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Teaching research methods in a distance education context: Concerns and challenges

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This article discusses an investigation conducted to identify challenges associated with teaching research methods in a distance education context. Constructivist learning was used as conceptual framework, in particular socio-constructivist theories, activity theory and Rich environments for active learning (REALs). Two research modules in a master's programme in education formed the basis of the investigation. One module required students to complete a portfolio, while the other involved assignments and an examination. Two cycles of action research were completed over three years. Data were collected by means of questionnaires and an analysis of study packages and other documents. The study revealed a need for improved cooperative support, the introduction of blended learning and the provision of anchored instruction by making more resources available in both modules. In addition, it was shown that the research methodology module would be improved through the provision of authentic learning contexts, opportunities for team research and more authentic assessment practices.
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© Unisa Press ISSN 1011-3487 SAJHE 23(5)2009 pp 992–1008
Teaching research methods in a distance
education context: Concerns and challenges
S. Schulze
Department of Further Teacher Education
University of South Africa
Pretoria, South Africa
e-mail: schuls@unisa.ac.za
Abstract
This article discusses an investigation conducted to identify challenges associated with
teaching research methods in a distance education context. Constructivist learning
was used as conceptual framework, in particular socio-constructivist theories, activity
theory and Rich environments for active learning (REALs). Two research modules in a
master’s programme in education formed the basis of the investigation. One module
required students to complete a portfolio, while the other involved assignments and
an examination. Two cycles of action research were completed over three years. Data
were collected by means of questionnaires and an analysis of study packages and
other documents. The study revealed a need for improved cooperative support, the
introduction of blended learning and the provision of anchored instruction by making
more resources available in both modules. In addition, it was shown that the research
methodology module would be improved through the provision of authentic learning
contexts, opportunities for team research and more authentic assessment practices.
INTRODUCTION AND BACKGROUND
The study reported on in this article was motivated by concerns relating to the
quality of the research projects and research reports (dissertations) submitted by
students enrolled for a master’s programme in education in a distance education
(DE) environment. The students were required to complete two compulsory research
modules forming part of a ve-module coursework programme, followed by a
dissertation of limited scope. The dissertation and the coursework each contributed
50 per cent of the nal mark. The fact that many of the students showed no evidence
of having acquired the necessary research skills on progressing to the dissertation
of limited scope, a fact conrmed by their supervisors, indicated that they had not
achieved the outcomes formulated for the two modules. Successful completion of
dissertations inuences university subsidy.
In addition to the above, an analysis of the examination results achieved in all
12 the modules of the master’s programme during the previous year indicated that,
with one exception, average scores were lower in the two research modules than
in the other modules. Poor performance in methodology courses leads to anxiety,
and this may cement negative attitudes towards the eld of methodology (Schober,
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Teaching research methods in a distance education context: Concerns and challenges
Wagner, Reimann, Atria and Spiel 2006, 74). Methodology courses have therefore
been identied as ‘problem courses’ at several universities and were often a source
of ‘student annoyance’.
Teaching research methods in a DE context poses numerous challenges, as
will be further explored in the literature review that follows. Thus, the aim of this
article is to identify ways in which the acquisition of research skills by postgraduate
students can be improved. In particular, the aim is to increase the competency level
of students through sound pedagogy, which may ultimately lead to an improvement
in the quality of the dissertations submitted. This would also improve the ability of
students enrolled for this particular programme (all of whom are practising teachers)
to investigate problems in their own contexts. The remainder of this article is therefore
devoted to an explanation of the conceptual framework of the study (constructivist
learning), a review of the literature on teaching methods in a DE context, and the
description of an empirical investigation to evaluate the study packages for the
research modules and identify concerns and challenges relating to teaching research
methods in this context.
CONSTRUCTIVIST LEARNING
From a constructivist perspective, learning is an active process of constructing meaning
and transforming understandings in interaction with the environment (Grabinger and
Dunlap 1995, 9). Constructivist learning theories are used as theoretical framework
for this study, in particular socio-constructivist theories, activity theory and Rich
environments for active learning (REALs).
Socio-constructivist theories are variants of constructivist learning theory (Edu
tech Wiki 2009, 1–2). Socio-constructivism emphasises the impact of collaboration
and negotiation on thinking and learning. Learners learn from experts, teachers and
one another. Assisted learning supports a student by scaffolding learning. In this way
the learner can reach performances beyond the level the individual could perform
alone. Learning may also be supported by physical artefacts.
