Student Engagement and the Learning Environment

Because the method of course delivery defines the environment in which the students engage with their learning, it is a key consideration when discussing student engagement. Some courses are delivered face-to-face; some via a blend of online and face-to-face and others are delivered fully online. In a traditional face-to-face class, students attend lectures and tutorials, and can participate in learning activities while in the presence of the instructor and their peers. A fully online course is typically delivered via the Internet with all the interactions between the learners, content and instructors facilitated by ­web based technologies, while blended courses use a mix that involves face-to-face teaching augmented by web or online components.

The learning environment, including an online learning environment, encompasses the systems and dynamics that facilitate and enable student engagement (Coates, 2006). It is reasonable to assume that the learning environment will have an influence on how students engage with their learning. Aside from the learning environment’s influence on the design, building and delivery of courses (Coates, James, & Baldwin, 2005), the demographic of the students choosing online environments for their courses can also be factor that influences engagement. Dutton, Durron, and Perry (2002) state that online students are older and are less likely to be enrolled in traditional undergraduate programs but are more likely to be lifelong learning students.  They go on to say that online students are more likely to have job or childcare responsibilities, longer average commutes to campus and they are often more experienced with computers (Dutton et al., 2002, p. 17). All of these are factors can influence the level of student engagement in learning environments including online learning environments.

As distance learning using web delivery is the fastest growing segment of post-secondary education, it is important to evaluate its effect on learner engagement (Chen et al., 2008). Distance education via web delivery is typically delivered by enterprise wide learning management systems which have become integral to university teaching and learning environments (Rankine, Stevenson, Malfroy, & Ashford-Rowe, 2009). Learning management systems are software systems that synthesize the functionality of computer-mediated communications software and online methods of delivering course activities and materials (Jennings, 2005). Coates (2005) states that learning management systems influence engagement and research into their effect on engagement is still in its infancy.

Learning management systems (LMS) are at the forefront of the online technologies making a serious impression on patterns of learning and teaching in higher education (Coates, 2006). LMS, also commonly referred to as course management systems (CMS) and virtual learning environments (VLE), are becoming ubiquitous at universities around the world, adding a virtual dimension to even the most traditional campus-based institution (Coates et al., 2005). In a relatively short time they have become perhaps the most widely used educational technology in higher education, only ranking behind the Internet and common office applications (West, Waddoups, & Graham, 2006). They are being used for presenting online or technology-enhanced classes and it has been said that they influence pedagogy and therefore engagement by presenting default formats that are designed to guide instructors toward creating courses in certain ways (Lane, 2009). If LMS are affecting pedagogy, then they are likely to be affecting student study habits, learning and engagement (Coates et al., 2005).

Whilst LMS have the potential to influence student engagement, research into how they do this is largely in its infancy and is often based on assumptions about campus learning environments (Coates, 2006). It has been argued that the rapid adoption of LMS has occurred in a vacuum of research into their teaching and learning effectiveness (Lopes, 2008). Most, if not all, of the interactions enabled by the LMS are asymmetric, which is where the student is responsible for logging in and engaging with course material without prompting or instruction.  This means that students who require substantial instructor direction may have problems with an environment that demands a certain level of self discipline (Douglas & Alemanne, 2007) and this could conceivably influence their confidence and motivation, both of which can influence their level of engagement.

Others have questioned how the LMS is influencing students’ confidence and motivation for learning, their understanding of the significance of what they have learned and even say that LMS are encouraging increasingly independent and perhaps isolated forms of study (Coates et al., 2005). This seemingly supports research that suggests that rates of attrition for online students range between 20-50% higher than on-campus students (Dawson, Macfadyen, & Lockyer, 2009). This is possibly because LMS can affect the way students explore and contextualize learning resources as well as the way they receive summative and formative feedback. While the degree to which LMS are affecting student engagement in universities is not clear, the importance of engagement is established in the literature and therefore further research into measuring engagement within LMS is warranted in order to identify and address inhibitors that LMS place on engagement. Fortunately, LMS collect extensive data on how staff and students are using the systems and this could be invaluable for universities endeavouring to improve student engagement through the measurement and monitoring of student engagement.

Chen, P.-S. D., Gonyea, R., & Kuh, G. (2008). Learning at a distance [Electronic Version]. Journal of online education, 4. Retrieved October 2009, from http://innovateonline.info/index.php?view=article&id=438&action=login

Coates, H. (2006). Student Engagement in Campus-based and Online Education. Retrieved 23rd October 2009, from http://www.cqu.eblib.com.ezproxy.cqu.edu.au/EBLWeb/patron/

Coates, H., James, R., & Baldwin, G. (2005). A critical examination of the effects of learning management systems on university teaching and learning. Tertiary education and management, 11(2005), 19-36.

Dawson, S., Macfadyen, L., & Lockyer, L. (2009). Learning or performance: Predicting drivers of student motivation. Paper presented at the Same places, different spaces. Proceedings ascilite Auckland 2009, Auckland.

Douglas, I., & Alemanne, N. D. (2007). Measuring Student Participation and Effort. Paper presented at the International Conference on Cognition and Exploratory Learning in Digital Age, Algarve, Portugal.

Dutton, J., Durron, M., & Perry, J. (2002). How Do Online Students Differ From Lecture Students? Journal for Asynchronous Learning Networks, 6(1), 20.

Jennings, D. (2005). Virtually Effective: The Measure of a Learning Environment [Electronic Version]. Emerging Issues in the Practice of University Learning and Teaching. Retrieved 1st November 2009, from http://www.aishe.org/readings/2005-1/jennings-Virtually_Effective.html

Lane, L. M. (2009). Insidious Pedagogy: How course management systems affect teaching [Electronic Version], 14, from http://firstmonday.org/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/2530/2303

Rankine, L., Stevenson, L., Malfroy, J., & Ashford-Rowe, K. (2009). Benchmarking across universities: A framework for LMS analysis. Paper presented at the Ascilite 2009. Same places, different spaces. from http://www.ascilite.org.au/conferences/auckland09/procs/rankine.pdf

West, R. E., Waddoups, G., & Graham, C. R. (2006). Understanding the experiences of instructors as they adopt a course management system. Educational Technology Research and Development, 55(1), 1-26.

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