IIER logo 3
Issues In Educational Research, Vol 16, 2006
[ Contents Vol 16 ] [ IIER Home ]

'Mind the gap': The application of a conceptual model to investigate distance learners' expectations and perceptions of induction

Gillian Forrester and Gillian Parkinson
The University of Manchester, UK
Increasingly, emphasis is being placed on meeting students' learning and support needs in higher education, initially through the induction process. Academic staff have limited contact with distance students, compared with campus-based students, and thus may not fully appreciate their particular expectations and perceptions. This study sought to establish whether a 'gap' existed between students' and academics' expectations and perceptions of induction (in terms of it meeting students' needs as distance learners). The research involved undergraduate and postgraduate students enrolled on distance courses at a UK university. Data were collected at two points in students' first year of distance study using a mixed methodological approach. The research also examined the efficacy of applying a conceptual 'gap analysis' model to gauge students' needs as distance learners and the level of student satisfaction with induction. The research revealed specific areas in the induction process where developments could be made to ensure delivery of best practice.


Student induction and support for distance learners

Higher Education (HE) institutions are increasingly paying greater attention to induction (referred to as 'orientation' in some contexts). This is due in part to the growing realisation of the significance of providing a comprehensive and integral introduction to HE study (Frame, 2001; Shobrook, 2003) and that a good induction engenders student satisfaction with the learning experience, assists student retention and facilitates higher completion rates (Yorke, 1999). Induction has consequently become more 'student-centred' (Edward, 2003, p.230) and led to innovative ways of guiding students through the transitional processes in HE environments (Carter & McNeill, 1998; Edward, 2003; Sackville, 1997; Stanley, 2001). However, student induction may still typically focus on content and involve institutions providing large amounts of information upfront with information-overload potentially overwhelming, confusing and disheartening new students.

The solitary nature of distance learning is well documented (Eastmond, 1995) and so the facilitation of self-directed, independent learning is crucial as students will be studying alone for the majority of the study period (Moore, 1973; Wedemeyer, 1981). Laying the foundations for students to take "greater responsibility for their own learning" is an important enabler of effective induction design (Barton, 2001, p.49). Minimising the role of the distance teacher and encouraging learner autonomy is one approach adopted by some (Keegan, 1990) others though, for example Lewis (1982, p.136), regard the teacher more as a supportive friend who is actively engaged in the student learning process. Granger (1990) suggests that while distance students may function quite effectively in their own workplace or community, when confronted with the demands of academic study, may feel inadequate. How, therefore, can academic staff best meet distance students' diverse skills and learning requirements during induction?

Induction should aim to help students identify areas of weakness which might impinge on their learning and also be designed to enable students to connect to their chosen program and promote affiliation to a particular institution. The development of appropriate support systems for distance students from enrolment, through induction and beyond, has grown considerably in recent years (Dearnley, 2003; Tait, 1995; Tait, 2000) with student services comprising both academic support and non-academic support (Simpson, 2000, pp.6-7). The trend of customer care and customer satisfaction from the service sector has been influential in developing support services provided for distance students (Kenworthy, 2003; Nunan, George & McCausland, 2000; Sewart, 1993).