Teaching strategies using social constructivism as a referent can be particularly
challenging in a DE context but are important to diminish the distance between
lecturers and students in DE. Strategies include negotiating meanings with students,
class discussion, small-group collaboration, teaching in contexts that are personally
meaningfully to students, and valuing meaningful activity over correct answers.
Regarding the teaching of research methods, empirical evidence has conrmed that
using social constructivist principles in teaching deepens students’ understanding of
research and the research process (Fox 2007, 269). Other authors (such as Hudson,
Owen and Van Veen 2006, 577) have also implemented a socio-constructivist
approach successfully in the teaching of research methodology courses.
As a framework for designing constructivist learning environments, activity
theory postulates that conscious learning emerges from activity (performance), not
as a precursor to it (Jonassen and Rohrer-Murphy 1999, 61). Although learners can
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memorise facts and concepts, they understand what the process means only in the
context of doing. Activity and consciousness are mutually supportive. Learning
affects our actions, which inuence our learning, which again affects our actions,
and so on.
In terms of activity theory, a constructivist learning environment consists of
several interdependent components (Jonassen and Rohrer-Murphy 1999, 70–71):
a problem-project space – it must present learners with an interesting, relevant,
and engaging poorly structured problem to solve or project to conduct;
related cases – it must provide access to related experiences, because the more
experiences of relevant activity you have, the more you learn; case reviews
should be indexed to the problem so that learners scaffold access to relevant
information;
information resources – it must provide learners with information banks (such
as text documents, video, audio) to support problem resolution;
cognitive tools it must build in cognitive tools that help learners perform
tasks (such as visualisation tools to look at phenomena in different ways,
conversational tools, information interpretation, semantic tools);
conversation and collaboration tools – it must provide learners with learning
communities, since learning occurs most naturally by teams of people working
together to solve problems.
Engestrom (in Jonassen and Rohrer-Murphy 1999, 72–77) lists six steps when
designing learning experiences. These are: clarify the purpose of the activity system
(what are students’ goals, motives and expectations?); analyse the activity system
(for example the student as subject, the community in which the subject works, the
outcomes that need to be achieved); analyse the activity (such as problem-solving
actions); analyse tools and mediators (such as methods, language, forms of work
organisation); analyse the context (the real-life, non-instructional contexts within
which activities occur); and analyse activity system dynamics (this requires a nal
assessment of how all the components affect one another).
REALs evolved from and are consistent with constructivist theories. To embody
a constructivist view of learning, REALs promote study and investigation within
realistic and relevant contexts; encourage growth in student responsibility, initiative,
decisionmaking and intentional learning; support knowledge-building learning
communities that utilise collaborative learning; utilise dynamic, generative learning
activities that promote high-level thinking processes including analysis, synthesis,
problemsolving, experimentation, creativity and examination of topics from multiple
perspectives to create rich knowledge structures; and assess student progress in
content and learning-to-learn through realistic tasks and performances (Grabinger
and Dunlap 1995, 10).
The critical attributes and strategies of REALs that support a constructivist view
of learning are: student responsibility and initiative that use reciprocal teaching as
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Teaching research methods in a distance education context: Concerns and challenges
strategy; generative learning activities that use cognitive apprenticeship as strategy;
authentic learning contexts that use anchored instruction as strategy; authentic
assessment strategies; and cooperative support that uses problem-based learning as
strategy (Grabinger and Dunlap 1995,13–32).
In the next section, relevant literature will be reviewed, after which the two
research modules will be described briey and assessed in light of the abovementioned
framework.
TEACHING AND LEARNING IN HIGHER AND DISTANCE EDUCATION
In accordance with constructivist thinking, Errington (2008, 1) emphasises the
importance of authentic learning tasks within curricula. Authenticity refers to
‘learning centred on rich real-world, immersive and engaging tasks’ (Herrington
and Herrington 2006, 1, conrmed by Marra 2008). Errington (2008, 1) therefore
engages students in processes of problemsolving, decisionmaking, critical analysis,
evaluation and reection on real-world problems and choices within a scenario
learning context.
