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[RRE]Students' Frustrations with a Web-based Distance Education Course

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  • Phil Agre
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    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 9, 1999
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      Date: Fri, 9 Jul 1999 01:36:55 -0500 (EST)
      From: Noriko Hara <nhara@...>
      Subject: Students' Frustrations with a Web-based Distance Education Course


      Students' Frustrations with a Web-based Distance Education Course:
      A Taboo Topic in the Discourse

      Noriko Hara (nhara@...) and Rob Kling

      This is a 2000 word summary. The full paper is available upon request.

      Recent cutting-edge technology, e.g., digital communications and
      learning technologies, enables universities to implement distance
      education to reach a diverse population and to provide open learning
      environments 24 hours a day 7 days a week. For example, Hanna (1998)
      states that "growing demand for learning combined with these technical
      advances is in fact a critical pressure point for challenging the
      dominant assumptions and characteristics of existing traditionally
      organized universities in the 21st century". Hence, there are
      substantial discussions about distance education in higher education.
      Consequently the number of distance education courses is growing
      (Hanna, 1998; National Center for Education Statistics, 1998; Rahm &
      Reed, 1998; Roberts, 1996). The major body of the literature favors
      distance education. Once consensus is reached, it tends not to be
      disturbed by a dissonant idea (Heylighen, 1992). Indeed, similar
      patterns are found in other relatively young fields, for example,
      in Business Process Reengineering (Kling & Tillquist, 1998) and
      hypertext (Unsworth, 1997) literatures. However, the studies in
      the computer-mediated distance education are more anecdotal than
      systematically empirical or critical. The current trend makes us
      believe that distance education will expand educational opportunities.
      This article queries this assumption. The significance of this study
      is to investigate problems with web-based distance education.

      This is a case study of difficulties in learning effectively in a
      web-based distance education course, offered by a major university in
      the United States. The entire course was provided through a web site.
      This study is based on interviews and observations of the students
      in this course. Only a small portion of the literature indicates
      students' isolation in distance education, although many authors
      (e.g. Besser & Donahue, 1996; Twigg, 1997) emphasize the importance
      of this issue. Thus, the primary research question was: How do
      the students in this course overcome their feelings of isolation in
      a virtual classroom to create the sense of a community of learning?
      However, during the observations and interviews with the informants
      (including John), it was apparent that students' isolation was not
      as big of a problem as frustration in this course. Possibly because
      of the small class size, students supported each other and had a
      sense of a community of learning. The real issue in this course was
      the students' frustration, which was not examined in the literature.
      Therefore, the final research question in this study was: Do students'
      frustrations in the web-based distance education course inhibit their
      educational opportunity? In addition to the main research question,
      key questions examined in this study were: What causes frustrations
      among the students? How do these students deal with their
      frustrations? Are there individual differences between students who
      are comfortable with technology and those who are not? This article
      questions the current literature and advocates the importance of
      inquiry on problems in distance education. Throughout this present
      article, we refer to distance education as computer-mediated distance

      Higher education in the U.S. is facing a challenge to meet new
      demands for the next century. Various criticisms against traditional
      classrooms appear frequently, such as lack of personal attention,
      boredom, outdated knowledge, lack of appropriate skills for
      workplaces, and inappropriateness for a diverse population (Diamond,
      1997; Gardiner, 1997; Handy, 1998; Roueche, 1998; Wingspread Group
      on Higher Education, 1993). Many researchers advocate "solutions"
      such as active learning, learner-centered principles, effective use
      of technology, and collaborative learning (American Psychological
      Association, 1997; Bonk & Kim, 1998; Cove & Love, 1996; ERIC, 1998;
      Schroeder, 1996). Consequently, the expectation for technology is
      disproportionately high.

      This enthusiastic attitude toward technology is not entirely new.
      Kling (1994) identifies "technological utopianism," which refers to
      "analyses in which the use of specific technologies plays a key role
      in shaping a benign social vision" (Kling, 1994). A similar attitude
      is found in the history of educational technology:

      Most of what we read or hear about computers in education
      emphasizes only one aspect, usually the good points, but
      occasionally the bad, to the exclusion of other points of
      view. This is at least partly due to the screening effect
      of the popular press, who favor the excitement of extremism
      over the calm of rationality, preferring in the name of
      "reader interest" to create what Monosky (1984) calls an
      artificial dichotomy (Ragsdale, 1988, p. 50).