Students as consumers of educational services

The marketisation of education has resulted in the HE sector being perceived as a service provider and market mechanisms have heightened competitiveness among providing institutions bringing quality assurance processes to the fore (Rivis, 1997; Thorpe, 1993). Consequently, students are positioned as 'customers' (Nunan et al, 2000; Kenworthy, 2003) and, as 'consumers' of education, are increasingly aware of their rights and more mindful of disparities between their expectations of service delivery and the reality of that service (Darlaston-Jones, Pike, Cohen, Young, Haunold & Drew, 2003; Long, Tricker, Rangecroft & Gilroy, 1999). We caution however that conceptualising students as customers is somewhat narrowly focused and diminishes their importance as contributing additions to the HE community. Nevertheless consumer satisfaction in terms of value for money is arguably an imperative issue for students (or their employers) who are often paying substantial fees for their courses. As Rowntree notes
These new consumers want a wider range of products, they want relevance, they want it when they want it, and they want value for money. In short, consumers more and more expect a product that is tailored to their individual needs. (Rowntree, 1992, p.39)
'Quality' has thus become a key concern in education with attempts to both define and measure it. The quality of the student experience has been emphasised in HE by, for example, the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA). As HE providers respond to subject reviews, much time and resources have been committed to pressures to enhance quality as it is assumed that in the education marketplace students will informatively distinguish between high and low quality providers. Slack, Cambers and Johnston (2004, p.596) suggest that, "quality needs to be understood from a customer's point of view because, to the customer, the quality of a particular product or service is whatever he or she perceives it to be". Similarly, Parasuraman, Zeithaml and Berry (1985, p.46) argue "the key to ensuring good service quality is meeting or exceeding what consumers expect from the service". Thus following on from this, whatever is delivered to students, should at least meet their expectations. However, student (customer) and provider expectations may differ because they approach HE from a range of contexts that may shape and inform their respective expectations and perceptions of academic quality and program delivery. Furthermore the service or product received may be also perceived in different ways.

Rationale

Acclimatising students to self-directed study conditions and enabling them to learn effectively at a distance is one of the chief aims of the induction process for all programs utilising this mode of teaching, yet how we ensure that need is met is often presumed or regarded as irrelevant to the main thrust of meeting the programs' over all learning outcomes. The design and structure of the distance programs to be investigated in this research were based on the traditional UK Open University model, which incorporates two study schools in the first year of study. Students attend compulsory three-day residential study schools held on the University campus during autumn and spring. The Autumn Study School is regarded as the primary induction for newly registered students. Table 1 illustrates the content of the induction.

Table 1: Content of study school induction

Study school induction sessionPurpose of session
Welcome and program introduction from Program Director
  • Introduce students to University staff
  • Inform students of methods by which they may make and maintain contact with tutors
  • Examine the structure of the study schools and how they relate to students' own study pathways
Library tourIntroduce students to online and distributed (distance) services, including accessing electronic databases and journals, and ordering materials from other libraries.
Study skills sessionProvide guidance on eg, how to write literature reviews and reports, to use footnotes and appropriate referencing.
Individual tutorial (one to one)Optional for all but Masters' dissertation students.
Subject specific sessionsProvided by University tutors/lecturers or outside speakers.
Guidance sessions on designing and conducting small research projects (Year 2 & 3 MSc students only)
  • Introduce students to the principles underlying academic research
  • Address ethical issues and potential conflicts of interest between the student as a researcher and his or her role as professional/practitioner in the workplace.

The research aimed to find or develop a suitable conceptual model which unequivocally demonstrated points of mismatch and concordance in students' needs, expectations and perceptions of their proposed program of study. It was envisaged that routine application of such a model would ensure accurate and appropriate provision of services offered to distance students from the outset of their studies.

A literature search alerted us to a service quality model (later referred to as 'gap analysis') designed by Parasuraman et al (1985). Essentially it is a model of consumer-perceived quality and was developed to diagnose quality problems by identifying and measuring 'gaps' in the provision of services between users' expectations and perceptions of service quality. It also serves the purpose of highlighting aspects of a service which could be developed or improved to make the service more effective and enhance consumer satisfaction. The model (Parasuraman et al, 1985, p.44) was the outcome of an empirical investigation in the retail sector and principally proposes that a series of gaps might exist between the various parts of service provision. Parasuraman and colleagues surmised that consumers' expectations are formed via their past experiences, personal needs and information obtained from various sources. Thus the first gap they identified is a mismatch between consumer expectations of a service and management's perceptions of those expectations. The second gap, a discrepancy between management perceptions and service quality specifications, arises when management is unable to turn or is averse to turning their ideas for a service into practice in the form of guidelines for delivery. The third gap, service quality specifications - service delivery, transpires when employees are unsuccessful in delivering the service to the highest standards and in concurrence with the guidelines. The fourth gap, service delivery - external communications, exists when a provider falls short of promoting or alternatively exaggerates the service. The existence of any of these gaps (1-4), they argue, ultimately manifests itself in the fifth gap which is the difference between expected service and perceived service (gap 5). They place the gaps within two 'domains'; one representing consumer activity and the other marketer activity. The two domains converge at the point of service delivery.