In their research report, Schober et al. (2006, 74) explain how they reduced the
problems they experienced in the teaching of research methods by designing a course
with four goals, all of which concur with constructivist principles:
factual knowledge – obtained by studying two textbooks and a number of
journal articles;
learning competence – students are ‘guided’ for self-regulated learning through
three phases: forethought, performance and self-reection;
collaborative learning abilities – students work together in teams, since social
integration, together with success and autonomy, lead to intrinsic motivation
(Deci and Ryan in Schober et al. 2006, 75); and
e-competence this includes working with an electronic platform and
participation in discussion forums.
Didactic principles included networking and anchored instruction (for instance,
guidance resulting in concrete actions and feedback on strengths, weaknesses and
possibilities for improvement).
The importance of learner support in a DE context has been noted by several
authors. For example, Hughes (2007, 349) found that peer and tutor support increased
learner retention in comparison with modules where this was absent. She used online
tracking to quickly identify at risk learners. The support needed to be channelled
to where it was most needed (Hurd 2006, 303). Useful and comprehensive tutor
feedback enhanced learner motivation and responsibility.
Another method of student support entails the use of blended learning. Yoon and
Lim (2007, 475) focus on this issue and dene strategic blending as a purposeful
mix of delivery media (particularly face-to-face and various forms of technologies)
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to improve learning. It is useful to involve audio in such an approach. According
to Edirisingha, Rizzi, Nie and Rothwell (2007, 89) students enjoy the cooperative
support of audio learning because they respond well to sound, listening to
conversations about their courses, being talked through tasks, hearing discussions by
experts, and being encouraged by the voice of someone they know. Thus, audiotapes
as part of study material can increase the retention rate of distance learners. Positive
features of audio include its exibility and convenience (it may be used anywhere
and at any pace), the fact that it shifts control over pacing from lecturers to students,
and the fact that students may listen to the content several times. This is in line
with a renewed interest in radio learning over recent years in developing countries,
as well as more broadly internationally (Potter and Naidoo 2006, 63). The use of
audio enhances student responsibility and provides cognitive tools in line with
constructivist thinking.
Video conferencing can also be used to diminish the distance in DE and support
learners. Kumar and Bhattacharya (2007, 111) point out that video conferencing and
web conferencing make it possible to reach out far and wide, but caution that cultural
differences should be considered, a fact also emphasized by Hurd and Xiao (2006,
205). Cultural differences manifest in terms of different learning styles, interactivity,
mutual respect, authority consciousness, hesitation, fear and gender sensitivity.
Factors behind these differences relate to local cultures, tradition, religion, beliefs,
socioeconomic levels and background barriers.
In their research on learner support, Chen, Wei, Wang and Lee (2007, 605)
made use of reading content on the web. They found that students preferred
accessing knowledge and joining discussions via the web (in harmony with socio-
constructivism) to reading conventional textbooks. A positive correlation was
identied between the length of time spent using the system and examination
grade (Coogan, Dancey and Attree 2006, 61). Online students also reported higher
levels of interest, curiosity, and intrinsic motivation (Stevens and Switzer 2006,
90). This indicates the way in which online DE could transform the orientation of
education from teacher-centredness to student-centredness, and thus enhance student
responsibility, in accord with constructivism (Barrett, Bower and Donovan 2007,
37; Vishtak 2007, 24). Flexibility, the availability of the instructor, convenience and
online interactions were cited as positive characteristics of an online course, while
technological glitches and a sense of being lost in cyberspace were cited as negative
features (El Mansour and Mupinga 2007, 242; Senior, Reddy and Wood 2007, 439).
Majeski and Stover (2007, 171) have highlighted the challenges facing the DE
teacher in using the internet in developing countries when not all DE learners have
internet access. Online discussions eliminate the distance between communicators,
as learners support one another in a community of collaborative learners (Isman and
Altinay 2006, 75; Senior et al. 2007, 439). This is in accordance with the principle
of cooperative support in socio-constructivist thinking. New understandings and
knowledge construction through online discussion are possible, depending on the
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Teaching research methods in a distance education context: Concerns and challenges
interaction and student cognitive engagement during the discussions (Zhu 2006, 451).
Helleve (2007, 267) investigated why a group of DE learners called their group ‘The
magic group’, and learnt that in that particular instance the concept ‘magic’ referred
to the reective and productive learning process the group members experienced;
this process extended far beyond their individual borders.
