As online learning continues to be utilised in diverse ways from courses being delivered fully online through to class websites used to supplement face-to-face classes, and as the technologies continue to develop, research into the effectiveness of this mode of online delivery needs to be an ongoing process. These research findings need to be fed back into the instructional design process for the design and development of pedagogically effective online learning environments. This paper describes a research methodology developed for a recently completed study which examined the instructional effectiveness of various online learning environments. This methodology has the potential to be adapted for future studies into online learning in higher education to assist with maintaining this research momentum. The survey utilised both quantitative and qualitative methods for collecting data. The students and lecturers of the online learning environments studied were asked to complete an online questionnaire and to participate in a semi-structured interview. The survey focused on elements of online learning including content, structure, motivation, feedback, interaction, learning strategies and the lecturer's role. This paper presents a sample of the literature which underpinned this study, describes the design and development process of the survey instruments and presents a sample of the survey findings.
With this wide variation of the use of the Internet and related technologies for learning, a significant part of the ongoing development of online learning environments should be to evaluate their pedagogical effectiveness. The following will describe the methodology and development of survey instruments for a recently completed study which examined the pedagogical effectiveness of web-based learning environments in higher education (Siragusa, 2005). The study involved the administration of a survey to students who were engaging in units that used web-based learning environments in the five major universities in Western Australia. A similar investigation was carried out with a sample group of lecturers from the same universities who were creating learning materials for delivery in online environments. The objectives of this research were to: 1) identify factors that impact upon effective instructional design in web-based learning; and 2) identify learning strategies that influence successful student learning in web-based learning environments. This paper describes the research methodology and the process used to develop the research instruments that were employed in achieving these objectives.
The study put forward a theoretical framework which underpinned the development of this research methodology for examining instructional design principles and student learning strategies that enhance online learning in higher education. This theoretical framework was derived from the following three main discipline areas which have relevance for online learning: 1) learning theories, philosophies and instructional design; 2) research into student learning in higher education; and 3) online learning technologies. An examination of the literature within these three main discipline areas revealed seven interrelated focus areas which were identified as having direct influence on the design of effective online learning environments. These seven key focus areas have been categorised as structure, content, motivation, feedback/help, interaction, learning strategies, and lecturer's role. The following is a sample of studies, categorised under these key focus areas, which examined students' perceptions of the effectiveness of their online learning environments.
Hughes, McAvinia and King's (2004) study asked students in focus groups to identify elements of websites that they liked. Predictably, the students unanimously agreed that too much text on a page was off-putting and that websites with more visual appeal were desirable. They also liked websites with good content that was easy to scan without having to read in detail. While the student respondents liked numerous links on websites, they wanted to know what they would find before clicking on the links. They liked websites with colour, but not too much "in-your-face" colour such as "blinking" images. The students also preferred simple web page layouts without cluttered information. They did not like annoying sounds and slow loading Flash applications.
A study by Swan, Bowman, Holmes, Sylvie and Vargas (1998-99, pp.98-9) found that the characteristics of the World Wide Web "text" itself seemed to affect the students' reading behaviours more strongly than what might be expected with printed texts. Students were observed to have rejected pages because they were "just text." Embedded graphics and interesting page designs received favourable responses from the students. On the other hand, MacDonald and Mason's (1998, p.41) enquiry found that half of the students (n = 21) did not like reading course content from the screen, and nine students had difficulties finding relevant information on the Internet due to Internet connection costs and validity of the information found. However, Renn and Zeligman's (2005) study found that students' (n = 17) level of comfort with using their library website for finding research and professional literature had increased over the surveyed semester.
Hawkes, Cambre and Lewis (1998, p.7) examined teacher-perceived effectiveness of students' online learning and found that, of the 62 teachers who returned the questionnaire, 96% believed that students were better at working collaboratively with peers, 92% thought that students had greater access to current information and a wider base of information, 87% indicated that students took more responsibility for their own learning, and 81% believed that students applied themselves for longer periods of time. The majority of students in Reisetter and Boris' (2004) study emphasised the importance of self-directed learning and personal responsibility for success in online learning. Jewett's (1998, pp.15-20) study administered a survey to 105 students enrolled in an online delivered course designed to examine students' reaction to the technology, their opinions about its usefulness towards success in the course and their learning styles. Of the 105 students who responded to the questionnaire, 76% believed that online discussions were important to the learning process, and 42% indicated that they had more interaction with their peers in the online class than in other classes.