Methodology

The model (Parasuraman et al, 1985) and the methodology underpinning it were adopted and later adapted by the authors to explore any gaps present between expectations and perceptions of distance learners, using the delivery of induction as the point of reference. We designed our research instruments to assist in answering the main research question, "How may academic staff ensure distance students' diverse needs and expectations are met during the induction process?"

The aims of the study were

  1. to examine the application of a conceptual model to demonstrate points of mismatch and concordance in perceptions and expectations of students' induction needs by students and academic staff
  2. to define the nature of potential gaps of the induction process between the views of students and academic staff
  3. to identify ways in which such gaps may be addressed through appropriate adjustments to induction planning.
We devised a working model to suit our own purposes (see Figure 1) which assisted in rationalising the research enquiry and was useful for data analysis purposes.

Our model is divided into two domains. The left domain allows for the exploration of students' expectations. These may be shaped and informed by a number of factors including personal learning needs, past experiences (education, work, training, prior knowledge), any word-of-mouth communication about the program or university (through informal networks) and the pre-conceived reputation or image a student had of the university. Slack et al (2004, p.597) consider that such "expectations are internalised as a set of quality characteristics". The right side of the model represents the university's domain. Within this academic staff (tutors), are responsible for designing the induction and, in some instances, may be required to address faculty or institutional guidelines, specifications or policies regarding the induction of students. Tutors will invariably have perceptions of students' needs and expectations and these may also inform the conceptualisation and design of an appropriate induction. The two domains converge at the point of induction to the program when students actively engage in this process.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Gap analysis model for exploring disparity between
students' expectations and perceptions of induction provision

We were not concerned with attempting to offer any objective measurement of quality of service provision. Rather, we were seeking descriptive data which would enable us to gain an understanding of students' experiences and give insight into this particular aspect of distance education. We were attracted to generating expressions of student views and preferences in order to inform the induction activities.

Participants

Participants were drawn from one cohort of thirty-six undergraduate (UG) and postgraduate (PG) students at the beginning of their studies on programs in Profound Learning Disability and Multi-Sensory Impairment, offered by a UK university. The majority of students in these programs are women and are aged between 18 and 64 years.

Table 2: Social demographic characteristics of participants

GenderAgeProgramNationalityCountry of
residence
Studied by
distance before
M218-242UG7 UK25UK24Yes6
F2525-295 PG Diploma5Overseas2Overseas 3No21

30-343MSc 15


35-398

40-445
50-543
60-641

Data collection

Data were collected through the combined use of Students were provided with a consent form and information sheet explaining the purpose of the study, methods of data collection, issues surrounding client confidentiality, data storage and 'rules of engagement' - including unconditional withdrawal from the study at any time. Data were collected at two points - Time 1 (T1), 4 weeks post-registration, and Time 2 (T2), 12 weeks later.

The T1 questionnaire distributed at the Autumn Study School was designed to elicit students' initial needs, expectations and concerns as distance learners. The questionnaire comprised 5 closed-questions to ascertain social demographic information and a series of 12 open-ended questions allowing students considerable scope to express their points of view. Students were asked about the following

Twenty-seven questionnaires (n = 25 female, n = 2 male) were completed and returned, (response rate = 75%). Five students participated in a formal focus group (n = 4 female, n = 1 male).

Emerging areas of particular relevance to the students were identified in the data collected at T1 and guided the formulation of questions for inclusion in the follow-up questionnaire and interview schedule. The second questionnaire allowed for a deeper exploration of the issues raised in T1 and more reflective responses from students. This was distributed at the Spring Study School (T2) and students were asked to

Twenty-two students completed the second questionnaire (n = 21 females, n = 1 male; response rate = 61%). Semi-structured interviews were conducted with five students (all female). This provided an opportunity for students to expand further upon the issues raised in their questionnaires. Interviews with the program director and tutor (both of whom were responsible for the delivery of the induction) were undertaken to establish their views on the current induction, the induction process and their perception of distance students' needs and expectations.