      Both Kling and Ragsdale caution extreme views of technology, either
      positive or negative, and suggest that more socially realistic
      analyses are needed.

      When computers were introduced in classrooms in the 1980s, "extolling
      the computers as a boon to critical thinking, professional educators
      by and large have been conspicuously uncritical about the computer
      itself" (Sloan, 1985, p.1). Rather than accepting the enthusiastic
      attitude toward technologies in education, Cuban (1986) observes an
      unrelenting cycle of technology promotion and adoption in classrooms
      by reviewing the literature on the educational use of motion pictures,
      radio, and television since 1920s. The cycle indicates a pattern;
      technology was introduced in classrooms by enthusiastic advocates,
      such as administrators and researchers, but teachers failed to
      effectively use technology because of the lack of equipment, time,
      and training. Cuban cautions us not to expect too much of computers
      in classrooms because their use may follow the same pattern as other
      technologies. As some authors (Dreyfus & Dreyfus, 1984; Ragsdale,
      1988; Salomon, 1985; Sloan, 1985) criticize Computer-Assisted
      Instruction in K-12, recently other authors also have criticized
      educational computing in general, such as information technology
      in higher education (see Noble, 1998) and computers in schools (see
      Oppenheimer, 1997).

      A systematic search of the ERIC database helped to locate some
      research about problems of distance education, such as students'
      isolation, lack of effective advice (e.g., Abrahamson, 1998; Brown,
      1996; Rahm & Reed, 1998). However, there is little research about
      students' frustration in distance education. A few authors identify
      this issue (e.g. Dede, 1996; Freenberg, 1987; Stahlman, 1996), but
      these are rather "socially-thin" (Kling & Tillquist, 1998) and do not
      indicate the problems in social contexts. Even the few researchers
      who mentioned deeper social factors of the problems in distance
      education did not really focus on students' frustrations (e.g. Burge,
      1994; Kang, 1988; Kiesler, Siegel & McGuire, 1984). This topic has
      never been in the mainstream of discussion in computer-mediated
      distance education. We question why this phenomenon of students'
      frustration has not been seriously studied, and analyze the following
      four possible reasons.

      First, the researchers who study distance education may be biased
      toward technology. Bowers (1988) also urges that technology is
      not value-free. Many authors in the literature are affiliated with
      technology-oriented departments, such as educational technology,
      library and information science, or technology support centers.
      Therefore, they might have a favorable view of technology, such
      as seeing "distance education via technology as a potential silver
      bullet" (Twigg, 1997, p. 28). Noble (1998) asserts that "behind this
      effort [promoting technology in higher education] are the ubiquitous
      technozealots who simply view computers as the panacea for everything,
      because they like to play with them". In addition, the special issue
      of web-based learning in Educational Technology (Hackbarth, 1997) is
      devoted entirely to technical issues (e.g. Starr, 1997) and teachers'
      perspectives (e.g. Berge, 1997). McIssac and Gunawardena (1996)
      state that "more than 23% of the literature reviewed concerned issues
      related to technology and the role of the distance educator" (p. 421).
      Burge (1994) asserts that most of the literature on CMC in higher
      education is "cautious optimism to hyperbole" (p. 22). Thus, the
      field has not critically addressed negative implications, especially
      from students' perspectives in distance education.

      The second possible reason that little research on students'
      frustration is found is because few qualitative research studies have
      been done (Burge, 1994; Windschitl, 1998), so that the fine-grained
      dynamics of virtual classrooms are unknown. In addition, McIssac
      and Gunawardena (1996) criticize the research literature in distance
      education because of lack of research rigor.

      Third, students may not have had opportunities to express their
      frustrations with web-based distance education. At the end of the
      semester, students might make positive comments about the courses
      because of a relief of finishing a course and concern about hurting
      instructors' feelings. Therefore, since little research has
      studied their learning processes throughout the semester, students'
      frustrations have received little attention. That is why the results
      of many studies are positive, including such findings as students
      enjoying their experiences despite their technical problems (Gregor &
      Cuskelly, 1994; Yakimovicz & Murphy, 1995).