The brief overview of the existing literature that has been presented here has provided a theoretical framework which has the potential to underpin the development of survey instruments for research into the pedagogical effectiveness of online learning systems. Based upon this overview, the following prescribes a methodology for identifying the effectiveness of online learning.
Collecting students' perceptions of the effectiveness of their class website was an achievable and practical method of inquiry which was carried out without interfering with their study routines. Students within a learning environment are in a good position to evaluate instruction because of their experience with many other learning environments (Fraser, 1998). The quantitative data collected from students and lecturers through online questionnaires allowed for summary statistical indices of the phenomena studied. The qualitative data collected through semi-structured interviews and questionnaires assisted to clarify and support the quantitative data. After the data had been collected, an analysis leading to discussions about the instructional effectiveness of the students' online learning environments was carried out.
Numerous models of instructional design have been developed for the purpose of analysis, strategy development and evaluation of course and lesson design (Smith & Ragan, 2005, p.10). A widely accepted model is the Dick, Carey and Carey (2005) Systems Approach Model for Designing Instruction which outlines each stage of the instructional design process including analysis of the learners, the learning context and the instructional goals, instructional strategy development, evaluation and revision. This process can accommodate nearly all instructional needs and modes of delivery.
From the criteria outlined for each stage of Dick, Carey and Carey's instructional design model (Dick et al., 2005, pp.6-8), questions were developed. These questions assisted with collecting students' perceptions of the effectiveness of each stage of the instructional design process. As the questionnaire predominately used a five-point Likert-scale style format, the majority of questions were written as attitude statements. This format allows students to place themselves on an attitude continuum for each statement - ranging from 'strongly agree', 'agree', 'uncertain', 'disagree' to 'strongly disagree' (Oppenheim, 1992, p.195). Students were asked to respond to items which explored their reaction to a number of elements concerning online learning. Students in the sample were asked, for example, to indicate whether online components helped with their learning, whether their prior knowledge was adequate in order to deal with the requirements of the online learning environment, whether the unit objectives were clearly indicated, whether they had clearly understood the pre-requisites, whether the learning materials were well organised, whether they had participated in activities such as group discussions, whether adequate consideration was made with the development of the online instructional materials , whether there were difficulties with learning the new information, what were the strengths and weakness of the content and whether it was easier to study with a unit with online support.
These dimensions were further reduced into individual elements. These elements represent the draft form of the questions that eventually appeared in the survey. These questions, in combination with the questions derived from instructional design models, formed the bank of questions used in this research.
The elements for the content dimension included: clearly stated learning objectives and assessment criteria, enough information provided to cover the learning objectives and assessment criteria, understanding what is required from students, clarity, relevance, accuracy, completeness, spelling/grammar, content found on the Internet, and enough information to complete the assignments.
Within the motivation dimension, the elements included: pleasing appearance, information is understandable, graphics clarifies the topics, amount of new material, relates to previous knowledge, information presented is meaningful, amount of printing required, time needed to figure out how to use the online environment, promotes confidence in the use of the Internet, provision of online help, promotes learning, self-paced, timely presentation of the materials, meeting students' expectations and needs, provision of online help, online collaboration with other students, interest expressed by online lecturer, and flexibility (anywhere, anytime).
The elements within the feedback dimension included: provision of online support, submission of assignments, receipt of assignments notification, prompt feedback of assignments, assistance from online lecturer, and feedback on course performance from online lecturer.
Within the interaction dimension, the elements included: encouraged to ask questions with online lecturer and with other class members, discussion with other class members and online lecturer, sharing of ideas, reading and responding to other students' answers to discussion questions, value of communication with class members and online lecturer, use of email and bulletin board, use of IRC (chat) and other communication tools, adequate amount of communication to assist with succeeding in the unit, and communications with online lecturer and class members to increase motivation to succeed.