Data analysis

The data were analysed using QSR NVivo (Qualitative Solutions and Research Software: Version 2). The first stage of analysis investigated the questions and objectives embedded in the research rationale. The second stage of analysis was guided by the conceptual model and explored the presence or absence of potential gaps between X and Y.

Findings and discussion

Findings are presented in conjunction with the gaps illustrated in Figure 1. Responses given by tutors and students have been extracted from the data to illustrate particular points and are presented below. Tutors' responses are indicated by brackets while and all other responses relate to those provided by students.

Students' learning needs

Ascertaining students' learning needs was paramount as we considered their expectations of support during induction would be fuelled by perceived learning needs (as identified in Table 3). Our results confirm findings of research undertaken elsewhere (Ludwig-Hardman & Dunlap, 2003) with over 50% of students reporting their feelings of isolation as distance learners, the lack of contact and social interaction, their physical distance from the university and being unable to sustain the motivation or willpower to study. The data generated illustrated the wide-ranging and various needs of distance learners. These are presented below in Table 3, not in any order of priority, but have been assembled under either 'the need to' or 'the need for'.

Table 3: Students personal learning needs

The need to...The need for...
belongclear information
interact with other studentsguidance
be self-directedstudy skills support
be part of a communitytechnical support
understand how to access resources (library, e-journals, databases)reassurance
understand how to use resources (library, e-journals, databases)advice
know what facilities are availableclear precise instructions of what is expected
share experiencesresources (human and material)
communicate with tutorssupport and direction
develop study skillsa student support network
manage own timecomputer access
be determined to completean understanding family/employer
be self-disciplinedspace to study
be self-motivatedflexibility

In addition, students reported their attendance at the Autumn Study School had highlighted some previously undefined or unacknowledged needs. For example, this comment illustrates difficulties students may face when they are required to use technology for unfamiliar purposes

I've never felt stupider in all my life. I thought I was computer literate ... it was exasperating not being able to get into any journals at all ... I did register [for the forum] by the date, but I couldn't get in again ... I can't get anywhere. I'm not blaming the university; it was certainly my fault.
Comments like these clearly illustrate the points made by Granger (1990) where distance students may feel skills-deficient. Feelings of ineptitude are however not restricted to distance learners but are also found in mature students returning to study after a long period of time (Rogers, 2002; Toynton, 2005).

Guided by the features of the quality service model (Parasuraman et al, 1985) we also investigated potential areas of influence including

Exploring the gaps

The conceptual model (in Figure 1) enabled us to identify a number of features in induction provision worthy of further exploration. The gaps we devised for this research stem directly from the original model though the features were modified to suit our particular research context and were reduced to four from five. Parasuraman et al (1985) argue that any mismatch between expectations and perceptions (our Gap 4) results in consumer dissatisfaction and perceived poor quality and can be explained by other gaps elsewhere in the model. Accordingly, the existence of any gap depicted in the conceptual model (ie, Gaps 1 to 3) manifests itself in Gap 4. Gap 4 therefore, represents the most significant gap in terms of perceived service quality provision and it is the nature of this particular gap, which was the main concern of this research.

The areas investigated were as follows

Gap 1: Students' expectation of support - tutors perceptions of students' needs and expectations of support

Responses were initially coded under the headings, social expectations, academic expectations, technical expectations and pastoral expectations and students indicated, as anticipated, an assortment of expectations. Some students stated they expected the opportunity during induction to become formally acquainted with their fellow students and tutors. Such responses were expressed as
Getting to know people, faces and places

Longer 'getting to know others' session when first arrive with time to discuss backgrounds etc

Program-related responses were coded as academic expectations.
Meeting tutor and having questions answered

Some practice skills workshop for assignments

Some responses were specific to information technology (IT) and coded as technical expectations.
How to access literature once back home

Library system - checking out books, using e-journals

Some responses were humanistic relating more to pastoral expectations of support, for example,
Reassurance regarding the availability of tutors for any support required

Meeting second year students, gaining reassurance of what to expect

Tutors' perceptions of students' needs and expectations were generally comparable. Tutors anticipated a wide variation (tutor) of student expectations largely because of the different study routes and academic levels (UG and PG) of the three programs. Generally it was considered that "many of their needs are in common to any mature student returning to learning" (tutor) though distance students have "fewer opportunities" (tutor) to be together with other learners and to support each other. Providing appropriate levels of guidance and support to a culturally and academically diverse cohort of distance students during induction was a challenge for tutors. Such diversity accentuated the call for a model that could conceptualise and rationalise the complexity of student needs especially given the shortness of the contact time period (three days on campus).