In comparing outcomes of online learning with traditional classroom teaching,
some studies have found no signicant inuence on student learning or satisfaction
(Knight 2007, 87; Shelley, Swartz and Cole 2007, 10). Others (such as Chen, Shang
and Harris 2006) concluded that overall an online asynchronous environment can
promote student participation in certain cases, although cognitive gains did not
seem to be as high as in the face-to-face environment. This indicates the challenge
associated with teaching courses in a DE context.
In the development of online communication, staff and student resistance needs
to be addressed. It is important both to train lecturers and to familiarise students
with online course environments. Connolly, MacArthur, Stanseld and McLellan
(2007, 345) found that providing lecturers with some control and exibility in
managing e-learning delivery reduced resistance and enabled them to develop
a range of e-learning models to meet learners’ needs. Encouraging coherence
between learners’ needs, lecturers’ perspectives, the learning environment and the
organisational culture contributed to the development of a supportive e-learning
culture. Goodfellow (2004, 379) emphasised that research in this eld needs to take
account of wider institutional and social contexts if it is to address issues of student
resistance to socialisation into virtual learning communities.
THE TWO RESEARCH MODULES
Module 1: Research Methodology
In the DE environment in which the study was conducted, Research Methodology is
a fundamental module for the structured master’s degree in education with various
elds of specialisation (such as Adult Education, Curriculum Studies, Inclusive
Education and Socio-Education). Assignments are intended to help students acquire
the necessary research skills to complete the activities set for the second research
module (the portfolio module), and the dissertation of limited scope that is required
for completion of the degree. Students write an examination at the end of the
academic year.
The Research Methodology module consists of the following components:
fundamental principles of educational research, quantitative research designs and
methods or qualitative research designs and methods and mixed-method designs (for
example action research). The module is intended to enable students to:
isolate and formulate a research problem; write an acceptable research proposal;
develop arguments based on data obtained from the literature; develop
arguments on the basis of their own empirical data; arrive at accountable
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syntheses and conclusions; manage the writing process effectively; meet the
formal examination criteria for dissertations and theses; and write articles
based on their dissertations;
apply some of the quantitative research skills that they have become acquainted
with;
apply some of the qualitative research skills that they have become acquainted
with; and
use a combination of quantitative and qualitative research approaches where
appropriate (for action research, for example).
The study material originally consisted of two prescribed books, recommended
books, a reader consisting of a selection of journal articles, and tutorial letters. This
study package was reconsidered after the rst cycle of the action research project, as
will be explained in the next section.
For 2008, eight assignments were set (see Table 1). Since students were required to
choose between quantitative and qualitative research, all students could be assessed
on the content covered by assignments 1 and 8 as well as either the content covered
by assignments 2, 3 and 4 or that covered by assignments 5, 6 and 7.
Module 2: Portfolio
The portfolio module is a core module that focuses on education problems
encountered in practice, the analysis and solution of which require students’ active
involvement. Students are expected to produce a portfolio of their work in their
chosen eld of specialisation.
The main outcome of the portfolio module is for students to master an appropriate
level of research skills for conducting research. In particular, they should be able to:
reect critically, and formulate their reections logically and clearly in writing;
conduct action research;
identify problems in the eld of education;
investigate these problems scientically by means of quantitative and
qualitative methods;
arrive at logical conclusions;
make recommendations for resolving the problems that are in line with the
stated problem and the conclusions; and
write a research report.
No examination is written. Students complete three assignments (see Table 3). Of
these, the action research projects conducted in students’ own elds of specialisation
are the most important. In line with socio-constructivism students are allowed to do
the projects with selected co-researchers at their schools.
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Student support
Students received written feedback on assignments. In accordance with socio-
constructivist thinking, the names and contact details of the lecturers responsible
for the modules were supplied in tutorial letters so that students could contact their
lecturers as needed and thus eliminate some of the distance in DE. Students were also
supplied with the names and contact details of their peers on request for additional
support. From 2007, students were reminded of deadlines or given brief additional
information about assignments via SMS. During the second cycle of the action
research project, myUnisa was launched. This provided staff and students with an
online environment that allowed access to study material (such as tutorial letters and
prescribed articles), allowed announcements to be made, and also gave students the
opportunity to discuss their assignments and study problems in discussion forums
created for each module in line with socio-constructivist thinking. Training was
provided for staff who were expected to contribute to and stimulate discussion by
regularly checking the forum. The student support provided in each module will be
assessed in the sections that follow.