The elements for the learning strategies dimension included: transfer of previous knowledge, integrate real-life situations, students taking responsibility for their own learning, sharing problems with other students, finding information on the Internet, search strategies for finding relevant information, learning through self-exploration, online discussions used to think about the unit topics, having time to think about what is learnt, mental imagery tactics for recognising problem types or solution types, methods for providing external storage to deal with memory limitations and specific strategies for presenting problems or retrieving solutions for the particular domain.
Within the abilities dimension, the elements included: confidence with creating simple and complex web pages, confidence with use of HTML authoring and graphics software, confidence with use of online learning management systems, and time spent learning how to develop online learning materials.
The support dimension included the following elements: availability of technical support, availability of training for online learning delivery skills, availability of online curriculum resources, availability of help for integrating online activities into the curriculum, availability of release time for online development activities, and recognition of leadership and for helping other lecturers use the Internet for learning.
Within the decision-making dimension, the elements included: availability of colleague to discuss online learning issues, opportunity exists to voice concerns regarding online learning issues, opinions are sought after regarding decision making for online learning development, availability of finance for continuing online learning development, and high priority for online development within department.
The elements with the development activities dimension included: involvement in selecting and purchasing hardware/software products for online learning, involvement with integrating online learning into the curriculum, involvement with online learning planning committees, involvement in development of online learning products, involvement in development of policies for online learning, involvement in seeking instructional design advice, involvement in the development of online learning strategies, others are involved in the development of the online learning, students provide feedback about the online learning, and which learning strategies are encouraged.
The quantitative nature of this research required that the data be collected in a format which allowed for analysis through software such as SPSS (http://www.spss.com/) and LERTAP (http://www.lertap.curtin.edu.au/). Many of the questions were in a Likert-type five point format that asked if the respondents 'Strongly disagree' (1), 'Disagree' (2), 'Uncertain' (3), 'Agree' (4) or 'Strongly agree' (5) with the given statements. There were spaces available for students and lecturers to answer open-ended type questions. Multiple choice type questions were also provided on the form.
The comments from the students about the questionnaire were generally positive. They appeared to respond well to the online format of the questionnaire and felt that the questions were well targeted to online learning. The single major concern students raised regarded the length of the questionnaire. The piloted questionnaire contained 139 question items. Although some students commented that it was a quick process to complete the online questionnaire by clicking on radio buttons and checkboxes, it was clear from other responses that the number of items in the questionnaire needed to be reduced. The final version of the questionnaire contained 80 items in total. There were only a small number of comments about the questions presented. Some questions were considered repetitive and not suitable for the Likert-type options. As the questionnaire needed its length to be reduced, many of these types of questions were omitted in the final version. The final version of the student questionnaires can be found at the following URL: http://members.optushome.com.au/~lsiragusa/pages/resources.htm.
Three lecturers from the Division of Humanities at Curtin University completed the pilot version of the online lecturer questionnaire. These lecturers had taught numerous classes which were supported with a class website and were, therefore, considered a typical sample of lecturers exposed to and using online learning in higher education. Generally, the questionnaire was well received without difficulty in using the online format. The pilot questionnaire contained 65 items. There were a few comments from the participants relating to the wording of questions which may have had ambiguous meanings, as well as the comments relating to the possible repetitiveness of some questions. Questions which were seen as repetitive were removed from the questionnaire and ambiguous questions were reworded. The final version of the lecturer questionnaire contained a total of 55 question items. The final version of the lecturer questionnaires can be found at the following URL: http://members.optushome.com.au/~lsiragusa/pages/resources.htm.
The semi-structured interviews for this survey were conducted via telephone, allowing the respondents to expand upon any part of the online learning experience they encountered. Therefore, it did not seem necessary to go through a formal pilot phase for the interview schedules. As the amount of volunteering participants for the interview was limited, it did not seem warranted to use these willing participants for piloting. The final question on both the student and lecturer online questionnaire asked if they would participate in a follow-up interview. By the time the interviews were administered, the students and lecturers had already completed the online questionnaires and were, therefore, familiar with the types of questions being asked in the interviews. After conducting one or two student and lecturer interviews, minor changes to the interview schedules were made. Refer to the following URL to view the final version of the student and lecturer interview schedules: http://members.optushome.com.au/~lsiragusa/pages/resources.htm.