Tutors expected that students wanted to know the requirements of the program, how it operates in practice, their tutors, and that they would be supported throughout their studies. Tutors also considered that students would expect more interaction with their peers, more opportunities to formally socialise and possibly less specialist content than was actually being offered. The exploration undertaken in relation to Gap 1 suggested concordance between students' expectation of support and tutors perceptions of students' needs and expectations of support.

Gap 2: Tutors' conception of induction - actual delivery of the program

Gap 2 revealed some discrepancy between tutors' conception of what the induction should comprise and what was actually delivered to students. Tutors considered that previous induction sessions had been successful in introducing students to the programs; in providing appropriate and detailed course information, "in generating a positive ethos" (tutor) and ensuring students "feel they get attentive service" (tutor). Tutors were keen to create a "supportive atmosphere" (tutor); welcoming and encouraging students formed a significant part of the introductory sessions. However, the induction tended to be a passive event involving the dissemination of necessary information related to the programs and associated course units. Students were informed how to obtain support and from whom, details of the assignment criteria and submission etc. This procedure was considered important by tutors in enabling students to make "informed choices" (tutor) during their studies. However, a lot of information was distributed in a short space of time which some students found overwhelming.

The induction included the standard library tour provided for all new students and an introduction to library services. While topics chosen by library staff were clearly designed to serve specific purposes, tutors considered the session was lacking in terms of enabling students to fully comprehend the library's electronic services - particularly important for off-campus users. Induction also included, a support session on study skills and individual tutorials.

Tutors demonstrated an "implicit and explicit awareness" (tutor) for more introductory sessions which concentrated on the process of learning. They considered that greater student participation (incorporating planned opportunities to develop study skills, opportunities for students to informally interact and create informal support networks) would benefit students. However, because of time limitations, a balance needs to be struck between providing students with 'survival' skills while still permitting them an introduction to subject-specific academic work. The specialist lectures and workshops included in the study schools are highly valued by students and tutors were mindful of reducing course content in order to incorporate more induction activities. Therefore there had hitherto been a reluctance to change the format of the induction.

The model used in this research provided the necessary unambiguous evidence of a mismatch between what tutors considered induction should comprise and the induction that was delivered. It is arguable that this mismatch might not have come to light had it not been for the opportunity for applying the rationale of the gap model to clarify not only what tutors felt students wanted and needed, and what in reality was actually delivered.

Gap 3: School guidelines - program information communicated to students

Gap 3 stems from features provided in the original model by Parasuraman et al (1985); service quality specifications and external communications. We were interested in examining these features of the quality service model in relation to the HE context. The University does not have a consolidated or specific institutional policy for student induction preferring guidelines for induction procedures to be issued at Faculty or School levels. The School of Education guidelines (QAA) state that
...on arrival students will participate in a comprehensive program of induction activities...All students receive program handbook detailing essential information on the program and the support services available within the University...Students receive details of registration and the program of events...they meet with their personal tutor and other members of staff at a social gathering and receive information on the program content, administrative arrangements and the timetable. In addition they have ... the Introduction to Study Skills course units. They also benefit from a tour of the ... University Library. They are issued with the Program Information booklet, Program Content booklet and the Applied Study booklet, which include details of student support and guidance as well as unit outlines and other relevant information ... (Internal Document)
When examining the given guidelines against information communicated to students which detailed the induction activities we found there was concordance and no apparent mismatch or gap.