RESEARCH DESIGN
The research took the form of a case study of the two modules described above.
Formative evaluation research (McMillan and Schumacher 2006, 440) was conducted
over a period of three years, following an action research approach involving two
cycles. Data were mainly qualitative, although some quantitative data were used as
motivation for the study, in particular examination results.
During the rst cycle of the action research project, data collection involved the
following: At the beginning of the project, questionnaires were mailed to all students
who had just completed the two research modules already mentioned as part of a
structured master’s programme in education. The students were requested to answer
an open-ended questionnaire indicating what they had liked and not liked about the
modules, and giving their suggestions for improvement. One student, who was a
lecturer at the Institute of Learning and Curriculum Development at Unisa, was also
requested to review the research methodology module in his capacity as an expert.
A second review of both modules also took place during this time. This review was
conducted by a DE specialist contracted by the university in anticipation of a Higher
Education Quality Committee review visit. Reection on the enormous amount of
data thus obtained led to the implementation of numerous signicant changes, as will
be indicated.
During the second cycle, the revised study packages for the two modules were
evaluated. To this end, the main attributes of REALs were particularly useful as
criteria.
Strategies to ensure the trustworthiness of the ndings included a lengthy data
collection period of three years; the use of multi-method strategies, as indicated;
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self-monitoring during all phases of the research process to detect biases; and
obtaining feedback from other lecturers who were also involved in the same modules
to corroborate ndings.
FINDINGS
The Research Methodology module
An analysis of the questionnaire responses revealed that students expressed a need
for the following in particular:
less emphasis on factual information;
more exposure to useful information, such as how to do research on the internet;
more exposure to the practical application of the work;
more clarity on unclear terminology (students favoured simple, understandable
language to help them understand concepts);
more guidance, such as study guides explaining research issues better and in
more detail;
more guidelines and practical examples, for example of how to construct a
questionnaire; and
more direct and personal feedback on assignments.
Feedback from internal reviews, although mentioning positive aspects, also pointed
to a number of shortcomings, the most important of which related to the lack of
practical student support and the inadequacy of the reader in the study package.
On this basis, the decision was taken to provide more student support by means
of the following: the introduction of discussion classes once per year to negotiate
meanings with students and allow for small-group discussion in line with socio-
constructivist principles; the inclusion in tutorial letters of expected outcomes and
assessment criteria for each assignment; the replacement of the two prescribed
textbooks (both locally published and of a general nature) with one international
textbook published in the USA and focussing exclusively on education; the removal
of the reader from the study package; the replacement of the open-book examination
that students normally wrote with a closed-book examination.
During the second cycle of the action research project, as mentioned earlier,
myUnisa was introduced to the university community. However, this elicited little
interest among the relevant students and lecturers. Since socio-constructivism
points to the importance of collaboration, discussion and negotiations, the need
for familiarising and motivating students and staff for participation in myUnisa to
facilitate meaningful learning is clear.
The assignments that were set for the module during the second cycle are briey
explained in Table 1.
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Table 1: Research Methodology assignments
Assignment Nature of assignment
1 50 multiple-choice questions covering the introductory section of textbook; marked
by computer.
2Writing a research proposal for a quantitative project: a problem scenario (lack of
discipline) described; students identify relevant research problem, aims, quantitative
research design and methods.
3Questionnaire design and interpretation of quantitative data: students design a
questionnaire (based on literature on motivation supplied); define statistical con-
cepts (eg statistically significant, t-test, chi square); interpret quantitative data given
in tables; formulate conclusions and recommendations.
4Evaluation of a quantitative article: criteria are given for the evaluation of the vari-
ous sections of the article (title, abstract, introduction and literature review, method,
results, etc).
5Writing a research proposal for a qualitative project: a problem scenario (bullying
at school) described; students identify relevant research problem, aims, qualitative
research design and methods.
6Design of an interview guide and qualitative data analysis: students design an inter-
view guide on job satisfaction in education; analyse and present findings, conclu-
sions and recommendations – an interview transcript is provided.
7Evaluation of a qualitative article: criteria are given for the evaluation of the various
sections of the article (title, abstract, introduction and literature review, method, find-
ings, etc).
8A research proposal for an action research project: students select a problem in
their own field – some problems from the portfolio module are given – and explain
proposed planning, action and data collection (quantitative and qualitative).
