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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
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
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
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