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.
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).
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.
|Study school induction session||Purpose of session|
|Welcome and program introduction from Program Director|
|Library tour||Introduce students to online and distributed (distance) services, including accessing electronic databases and journals, and ordering materials from other libraries.|
|Study skills session||Provide 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 sessions||Provided by University tutors/lecturers or outside speakers.|
|Guidance sessions on designing and conducting small research projects (Year 2 & 3 MSc students only)|
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.
The aims of the study were
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: 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.
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
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
|The need to...||The need for...|
|interact with other students||guidance|
|be self-directed||study skills support|
|be part of a community||technical 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 available||clear precise instructions of what is expected|
|share experiences||resources (human and material)|
|communicate with tutors||support and direction|
|develop study skills||a student support network|
|manage own time||computer access|
|be determined to complete||an understanding family/employer|
|be self-disciplined||space to study|
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
The areas investigated were as follows
Getting to know people, faces and placesProgram-related responses were coded as academic expectations.
Longer 'getting to know others' session when first arrive with time to discuss backgrounds etc
Meeting tutor and having questions answeredSome responses were specific to information technology (IT) and coded as technical expectations.
Some practice skills workshop for assignments
How to access literature once back homeSome responses were humanistic relating more to pastoral expectations of support, for example,
Library system - checking out books, using e-journals
Reassurance regarding the availability of tutors for any support requiredTutors' 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).
Meeting second year students, gaining reassurance of what to expect
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.
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.
...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.
It was somewhat reassuringOf students' expectations those relating to the academic and pastoral side of the induction were perceived well, for example,
Tutor support and support from the department is very good
I became a lot clearer about the structure of the course and the support structureHowever, 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,
Staff were very supportive and approachable, friendly and positive
Nothing organised socially for new students. Quite daunting to be on the first induction weekend not knowing anyone or anywhereThe 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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|Authors: Dr Gillian Forrester is a Research Associate in the School of Education, University of Manchester, UK. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr Gillian Parkinson is a Senior Lecturer in Neuropsychology and Complex Learning Difficulties in the School of Education, University of Manchester, UK. Email: email@example.com
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