      Finally, it is possible that past studies were conducted only with
      instructors experienced in distance education (e.g. Gunawardena,
      1992), not with novices. More experienced instructors might better
      handle students' frustrations, technological problems, and ambiguous
      instructions to reduce the obstacles to distance education.

      However, the history of educational technology teaches us that it
      is necessary to study failures as well as successes. Bryson and de
      Castell (1998) urge that we need to pay more attention to failures of
      educational innovation because it will tell us why success stories are
      arbitrary. Unsworth (1997) also argues that "many things that we take
      to be trivial, or embarrassing, or simply wrong, will be of interest
      to our peers in the future". He claims that people learn from errors
      and failures, and suggests that recording them is necessary to make

      From interviews and observations (thinking aloud), two interpretations
      were formed in this study. It appeared that there were two levels of
      frustration among students in this course. The first level related to
      technological problems. Students without access to technical support
      were especially frustrated. Also, students whose computer skills
      were inadequate had technological problems. The second level involved
      the course content. Students were frustrated because of a lack of
      immediate feedback from the instructor and ambiguous instructions on
      the web and via e-mail.

      It appeared that there was a gap in the teacher's perspective of the
      students' frustration. The instructor seemed to think that she had
      solved the problems of students' frustration; she stated during the

      They [the students] thought that the problems they had were
      basically their own; other people did not have the same
      problem until we opened up the conversation and they realized
      that, oh, yeah, we were all in the same boat. Now, they have
      this peer support coming in. That [problem], I think, we took
      care of pretty well. (personal communication, November 18).

      However, her students still expressed their frustration earnestly
      during observations and interviews late in the semester. Part of the
      reason for the instructor's misperception resulted from the fact that
      the students' e-mail regarding their frustrations were only the tip of
      the iceberg. Students did not express all of their frustrations.

      In summary, this study observed that in this distance education
      course, students' frustration originated from three sources:

      * technological problems
      * minimal and not timely feedback from the instructor
      * ambiguous instructions on the WWW site as well as via e-mail,

      and asserted that these frustrations were so overwhelming that
      some students gave up on the formal content of the course. The
      instructor's personal reflection note revealed that two other students
      who began taking this course from distant sites dropped it because
      they could not overcome technical problems. In addition, during
      interviews two students affirmed that they will not take distance
      education courses in the future because they could not deal with these
      frustrations anymore. Therefore, students' frustrations were serious
      problems in this distance education course.

      We conclude by cautioning about advertising only the virtues of
      computer-mediated distance education. Most of the articles in
      distance education (e.g., Barnard, 1997; Harasim, 1993; Yakimovicz &
      Murphy, 1995) discuss positive aspects of distance education, whereas
      only a few scholars (e.g., Bromley & Apple, 1998; Jaffee, 1998;
      Wegerif, 1998) examine the limitations and problems. It is acceptable
      to fantasize about the future when a field is young, because these
      discussions can propel the field forward. Distance education has
      great potential for providing rich environments for students; however,
      as history has taught us, technology is not a panacea. It has

      It is time to seriously consider the actual experiences among
      students in distance education courses and to critically discuss
      the phenomena of distance education. As Bates (1994) states, "it is
      a relatively untested assumption that advanced technologies, . . .,
      are pedagogically more effective than older" (p. 1577) technologies.
      We also question if technology can improve pedagogy with little
      special effort. For more than a decade Clark (1983; 1994) has raised
      the arguments of whether or not media influence better learning.

      This case illustrates the frustrations that students can experience
      while taking a distance education course, and how these frustrations
      can significantly inhibit their educational opportunity. The current
      trend in the literature appears to over-praise computer-mediated
      distance education. This "technological utopianism" (Kling, 1994)
      is also found in the history of educational technology in general.
      Clearly, we need more student-centered studies of distance education.
      We need research that is designed to teach us how the appropriate use
      of technology and pedagogy could make distance education beneficial
      for students. "[I]f failure isn't a possibility, neither is
      discovery" (Unsworth, 1997).


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