Table 1 indicates that students are expected to acquire knowledge (about research
design, sampling and other research skills) by writing proposals relating to these
aspects. This issue is further explored in Table 2, where the study package is
evaluated in light of the conceptual framework of the study, in particular of REALs
as pedagogic practice.
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Table 2: Evaluation of the learning material for the Research Methodology module
REAL attribute and
strategy
Evaluation of Research Methodology learning material
Student responsibility
and initiative – recip-
rocal teaching
Mostly decontextualised activity – assignments completed at students’ desks
– problems are theoretical; no collaborative learning – students may discuss
assignments with other students via myUnisa; guided practice with the writing
of proposals, the analysis of qualitative data and the interpretation of quanti-
tative data.
Generative learning
activities – cognitive
apprenticeship
Lecturers have difficulty in modelling appropriate behaviour (DE challenge);
lecturers have difficulty in bringing thinking processes into the open – can
only model how to perform tasks by thinking aloud during discussion classes
(DE challenge); no particular scaffolding provided for tasks – guidance on
how to complete assignments obtained through references to textbook and
assessment criteria; goals of projects abstract but situated in relevant contexts
of schools/workplaces in a theoretical way; students struggle to transfer learn-
ing in Research Methodology module to portfolio (DE challenge); generative
learning occurs only partially – students produce something of little value (writ-
ten assignments).
Authentic learning
contexts – anchored
instruction;
cognitive flexibility
Assignments anchored in realistic problems, sometimes from own fields of
specialisation, and may thus foster ownership; involve complex contexts that
students must solve theoretically; do not require students to do team research,
and students therefore do not encounter multiple perspectives, have no op-
portunity to test ideas, solutions and processes, and must identify resources
needed for solutions theoretically.
Assignments provide poorly structured domains theoretically only; study mate-
rial lacks a rich variety of examples of research projects to make apparent the
variability of concepts and themes and encourage students to look at knowl-
edge from several perspectives.
Authentic assessment
strategies
Use traditional pen-and-paper methods to assess right and wrong answers –
no multi-faceted criteria; do not recognise multiple kinds of intelligence (proj-
ect management, research, organisation and representation, presentations
and reflection skills); assessment criteria not reliable across multiple scorers.
Cooperative support
– problem-based
learning
Assignments address realistic problemsolving theoretically only; the assign-
ments cover relevant concepts and principles; the problems are presented in
a realistic way that encourages students to take ownership of the problem;
lecturer as facilitator who asks the right questions and monitors progress has
difficulty in interacting with students (DE challenge).
Table 2 highlights a number of issues, most of which are related to decontextualised
activities as well as lack of cooperative support, rich examples and authentic
assessment practices.
The portfolio module
In their questionnaire responses, many students remarked positively on the portfolio
module. One student referred to it as a ‘brilliant exercise for the dissertation’ while
another stated that it was ‘A very good experience – thoroughly satisfying’ and that it
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prepared students well for research and the dissertation that was to follow. However,
they also indicated a need for the following:
clearer guidelines/instructions on what was expected of them;
more practical examples as guidance;
more support by means of discussion classes: ‘We need training during holidays
to share problems with each other’;
more support and guidance from lecturers and study guides; and
wider choices of problems to research for their action research projects.
In addition to the above, internal reviews pointed to a lack of student support.
The action research projects submitted by students who had failed the previous
year were also analysed to determine what their problems were. It was clear that
these students had not understood the practical nature of the proposed solutions to
action research problems and that they needed the power to implement the solutions.
Examples of poor solutions proposed included ‘the building of more classrooms’,
‘improving teachers’ salaries’, and ‘educators should be offered bursaries to study
curriculum theory’. Some students selected too many plans, submitting a list of ve
to ten, wanted to involve too many people (including some departmental ofcials
who would not be available), or offered vague plans (for instance ‘empowering
teachers’ or ‘the spirit of selessness should be inculcated in teachers’).
In light of the above, it was decided to provide more student support.
1. In line with socio-constructivist principles that emphasise knowledge-building
in a learning community, discussion classes once per year were introduced.
