everyone and may be an internet connection too, if that’s practicable.

The moderator thanked everyone for participation and closed the session.



The Interviews

Two semi-structured interviews were set up with Tutors primarily to discuss and validate the key observations from the Focus Groups. The tutors agreed that the VLE is not being used to its ‘full potential’: They thought the system is too restrictive, and they are not able to adapt it to the way they would like to approach a subject as this can’t be easily done. They thought one needs to be sure about copyright issues, where they want to share an article or some web-based material to their students, which they could do easily print off. They also thought that the college should clarify their stance on the tutor materials shared on the VLE: If they are reassured that this material will not be used for any other purpose other than the course they are teaching, they would be far more comfortable sharing the same.

As far as student engagement is concerned, they pointed out that their timing is being stretched as the students keep posting things all the time, and they feel obliged to respond as soon as they can. They agreed that there are different kinds of students, and some never use the VLE: But it is ‘something that really helps the students who want to go an extra mile’.

The interview with the Technical Support person explored some of the improvement areas highlighted by Focus Groups. He appreciated the limitation in terms of programme level support in the VLE used (Moodle 1.9). He suggested that the VLE should be integrated with a portal software, which may allow greater programme level support, social features and single sign-on system that was being talked about.



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