Engagement with others online: students’ views of course design

Walkway viewed from overhead

As learning designers, it’s essential that we explore students’ needs and goals. That way, we can make sure that learning activities address these needs and support students to reach their goals. For example, each time we design a new module, we take time to explore student data and course teams’ experience to build up student profiles or personas that can be referred to throughout the module design process. 

It’s also important that we understand students’ experiences of their learning, such as the times and days they study, and how and if they work with other students. Without this, we risk making assumptions that could cause students to struggle or even drop out. I2018, our Learning Experience & Technology team conducted a series of focus groups with students at a range of distance learning institutions, including the OU.  This post takes a look at what they learnt.

How do students view their courses? 

The focus groups were a small sample size in total (only 22 students: eight from the OU and 14 from a range of other distance learning providers) but they did provide an opportunity to find out how some students see their courses when given an opportunity to talk about their experiences 

The six hours of students talking provided a lot more data that didn’t make it into the videos. Mark Childs, a lecturer in microcredentials and technology enhanced learning at the OU’s Institute of Educational Technology, analysed the data to identify trends and other information that could inform our work. 

What does face-to-face teaching mean? 

Mark analysed the students separately depending on whether they were under 30 or over 30 (30 was the median age), to look for differences in their experiences. Two stood out: 

  1. The younger students tended to have jobs that have less flexibility, so the synchronous elements tend to be less accessible for them. 
  2. The younger students used face-to-face to describe videoconferencing  the logic being you can see the other person’s face. 

I’ve noticed this last one before, in a project I did at Loughborough University,’ Mark says. ‘I now try and drop using the phrase “face-to-face” as it’s obviously ambiguous, and use “co-located” – meaning physically present – instead. However, it’s difficult to stop the habit. 

To provide some focus to the analysis, Mark looked at how the students engaged with other people. He used qualitative analysis to review the transcripts, then identified themes and grouped similar ones together. What emerged was that the students saw their engagement with others on the course as being in three main scenarios: 

  • Synchronous one-to-ones with tutors 
  • Synchronous sessions with tutorial groups led by a tutor 
  • Asynchronous discussions with other students 

The students also talked about a fourth strand that they created for themselves. Only two of the 22 students said they had an opportunity to meet others on their course in the same space: these were one from the University of Sheffield and one from the OU. The others felt they missed out on this experience, so many of them talked about how they had created their own opportunities for doing this.  

It’s important to note that students may not have been aware of the course design element. They could also have forgotten it, or just not mentioned it when asked. And of course, there’s no way the views of 22 students can represent all the students at those universities. However, it provides an interesting start for a more representative study. 

Course design is just the beginning 

Mark’s research also suggested that course design doesn’t end with what we provide to the student. Students take what we provide and re-create it to suit themselves. 

Examples of how other students had created their own co-located learning experiences were: 

  • Physical social learning spaces. Two of the younger non-OU students had visited Google Campus, which is a place in London where technology start-ups have an office space, but anyone can use the downstairs café. This meant that there were people around who were working and studying and could offer advice. It was also an atmosphere that they felt supported their learning, because it offered both social and quiet areas. 
  • Creating their own blend of spaces. The older non-OU students didn’t discuss Google Campus but did talk about how they mixed libraries, cafes and their offices to create a blend of different types of spaces to work in to meet their needs for quiet but shared places and more social shared spaces.  
  • Creating their own co-located peer groups. One of the younger OU students filled in for her lack of co-located contact with others by identifying others through the module’s Facebook group and arranging to meet up with them in a monthly study group. 

However, the key element of all of these co-located learning spaces was that they were a) convenient and b) low costThis was consistent across both age groups, and for both OU and non-OU students. In other words, meeting other learners in a physical space is something learners like to do, but its not considered worth it if they have to travel a long way or pay for it. 

Creating connections 

One element that particularly needs further investigation is that some of these students who created their own co-located groups were also those who weren’t taking advantage of the online discussions with other students. Many of them stated that they would value co-located social learning because it enabled them to touch base with the course providers and to meet fellow students. This raises the question as to how these opportunities are presented in their interactions with teachers and students during their module study. 

So far, the study has raised some interesting areas for further investigation, and a potential framework from which to conduct this. It also reminds us of the value of understanding students’ perceptionsthese students saw the structure and support for their courses in a very different way from that intended.  

Useful resources 

Hidden learning spaces: What learning analytics cannot tell us [external link] 

Learning from one another: the value of students’ insights