2. The tutorial letters were rewritten to provide clearer guidelines and list expected
outcomes and assessment criteria for each assignment. In a bid to improve
the action research projects, the following changes were also implemented:
Initially, students could select any problem they wanted to. However, since
many chose problems that were ill suited for action research, it was decided
to provide students with a list of between two and nine problems in each of
the elds of specialisation. Examples included: How can a group of educators
be prepared for retirement? (M.Ed. Adult Education); How can alcohol abuse
among adolescents at a school be reduced? (M.Ed. Socio-Education); and How
can a group of educators at a school be motivated for inclusive education?
(M.Ed. Inclusive Education).
3. It was decided that the action research project would be divided into three
phases. Phases 1 and 2 would be submitted as part of assignments 1 and 2.
This provided lecturers with the opportunity to give feedback on the planning
and initial stages of the projects in an attempt to improve the nal product. In
accordance with socio-constructivist principles, this provided assisted learning
by scaffolding the learning.
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4. It was decided that students would be supervised by three experienced
researchers instead of dividing the portfolios among all the lecturers involved
in the teaching of the relevant theoretical modules.
5. Students were provided with feedback on the mistakes previous students
had made in completing their action research projects, as well as a ctitious
example of a good project.
6. Finally, an external moderator from a residential university was appointed for
quality control purposes. She recommended the use of a rubric for assessment
to ensure greater consistency among lecturers.
During the second cycle, myUnisa was introduced to the university community. Little
use was made of this function, however. In consideration of socio-constructivism
this provided course designers with a challenge. Table 3 sets out the assignments set
for the portfolio module during this cycle.
Table 3: Portfolio assignments
Assignment Nature of assignment
1 Students reflect on themselves as professionals and on their fields of specialisation;
from a list of relevant and appropriate topics they choose a problem in their own
fields and indicate how they plan to approach their action research projects. (Counts
10% of final mark.)
2 Students find artefacts in their own fields of specialisation (e.g. five articles, newspa-
per clippings, policy documents) and write reflective notes on each and an integrated
narrative on them all; students report on progress with action research projects.
(Counts 10% of final mark.)
3 Students submit portfolios of their action research projects. (Counts 80% of final
mark.)
Table 3 indicates that students investigate realistic and relevant contexts for their
action research projects. An assessment of the pedagogic practices used in this
module follows in Table 4.
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Teaching research methods in a distance education context: Concerns and challenges
Table 4: Evaluation of the learning material for the portfolio module
REAL attribute and
strategy
Evaluation of portfolio study material
Student responsibil-
ity and initiative
reciprocal teaching
Contextualised holistic activity – projects take place in the schools/students’
workplaces – problems are identified and possible solutions generated and
implemented and results evaluated; collaborative learning – students identify co-
researchers for projects; guided practice in flexible application of questioning,
summarising, clarifying and predicting – students submit projects in three phases
to obtain guidance as they proceed and use the skills to complete projects and
write reports that summarise and clarify, and also plan a second cycle that
predicts better results.
Generative learning
activities – cognitive
apprenticeship
Lecturers have difficulty in modelling appropriate behaviour (DE challenge);
lecturers have difficulty in bringing thinking processes into the open – can only
model how to perform tasks by thinking aloud during discussion classes (DE
challenge); lecturers give guidance and provide scaffolding – projects submit-
ted in three phases and feedback for improvement received; abstract goals of
projects situated in relevant contexts of schools/workplaces; students struggle to
transfer learning in Research Methodology module to portfolio (DE challenge);
generative learning occurs – students produce something of value (portfolios).
Authentic learning
contexts – anchored
instruction;
cognitive flexibility
theory (CFT)
Action research projects anchored in realistic problems from own fields of
specialisation and thus foster ownership; involve complex contexts that students
must solve; require students to do team research and thus encounter multiple
perspectives; provide opportunities to test ideas, solutions and processes; must
identify resources needed for solutions.
Action research projects provide poorly structured domains where many solu-
tions are possible; study material lacks a rich variety of examples of action
research projects to make apparent the variability of concepts and themes and
encourage students to look at knowledge from a number of perspectives.
Authentic assess-
ment strategies
A portfolio of action research projects used to assess students – includes multi-
faceted criteria which were not explained to students previously; does not recog-
nise multiple kinds of intelligence (project management, research, organisation
and representation, presentations and reflection skills); criteria not reliable
across multiple scorers.
