Meaningful E-Learning Experiences

Positive and meaningful e-learning experiences are essential for student satisfaction with online courses.  However, there are several approaches to identifying and promoting such experiences in practice.  A review of the literature on positive and meaningful e-learning experiences revealed not only that course design and human connection are important for high levels of student satisfaction, but also that IT support and institutional infrastructure are vital to student satisfaction as well (Boling, Hough, Krinsky, Saleem, & Stevens, 2012; Carter et al., 2014; Salyers, Carter, Carter, Myers, & Barrett, 2014).  All of the studies consulted recommended interactive learning based on socio-constructivist principles as the most appropriate means for ensuring positive and meaningful e-learning experiences (Boling, Hough, Krinsky, Saleem, & Stevens, 2012; Carter et al., 2014; Luyt, 2013; Salyers, Carter, Carter, Myers, & Barrett, 2014; Watkins, 2014).  Watkins’ (2014) study even provided examples of learning activities that could be easily integrated into an online course without extensive instructor preparation or training.

Taking a very different approach to what promotes positive and meaningful learning experiences, Luyt (2013) argued that e-learning disadvantages some international students because e-learning courses are structured and designed to promote mainstream Western values and behaviors, including the detached, impersonal style of academic writing found primarily in the universities of North America and Europe.  Luyt’s postcolonial critique is insightful in that it reveals a hidden dimension to promoting positive and meaningful learning experiences for all students, no matter their country of origin.

No matter what approach is taken, positive and meaningful e-learning experiences can be achieved when instructors design courses aligned with socio-constructivist pedagogies and when institutional support is generous and timely for both instructors and students.  In order to facilitate a greater understanding of the factors that promote positive and meaningful e-learning experiences, I will review the literature and discuss the major approaches to the subject in some detail.  Based on this review, I will provide criteria for judging whether an educational or training event has been successful in promoting positive and meaningful e-learning experiences.  Finally, I will conclude with a few thoughts on the nature of e-learning.

The Four Factors of Meaningful E-Learning

This study reported both quantitative and qualitative findings on the subject of meaningful e-learning experiences.  The researchers gathered data for two years at three post-secondary educational institutions in Canada and reported their findings in two articles—one covering quantitative findings and the other covering qualitative findings.  The major recommendations of the quantitative report include the following items: (a) e-learning design should be a team effort with instructional designers, faculty, and IT support staff all involved in the development of online courses; (b) student technology-readiness should be assessed in order to ensure appropriate design; (c) standards should be formulated for online courses that will promote student comfort and the development of general e-learning skills; and (d) institutions should have a strategic plan with which instructors can align their course design to ensure consistently high quality online courses (Salyers et al., 2014).

The qualitative report identified four factors that influenced positive and meaningful e-learning experiences: (a) human connection, (b) IT support, (c) design, and (d) institutional infrastructure (Carter et al., 2014).  Human connection is constituted by social presence, timely feedback, and engagement strategies employed to keep students actively learning.  IT support consists of IT staff providing timely assistance to faculty and students when technology doesn’t work as it should as well as faculty training in e-learning technologies.  Design includes the curriculum developed for online courses as well as educational technology resources for students to explore.  Finally, institutional infrastructure is defined by funding for e-learning programs as well as by standards and processes for ensuring high quality online courses.

The researchers argued that the four factors of human connection, IT support, design, and institutional infrastructure are interdependent subsystems that, when they work well together, constitute the essence of a positive and meaningful e-learning experience.  The recommendations of the quantitative report emphasized design over other considerations, though there was some emphasis placed on IT support and institutional infrastructure as well.  Even though human connection was not mentioned, the recommendations fit neatly into the four-factor model of positive and meaningful e-learning experiences just described.  Taken together, the data reported in Salyers et al. (2014) and Carter et al. (2014) offer a host of insights into the making of positive and meaningful e-learning experiences that should be heeded by instructors and administrators alike.

What Hinders or Promotes Online Learning?

Boling et al. (2012) used a case study method to capture student and faculty impressions of their respective learning and teaching experiences.  Researchers investigated a number of online degree programs at higher education institutions through interviews with both students and instructors.  The vast majority of the programs mentioned in the research featured asynchronous, text-based courses with little student interaction and little variation in the modes of instruction.  However, one masters program in higher education utilized both synchronous and asynchronous technologies to enhance pedagogy and incorporated tasks related to the skills students would need in real life to be successful in their future careers.  Generally, students reported that the asynchronous text-based courses did not provide positive and meaningful e-learning experiences.  By contrast, students reported that the masters program in higher education consistently provided positive and meaningful e-learning experiences.

The factors that hindered student learning in asynchronous, text-based courses were an overemphasis on individualized learning by means of reading and writing and a sense of disconnection between students and other students as well as students and their instructors.  In addition to these factors, being text-based in overall design was not conducive to online learning because more often than not students were asked to regurgitate simple ideas in writing that required no higher-level critical thinking skills.  The masters program in higher education overcame these pitfalls by building their courses around real-world tasks and scenarios that would prepare students for life after school and by providing ample opportunities for social presence to emerge.