The lecturers, ten in total, from these class groups who participated in the survey completed the lecturer online questionnaire. A total of 25 students who completed the student online questionnaire participated in a semi-structured telephone interview, and five of the lecturers who completed the lecturer online questionnaire also participated in a semi-structured interview. The following presents the major findings from the student and lecturer survey.
The qualitative data collected from the student questionnaire and the semi-structured telephone interviews highlighted what factors contributed towards students' satisfaction and dissatisfaction with online learning. Examples of these factors include technical problems with making initial access to the class website, technical problems with the electronic assignment submission system, employment of sound web page and instructional design principles, access to unit information such as unit outline and assignment requirements, allowing students to study when and where they choose, allowing students to study at their own pace, effective use of online communication facilities such as the class bulletin board and email, feelings of isolation for distance students, providing students with prompt notification of receipt of submitted assignments, and providing students with adequate feedback on their returned assignments.
The lecturer questionnaire and semi-structured interview revealed what elements of online learning lecturers consider to be important. Examples of these elements include exploring how online learning may be effectively utilised for their students' learning experiences (eg, automating routine tasks such as administering quizzes), accommodating various student learning styles through encouraging appropriate learning strategies, providing equity of computing and Internet access, providing additional time and financial support to compensate for increased workloads for developing and delivering online learning, ability to create and edit simple HTML pages, familiarity with the features within the online LMS for enhancing student online learning, employment of effective teaching methods which facilitate appropriate online learning strategies, recognition for lecturers involved in effective online learning development and for supporting other lecturers. Other elements included the provision of online LMS technical support assistance at school or departmental level, coordination of online learning development activities within schools or departments, awareness of the decision-making process and funding opportunities within the university. Lecturers also considered encouraging effective learning strategies allowing students to provide feedback about the unit's content and the assignments, encouraging lecturers involved in innovative online learning development activities to conduct forums to display exemplary samples of online learning, allowing lecturers to explore the possibilities of online learning development and delivery without being pressured, and making lecturers aware of the discipline relating to instructional design and how it is applied to creating pedagogically sound online learning environments as important elements.
Students who engage in online learning environments face issues and contexts that do not concern those who are studying in more traditional paper-based distance education. As online learning continues to expand and technologies continue to be developed, these issues require ongoing investigation which employ appropriate research methodologies including the methodology presented in this paper. Other researchers are continuing to develop specific methodologies into the examination of effective online learning such as the investigation of students' perceptions of online learning environments (Trinidad, Aldridge & Fraser, 2005), academics' professional capacities to educate online (Segrave, Holt & Farmer, 2005), online collaboration and community building (Jackson & Schaverien, 2005), learning through online discussions (Hammond & Wiriyapinit, 2005), authentic and deep learning in mixed mode environments (Campbell, Frost & Logan, 2005), and so forth. While issues surrounding technologies and technology use are dramatically altering all areas of education and training in Australia, online delivery is still in a relatively embryonic stage. Future research will further develop the instructional design model for online learning as distinct from distance education per se and will therefore enhance and facilitate appropriate pedagogical approaches for the innovative use of web-based learning in higher education and the overall maturation of online delivery of learning into the twenty first century.
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|Authors: Dr Lou Siragusa lectures in the Training and Development Program and Learning Technologies area in the Department of Education at Curtin University of Technology. Email: l.Siragusa@curtin.edu.au
Dr Kathryn Dixon is the Coordinator of the Training and Development Program in the Faculty of Education at Curtin University of Technology. Email: email@example.com
Please cite as: Siragusa, L. & Dixon, K. C. (2006). A research methodology: The development of survey instruments for research into online learning in higher education. Issues In Educational Research, 16(2), 206-225. http://www.iier.org.au/iier16/siragusa.html