Cooperative support
– problem based
learning
Action research projects encourage realistic problemsolving; the projects raise
relevant concepts and principles; the problems are presented in a realistic way
that encourages students to take ownership of the problem; lecturer has difficulty
in interacting with students as facilitator who asks the right questions and moni-
tors progress (DE challenge).
According to Table 4, a REAL is created through the action research project.
However, there is a lack of cooperative support, blended learning and good examples
of action research projects provided in the literature.
SAJHE 23(5)2009 layout.indd 1005 10/19/2009 9:43:35 AM
1006
S. Schulze
DISCUSSION OF FINDINGS
Tables 2 and 4 indicate that the main challenges that this study has identied in the
teaching of the research modules relate to:
overcoming staff and student resistance and stimulating online discussion and
thus cooperative support by means of myUnisa in both modules in line with
socio-constructivist thinking;
introducing blended learning (e.g. video conferencing and audio) to enable
lecturers to bring thinking processes into the open by asking the right questions
and modelling appropriate behaviour (e.g. how to conduct interviews),
according to socio-constructivist principles;
providing more anchored instruction by making available published resources
(e.g. journal articles) that provide rich examples of quantitative, qualitative
and action research projects and that are indexed to specic assignments and
chapters in the textbook;
providing authentic learning contexts in the Research Methodology module
by practical hands-on research experience in the selection of quantitative/
qualitative research designs, sampling, implementation of questionnaires/
interview guides with respondents as well as analysing own data and presenting
the ndings. Problem-based learning of this nature could enhance student
responsibility and initiative;
providing more opportunity for the cooperative support of team research in
line with socio-constructivism in the research methodology module;
introducing authentic assessment practices in the Research Methodology
module (e.g. projects).
CONCLUSION
The aim of this article was to identify ways to enhance the learning of research
skills by postgraduate students in a DE environment. To this end, improvements
were made to two research modules before current practices were evaluated against
constructivist principles such as REALs. The study identied some positive aspects
in the learning environments created by the two modules, but nevertheless also
succeeded in identifying a number of concerns and challenges. This was particularly
true of the Research Methodology module, as indicated. The portfolio module
assignments were more in accordance with constructivist thinking, although it
was also possible to identify some shortcomings. How these may be overcome
needs further investigation. In particular, ways to overcome the distance in DE in
accordance with socio-constructivism need to be addressed.
Correcting the shortcomings listed above will improve student achievement and
attitude as well as the dissertations submitted in fullment of the requirements of the
course. It will also improve the ability of students (practising teachers) to conduct
research to address the problems they experience at school.
SAJHE 23(5)2009 layout.indd 1006 10/19/2009 9:43:35 AM
1007
Teaching research methods in a distance education context: Concerns and challenges
Although the study focussed on the teaching of research methods in a DE
context, the ndings are relevant and useful for the teaching of all courses in any
environment. By taking cognisance of the best teaching practices in HE, academic
staff will improve the quality of their teaching and the performance of their students.
Ultimately this leads to a better educated population and an improved society.
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This study examined the teaching styles of online instructors at Florida's 28 community colleges in an effort to determine if the instructors had adopted the learner–centered model touted in the literature. The Principles of Adult Learning Scale was the primary instrument used to collect data from 292 online instructors. The study revealed that nearly half of the participants (n = 135) scored in the middle range, with 84% (n = 244) of the participants’ scores falling into the teacher-centered range. Although online distance education does have the potential to transition education from a teacher-centered orientation to a more student-centered orientation, continued efforts are needed to accomplish this shift.
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Reading content of the Web is increasingly popular. When students read the same material, each student has a unique comprehension of the text and requires individual support from appropriate references. Most references in typical web learning systems are unorganized. Students are often required to disrupt their reading to locate references. This disruption in reading reduces learning performance. This work presents a web-based e-book learning system with an incorporated contextual knowledge recommender to assist students reading online and solve problems promptly. In this system, students can easily summarize, annotate, or enter queries in a text where questions arise. Based on a student's learning status and queries about an e-book, this system can recommend adaptive references from a knowledge repository, and locate capable classmates to answer a question. Student learning status can be analyzed based on annotations and portfolios. This knowledge repository comprises a web dictionary, discussion forum, and library of examples. Experimental results showed that students prefer accessing knowledge and joining discussions through this system to reading a conventional textbook. Most students were very willing to use this system to learn material and prepare for examinations. Furthermore, a positive correlation existed between amount of time spent using this system and exam grade.