Gap 4: Students' expectations - students' perceptions of induction provision received

Parasuraman and colleagues contend that any gap in the model ultimately manifests itself in a final gap; a gap between expectations of a service and the perceptions of the service received. The investigation we undertook for Gap 1 revealed a range of student expectations and these were later assessed against students' perceptions of the induction received. Students attending the study schools appear to gain immensely from them and certainly by T2 there was evidence of students feeling more comfortable with their learning, their understanding of how their program operated and some acquaintance with peers had been made. Many students reported their expectations had been met and were generally favourable of the induction they had received, stating for example,
It was somewhat reassuring

Tutor support and support from the department is very good

Of students' expectations those relating to the academic and pastoral side of the induction were perceived well, for example,
I became a lot clearer about the structure of the course and the support structure

Staff were very supportive and approachable, friendly and positive

However, a gap between expectations and perceptions was evident when assessing students' expectations in relation to the social and technical side of the induction. These were perceived by some as falling short, for example,
Nothing organised socially for new students. Quite daunting to be on the first induction weekend not knowing anyone or anywhere

More introductions to each other would have been helpful

Library visit not good as computers were down that day. This should really have been rescheduled as vitally important. I didn't really get the opportunity to try computer access

I did not come away with a clear idea of what was available and how to access it

The social integration of students is perceived as important to program tutors though they felt students were mature adults who should be able to mix reasonably well with other people. However, this was seemingly daunting for some students. The research highlighted a gap where more could be done at the point of induction to facilitate the process of peer support and networking despite time restrictions and full timetables. While campus-based students tend to have similar induction events these are typically spread out over a 'Freshers' Week' while distance students are only on campus for a short time period.

Ensuring distance learners can and know how to obtain relevant resources is also a high priority for tutors. The development of IT has made possible the greater access of library materials with the proliferation of online databases, e-journals and e-books, for example. It is thus crucial that induction equips distance students with these access skills. Unfortunately when this cohort of students attended the library the computer system was down temporarily. Students were unable to receive proper instruction on that occasion, but student comments suggest that that would also have preferred a practical hands-on session to learn how to productively use the library and information facilities.

Students' comments regarding their needs, expectations, perceptions and experiences of induction were taken very seriously by tutors who were also made aware of the gaps in provision identified by this research. Defining the nature and extent of this type of gap is important for all HE staff involved in program planning. It is sometimes assumed that all (mature) students are computer literate, have unlimited access to computer facilities, when in fact the opposite may be the case. Early identification of mismatches between tutors' expectations and students' prior knowledge and experience is vital if students are to find the learning experience both positive and rewarding. We would therefore argue that gap analysis provides a model that acts as an effective diagnostic tool to meet the support needs for the individual student, and larger student cohorts. It enables the mapping out of strengths, weaknesses and areas requiring adjustment by tutors to meet students previously undefined or unrecognised needs.

Recommendations for induction

Recommendations for how gap analysis may to applied are based on the responses of students, discussions and interviews with academic staff and a review of relevant research literature. Use of gap analysis as a model for rationalising the expectations, perceptions and experiences of both students and academic staff has demonstrated that a range of academic and more personal student support requirements are addressed. These include for instance ensuring a significant element of active student participation occurs. Students should be invited to work in small groups as part of an opening icebreaker session and given orchestrated opportunities to develop peer relationships and support networks. More specifically, the session should involve students exploring their own role as learners, together with reflecting on their expectations of the program and of tutors.

Gap analysis allowed the authors to not only make diagnoses of individual students' IT skills but also enabled an analysis of potential mismatches in provision and how to address such issues, to ensure that students know not only how to access online resources, but also are comfortable navigating relevant websites, and navigating appropriate resources.

Analysis proved particularly useful in identifying the extent of support required by students to develop a sense of social cohesion and peer support networks. This will help to combat the sense of loneliness and isolation known to be a feature common to distance students.

Facilitating a sense of identity with and becoming valued participants of the program and the wider university is probably the most difficult aspect to measure and also to achieve with students who are studying at a distance. This is arguably one of the most important aspects of their early development as learners in an HE environment. General evaluation instruments which seek to elicit student satisfaction with a service or course do not generally take into consideration both student expectations and experiences or allow for any such comparison between expectation and experience at both staff and student levels to be made. The development of a model was therefore found to be beneficial in facilitating a thorough investigation of the induction process for distance learners and in exploring aspects which might otherwise have been overlooked.

