Executive Summary

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Web-based lecture technologies (WBLT), designed to digitally record lectures for delivery over the web, are just one of a range of information and communication technologies that have been introduced in response to the changing context of higher education in the past decade.

Universities have invested substantial resources in developing infrastructure to provide flexible options for students and to support their learning. The focus of developmental activity is often on operational imperatives to ensure the smooth running of the technology in secure and interoperable environments, rather than in supporting staff and students in the use of the technologies for learning and teaching.

There has been a rapid uptake of WBLT technologies in recent years. Their popularity with students is well recognised. However, from an institutional perspective, they are having a disruptive influence; challenging long held traditions of university teaching, students’ attendance patterns and ways of learning.

This project was conducted to explore these influences and gain a better understanding of how WBLT are impacting learning and teaching. In particular:

  1. how the technology is integrated into the curriculum, its role and relationship with other elements within the curriculum
  2. how the technology can effectively support learning and teaching in different contexts, taking into account disciplinary differences, student diversity, specific teaching aims and learning outcomes.
  3. the educational implications of its use for:
    • the design and delivery of curricula
    • academics and their teaching
    • students, their learning and the establishment of effective learning environments
    • professional development of academic staff
    • academic policies and practices

The project was a collaboration between four IRUA universities - Macquarie University, Murdoch University, Flinders University and the University of Newcastle with the support of the IRUA Universities and was funded by the Carrick Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education from their Competitive Grants Program in the priority area of Innovation in learning and teaching, particularly in relation to the role of new technologies.

The research program adopted a mixed methods approach utilising both qualitative and quantitative methods. It comprised two stages. The first stage was designed to capture the diversity of experiences in the use of WBLT using staff and students surveys. It aimed to identify the range of learning and teaching issues and usage patterns of staff and students.

The second stage involved a more detailed exploration of the educational issues arising from the surveys through a series of vignettes and case studies. This stage was both investigative and developmental in nature, exploring the issues in depth by focussing on specific curriculum contexts.

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Key Findings

The results establish a picture of the experiences of students and staff who have used WBLT across a range of different contexts. The views of students and staff who have elected to not make use of the technologies was outside the remit of this study. Further research is suggested to investigate this perspective.

The student survey explored students’ experiences of WBLT in the context of a specific unit; their strategies and motivation for learning; their overall experience of WBLT in the university including their perceptions about WBLT’s impact on their relationships with peers, their grades and ease of learning. The staff survey explored staff’s own experiences as well as their perceptions of WBLT’s impacts on their students’ learning. The staff survey was designed to correspond with the student survey where possible, so that staff and students’ perspectives on specific issues could be compared.

The three key outcome measures used in the surveys were: positive experience with WBLT; perceptions of benefits for learning; and perceptions of achievement of better results. Regardless of age, gender, enrolment mode or attendance pattern, 76% of students reported positive experiences with WBLT almost always or frequently. Staff experiences, on the other hand, were more varied with 54% of respondents finding use of WBLT to be generally positive, while another 26% found the experience to be negative.

Overall, there was a clear mis-match between staff and student views on learning and achievement of better results. Sixty seven percent (67%) of students compared with 30% of staff agreed that WBLT helped students achieve better results. In addition, 80% of students compared with 49% of staff agreed that WBLT made it easier for students to learn.

This mis-match between student and staff perceptions is one of several key themes that have emerged. Insights into the range of issues at the heart of this mismatch were explored more thoroughly through qualitative comments on the surveys, interviews and case studies. They are as follows:

 

Students appreciate the flexibility in access and support for learning - staff have concerns

Although it has long been acknowledged that external students need flexibility, the data indicates that students enrolled in internal mode also appreciate this aspect of WBLT. From the survey responses, 56.2% of students indicated that they didn’t attend at least some of the face-to-face lectures available. Of these students who listened to WBLT rather than attending face-to-face lectures, 75.3% indicated this was because they ‘couldn’t attend’.

Responses from staff supported this view with a high proportion of respondents (81.9%) introducing WBLT to support students who could not attend. Staff also recognised the value of the technology as a study tool with 64.5% of staff providing it to support students in their learning. While many staff agreed that WBLT was a useful resource for external students, some were concerned that on-campus students were choosing not to attend lectures as a result of using the technologies and this was perceived as having a negative impact on their learning.

 

WBLT have contributed to a blurring of the boundaries between internal and external students

Many programs and individual units are being offered both internally and externally, with the same lectures being delivered to both cohorts. The data suggest that staff perceive access to recorded lectures is beneficial for external students but use of WBLT can be disadvantageous to internal students if they use them as a replacement for attending lectures. Students, on the other hand, do not perceive the difference. Moreover, internal students exhibit strong similarities to their external counterparts in the way they use WBLT as a study tool - to revise for exams, review complex materials and take comprehensive notes. This raises the question: Is there any difference between the learning needs of an internal student who cannot attend and an external student who is not expected to attend? More generally, where WBLT are used in combination with other eLearning technologies to access and interact with content, communicate and collaborate, we need to question whether the distinction between external and internal modes of enrolment is of relevance to an increasing number of students.