As with the research on Canadian universities, Boling et al. (2012) locate the core of positive and meaningful e-learning experiences in course design and human connection.  These findings indicate that the most important factors for ensuring positive and meaningful e-learning experiences—that are also within the control of instructors—are course design that incorporates interactive learning and a sense of place that is engendered by the social presence of the students making up the course.

Cross-Cultural Perspectives

Luyt (2013) examined the globalization of e-learning and its effects on student learning when non-native English speakers enroll in online courses.  The study is too complex to summarize completely in this review, but a couple of points stand out as particularly relevant to positive and meaningful learning experiences, especially in the case of non-native English speakers: (a) academic writing as it is practiced in the Western world conforms to an empirical, detached style of discourse that is impersonal, thus limiting it as a vehicle for social presence and knowledge construction for those students whose traditional writing style incorporates subjectivities and personal narratives; and (b) students from “high-context” cultures, in which a person requires a great deal of context in order to understand the communication being conveyed by another person, are at a disadvantage in online discussion forums because of the lack of social cues in the virtual classroom, thus limiting students’ ability to engage in activities directed related to the construction of knowledge in a social context.

Luyt’s (2013) study is a complex critique of e-learning practices in higher education that revealed a hidden dimension of bias against non-native English speakers.  Luyt also recommended the use of interactive learning based on socio-constructivist principles for its ability to foster deeper understanding over traditional, individualized learning.  The issues Luyt raises are relevant to providing a positive and meaningful e-learning experience and show how careful consideration of course design can point to problems of course delivery when students of all backgrounds are taken into consideration.

E-Learning Activities

Watkins’ (2014) short study is a brief overview of how to develop e-learning activities for any online course.  Because interactive learning is associated with positive and meaningful e-learning experiences, an overview of Watkins’ examples provides a practical solution to the problem of how to proceed with course design.  The examples include an activity where students interview each other and post online introductions on their partners, an activity where students share websites that reflect their personal interests and backgrounds, an activity where students play different roles in a group setting (questioner, naysayer, disagreer, etc.), and an activity in which students edit a group blog collaboratively.

The first two activities help build social presence into online courses and help develop a sense of place in the virtual classroom.  The third and fourth activities provide students with opportunities for social interaction with their peers and demand higher-level critical thinking skills beyond those of ordinary reading and writing assignments.  These examples fit the mold of socio-constructivist pedagogy and correspond to the themes of human connection and course design seen in previous sections.  Best of all, these activities do not take much preparation or training in order to implement them.  Thus, there’s simply no excuse for not incorporating these learning activities into online courses to encourage student learning and promote the positive and meaningful e-learning experiences that students deserve.

Criteria for Judging an Educational or Training Event

Educational and training events are not all created equal.  Some of them are simply better uses of an instructor’s or student’s time.  So what are the criteria for judging whether or not an educational or training event has been successful or worthwhile?  Social presence, peer interaction, student engagement, and interactive learning.

Instructors must ask if the educational events they create for their students help to build social presence or promote social learning by means of peer interaction.  Social presence removes the disconnection felt by many students in online courses that are primarily asynchronous, text-based affairs while peer interaction encourages students to negotiate meanings and knowledge along with other students.

Instructors must also ask if the training events they attend will help them to better engage with students and create a sense of place in the virtual classroom or help them implement interactive learning in their online courses.  If these criteria are met, then an instructor can judge an educational or training event to be a success in that the product of such events will be a more positive and meaningful e-learning experience for all students.

Conclusion

Positive and meaningful e-learning experiences are achieved by a careful consideration of course design that allows for human connection to flourish and support interactive learning.  E-learning forces the instructor to consider design and pedagogy together, twin concerns that must be aligned if an online course is to be effective and student satisfaction high.  While there are many technologies available to facilitate social presence, peer interaction, student engagement, and interactive learning, there are simple activities that require little or no training to implement in any online course.  And although there are issues that fall outside of the instructor’s control (IT support and institutional infrastructure, to name the most important two), there is plenty that can be done to transform an ordinary learning experience in an ordinary text-based online course into a positive, socially active, meaningful, and interactive space where deep learning takes place and student satisfaction is high.

References

Boling, E. C., Hough, M., Krinsky, H., Saleem, H., & Stevens, M. (2012). Cutting the distance in distance education: Perspectives on what promotes positive, online learning experiences. The Internet and Higher Education, 15, 118–126. doi: 10.1016/j.iheduc.2011.11.006

Carter, L. M., Salyers, V., Myers, S., Hipfner, C., Hoffart, C., MacLean, C., … Barrett, P. (2014). Qualitative insights from a Canadian multi-institutional research study: In search of meaningful e-learning. Canadian Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 5(1). 313-337. doi: 10.5206/cjsotl-rcacea.2014.1.10

Luyt, I. (2013). Bridging spaces: Cross-cultural perspectives on promoting positive online learning experiences. Journal of Educational Technology Systems, 42(1), 3–20. doi: 10.2190/ET.42.1.b

Salyers, V., Carter, L., Carter, A., Myers, S., & Barrett, P. (2014). The search for meaningful e-learning at Canadian universities: A multi-institutional research study. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 15(6), 313–347. Retrieved from http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl

Watkins, R. (2014). Developing e-learning activities. Distance Learning, 11(4), 62–64. Retrieved from http://www.infoagepub.com/distance-learning

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