Sep 16

Tutors' and Students' Experiences of Online Forums

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Online learning - just a computer? No people? No learning

The Study & the Context  

In 2015 Dr Lynda Griffin and I undertook some research into how both students and tutors in Europe's largest distance learning University - the Open University    This university only delivers distance education, increasingly through eLearning using asynchronous tools like online forums alongside synchronous online rooms for live online teaching with student groups.

We surveyed students and tutors on Level 1 (1st year) undergraduate modules; Level 2 (2nd year) undergraduate modules; Level 3 (3rd year) undergraduate modules and on two postgraduate modules on our Masters in Education programme  

To use standard university terms such as 2nd year or 1st year is potentially misleading here - many Open University students will study part-time doing one 60 credit module per academic year   With 120 credits per Level, it can thus take many students 2 academic years to complete a Level    So, someone on a Level 1 module,  could be in their 2nd year of study.

As noted, one key way tutor- student and student-student interaction takes place - or doesn't - is through online forums, known as Tutor Group Forums (TGFs)    It is on these online forums that students can discuss things with each other and raise pertinent queries for the tutor or answer questions posed for the group - ideally in a collaboratively engaged way through exchanging ideas with each other

The Loneliness Contradiction

You can see a detailed initial account of our early findings by clicking here 

Our rich data showed a common recurring theme of how essentially lonely being a distance learner can feel   This was reported by students at Level 1, Level 2, Level 3 and Postgraduate level   There is, however, an inherent contradictory conflict here - students reported feeling isolated, alone, as if they were trying to talk to a distant planet    But one of the common reasons for this feeling was reported as a lack of student engagement in the online forums    The desired collaborative discussions sometimes just didn't happen - however hard tutors might try to get students engaged    This is the context where students report feelings of loneliness and isolation

Two examples of this from our data are:

  • S15: it was like tumbleweed rolling through it most weeks   Not many participants and felt a bit flat
  • And S379:  made me feel ... as if I'm studying totally alone

There are are some clear reasons in the data for why students don't get engaged - fear and a resistance to sharing thoughts with strangers in an online forum for fear of perhaps embarrassing oneself    Tutor presence and involvement were also important for students

Getting Involved is the Only Way 

This sounds overly simplistic ... but, one lesson from our data is that the only way to overcome feelings of loneliness is to get involved in online forums, for instance.   However, that involvement is not really involvement if it is  'just me'    For online forums to work as an integral part of online learning and distance learning ... everyone needs to get involved   Simple?  But true!


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