Research limitations

Participants were restricted by the number of registrants in the programs chosen for the study. Therefore, results need to be treated with caution in terms of generalisability of the research findings. The over-representation of women in the research cohort reflects the pervading nature of student recruitment to programs associated with the caring professions. Since the study was undertaken, adaptations have been made to the induction process based upon findings highlighted through the gap analysis. Unfortunately, there was no opportunity to apply the model to a consecutive group of students, although this would have added to the research findings in terms of over-all completeness.

Conclusion

The gap analysis model develo ped for this research was a fruitful tool in revealing gaps between expectation and experience. The research illuminated students' needs and concerns and provided tutors with a more comprehensive understanding of students' engagement with distance education and their perspectives of induction to distance learning. We would assert that the use of gap analysis reduces the risk of a mismatch and increases concordance of students' and academics' expectations and perceptions of student induction. It enables identification of the nature of potential gaps between the views of students and academic staff of the induction process.

The desire to inform but not overwhelm, to re-assure but nevertheless make students aware of their academic commitments in order to pass the program is common to all program and course directors. However, when student contact is so concentrated (only three days face-to-face contact in the first instance), it becomes vitally important that potential gaps where students' academic and support needs are not being met, are picked up and acted upon in a very tight timeframe. We would argue that the proposed gap analysis model used in this research enables university staff to bridge identified gaps quickly, thus reducing the risk of student withdrawal in the early stages of a course - always a potential risk (see Peters, 1992; Yorke, 2000).

Recommendations for induction offered in this paper may serve as a useful checklist for other education providers. It should be noted however that it is not always possible to make changes, or desirable to react spontaneously to student needs and preferences. Given the economic constraints in HE, it might be difficult to formulate desired developments in induction activities, especially if substantial, extra resources are required. Thus it may be that program providers look instead to sensitively managing students' expectations at the outset of their studies to a more realistic or appropriate level. In both instances HE providers should be enabled to enhance students' learning experiences and improve the quality of induction.

References

Barton, H. (2001). Induction at Oxford Brookes: Principles and practices. In P. Frame (Ed.) Student induction in practice, SEDA Paper 113. Birmingham: Staff and Educational Development Association.

Carter, K. & McNeill, J. (1998). Coping with the darkness of transition: Students as the leading lights of guidance at induction to higher education. British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, 26(3), 399-415.

Darlaston-Jones, D., Pike, L., Cohen, L., Young, A., Haunold, S. & Drew, N. (2003). Are they being served? Student expectations of higher education. Issues in Educational Research, 13(1), 31-52. http://www.iier.org.au/iier13/darlaston-jones.html

Dearnley, C. (2003). Student support in open learning: Sustaining the process. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 4(1). http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/132/212

Eastmond, D.V. (1995). Alone but together. Distance study through computer conferencing. Cresskill, New Jersey: Hampton Press, Inc.

Edward, N.S. (2003). First impressions last. An innovative approach to induction. Active Learning in Higher Education, 4(3), 226-242.

Frame, P. (2001). Managing the induction crisis: Students can make a difference. In P. Frame (Ed), Student induction in practice, SEDA Paper 113. Birmingham: Staff and Educational Development Association.

Granger, D. (1990). Bridging distances to the individual learner. In M. G. Moore (Ed), Contemporary issues in American distance education. New York: Pergamon Press, 163-171.

Keegan, D. (1990). Foundations of distance education (2nd Edn.) London: Routledge.

Kenworthy, B. (2003). Supporting the student in new teaching and learning environments. In A. Tait & R. Mills (Eds), Rethinking learner support in distance education. Change and continuity in an international context. London: RoutledgeFalmer, 55-63.

Lewis, R. (1982). The role of the correspondence tutor. In J. Daniel, M. Stroud, & J. Thompson (Eds), Learning at a distance: A world perspective. Edmonton, Alberta: Athabasca University.

