Unformatted text preview: VLE And Its Impact On Learning Experience of Students: Echoes From Rural Community School In Ghana
Najim Ussiph University of Salford. Salford. UK. [email protected] Abstract This research paper is based on an on-going PhD research on Using VLE to support teaching and learning, and to bridge digital divide in rural communities in Ghana. This paper focuses only on the aspect of supporting teaching and learning using VLE. The research environment is a local community college in a rural community in Ghana. Teaching with Moodle, a learning management system and WizIQ, a web-conferencing application was introduced in a pilot project. Initial orientation was given to student participants and two support staff prior to actual commencement of the research project. Research methodology used was Participatory Action Research and the data collection method was participant observation. Cycles were carefully planned, implemented, observations made, and data collected via observations, interviews, and focus group. It emerged that level of technology available is unable to support content delivery using web conferencing; however participants were able to take advantage of Moodle courseware aspect to improve performance and enrich learning experience. Keywords: VLE, virtual learning environment, learning management system, LMS, Moodle, WizIQ, web-conference, Participatory Action Research Introduction This paper grew out of a research on the problems of digital divide in rural and remote communities in developing countries like Ghana and ways to alleviate those problems through the provision of increased access to quality education. One of the main objectives of this research explore how using Virtual Learning Environment to support teaching and learning. Rural and remote communities are characterized by lack of basic infrastructure such as electricity, water and good health care services. Professionals including trained teachers therefore often reject postings to those communities. The situation results in low motivation and poor academic performance by students and high rate of school drop-out. In this modern time and advancement in Information and Communication Technology (ICT), distance need not be a barrier to quality education, access and the use of information. This research therefore seeks to explore ways to support teaching and learning in the rural communities using virtual learning environment. Literature Review The term ‘virtual’ in Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) sounds unreal to some just as it is the meaning of virtual thereby incurring their rejection. The alternative, Learning Management System (LMS) also connotes the suggestion that it ‘manages’ students learning activity somehow. That also contradicts the inherent approach of explanatory and constructivism in e-learning that fascinate many. Weller et al (2005) cited (JISC, 2000) that the term refers to “the components in which learners and tutors participate in on-line interaction of various kinds including on-line learning.” On the other hand, Whatis.com defines LMS as a software application or web-based technology used to plan, implement and assess a specific learning process. Typically, an LMS provides an instructor with a way to create, and deliver content, monitor student participation, and assess student performance. A LMS may also provide students with the ability to use interactive features such as threaded discussions, video conferencing and discussion forums. The term, Managed Learning Environment (MLE) has also become - 847 - popular in recent years. According to JISC (2000), an MLE is ‘the whole range of information systems and processes of an institution (including VLE, if appropriate) that contribute directly or indirectly to learning and the management of that learning.’ In trying to make these terms and meanings less confusing, Weller (2007) described VLE (or LMS) as ‘a set of software systems that combine a number of different tools that are used to systematically deliver content online and facilitate learning experience around that content’ However, in other not to get drawn into the controversies of nomenclature and for the sake of simplicity and clarity, we may view VLE as an environment in which e-learning can be conducted or simpler, as a superset of ICT tools to facilitate e-learning. E-Learning The main function of any VLE is to facilitate learning. Like many other concepts and innovations in ICT, e-learning does not have a rigid definition and many authors and researchers have defined or described it in different ways. According to (Garrison and Anderson, 2003) e-learning is networked online learning that takes place in formal context and uses a range of multimedia technology. It has also been described as many different learning approaches that have in common the use of ICT (Clark, 2004). Murray (2007) has given it a simplistic description as being computer-facilitated instruction and learning oriented interaction. Cited in Weller (2007), the US-based Learning Circuit magazine defines e-learning as a ‘wide set of applications and processes, web-based learning, computer-based learning, virtual classrooms, and digital collaboration and includes the delivery of content via the internet, intranet/extranet (LAN/WAN), audio- and video-tape, satellite broadcast, interactive TV, CD-ROM etc.’ By the definition of e-Learning set forth by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE; 2005), e-learning is the use of technologies in learning opportunities, encompassing flexible learning as well as distance learning; and the use of information and communication technology as a communications and delivery tool, between individuals and groups, to support students and improve the management of learning. Summarily, e-learning may be described as a modern technological way to transact knowledge, or perform teaching and learning activities interactively from afar with the aid of ICT tools. There is a lot of argument on the choice of nomenclature. For example, Andrews and Haythornthwaite (2007) felt the HEFCE definition like most others portrayed technology as simply a delivery mechanism and failed to take into consideration the reciprocal influence between technology and its users. One reads in the book: “In choosing to use the term “e-Learning” we have turned away from other names that might equally have been useful, such as computer-assisted learning, technology enhanced learning, instructional technologies or online learning. To us, these terms fall into the trap that many previous studies of the relationship between technology and learning/education have fallen into, of assuming that learning exists independently of technologies and that in various ways technologies enhanced it.” (p. 2) However, the term e-Learning still remains ambiguous, to say the least. A quick search on Google confirms this ambiguity or disagreement about the term both syntactically (e.g., eLearning, e-learning, elearning, “e”learning, e-Learning) and semantically in the way it is defined. Some argue that the e in eLearning should not be capitalized, and just as many will define e-Learning with business connotation or intent. For example, [email protected]’s Network for Capacity Building and Knowledge Exchange defines e-Learning as “the effective teaching and learning process created by combining e-digital content with local community and tutor support along with global community engagement” (Beebe, Tusubira, & Twaakyando, 2002). In the description by the Open and Distance Learning Quality Council (ODLQC) in - 848 - the United Kingdom, e-Learning is “the effective learning process created by combining digitally delivered content with (learning) support and services” (Waller & Wilson, 2001). The ODLQC further elaborate on certain key concepts in this definition: Effectiveness. There are many types of learning, but some are ineffective. It is pointless to state or apply a definition to something that fails. Combination. It is the combination that makes the difference, not the individual parts, although each part is perfectly valid on its own Digitally delivered content. This excludes paper-based materials, which, although a valid medium for learning, are not e-Learning. Support. A CD-ROM–based program can, theoretically, be used anywhere and anytime but often is not supported by tutors, although of course it could be. In any case, whichever way one looks at it, the advent of new information and communication technologies (ICT) and its use in education will change the way we pursue learning, which will, reciprocally, result in the development of new ICT. This strong relationship is not captured in any of the definition or description so far. The use of technology in teaching and learning dated centuries back. What is however unique about elearning is its multi-modal methodologies and its influence in shaping ICT itself. It incorporates different media such as text, audio, and video and can be either synchronous or asynchronous. E-learning has come to revolutionize the way traditional distance learning was conducted and it is indeed learning ‘san frontier’. Unlike other learning technologies that has fizzled away with time, Weller (2002) identified five reasons why e-learning has gained wide acceptance and likely to continue for a long time to come. These reasons are social acceptance educator proximity generic interface interaction and personalization disruptive and sustaining technology Besides these reasons advanced by Weller, e-learning has other characteristics that make it stands out among other modes of learning. E-learning is location independent as well as content independent. One can even say its medium independent. Knowledge can therefore be tapped from and taken to any corner of the world no matter how remote using appropriate network technology. It can also be time independent particularly in its asynchronous form. Cost is an important factor in deploying any form of technology, particularly to the rural community. E-learning can attain a wide reach at low cost if implemented and managed properly. It can also be maintained at minimal cost. Teaching process can be automated, thus minimizing the effect of lack of qualified teaching personnel. Informal training can be maximized giving rise to new opportunities for non-professionals to find new roles. There are several modes or forms of e-learning that can broadly be categorized into two; namely synchronous and asynchronous. Synchronous e-learning is sometime referred to by other names like web conference, webinars, virtual classroom and online presentation among others. What all these names have in common however, is the use of computer network and software to facilitate live, interactive learning transaction via the internet. In synchronous e-learning, learning takes place in real time, that is, instantly and interactively between the teacher and students or among peers. It is usually scheduled and time-specific. - 849 - Distinctive features Real-time Live Usually scheduled and time-specific Collective and collaborative Simultaneous virtual presence of teacher and learners Concurrent Intermittent access or interaction Self-paced Individual or intermittently collaborative Independent learning Usually available any time Recorded or pre-produced Examples Instant messaging Online chart Live Webcasting Audio conferencing Video conferencing Web conferencing Email Threaded discussion Boards Web-based training Podcasting VCD or DVD Computer-based training Synchronous elearning Asynchronous elearning Table 1. Synchronous vrs Asynchronous e-learning (Murray, 2007 p. 2) In asynchronous e-learning, collaboration, communication or access takes place intermittently. It is self-paced and available at any time. (Murray, 2007) outlines distinctive features and some examples of synchronous and asynchronous e-learning as shown in Table1. Methodology Action Research has been chosen as the most appropriate methodology for this research project. The online encyclopedia, Wikipedia describes action research as a ‘reflective process of progressive problem solving led by individuals working with others in teams or as part of a "community of practice" to improve the way they address issues and solve problems’ (http;//en.wkikpedia.org/wiki/action_research) The term, “action research” was first coined by Kurt Lewin, then a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in the United States, about 1944 and referred to it in his paper “Action Research and Minority Problems” in which he described action research as “a comparative research on the conditions and effects of various forms of social action and research leading to social action” that uses “a spiral of steps, each of which is composed of a circle of planning, action, and fact-finding about the result of the action”(Lewin, 1946 p.34-36). This form of research entails an interactive inquiry process that balances problem solving actions implemented in a collaborative context with data-driven collaborative analysis or research to understand underlying causes enabling future predictions about personal and organizational change (Reason & Bradbury, 2001). It is a process designed to empower all participants in the educational process (students, instructors and other parties) with the means to improve the practices conducted within the educational experience. Action research method is an informal, qualitative, formative, subjective, interpretive, reflective and experiential model of inquiry in which all individual involved in the study are ‘knowing’ and contributing participants (Hopkins, 1993). It involves utilizing a systematic cyclical method of planning, taking action, observing, evaluating (including self-evaluation) and critical reflecting prior to planning the next cycle (O' Brien, 2001; McNiff, 2002) as cited by Dick, B. (2002). As can be seen in Figure 2, AR process is iterative and cyclical. A plan of action is devised, and then taken, evidence (data) is collected and analyzed, results are reflected upon and further action is planned and a new cycle begins. Better understanding emanates from each iteration that leads to improved action. Researchers both act and seek to learn from the actions taken. As a research method, action research is - 850 - always change-oriented by seeking deeper understanding of a situation or phenomenon in order to effect a positive change. Figure 1. Source: http://cadres.pepperdine.edu/ccar/define.html Goals of Action Research include: The improvement of practice through continual learning and progressive problem solving; A deep understanding of practice and the development of a well specified theory of action; An improvement in the community in which your practice is embedded through participatory research. Action research as a methodology is scientific in that it changes something and observes the effects through a systematic process of examining the evidence. The results of this type of research are practical, relevant, and can inform theory. (http://cadres.pepperdine.edu/ccar/define.html) Implementation In implementation, I used Participatory Action Research (PAR) form of action research to execute the cyclic phases of the research implementation and data collection. The method has been recognized as a form of experimental research that focuses on the effects of the researcher’s direct actions of practice within a participatory community with the goal of improving the performance quality of the community or an area of concern (Dick, 2002; Reason & Bradbury, 2001; Hult & Lennung, 1980; McNiff, 2002). In recent years, Participatory action research has emerged as a significant methodology for intervention, development and change within a system, organization, institution, communities or groups. PAR is not just research which is hoped that will be followed by action. It is action which is researched, changed and re-researched, within the research process by participants (Wadsworth,1998 ). In this research, the researcher assumes the role of participant/observer throughout various cycles of implementation to collect data. Data analysis was carried alongside data collection as the research progresses in conformity with standard practice in PAR (Wadsworth, 1998, Bazeley, 2007). Due to lack of space, I present the summary of the research cycles, findings and emerging issues in Table 2. - 851 - Cycle 1 Planning Cycle 2 Cycle 3
# " # # # # # # % & # $ ! Action % '( ) % '( ) % '( ) '* # +,.. # # ( 2 01 0 #2 " # 0 /0 1 # 2 3 * '* # '* 4 3 # $ # & Observation and Data Collection
7 # 6 # # 0 5 # # # 4 # 8 # #3 3 # # # # 0 # 5 4 * # # # # $ - # Reflection & Evaluation # 9 # # # # $ # # # # # # # 1. % # # 2 # " 5 - 852 - -: # # & 4 # # # - ; 0 # ( # 5 0 # #6 ; # # # #- Emerging Issues
# $ 4 # # # # 5 # # # # # # # # & ## # <& # $ 0 0 4 & Table 1. Summary of Cycles implementations and activities Findings and Conclusion From the initial stages of research implementation through final stages, it emerged that students can be motivated by giving a chance to play more active role in learning process rather than being passive ‘receptacles’ of knowledge. By playing active role in the learning process, students become more innovative, create learning objects on their own and circumvent obstacles or challenges that come their way. As indicated in this research, when delivery through WizIQ was hampered by low speed internet connection, students were able to adjust quickly and take alternative path of taking maximum advantage of Moodle course materials and opportunities that virtual learning environment and electronic correspondence offers and maximize learning experience. It also emerged that, e-learning with all its potential will still need some amount of face –to-face teacher mediation for students to reap the maximum benefit. Lastly, no matter how good an electronic system of delivering teaching and learning is, it cannot totally replace human being and the plight of rural students and learners can only be alleviated by deserved attention and political will of policy makers to make the minimum contribution to provide enabling environment and basic infrastructure like regular power supply. References System Development Approach To E-Learning (2007). Paper presented at the ISOneWorld Conference. from www.isoneworld.org Abel, R. (2005). Achieving Success In Internet-Supported Learning In Higher Education, Case Study Illuminate Success Factors, Challenges, and Future Directions Available from http://www.a- 853 - hec.org/research/study%5Freports/IsL0205/TOC.html Alsop, G., & Tompsett, C. (2006). 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- E-learning, Educational technology, Virtual learning environment, Learning management system, Salford