 

Introducing WBLT will change lecture attendance patterns and may raise questions about the role of lectures

While staff seem to understand the need of flexibility for their students, they are, nevertheless, concerned about falling lecture attendance.

Students appreciated the flexibility offered by WBLT with 75% using the technology because they couldn’t come to class and another 69% because it was the only class they had on that day. Importantly, they also viewed lectures as important to their learning. They found lectures motivating, they valued contact with the lecturers and their peers and they found the visual aids helpful. Importantly, the use of WBLT did not necessarily exclude lecture attendance and students often ‘double up’ by attending lectures and listening to the recordings.

Our findings indicated that students are quite strategic about the choices they make, basing decisions on lecture attendance around three types of factors: educational value; convenience and flexibility; and social opportunities to meet other students, exchange ideas and make new friendships. With students being offered the technologies and choosing not to attend, some academics have begun questioning the role of lectures. At least 80% of the staff surveyed use lectures to inspire and motivate students; build conceptual frameworks; establish connections with students; use multimedia content; provide structured experiences for students; impart information and make announcements. This raise the question of whether there are more effective ways of achieving these functions.

 

Using WBLT demands changes in the way students learn and teachers teach

The statistics are compelling - 68% of students using WBLT believe they can learn just as well using WBLT as they can face-to-face. They use the tools to help revise for exams, review complex materials, work at their own pace and place of convenience, pick up on things that they missed in class, go back and take comprehensive notes after the lecture so they can concentrate on what is happening in the lecture, and check what was said before approaching their lecturer for clarification of issues, ideas or misunderstandings.

Aside from some concerns about IP around the re-use of lectures and copyright issues associated with using visual aids such as videos on WBLT, staff were most concerned about WBLT reducing two-way communication with their students and their ability to inspire and motivate students. On the other hand, there was recognition that the technology could help to provide a structured experience for students and facilitate information exchange.

From the findings it is clear that many staff recognise the strengths and limitations of WBLT and are concerned about the impact these technologies may have on learning. Nevertheless, there has been a mixed response to dealing with the changing context. Approximately one third have not made substantial changes to what they do in lectures. A common approach has been to maintain the status quo by re-emphasising the importance of lectures and the need for students to attend. In managing the limitation of the technology some have reduced their movements around the lecture theatre and reduced multimedia content due to copyright restrictions.

On the other hand, another third of lecturers have taken a more proactive approach and made changes to cater for students who are present as well as those using WBLT. Many of the changes are reflective of sound inclusive practice for example changing teaching strategies to accommodate students not present by explaining the actions in the class and by repeating students’ questions when they are being recorded, scripting the lecture more tightly to provide a more controlled presentation, and using discussion forums and other activities to extend communication and interactive opportunities beyond the lecture experience. .

 

Introducing WBLT is more than a teaching issue – it will affect the design of the whole curriculum

The introduction of any new technology is not an isolated experience and it impacts the entire teaching and learning context: including the ways in which students and staff communicate and the relationship between other elements of the curriculum. Despite this, our study clearly showed 75% of staff reported they had not changed the structure of their unit.

Rather than focussing on the lecture alone, a shift is needed for staff to consider the whole curriculum, taking into account the learning outcomes and needs of students and using a range of different activities and technologies (tutorials, workshops, online communication, etc) to provide stimulating and engaging learning environments and experiences.

Introducing WBLT has professional and organisational development implications

In addition to strategies for successful implementation at a curriculum level, the project also highlighted several professional and organisational implications. For staff, a correlation between choice in the use of WBLT and a positive experience with WBLT sends a strong message that policies enforcing the uptake of technologies may be counterproductive. Empowering academics by encouraging a culture of innovation and experimentation with new technologies and enabling them to make informed decisions about the appropriateness of technologies in their own context may be more effective and sustainable in the longer term. Professional development is an essential ongoing requirement to enable staff to implement new technologies into their curricula. Similarly, students need support to use them effectively and the technologies themselves need to be embedded in a robust infrastructure and technical support network.

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Project outputs

The overall aim of this researchwas to enable an informed answer to the question of how web-based lecture technologies can be used to their best effects to support learning and teaching. The answer is complex; one size does not fit all thus necessitating consideration of the particular context in which teaching and learning is taking place. A whole of curriculum perspective is required to account for the diversity in disciplines, students, approaches to teaching and the aims and outcomes of the curriculum. Because of this and also the rapidly changing nature of web-based lecture technologies we have taken an issues approach. We have used the findings of this research to identify the teaching, learning and curriculum design issues to take into consideration when planning for the use of WBLT. These are presented as a Toolkit of resources for use by the higher education sector. The Toolkit comprises guidelines for staff and students on how to make the best use of web-based lecture technologies, a compilation of frequently asked questions about using WBLT a series of vignettes which provide snapshots of the experiences of staff and students; and a series of case studies exploring the use of WBLT in different curriculum contexts.

The ensuing report and its appendices are a major output of the project, providing an overview of the research, key findings and identification of issues. The report is supported by a number of research papers, providing more detailed analysis and discussion of student and staff perspectives and specific issues. Details of these outputs are available on the Project web site.

We, the Project Team, invite you to read the report and the associated research papers and to use and adapt the guidelines in the Toolkits to suit your institutional context.

 

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