Long, P., Tricker, T., Rangecroft, M. & Gilroy, P. (1999). Measuring the satisfaction gap: Education in the market place. Total Quality Management, 10(4/5), S772-S778.

Ludwig-Hardman, S. & Dunlap, J.C. (2003). Learner support services for online students: Scaffolding for success. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 4(1). http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/131/211

Moore, M. G. (1973). Towards a theory of independent learning and teaching. Journal of Higher Education, 44(12), 661-679.

Nunan, T., George, R. & McCausland, H. (2000). Rethinking the ways in which teaching and learning are supported: The flexible learning centre at the university of South Australia. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 22(1), 85-98.

Parasuraman, A., Zeithaml, V.A. & Berry, L.L. (1985). A conceptual model of service quality and its implications for future research. Journal of Marketing, 49(4), 41-50.

Peters, O. (1992). Some observations on dropping out in distance education. Distance Education, 13(2), 234-269.

Rivis, V. (Ed.) (1997). Managing guidance in higher education, using quality assurance guidelines: Selected case studies. London: Higher Education Quality Council.

Rogers, A. (2002). Teaching adults (3rd Edn.) Buckingham: Open University Press.

Rowntree, D. (1992). Exploring open and distance learning. London: Kogan Page.

Sackville, A. (1997). Student induction: A pivot for guidance and learner support. In V. Rivis (Ed), Managing guidance in higher education. Using quality assurance guidelines: Selected case studies. London: Higher Education Quality Council, 71-74.

Sewart, D. (1993). Student support systems in distance education. Open Learning, 8(3), 3-12.

Shobrook, S. (2003). The role of pre entry practices and induction strategies in relation to student retention. Progress 3 Conference. http://www.hull.ac.uk/engprogress/Prog3Papers/Sarah1.pdf [verified 12 Oct 2006].

Simpson, O. (2000). Supporting students in open and distance learning. London, Kogan Page Ltd.

Slack, N., Cambers, S. & Johnston, R. (2004). Operations management. (4th Edn) Essex: Pearson Education Ltd.

Stanley, N. (2001). Appropriate and opportunistic: the continuing student as induction expert. In P. Frame (Ed.), Student induction in practice, SEDA Paper 113. Birmingham: Staff and Educational Development Association.

Tait, A. (1995). Student support in open and distance learning. In F. Lockwood (Ed.), Open and distance learning today. London: Routledge, 232-241.

Tait, A. (2000). Planning student support for open and distance learning. Open Learning, 15(3), 287-299.

Thorpe, M. (1993). Evaluating open and distance learning, (2nd Edn). Harlow: Longman.

Toynton, R. (2005). Degrees of disciplinarity in equipping mature students in higher education for engagement and success in lifelong learning. Active Learning in Higher Education, 6(2), 106-117.

Wedemeyer, C.A. (1981). Learning at the back door. Reflections on non-traditional learning in the lifespan. Madison Wisconsin 53715: The University of Wisconsin Press.

Yorke, M. (1999). Leaving early: Undergraduate non-completion in higher education. London: Falmer Press.

Yorke, M. (2000). The quality of the student experience: What can institutions learn from data relating to non-completion? Quality in Higher Education, 6(1), 61-75.

Authors: Dr Gillian Forrester is a Research Associate in the School of Education, University of Manchester, UK. Email: gillian.forrester@manchester.ac.uk

Dr Gillian Parkinson is a Senior Lecturer in Neuropsychology and Complex Learning Difficulties in the School of Education, University of Manchester, UK. Email: gillian.m.parkinson@manchester.ac.uk

Please cite as: Forrester, G. & Parkinson, G. (2006). 'Mind the gap': The application of a conceptual model to investigate distance learners' expectations and perceptions of induction. Issues In Educational Research, 16(2), 152-170. http://www.iier.org.au/iier16/forrester.html


[ Contents Vol 16 ] [ IIER Home ]
© 2006 Issues In Educational Research. This URL: http://www.iier.org.au/iier16/forrester.html
Created 14 Oct 2006. Last revision: 14 Oct 2006.
HTML: Clare McBeath [c.mcbeath@bigpond.com] and Roger Atkinson [rjatkinson@bigpond.com]